Introducing the SABA concept to high-school players

For more information on SABA: The Antifragile Offense, buy the paperback or Kindle.

Coaching is more than punishment and yelling “Play harder!”

Constant coaching disrupts learning

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Appropriate time for feedback and criticism

During the State Cup, I was the assistant referee on an u13 boys game. The final was 12-1. The head coach of the losing team spent most of his time venting to an assistant coach directly behind me.  Read more



Time and the difference between coaching in college and coaching youth basketball

I watched the end of a college basketball practice yesterday and spoke to a college assistant from a different program. At the practice, I saw the team play two one-minute games in the last 20 minutes of practice; the coach spent the rest of the time talking or instructing (I could not hear as I was at the opposite basket). When I spoke to the assistant coach, he emphasized the importance of repetitions and doing things (running the plays) over and over again so that the players learned. Read more

Are you teaching or instructing your basketball players and team?

As a follow-up to this week’s article on the difference between education and training, I saw a post by math professor Kevin Devlin on the difference between instructing and teachingRead more

Skill Acquisition with Damian Farrow

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The Intellectual and Moral Virtue of Coaching Basketball

Last week, I saw Shop Class as Soulcraft recommended for incoming college students. As I prepare to re-enter academia, I picked up a copy. Author, philosopher and motorcycle mechanic Matthew Crawford includes an extended excerpt from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

The excerpt starts with Pirsig taking his motorcycle to a shop. He sets the scene and says that the mechanic barely listens to the piston slap before diagnosing a problem. When Pirsig returns to pick up his motorcycle, now he hears a bigger problem. He points out the problem to the mechanic who manages to create a bigger problem. When he eventually gets on to the road, “the shop had neglected to bolt the engine back into frame; it was hanging on by a single bolt.”

Pirsig writes:

I found the cause of the seizures a few weeks later, waiting to happen again. It was a little twenty-five-cent pin in the internal oil delivery system that had been sheared…

Why did they butcher it so?…They sat down to do a job and they performed it like chimpanzees. Nothing personal in it.

…But the biggest clue seemed to be their expressions. They were hard to explain. Good-natured, friendly, easy-going – and uninvolved. They were like spectators. You had the feeling they had just wandered in there themselves and somebody had handed them a wrench. There was no identification with the job. No saying, ‘I am a mechanic.’

In reflecting upon Pirsig’s tale, Crwaford points out that the problem (the sheared-off pin) was the same for any mechanic.

But finding this truth requires a certain disposition in the individual: attentiveness, enlivened by a sense of responsibility to the motorcycle. He has to internalize the well working of the motorcycle as an object of passionate concern. The truth does not reveal itself to idle spectators.

A coach is, in a sense, a craftsmen. Unfortunately, many coaches and trainers are like Pirsig’s mechanic: idle spectators. They are inattentive. I watched one trainer this summer run a workout and commented to him that he could record his instructions and feedback and simply hit play before each drill or workout because his feedback was impersonal and unspecific.

He touched on simple generalizations: faster, harder, lower, etc. It’s not that his comments were incorrect; most players need to work faster, harder and in a better body position. However, his feedback was ineffectual: it became like white noise in the background of the workout as it lacked meaning to any individual.

Before a coach or trainer can reach a player, he has to understand the player. He has to pay attention. There are some vague generalities that any coach or trainer can utter to sound knowledgeable: bend your knees, hold your follow-through, etc.

However, to impact the player, the feedback must be specific and meaningful. If a player bends his knees, and the trainer sees a shot missed short and instructs the player to bend his knees, is he identifying the problem or is he making an idle assumption based on the result, like Pirsig’s mechanic who barely listened to his motorcycle before reaching his (incorrect) conclusion?

Coaching is more than pontificating to illustrate one’s mastery of basketball terms and concepts. Coaching is a personal profession that depends heavily on one’s ability to analyze and assess an individual’s psyche as much as his biomechanics or sport-skill technique. Once one understands the player (or team), he must have the ability to communicate with the player in a way that impacts the player.

By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

Developing Talent in Young Players

A New York Times article by by Rob Hughes titled “Recipe for Soccer Success: Let Young Talent Blossoms” juxtaposes the efforts of China and the United States to develop its next generation of footballing stars with the development of the world’s best footballer, Lionel Messi.

“He wasn’t trained, he was born like this,” Ernesto Vecchio, the garage mechanic, says in a documentary, “Los Origenes de Messi,” that traces the roots of the world’s most beguiling soccer talent.

Watch that documentary, by Michael Robinson, and marvel at the humility of everyone around Messi, from his parents to his mentors. Essentially, they knew what he was capable of becoming, and they knew that the best they could do was simply let it develop — on the streets, in the parks, on the dusty courtyard where he and the ball were inseparable.

Of course, this approach differs greatly from the common approach in the United States, where structured practices, games and training session start at an early age and create a regimented development program for an aspiring athlete.

Hughes references an out of print book titled Common Sense about Soccer written by Nils Middelboe, a Danish merchant banker who played as an amateur for Chelsea in 1913.

He used the phrase “to systematize is to sterilize” in imploring coaches not to overload kids with theories, not to spoil their joy in letting imagination guide them with the ball. Even then, back in the 1950s and 1960s, Middelboe feared the regimentation of adults’ inflicting their control on kids.

Of course, Middleboe’s fear echoes the refrain from books like Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning and more academic books like Talented Tennagers by Mihalyi Csiszentmihalyi and Benjamin Bloom’s Developing Talent in Young People.

To develop talent in young people, the first stage is a time of exploration and discovery, a time to ignite the youngster’s passion. Technique and “the right way” are of lesser concern. Instead, coaches and parents must create an environment that allows the players the space and freedom to explore and develop an interest in the activity.

Children like to play, it is in their nature to play, try new things, explore, test out new ways to do things and more. Unfortunately, coaching often stifles these instincts and directs players to one way of doing things. Coaches and parents offer a structured environment which, in Middleboe’s words “sterilizes” the athletes.

With young players, details are not important. Instead, keep practices and games active and continue challenging players to learn new things and try new skills. Ignite their passion for the game rather than dampening their enthusiasm. Create a playful environment rather than eliminating play in favor of drills and instruction.

By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

  • What Is A Playmaker?

    Who decided that a point guard has to be small? More importantly, what is a point guard? We expect a point guard to be a leader and have a high basketball I.Q. Why don’t we expect or challenge all players to develop this game awareness? Why rely on only one player? Read more →
  • The PBDL Concept

    English soccer academies wait until players are 11 to play full 11v11 soccer; in Italy, youth basketball players participate in skill-oriented clinics at 6-years-old, but start competitive games at 12. In the United States, kids play 5v5 full court games and compete for national championships when they are 8-years-old.

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  • Starting A PBDL

    The PBDL emphasizes learning and development. Presently, players and parents have numerous recreation options - leagues based on fun and equal participation, typically for beginners - and numerous competitive opportunities - teams focused on strategy, game preparation and winning. There are few true development leagues - until now.

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