Skill development with professional youth coaches

I admit that being paid to be a youth or developmental basketball coach would be a dream job. I meet and hear about guys who have positions such as Director of Coaching for youth soccer or lacrosse clubs, and I wish something like that existed for basketball. I once proposed a similar job to a large youth basketball organization, but it had no interest.

This spring, I have refereed a youth soccer league with several clubs. Some are affiliated with Major League Soccer or European clubs in some capacity (I don’t know how or why). Others are coached by parents and have one team in one age group. Throughout the league, I was under the impression that, despite these relationships, the clubs relied primarily on volunteer or lowly-paid coaches, either parents or high-school coaches.

Last week, I spoke to other referees and said that I had not seen anyone who I considered a great coach. Now, I only see and hear a small glimpse of their coaching: This is coaching in the fish bowl. We see only the games, but most of coaching occurs during practice.

My evaluation was based on the feedback that I hear in each game. Almost all of the feedback is so general as to be useless, negative, obvious, or general cajoling (“Let’s go!”). Some coaches caught my attention for their utter negativity, and I disregarded them regardless of their players’ skills or their team’s quality. When players cry as they leave the field or have to apologize to their coach after a mistake, I cannot categorize the coach positively.

Other coaches caught my attention for their patience and positive reinforcement, but it was clear that their players had no plan. They may have been hired to coach an untalented lot, and their positivity and patience were positive attributes, but their team dd not perform in a way that made me believe they were great coaches.

Again, this could be unfair. I saw a 3 month glimpse; I did not see where these players started or how hard the coach works in practice. However, point being, nobody stuck out as an amazing coach, which I thought was normal for volunteers and amateur coaches. I did not mean this as criticism, as I respect volunteer coaches who treat their players well and are respectful of the game. My soccer coaches when I was young knew very little about the tactics or teaching of skills, but they created a great environment and we had fun, and I appreciate each and every one of them, even dedicating the First Edition of Cross Over to them.

This weekend, during State Cup, I learned that many coaches are “professional” coaches. Apparently, these clubs are well-funded, and charge the players astronomical fees, and consequently, one club has a paid staff of at least eight coaches, with four having been recruited from abroad. With this knowledge, my opinion decreased.

In many basketball circles, people believe that basketball in the U.S. would improve if we had paid professional coaches with licenses and certifications and qualifications. After watching a weekend of soccer with this new knowledge, I don’t know that I agree.

The professional coaches won most of their games. I suppose this is to be expected: they coach the most well-funded, best resourced teams that attract the most talented players. I saw one coach give his business card to the father of an opposing player after the game, and the father beamed with pride. His daughter had been selected by the chosen. No more playing for some father; she was going to play for a professional. And one with an accent too! When you recruit the best players from the other teams, you better win!

In reality, this is what I saw with an u13 game. The winning team (3-1) was from one of the three biggest clubs. I don’t know if this specific coach was a paid coach, but the club has several paid coaches. The other club was a one-age group team, which led me to believe, right or wrong, that the coaches were father-coaches.

In soccer, possession soccer is all the rage, and anyone who lops balls forward is criticized as not developing players. I don’t know if I agree or not, but in this game, the losing team, led by the fathers, controlled most of the possession. They lost because the biggest, fastest, strongest, best player on the field played for the other team and scored three goals on her first three shots. These were not fluke shots. She scored with her right foot and her left foot and on a free kick. She showed speed and composure. She was a very good player and light years better than anyone else on the field. She was legit for an u13. Heck, she’d be legit at u16s!

Her first goal was from the right side. She beat two defenders and lofted a ball at a tough angle over the goalie’s head. If there had been anyone in the box at the time, I would have thought that it was a cross that kept tailing toward the goal. The losing team had a small goalie, and the ball just went over her head. Her second goal was from just outside the box on the left. She beat one defender, then drew a foul. She took the free kick and scored. The third goal was a ball loped forward that she outran everyone to get and slotted the ball with her left foot around the goalie from 20 yards out.

Each goal was predominantly an individual effort. That is great for her, but what about her team? What does it say about the professional club when one player is great, but the rest of the team was outplayed by a glorified rec team? Sure, if the winning team wins state cup, everyone will celebrate the professional club and coaches and attribute the win to their tremendous effort and coaching, but take away the one superstar, and what are they doing? They were the bigger, stronger, faster team, but I would not say that they played better soccer.

This was the theme of the weekend. Almost every game was won by the bigger, stronger, faster team. Now, did the club develop these bigger, stronger, faster players? I don’t know. Maybe. I heard two girls talking in my last game, an u16 girls game. Again, it was a top club against a one-team club. One of the best girls on the winning team had played with the losing team until last year. Who developed her into a top player? Did she get recruited because she was a top player or did she become a top player in the last year? I don’t know.

The professional coaching, it appeared to me, had a self-fulfilling prophecy. The professional coaches are considered the best coaches because they are paid, and the the club has the most money, so the best players want to play for the perceived best coaches. Because they attract the best players, they win. Because they win, they are considered the best coaches. And around we go…

My friend had the same situation in basketball. He worked with predominantly young players and when they reached high school, the top clubs poached his players. Because his high-school teams were no longer as good after losing his top 5-8 players, people characterized his club as a recreational club, not a serious club, which made it harder to continue to attract the younger players who wanted the better clubs and coaching. Inevitably, after the players cycled through several top high school clubs — the ones with shoe contracts and paid coaches and pictures with prominent college coaches on their web sites — the parents would return and tell my friend that their daughters never played for a better coach. They left the coach who helped them develop to find better, more professional coaching and greater development, but found that the high profile clubs did more attracting than developing.

If one’s income (whether a shoe contract or a salary) depends on winning, will the coach be incentivized to develop players over a number of years or to recruit players who have shown themselves to be good? What do college coaches do? They recruit the best players who they can sign.

The problem with professional youth coaches is this self-fulfilling prophecy. As long as coaches are evaluated on wins and losses, the shortcut to success ($$$) is to find the players who have shown themselves to be the best. How does this improve the skills of the masses? How does this improve youth basketball? How is this any different than what currently goes on?

The U.S. simply has too many participants to have a professional, paid coach for every team. To do so would be to reduce participation numbers further or make leagues, clubs, and teams too expensive for the average family. Are these positive consequences? Do we even know if the professional coaches are better coaches? Do they develop better players? Do they prepare players better for the next level?

After this weekend, professional coaches would simply change the problems, not alleviate them. Some of the absolute worst coaches are the ones who are paid. They are obnoxious and probably should not be allowed to coach children, let alone be paid to do it. But, they have reputations because their teams of all-stars win. Kudos to them. They have mastered the marketing game in the sports landscape of America. But, does that mean that they can coach or develop players?

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

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