This past April over Final Four weekend, I had the honor and pleasure of serving as a lead instructor for the first ever USA Basketball Youth Regional Camp in Houston. This experience was undoubtedly the best experience I’ve ever had in regards to the game of basketball, for many reasons.
First off, with USA Basketball putting together a youth division and a model for youth coaches to follow, I believe that the fragmentation our game has seen over the years is finally being combatted by THE organization that oversees all things basketball. I do not mean to attack any coach or organization here, but the reality is that we, as a country, have allowed the five game for every practice model to permeate our game, and our youth are the victims of this model. In Europe, the model is the opposite: five practices for every game. We have seen an influx of European stars and we have seen the European model influence the way we play. With all that being said, it is evident that we are forgetting about the importance of skill development and team practice. The primary focus of off-season basketball has become “showcasing” talent to the higher-level coaches, and, of course, that is important for the youngster’s future, however, if a player is continually just thrown into game after game, without honing his or her skill set, and, at the same time, being desensitized by playing 100 games in a summer and not caring about winning or losing, we have to assess if our model is working.
Secondly, for the first time, I felt that teaching the game the right way was paramount. This camp was not about picking out the top ten players and giving them all of the attention. It was about connecting with “every kid”, a mantra we heard over and over by the camp director, a man that is on the front lines with this mission, Tates Locke. Working the USAB Youth Regional camp was, in all honesty, a breath of fresh air. Being around like-minded coaches that believe in teaching the game and breaking down skill development not by throwing youngsters to baskets by age level with all varying skill sets, but breaking them down by appropriate skill set so that the instruction is challenging and engaging (for all of you teachers reading this, this is called DIFFERENTIATED INSTRUCTION!) was an eye-opener. That weekend it became very apparent to me that other people, leaders in the basketball community, believe that this type of instruction needs to happen. The MISSION USAB is undertaking is vital.
Thirdly, what I witnessed was a truth that revived my love for coaching. We all know that sometimes, in the coaching profession, the parent of a child we are coaching can sometimes have illusions of grandeur. Sometimes, a parent will criticize or condemn a coach for his or her child’s playing time. And what has been happening, for a while now, is that a parent can find an AAU program that will play his or her son and then, when the high school season begins, if his or her child is not playing, the old, “my son was good enough for his AAU team” card is pulled. For a time, this mentality affected the way I coached my team. The reality is though, that with some AAU programs, it is a “pay to play” system. What’s worse, some of these kids are “paying to play” all while not improving their skill sets. In Houston, there were hundreds of parents lined up to watch their sons work on their development. Again, they were not there to watch them play five on five and hope for them to get recruited. They were there for hours on end to watch them work on their games. And guess what, the parents LOVED IT! The parents were so gracious to us coaches for “taking the time” to work with their sons and help them improve. It was almost as if this was a bit foreign to them. Now, I am not advocating for parents to be able to come watch their children at practice, which would be asinine, I am merely stating that the parents of the youth playing the game now are used to the five game for every practice model. That is what they know. USAB Youth is changing that mold and as more and more people catch on that skill development is priority number one, especially in grass roots basketball, our game will continue to improve.
The reality is that what USAB is undertaking requires a shift in thinking. It is asking us all to consider what has been, and reflect and question whether or not a change is needed. It is a not a simple change, it is a complete overhaul of the model we all know. To put the impetus on skill development for all kids is a change because so often the high level programs want the better players and sacrifice developing the less skilled players. To understand that throwing youngsters that have not even reached middle school into a five on five setting can actually be counterproductive is a change because it goes against the grain of what we all have known for so long. To avoid “pigeon holing” youngsters by making the tall kids play the post and the shorter kids play guard is a change because a lot of us have thought that winning is more important than development, and at the grassroots level, it is not. To have youngsters look at the time they do compete against other players as a way to apply the skills they have worked on and use their skill as a member of a team concept and not just another game to showcase talent is a change because of the number of games the youngsters have access to.
In closing, the player development model that is now being implemented by USAB is essentially a curriculum for us coaches. We are all teachers of the game and should pride ourselves as such. As the great John Wooden would say, “I am a teacher that coaches basketball.” We must believe in developing the necessary skills of the youth so that they can apply those skills to the competition they will face as they grow with the game. Just as a teacher gives a student a test after instructing them on a certain set of skills in a class, a coach is preparing his or her players for their tests, the games they will play, by training the skill sets required for success. Right now, to extend that metaphor, with the basketball model currently in place we are giving our “students” five tests for every day of instruction. If that were really the case in the school setting the parents all over the country would be outraged. Inevitably, the students will fail a great deal of these tests and the test would not serve its purpose. The students would be set up for failure! That is what is happening with our game right now. The students, our players, are “failing the tests” and we, the teachers, are responsible. And even if they are talented enough to “pass the test” to get the grades required to go on to the next level, at a certain point, that talent will run out without the proper training and skill set development.
Is anyone on Hoop Coach already certified? Would you consider it?