Elite Camps: Talent Identification and Player Development

I worked an elite camp at the local university this week. For players who are searching for someone to recruit them, attending an elite camp is a worthwhile expense because elite camps tend to limit the number of participants, provide a decent level of competition, and grant access to the coaching staff beyond any other experience. As an example, there were two players who I had dismissed when watching during the high school season who I liked after watching them play with and against better players and meeting them individually. Of course, there was also a player who I was very high on during the season who really disappointed, so there’s that too.

My evaluations start with the dynamic warmup. Whereas the players use this to warm up and prepare to play, I see a lot more. First, how seriously do they take the exercises? Do they attempt to do them correctly or simply get through them? Second, how quickly do they learn? Can they see something and do it or do they need multiple explanations? Based on this, I know who I have to watch when explaining things throughout the camp to insure that they understand. Finally, how well do they move? It does not always work this way, but the two best basketball players, to me, were also the two who moved the best during the dynamic warmup. Movement is not just speed; my favorite exercise is repeat linear hops. I believe that this tells a lot about a player’s coordination and connectedness.

After the warmup, some players meet expectations, and others do not. There were a couple players who I wanted to be good because they had some length and were neat kids. They just did not play hard. One player had such good instincts and basketball intelligence. The game was easy. But, she seemed to hold back. I kept talking to her, trying to get her out of her comfort zone. I thought she was going to cry on one occasion, but I was trying to help her. Eventually, I guessed that she had a fear of failure, and she agreed. There were several players who I imagine suffered from the same type of fixed mindset, and it affected their play. I can relate because I had a fixed mindset when I was young, and it held me back, so it is one of the things that endears me to players and that I really try to help them overcome.

After warmups, we played some fun games, such as tag. Again, I use these games to evaluate players although they are not the true game. Two players who did not look like the best basketball players – they were not the ideal long, lean body type – constantly avoided being tagged. They were the best at the game. I noticed that. It made me watch them more closely when I may have ignored them because they did not look like the prototype.

Also in tag, I noticed the fear of failure. With younger players, when I play team tag, players tend to chase after their friends or someone of the same ability or slightly better than them. They look for the challenge. When the best player goes first, and has her choice of five players to chase, she does not chase after the worst player or the easiest player to tag; she chases after the other team’s best player or her best friend on the the other team. I have seen this at dozens of camps in multiple countries. With the elite campers, however, many of the better players immediately went for the worst player that they could find. They wanted the mismatch rather than the challenge. That tells me something about their personality. While it might be the smart play in terms of winning the game (debatable), it is not the best approach for the player to stretch her skills. That throws up a red flag; I want to watch the player more closely.

What happens when they play 4v4 and pick their own match ups? Many of these players sought out easier players to defend. Again, they were not challenging themselves against the best players. They were worried about performance. Now, this could be because it was called an elite camp, and they felt that it was a tryout. They may have felt this performance pressure. I do not dismiss a player because of it, but it does throw up a red flag for me. I want the player who seeks out the challenges, who goes after the best player on the court. To me, she is the player who is most likely to improve.

These are some observations that I noticed. Also, after working with roughly 80 players in the last week, the stories that they tell of their coaches is disheartening. The coach who only keeps 7 players on varsity because she will play only 7 players in the game; is that the point of high-school athletics? Is that why tax money is used to have sports teams? To exclude all but the elite? The coach who runs all of his plays for two players to shoot. I watched this particular coach during the high school season and thought he was an awful coach at the time; the player simply confirmed it. The coaches who believe that the answer to all mistakes is more running. How do you improve your passing or dribbling or defensive skills by running sprints or laps? The coaches who will not pass along letters from college coaches. Who do you think you are?

Obviously, not all coaches are like this, but it’s unfortunate that nearly every player who I meet has a negative experience from their coach. Obviously, feeling are influenced by things outside the coach’s control (you can play only 5 players at a time, and when you have 12-15 players, someone will be unhappy with playing time) and people in general tend to remember emotional experiences more than non-emotional experiences, so the one really bad day is remembered more than the 100 normal days. I do not believe every story that a player tells. However, I hear these enough that it is disheartening, especially at a time when many are worried about the declining participation rates in youth and high school sports, and girls basketball specifically.

I am not a huge camp fan, as you cannot improve in two days. However, my goal when I direct or work camps is to make the players think. To show them something new. I do not focus on drills because there are a million YouTube videos of dribbling drills. I try to expose the players to different ideas and different ways of seeing the game. To help them see why they made a mistake in a certain situation. Then, I encourage players to take 1-2 things away from the camp and implement them with their teams or individual practice. If you can add one thing to your game, it was probably worthwhile. However, if you believe that the 2 days of camp made you better through the repetition and practice without consciously taking some new ideas and trying them in different situations, you are fooling yourself. It is what the player does with the instruction and feedback after the camp ends that determines one’s skill development from the camp.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

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