Friday, August 20, 2010

Why We Play, Watch, and Coach

I recently finished coaching a middle school basketball team in our YMCA’s summer league. The end came quickly for my team—we lost the first game in our season-ending tournament. The game was close and the final outcome was decided in the last few seconds. And as often occurs in these close contests, the human drama was compelling.

What still amazes me about these hard-fought games is how disappointment, elation, failure, and success can all be compressed into a few minutes (occasionally seconds) within a single game. Moments unexpectedly stack one upon another, pressure exerts its influence, and advantage swings from one team to another. In this unlikely cascade of events, we often see character revealed. And sometimes we’re fortunate enough to witness behavior from the youngest of us that renews our faith in who we are and what we can be.

To this end, I want to talk about the boys on my team and some of the events that happened in this last game of our season.

Typical of the YMCA’s youth basketball programs, kids of varying ages and abilities were represented on each team. My team included two younger brothers of a boy I previously coached (who is now a talented junior on the local high school basketball team). The youngest is only going into sixth grade, but because of his skills and maturity was allowed to play with the older boys. Both are excellent players who are a joy to coach. The other boys on the team, like most young athletes, have their own set of unique abilities and weaknesses.

In the tournament game, our young sixth grade point guard played exceptionally well. It’s special to watch a smallish boy fearlessly drive into the lane and challenge a tall opponent—to watch as he gracefully shifts the ball to his outstretched, left hand and then lays the ball off the backboard for a basket. David versus Goliath. There’s a noble quality associated with this type of performance that always appeals to us. Throughout the game, this young boy demonstrated skill, composure, and tough-mindedness well beyond his small stature and young age. His older brother played equally well, dogging his opponent on defense and making key baskets when we needed them.

But this story isn’t really about the two athletic brothers. It’s about Adam, another boy who is more representative of the type of young player who participates in these leagues.

I’ve coached Adam for the past two years. He’s developed from an energetic, unskilled player to one who played an indispensable role on our team this summer. Adam is not especially athletic or tall. His ball handling, shooting, passing, and defensive skills are average at best.

But Adam has a unique talent. He is one of those few players who relentlessly pursues every rebound and loose ball. He plays with exceptional heart. It’s both astonishing and fun to watch this type of player. There are times against taller, bigger opponents when you just shake your head in amazement, turn to your assistant coach and say, “Do you believe Adam just got that rebound?!”

Adam, for his part, doesn’t really seem to appreciate his own unique ability. He sees the other good players making three point baskets and wants to be that type of player. To his credit, he’s improved his outside shooting and ball-handling. But this is not how he will make his high school’s junior varsity squad should he decide to try out for the team.

Now that you have an idea about the type of player Adam is, let’s get on with the story about the game and Adam’s role in its outcome.

We were playing well and leading for most of the game. But towards its end, required substitutions and excellent play by our opponent resulted in our lead dwindling to one point with twenty seconds remaining. Having been fouled, one of my players was at the foul line shooting a one-and-one.

And then everything began to fall apart. The boy missed the shot, our opponents got the rebound, and Adam foolishly tried to steal the ball. A foul was called on Adam. With no time going off the clock (and with me shaking my head in disbelief), the boy from the other team walked to the other end of the court and made the front-end of his one-and-one free throw opportunity. He then missed the second shot. But our opponent got the rebound, and within several more seconds scored another two points to go up by two. In just fourteen seconds, we saw our potential three point lead dissolve into a two point deficit.

With six seconds remaining, the other coach decided to call a timeout to set up his team’s defense. Adam walked slowly over to the bench, hanging his head. I yelled out, “Adam, get your head up. The game’s not over. You might still have an opportunity to score.”

And prophetically, after play resumed, our point guard quickly moved the ball up, saw Adam open just inside the foul line and passed him the ball. With less than two seconds left, Adam took a short jumper. It was nice looking shot. It easily could have gone in. But instead, the ball hit the back of the rim, momentarily rolled around, and then fell out as the buzzer sounded to end the game.

After the two teams shook hands, I gathered my players and took a moment to congratulate them on their excellent play. And, of course, I complimented Adam on his outstanding rebounding and effort.

Shortly after the game, I approached Adam and his dad. After talking with his dad for a few minutes, I turned to Adam and again complimented him on the way that he had played.

“But coach, I lost the game,” he said.

At that moment, the opposing coach happened to be walking by, overheard Adam, and stopped. He gently asked him how many minutes were in the game prior to the last 20 seconds. He asked him how many opportunities there were for Adam’s teammates to make the key plays that could have also won the game.

For my part, I reminded Adam that all of the great players fail at some point—everyone fails. I’m not sure if Adam took much consolation in my words, but I loved what happened next.

One of Adam’s friends, who looked to be a basketball player for their high school, was behind him listening to our conversation. Without hesitation, he said, “Yeah Adam, remember what happened to me last year?” He then went on to describe the game situation in which he had failed to make a key play that would “have won the game.” This boy honestly related to Adam’s failure and stepped up to try and ease Adam’s disappointment.

In a game filled with special moments and uplifting performances, this may have been the best one.


Monday, August 2, 2010

Provide Team Structure

An effective youth coach provides his players with a basic foundation of team structure. This typically takes the form of offensive and defensive sets/formations, plays, and practice drills.

I've described in previous posts how beginners benefit from assigned roles and a simplified framework in which they can contribute and succeed. In much the same way, but at a higher level, your players will benefit from a shared team structure.

Most children respond best in an environment that provides both a secure “home base” and opportunities to explore new ground, gain fresh experiences, and learn more advanced skills. The comfort zone of team structure reduces uncertainty and can provide a wellspring of fallback behaviors that can win the day in difficult, stressful circumstances. Team structure also helps instill a sense of order and discipline that innately appeals to most young athletes. You should remember that part of the appeal of youth sports to children is that these activities are structured fun.

At the beginning of each practice and game, your players should automatically follow established warm-up routines. Not only do these structured activities help a player loosen up, but they also help the child enter into the proper mental state of readiness for the upcoming practice or game.

Coaches differ greatly on their offensive philosophy. Some believe in scripting every movement within plays while other coaches support a more unstructured, read and react “freelance” approach. Even if you let your players freelance within an offense, you should provide an offensive set (formation) to initiate the play sequence. In addition, provide some basic plays for your team. These sets and plays represent a team structure that your players can fall back to in difficult game situations.

As you teach teamwork and team skills, remember that you are always creating structure. You are weaving a connective arrangement of behaviors and outcomes. The more effective your instruction, the stronger these connections will become. This, in turn, will build a sense within your players of having control over their environment. They will grasp how a certain stimulus evokes a certain response. They will develop confidence that their knowledge provides them with a resource to handle even the most difficult moments in a game. And finally, they will have a base of structured understanding that will prepare them to learn even more.

Be careful to avoid overuse of structure and set plays as this can inhibit your players’ personal development. Ultimately, you want to teach your players self-reliance. You want them to have the capacity to fully react and adapt to new situations on their own. For many boys and girls participating in youth sports, the best outcome is the ability to continue playing and enjoying their sport well into their adult years. If you can provide this knowledge, you have done well.