How to Improve Youth Basketball through Coaching

Everyone appears to have a solution to fix youth basketball and skill development. Some believe in the efficacy of a 24-hour second clock. As the thinking goes, players from Europe have better skills, and leagues in Europe use a 24-second clock, so therefore using a 24-second clock leads to better skills.

Others want to eliminate parents from coaching teams, as if there was a well of certified and interested volunteers willing to take the parents’ places.

In my opinion, the easiest and most painless change that would have the greatest impact is to expect more from the administrators who organize leagues and hire coaches.

At the higher levels, college athletic directors hire coaches and hope for the best. If the coach flounders, the athletic directors fires the coach, eats the salary and hires a new coach at a higher salary. One college cut several varsity sports while at the same time paying two women’s basketball coaches (a non-revenue sport). How can an athletic director justify cutting a varsity sport because it costs too much, while paying a former coach not to coach because the athletic director made a poor hire?

These days, athletic directors are businesspeople who work their way through the athletic administration bureaucracy. Many work their way through marketing and prove their worth through their fundraising efforts and networking. While fundraising is important, is that the primary mission of a college athletic program?

Where are the expert coaches to mentor and nurture new coaches? Imagine if a college athletic department had an expert coach position to mentor the athletic department’s hires? Would we have better coaches? Would coaches have a better opportunity to succeed if they had a mentor on campus to lean on for advice?

At the youth levels, in a typical recreation program, the league coordinator hires or recruits volunteer coaches and assigns these coaches to the teams. The league may run a coaching certification program, but it typically is a safety program to ensure that there is no child abuse, and to teach basic injury procedures. Once the league starts, the league administrator tracks winners and losers, schedules games, assigns referees, works the clock, etc.

However, the league administrator generally does not ensure the effectiveness of the league’s coaches. Why should leagues view administrators simply as office personnel? Why not require these leagues to hire administrators with extensive coaching experience who can assist teams and coaches?

In a local Asian league, the league director does not coach a team. However, he is in the gym whenever a team practices. He ensures that each coach writes out a practice plan before practice. A practice plan does not ensure a great coach, but it does provide a certain measure of quality control, as the coach must think about the upcoming practice and organize his thoughts and goals. The pre-practice organization often creates better in-practice organization.

The league director mentors all the league coaches. He offers suggestions and advice. Coaches can approach him if they have an issue or if they need a drill to teach a specific skill or if they are unsure of the proper teaching points for a skill.

In this way, the league director insures a certain measure of quality for the coaches at each practice and game, and his mentorship assists with the coach’s development, meaning that the coach likely improves during the season to become a better coach the following season.

While most coaches improve from season to season, especially novice coaches, due to experience, having the additional guidance of an expert or experienced coach enhances the development and adds to the experience. We don’t ask our players to develop without a coach or our students to learn material strictly through trial-and-error without a teacher; why ask coaches to learn simply through trial-and-error without a mentor present to guide the coach’s development?

Every league has a league director or administrator. Why not encourage leagues to use this position as a mentor for coaches rather than just a scheduler of games? While this will not solve every problem, assisting new coaches and mentoring these coaches so they become experienced coaches who remain with the league will elevate the level of instruction.

Changing the philosophy or role of one league director impacts 20-30 coaches who each impacts 8-10 players, which means improving the league for 160-300 players through one relatively simple change.

A 24-second clock does not improve instruction at practice and it does not eliminate the Peak by Friday mentality. Eliminating parent-coaches would leave a shortage of coaches and eliminate many of the best coaches who happen to also coach their sons or daughters. While there are many subtle changes that can improve a league, club or team, using the league director as a mentor to control and elevate the quality of instruction and create some consistency among coaches is one painless opportunity for leagues to improve and offer a better product to coaches, players and parents.

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

Learning from your Coaches (Bad or Good)

If you play long enough, you will play for good coaches and bad coaches. When you move into coaching, you often reflect on the good and bad coaches. Many coaches coach much like their mentor or favorite coach. However, is it possible to learn more from your bad experiences than your good experiences?

Stanford University professor Bob Sutton linked to an interview with Yahoo’s CEO Carol Bartz who argues that you learn more from your bad managers than your good managers.

Bartz says:

I also think people should understand that they will learn more from a bad manager than a good manager…When you have a good manager things go so well that you don’t even know why it’s going well because it just feels fine.

When you have a bad manager you have to look at what’s irritating you and say: “Would I do that? Would I make those choices? Would I talk to me that way? How would I do this?”

Sutton highlights the point about noticing:

The implication is that when things are going great, you don’t engage in very deep cognition about them, because little is happening to give you pause or upset you. In fact, this point is consistent with research on cognition and emotion suggesting that people in good moods do not engage in as much mindfulness,deep thought, or self-doubt as people in bad moods.

When you play for a good coach, therefore, you do not notice the reasons why you like playing for the coach. Everything seems good. Therefore, you try and copy the coach, but oftentimes you fail to copy the parts that made the good coach a good coach.

For instance, I played for my father for years and consider him a great coach. However, technically-speaking, I run practices almost completely opposite of his practices. We never scrimmaged, we ran the Flex and we had a very structured press break. I use games to teach almost every skill, prefer motion offenses and do not use a press break.

I think he was a great coach because he created an environment free of fear, and all the players knew that he cared about them as more than just players. I do not remember exactly how he accomplished this – I cannot remember if he spoke to each player personally during each practice or if he took the players who played less to the side and gave them goals to earn playing time.

On the other hand, I have used experiences that I did not like as a player and as an assistant coach to shape my coaching philosophies. I paid attention to the things that I disliked and tried to change them as a coach.

A couple years ago, I read an article about John Gagliardi, a football coach at St. John’s University in Minnesota:

Who wouldn’t want to show up for practice, when Gagliardi has basically eliminated all the things football players traditionally don’t like about it? There is no calisthenics or lap running, and no drills designed to build agility or quickness. There isn’t even any tackling — instead, the Johnnies line up 11 on 11 and play touch football for 90 minutes, the way most of them have since they were little kids tossing around footballs in their backyards. And if you happen to mess up, don’t sweat it — Gagliardi isn’t likely to get up in your grill.

“You don’t chew ’em out, you don’t get on their tail all the time,” he tells me. “I think what drives most people away from things is not the physical abuse, but the mental abuse.”

Of course, by traditional football standards, Gagliardi’s approach to motivation is pure heresy. But looked at another way, it makes perfect sense, because he has essentially created a football program powered not by his own threats or intimidation or screaming, but by the players’ natural passion for football.

It makes a lot of sense. Learn from the things/coaches that you do not like and do not repeat the mistakes.

By Brian McCormick
Founder, 180 Shooter

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