A Coach’s Effect on Youth Athlete’s Development

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness.

My friend – a father of five and a good youth basketball coach – sent me this email:

“Here’s a stupid story. My son is playing minors baseball (with actual pitching) this year. He’s always been a real confident player (almost cocky), and he’s an above-average player at his park and easily the best player on his sorry team. Anyway, he swings at a lot of bad pitches. His coach yells at him and threatens to move him back in the order every time he grounds out or pops up on a bad pitch. I stayed out of the way until I realized he was so nervous at the plate that he was striking out. I finally got it out of him that he was trying to walk because he was afraid of swinging at bad pitches and he wouldn’t swing until he had at least two strikes and then he would swing at ANYTHING. I told him to stop listening to his stupid coach and swing at anything he thought he could hit. Anyway, he ended up making the All-Star team and is doing OK again.”

My friend is a bit of a Little League Dad, and most people probably cringe when picturing a dad telling his son to ignore his “stupid coach,” but he has a point.

A coach, at some point, should talk to his players about pitch selection and working the count. However, eight-years-old might not be the right age. Players make mistakes for three basic reasons:

  1. They don’t understand.
  2. They aren’t good enough yet to do what is asked of them or at least not good enough yet to execute consistently.
  3. They don’t care.

Most coaches believe that players make mistakes because they don’t care. If the coach believed that his player did not understand the instructions or  felt that the player was not good enough, he would not yell and threaten the player. Instead, his actions (debatable as they are) show that he believes the player does not care; maybe he thinks the player does not care about winning or he does not care about getting on-base or he does not care about the coach’s instructions.

The player’s actions show that he does care. He listened to his coach and tried too hard to follow his directions. He changed his approach and did not want to swing at anything that his coach deemed a bad pitch.

As a coach and parent, my friend says, “Children are perfect. It’s my job not to screw them up.” He believes that young players will learn naturally.

Rather than yell at the player to get a reaction, the results will instruct the player. Left alone, if the player hits too many pop-ups because he swings at high pitches, he will learn to avoid the high pitch. As he gains experience, he will learn which pitches lead to hits and which pitches lead to outs. He will learn to avoid the pitches that lead to outs and attack the pitches that lead to hits.

Unfortunately, nobody has time to allow an eight-year-old to accrue the experience necessary to determine which pitches to swing at and which to avoid. Therefore, we instruct.

However, rather than believing that the player lacks the experience to execute consistently, the coach believes that he does not care, so he yells at him. Rather than inspiring the desired response – a little more plate discipline – the coach inspires a fear of failure that leads the player to avoid swinging the bat.

When I was a high school freshman, I was a good shooter. In junior high school, I won several shooting contests. During our first high school game, our coach instituted a “five-pass rule” as a reaction to a couple quick three-point shots.

Rather than step in and shoot, the rule distracted my attention. I thought about whether the shot was a good shot or not and whether we had made five passes. I questioned the shot. Consequently, I became a worse shooter. My coach did not intend to make me a worse shooter, but he did not understand the consequences of his instructions. He intended to create an awareness of shot selection. Instead, he created a fear of being substituted if the shot missed.

Curiously, he picked the player who listened the least as the team MVP. Most of us struggled because we wanted to follow the coach’s directions. We were probably too coachable. We ran the offense, made the easy play, etc. However, the MVP ignored the five-pass rule and put his head down and drove to the basket almost every time. He was a black hole in the post – the ball went into him and it never came out.

I see this discrepancy between the coach’s words and the coach’s actions often. Even with my friend’s son, the coach did not say much when his son swung at a bad pitch and got a hit. This is a problem with inexperienced coaches: they coach by the result, not the process.

Last month, I worked out two girls who I used to train. The senior is headed to an NAIA school to play college basketball and the sophomore is starting to get the attention of DII and low DI schools. The two players are on the short side, even for a college guard, and neither is a true point guard.

Both are quick and good ball handlers, and the senior is the better shooter. The biggest difference, however, is their mentalities.

The senior is the ultimate competitor and team player; she loves to play basketball. When I met her, I did not think she had a chance to play college basketball. But, she loves to play and works hard. She did not start until her senior season. She sacrificed her game for the good of the team. In a sense, she is the player that every coach describes when he talks about the player that he wants. She is the patient hitter who happily takes a walk rather than swing at a bad pitch or who turns down a decent shot to make an extra pass.

The sophomore is coachable and listens well, but she has something else to her. She is a competitor, but her competitive fire usually leads her to believe that she needs to make a play. She has the personality to want the ball in the last seconds of a game. She trusts herself to make the play, not her teammates. In a sense, she is the player that coaches want if you go by their actions. She is the player who swings at some bad pitches because of her self-confidence or the player who puts her head down and attacks the basket.

As much as coaches talk about teamwork and sharing the ball, when push comes to shove, the coach wants the player who tries to make something happen, not the player who plays smart and tries to make the right play.

In my friend’s email, he said:

“My wife (a three-sport athlete in high school) and I agree that what makes a good high school player is simply the belief that you’re a good player. Obviously, that only takes you so far. But I honestly think you need absolutely no God-given ability to play high school sports successfully. You just need to like working on your game, and you have to believe that you’re better then you really are.”

In a sense, when I look at the two girls, that is the difference. They both like working on their games, but the sophomore believes that she is better than she is and the senior is not sure that she is as good as she is.

While we do not want to develop selfish or egocentric youth players, coaches and parents cannot allow their words to squelch a player’s confidence. There is a fine line between following the coach’s directions and believing in your ability to make the play or get the hit. The best players go for it, while the others straddle the line and play it safe.

While telling your son or daughter that his or her coach is “stupid” is probably not the best advice, players – especially really young players – should be encouraged to be aggressive.

It is much easier to teach a good hitter to have better plate discipline as a 10 or 11-year-old than to take a player who lacks confidence and is afraid to swing the bat and try and make them into an aggressive hitter.

There are many lessons to learn in youth sports and following directions is certainly one. However, youth sports also provide a great environment to build a child’s confidence.

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

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