Winning and Losing and Player Development

One issue with developing young players is the emphasis placed on winning by coaches and parents. In a rush to perform, players sometimes sacrifice the process.

But you can count Nick Bollettieri, the man who may have done more to bring about the demise of serve and volley than anyone, as a believer in its continued potential, provided a young player devotes himself to it very early. He coaches at least one young girl with a professional net-rushing future in mind, but he says that the roadblocks are often the parents, who don’t have the patience that it takes to allow this style to mature. “You have to lose for a while if you go that way,” Bollettieri says, “and who wants to do that?”

This happens with post players frequently. The tallest player is told to stay close to the basket and be tall, and he is prohibited from dribbling. How does this enhance the player’s development?

Similarly, eight and nine-year-olds shoot three pointers with poor form because they are trying to win the game. However, these shots develop bad habits.

In both cases, coaches, parents and players concentrate on the immediate results, not the process and the player’s long term athlete development.

Jeremy Lin & Fundamental Basketball

Four years ago, I watched the improbable upset, as Palo Alto High School and their star Jeremy Lin beat perennial power Mater Dei to win the California DII C.I.F. Championship. Now, thanks to some praise from Fran Fraschilla and a great article by Dana O’Neil, college basketball fans are learning about Lin, now a star guard for Harvard.

The article is great on several levels, from an old-school approach to learning the game to using basketball to assimilate in a new culture.

Lin is a do-everything guard who learned the game from his father who never played basketball or watched basketball until he was an adult.

Armed with videotapes of his favorite players, Gie-Ming studied the game with the same fervor he studied for his Ph.D.

“I would just imitate them over and over; I got my hook shot from Kareem,” Gie-Ming said, laughing.

When Gie-Ming had children, he took them to the local Y to teach the game to them.

Jeremy followed, and then youngest brother Joseph joined in what became a three-nights-a-week routine. The boys would finish their homework and around 8:30 head to the Y with their father for 90 minutes of drills or mini-games.

Forget that all of the players on those videos had long since retired, that the guy with Kareem’s hook shot wouldn’t hit Abdul-Jabbar’s armpit. Gie-Ming recognized what so many other youth coaches have forgotten over time: The foundation for success is the basics.

“I realized if I brought them from a young age it would be like second nature for them,” Gie-Ming said. “If they had the fundamentals, the rest would be easy.”

Lin has the characteristics of a successful player:

Jeremy was special. He had his father’s passion, his own inner motivation and a frame that would sprout to 6-foot-3. A good enough scorer to play 2-guard, Jeremy also was a savvy enough playmaker — thanks to his dad and Magic — to play the point. He’s a solid outside shooter, but his dad, Julius and Kareem conspired to give him a reliable game around the rim.

However, he did not develop these skills through constant games, personal trainers, camps or college scholarship dreams. Instead, he’s old school in more ways than one, a player who played and through his love of the game, developed into a great player.

“All this time he was growing up, I never thought about Jeremy playing in college or professionally,” Gie-Ming said. “I just enjoyed watching him play. I’m just so proud of him and so happy for him. I told him my dream already has come true.”

Coaches & Parents Working Together for Youth Sports

This week, I attended a mandatory coach certification meeting (lecture) for the local school district. The presenter was the athletic director and softball coach at a local high school with years of experience.

The nugget of wisdom from those years of experience that he shared with the coaches – really the only time he deviated from reading the prepared script – was in regards to parent meetings.

He suggested (implored) that coaches have a parent meeting and tell the parents that they refuse to discuss playing time with the parents. He insisted that if the coach is firm in the meeting, he will not have issues with parents. He even said that when a parent comes to talk to him, his first question, in a stern voice, is: “You’re not here to discuss playing time, are you?” He warned coaches not to waffle on this issue.

I could not disagree more. Personally, when coaching high school athletes, I prefer that parents encourage their child to approach me directly so we can discuss any issues that the player may have, as parents rarely attend practices (all my practices are open).

I also use the 24-Hour Rule: I will not discuss playing time issues with parents or players until the next day, as I do not want the emotions of the game to impact the discussion. Once we have a chance to take a deep breath and remove ourselves from the game, I am more than willing to discuss playing time with parents.

Why? Because we want the same thing.

When I listen to coaches like this speak, they make parents (and often the players too) into adversaries. Parents have the same goals for their child as I have for all the players. The difference is that I have to balance the goals and desires of 12 players, while the parents are laser-focused on one player. Sometimes this causes parents to lose some perspective, but we still want the same thing.

What do parents want? Here is what I wrote earlier this fall:

They want their child to have a great experience, and they feel a great experience is one where the child wants to go to practice and games and where the coach emphasizes sportsmanship, keeps it fun, teaches the skills and communicates openly and honestly with the players.

Are a coach’s goals any different? I hope that all players have a good experience, and I hope that all players want to go to practice. The worst thing that I can hear from a player is for a player to say, “I have to go to practice.” I don’t want players to feel that they have to do anything – I want them to play because they enjoy practices and games, like the competition, and want to learn something new.

There is nothing to gain from avoiding conflict by refusing to speak to parents and players. Parents simply want to ensure a positive experience for their child, and coaches should want the same. Nobody wants a player to have a bad experience. By meeting with parents and working together, as opposed to creating adversaries, coaches and parents can enhance the players’ experience.

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

A Parent’s Role in Youth Sports

The November issue of Inc. features an interview with comic book legend Stan Lee. Lee says:

“My mother was the greatest mother in the world. She thought I was the greatest thing on two feet. I’d come home with a little composition I had written at school and she’d look at it and say, ‘It’s wonderful! You’re another Shakespeare! I always assumed that I could do anything. It really is amazing how much that has to do with your attitude.”

For more thoughts on parenting through the athletic process, read:

Parents, Performance and Social Facilitation

I witnessed a familiar scene at a recreation volleyball league last weekend. The teams scrimmaged at the end of the one-hour clinic. A 7th grader stepped to the service line, and her father said something. She served underhanded because the game was close, and she wanted to get her serve in the court. Her father told her to serve overhand. She looked at her father and dismissed him. She served again. The next time her serve came around, her father implored her to serve overhand. She did. She scored. She served again and missed. It happened to be game point. She said that she always missed on game point.

This was a very recreational clinic-league that used the principles of “Games for Understanding” to teach basic volleyball skills to young, recreational players. The coaches were volunteer parents who received brief instructions from the clinician before each drill. Everyone enjoyed the experience, which lacked the performance pressure and intensity of a typical youth league. The atmosphere was more like a group playing at the park.

This changes, of course, when the parents send different messages than the parent-coaches and clinician. Even in a relaxed atmosphere, the player felt pressure when her dad told her what to do, and she hesitated to try a less automated skill (serving overhand) because of the game setting and her father’s presence. According to Zajonc’s Theory of Social Facilitation:

  • Audiences increase arousal
  • Arousal inhibits learning new responses
  • Arousal facilitates the performance of well-rehearsed responses.

When an audience (parents) is present, players tend to play harder and perform better in skills that they have mastered. However, the audience hinders development, as players do what they can already do rather than try new skills. Although her dad encouraged her to serve overhand, she hesitated because of the crowd’s presence. We learn better in practices than in games because we are more open to trying new skills, whereas games create pressure to perform. To develop a new skill, we must be willing to make mistake after mistake.

When a parent instructs from the sideline, most children react negatively, especially internally. Rather than concentrate on their performance, they internally focus on trying to please or ignore the parent. Their attention leaves their task, and they have an internal monologue about their parent and how they wish their dad would be quiet or leave them alone.

On my basketball team last year, a girl could not function with her father in the stands. In practice, she excelled. In games, she struggled. She only heard his voice and constantly looked toward him for approval. When he showed his disappointment, she tensed to the point where she missed numerous layups because she was so tight, she lost all fine motor control.

Parents play a large role in a young athlete’s development, but not always  positively. In Little League, our star pitcher was Robbie. He was bigger and stronger than the others, and his dad had Major League dreams. His dad sat behind home plate and yelled after every pitch. He attended every camp with his son and remembered bits and pieces and yelled them at Robbie. He yelled “Release point” all the time. The other teams joked about it.

Robbie was the most erratic pitcher in the league. He would throw a one-hitter, and we would lose because he walked 10 batters in a row. The whole league was scared of him because he threw hard and had zero control. He threw a pitch off the top of the backstop!

I don’t know that Robbie would have performed better if his father sat quietly in the stands because his father was omnipresent all the way through Little League. I played All-Stars with Robbie one year and his dad was the only non-coach parent to attend a practice; every other parent dropped off her child and returned two hours later to pick up her son. Robbie’s dad followed him everywhere he went. If he had allowed Robbie to relax and pitch, he may have developed into a good pitcher. Instead, his high school coach moved him to right field.

Playing youth sports is about exploring and discovery. It is, after all, play. Parents and coaches often inhibit the child’s play in an effort to help the child. Rather than instructing the child on every pitch or yelling at his daughter to serve overhand, good sports parents allow the child to control his or her environment. The athlete needs to make decisions and develop the skills, and parents need to support, rather than dictate, the development. When parents become too controlling, kids lose interest. Sports like skateboarding are on the rise because they lack adult interference. Children learn by watching other skaters and trying tricks on their own, and they enjoy the experience. Skaters help fellow skaters; it is a collaborative sport rather than a competitive sport.

When I watched the X-Games, Bob Burnquist said that the competition was not about winning, but pushing the limits of what people think possible or what their bodies can do. That is a true sporting pursuit and the reason that most people play sports and compete. We like challenges, we like learning and we like pushing ourselves to see what we are capable of doing.

Parents should try to give their children an opportunity to be successful, but that oftentimes means doing nothing. It means supporting the child rather than barking instructions. It means encouraging the athlete’s self-discovery, regardless of the sport, so it retains its fun and innocence, much like skateboarding, rather than resembling the performance pressure of professional sports.

Understanding Parent Expectations to Improve Coaching

A coach’s enjoyment of a season often depends on his or her relationship with the parents. Children very rarely cause problems, but their parents often do. In Candace Barton and Craig Stewart’s “Parental Expectations of Coaches: Closing the Communication Gap,” they research the difference between parents’ actual expectations and the coaches’ perception of their expectations to illustrate a breakdown in communication which causes many difficulties.

In an original survey (1994), Stewart, a Montana State professor, found that the parents of high school athletes wanted a coach who was:

  • fair and honest in dealing with athletes,
  • committed to having players enjoy their sport, and
  • dedicated to the development of sportsmanship.

On the other hand, some of the more common perceptions finished last:

  • commitment to winning,
  • personal experience as a player, and
  • improving players’ chances of playing at a higher level.

Stewart then surveyed the parents of more competitive, more committed athletes to see the difference. He surveyed the parents of soccer players in the Olympic Development program at the state and regional level and found that these parents desired coach who:

  • were able to teach well,
  • had knowledge of skills, and
  • were fair and honest.

In Stewart’s surveys, the major discrepancy between the parents and the coaches’ perception of the parents was that the parents valued sportsmanship more and improving players’ chances of playing at the next level less than coaches believed.

In 2001, another group used a similar survey to ask adolescent athletes about their preference for a coach, and the athletes wanted a coach who:

  • implemented effective instructional practices,
  • could perform the skills required of the sport, and
  • provided opportunities for the athletes to compete and achieve their goals.

In the current paper, Barton and Stewart found similar results, as parents wanted a coach who felt the most important coach characteristics were:

  • fairness and honesty in dealing with athlete;
  • commitment to the development of sportsmanship, and
  • ability to teach.

This survey asked the parents to describe how they measured these characteristics. The respondents measured good teaching as the ability to:

  • engage the athletes and create a positive environment free from peer harassment;
  • know how to sequence learning;
  • give feedback, and
  • provide adequate wait time (defined as a delay in feedback allowing the student-athlete opportunity to respond or self-correct.

As for fun, parents listed over and over:

“The athletes look forward to practice and play.”

Based on these results, coaches can concentrate on certain things to create a positive experience for the players which pleases the parents. I spoke the other day with a youth soccer coach whose team did not even keep score in his league, yet he felt pressure from the parents to win. According to this study, that pressure is perceived, not real. As coaches coaching in the fishbowl, we often perceive that the crowd (parents) is judging us on our performance and ability to make crucial competitive decisions.

However, more often than not, parents care little about these decisions. Instead, they want their child to have a great experience, and they feel a great experience is one where the child wants to go to practice and games and where the coach emphasizes sportsmanship, keeps it fun, teaches the skills and communicates openly and honestly with the players.

If a player does not play as much as usual, rather than avoiding the conflict and hoping the player forgets by the next practice, talk to the player, explain the situation and give the player things to practice to earn the desired playing time. If a player does not play hard enough, do not banish the player to the bench – talk to the player, figure out the player’s goals or motivations and work with the player. If a player does not understand a skill, have patience and give the player time to figure out the skill execution.

These are the types of situations that parents use to measure their coach, not the won-loss record or brilliant timeout usage. Rather than stressing out about the fishbowl, crowd and parents, focus on giving the players your best effort and treating the players as you would like to be treated, and the parents will likely rally on your side and appreciate the effort that you give for their children.

By Brian McCormick
Creator, 180 Shooter

Parenting through the Athletic Process

When I was a child, parenting a wannabe athlete was much easier: in the fall, I played soccer for the club affiliated with my church; in winter, I played basketball for my school; in spring, I played Little League at the league five minutes from my house; and, during the summer, I was fortunate to attend a camp or two around family vacations and going to the local pool and basketball courts.

These days, there are so many choices and, with the advent of the Internet, so much more information and misinformation. There are so many different sporting opportunities. Heck, there is a professional soccer league, poker players on television and mainstream mixed martial arts. There is NJB, AAU, YBOA, BCI and other youth basketball organizations; there are youth strength training facilities; private basketball skill trainers; private basketball facilities; showcase events and more. How does a parent navigate his or her son or daughter through the youth athlete development process?

The Sacramento Bee recently ran an article with the father of two collegiate golfers. While golf is different than basketball in numerous ways, the advice and examples that he offers parallels in many ways the research conducted on talented teenagers and expert performers by sports psychologists and educators like K. Anders Ericsson, Benjamin Bloom, and Mihaly Csikszentmihaly.

My biggest regret – and greatest warning to others – is letting golf become the center of the family to the exclusion of the needs and desires of other family members.

Looking back, the scheduling of golf tournaments should have been subordinate to the scheduling of family vacations. There’s always another tournament to play.

When they were 15, the boys quit going on our church’s week-long youth camping trip because they needed that time to practice for the U.S. Junior tournament…

Interestingly, the closest either of them came to qualifying for the U.S. Junior was the day after they returned from church camp – with no practice – when they were freshmen.

I always see advertisements for big AAU Tournaments that seem to coincide with family-type days: Mother’s Day Madness, Easter Classic, Father’s Day Spectacular. It seems like those would be the best times not to schedule a tournament and to give the players (and families) a week off. As the dad says, there is always another tournament to play. Unfortunately, it seems like we have this mentality that if you miss a week, you will fall behind.

In the athlete development process, we place too much emphasis on the on-court action and ignore the idea of the 24-hour athlete: if we assume that an athlete trains two hours per day, the things that he or she does in the other 22 hours per day has as much of an effect on his or her success. If the player lacks proper nutrition or does not sleep or otherwise does not take care of his or her body and mind, the player undermines his or her on-court training. Skipping a weekend tournament to celebrate Father’s Day or missing a week of summer league to go on a family vacation is not going to stunt a player’s career, but going 52 weeks straight may affect the player’s drive and motivation.

Next, the father suggests:

Find your child a great instructor who can help them as they grow and who understands their swing.

You can look at this in two ways with basketball, either a coach or a trainer. The benefit of a trainer is that you can stay with a trainer as you change coaches. I’ve worked with a player for several years and he has probably played for 10 different team coaches in that time. It is hard for any one of those coaches to take a long term view of the player’s development if he only coaches the player for a short season or a couple months before he moves to the next league or moves to the next level at his school.

On the other hand, some programs do a good job of keeping players together over the course of a number of years. For youth club/AAU programs, I think this should be the goal, as opposed to recruiting new players. Many parents however are persuaded to leave a good club for various reasons. I worked with a club that was a great learning environment with very good coaches who cared about the players and all the players got along really well. However, one parent was nudged by an outside influence and she decided to move her daughter to a more prominent club, and the club started to fall apart competitively. I have seen this happen several times. Most of the time, the local club with caring coaches, plenty of playing time and friendly teammates is a better overall experience than chasing a better coach or more competitive program.

If you find a program with players who stick together over a period of several years with coaches who care and work hard, consider yourself lucky. Don’t mess up by thinking that there is something better out there. The grass ain’t always greener.

If your child has a goofy swing, grip or ball flight, fix it sooner rather than later. At the college level, you won’t see “four-knuckle” grips or big hookers or slicers.

On the basketball side, I see this all the time. Players spending a great amount of time playing the game and training to become better, but they have incredible shooting flaws. If your son or daughter loves the game enough to train – as opposed to playing for fun – find someone who can teach him or her to shoot properly. Now, a couple lessons are not enough. To correct a player’s shooting technique requires a lot of time and concentration, and the player must be motivated to work on his or her own, not just play games or train with a trainer.

When I train players, I help them for an hour or two per week, but the development has to come on their own in the in-between times. If I am a good trainer, I help the player learn the correct feel so that he can self-correct when he works out on his own. But, if the player does not practice in between sessions, my impact is minimal unless their budget is endless and they want to hire me five days a week. Players who want to be great do not need basketball babysitters – they are motivated to work on their own.

If your kid goes from shooting in the mid-80s to a scratch golfer in a few years or less, it doesn’t mean scores in the mid-60s are just around the corner. Sometimes shooting par or the mid-70s is as good as a kid will get. This is especially true if the items above are ignored.

This is an important and neglected point. I hear from parents, players and coaches who seem to think that the hours and money invested in youth basketball mean that the player deserves a scholarship. Unfortunately, that is not how it works. Colleges recruit based on needs and talent. While a college scholarship is a reward, in a sense, it really isn’t. It is a reward in the same sense that when you graduate from college and get a job, you are rewarded for your effort in school. It is not a reward in the same way that being voted all-league is a reward. A college scholarship is the beginning, not the end. Coaches recruit based on what they believe you will do in the future, not what you have done in the past.

Improvement is not a continual forward, upward line. There are hills and valleys. How a player handles the struggles ultimately determines, to a great degree, the eventual success of the player. One of the most important skills for a player to develop is the coping skills to handle mistakes, failure or rejection.

Navigating youth sports is different for parents today than it was during their youth. Unfortunately, there are many questions, but few places to turn for real answers. Most answers on message boards and through the media are tinged with bias and agendas, and most people follow the herd, figuring that if Player A earned a scholarship and went through XYZ, then XYZ is the path to a scholarship. However, the process for one person may not be the right process for another – many players reach a level of success in spite of the road that they took, not because of it.

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

Who will coach your child?

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, June 2008

Parents ask about picking the right coach for their child. While the Internet provides information, most content is user generated and often anonymous, so posts are as much marketing as credible recommendations. Most parents lack the time or ability to watch several coaches and choose the best one. Read more

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