Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Teach Like that Famous Greek Guy

When you’re teaching fundamental skills to your players or otherwise trying to emphasize an important point to your team, consider using elements of the Socratic Method.

Instead of declaratively describing how to perform a skill, direct focused questions to your players that lead them to an understanding of the keys to successfully executing the skill. This technique will draw your players directly into the subject matter and help them better remember the point you are teaching. As they reply, formulate and ask additional questions that help funnel their thought process toward the correct answer or conclusion. Couple this process with demonstrations as you go along. You may also find this approach useful when reviewing mistakes that were made during a game or practice.

In teaching a group of beginners how to properly shoot a basketball, part of the instructional dialogue might go as follows:

COACH: Who can tell me what the most important elements are in shooting the
PLAYER 1: Your arm!
COACH: What about your arm?
PLAYER 2: You should always keep your elbow in!
COACH: Right! What else about the arm?
GROUP: (no response)
COACH: What letter of the alphabet does my arm look like?
PLAYER 3: An “L.”
COACH: Right! You want to form an “L” with your arm, keeping it perpendicular to
the floor, elbow in.
COACH: Where does the force come from to shoot our shot?
PLAYER 2: Your arms and shoulders?
COACH: No. Anyone else?
PLAYER 4: Your legs!
COACH: Exactly! You use your legs to “push” the “L.”

After going through the instructional dialogue shown above, you would then demonstrate the portion of the shooting motion that you and the players have described. Upon completing the instructional dialog in its entirety, you would reinforce the lesson with a full demonstration of the technique and then follow this up with individual instruction for each of your players.

As you become more familiar with the skills or game situations you are teaching, questions will quickly and easily pop into your mind. You may benefit from scripting out the major points you would like to cover and jotting down a couple of questions. Relax and let your mind flow with the teaching moment.

Remember that the attention span of younger players is short and it’s often a battle to keep their attention. The Socratic Method can provide you with an effective teaching tool—engaging your players in a “game” that helps them to focus more intently on your instruction.

Do you have any effective coaching techniques or examples that you would like to share?

Copyright © 2012 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

The Joy of Youth Sports

If you enjoyed this article,
you may like my book:

The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the best youth sports experience for your child (Amazon $8.95)

(Kindle Edition $2.99)


Monday, October 17, 2011

Another Reason Why Competitive Girls Should Play Sports with Boys

The Women’s Sports Foundation supports a position that girls and boys should be encouraged to compete with and against each other in sports whenever possible:

"Prior to puberty, there is no gender-based physiological reason to separate females and males in sports competition. In fact, research demonstrates that girls who participate with boys in youth sports are more resilient. ... After puberty, coeducational competition should be encouraged at all levels where there are rules that require equal numbers of females and males on both teams and also rules that maximize fair competition between the sexes."

The Women’s Sports Foundation cites numerous benefits for girls who play sports with boys. But here's another one that I didn't see mentioned on the foundation's related position paper.

In my last post, I discussed the benefits of "Playing Up". For strong, competitive girls who want to Play Up against better competition, they have a unique option. Beside playing against other talented girls, they can also Play Up against boys.

Not only will girls more easily locate good competition, but they will probably find that they need to adapt their game to compensate for boys’ greater physical strength and power (on average). This, in turn, will provide these girls with the opportunity to develop new and different skills, adapt to a faster game, and learn how to play with even more intelligence to offset any physical disadvantage. Playing Up against boys has another benefit—it can provide girls with a competitive advantage when they play against other girls.

Here's some advice that you may want to give to your daughter to better prepare her for when she first plays with boys:
TIP 1: "You may initially face resistance from certain boys who don’t want to play with girls. You may be teased, much the same as a boy who is somehow “different”. Don’t let this deter you. You can either ignore the teasing or calmly look the boy in his eye and “name his sin.” Many other boys will respect your talent and want to play with you. Try to form allegiances with them. They will likely support you if the teasing gets out of hand."
TIP 2: "Remember that boys value competency in team sports—especially as it relates to you knowing how to play a role that can help the team win. With most boys, your play will define whether you’re accepted in the group or not. Show a willingness to initially play a team role and select one you can do well. Once you're accepted, your roles will grow based on your ability." (This is the same approach any new boy would take playing with other boys for the first few times.)
TIP 3: "Boys are sometimes confused about how they should play competitive sports with girls. If you’re intent on improving your game, you should insist that boys treat you the same way as they would another boy. You may need to challenge some boys to do so. In these situations, talk yourself up. For example, suggest to whoever is covering you that he 'can’t handle your game.' On defense you might say, 'You can’t get past me.'"

Copyright © 2012 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

The Joy of Youth Sports

If you enjoyed this article,
you may like my book:

The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the best youth sports experience for your child (Amazon $8.95)

(Kindle Edition $2.99)


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Learning Sports: Playing Up, Playing Down

Pickup games represent what’s best in sports—playing for fun, competing in the purest sense, and sharing a rewarding experience with others. There’s no money, no cheerleaders, and no trophies—none of the external rewards that sometimes accompany organized sports.

When you participate in a pickup game, you choose who you play with.

Other kids can be just like you—the same age, same athletic ability, and same attitude about playing sports. But you can also play with other kids who are either better or worse players than yourself. You can play with younger or older kids. You can play with kids who love sports or those who do so mainly to be part of the group and enjoy sharing the company of others.

Unlike adult-run organized sports, you are in control. And this provides you with the opportunity to tailor the games to exactly what you desire. Besides controlling the type of fun you want, you can also use pickup games as a means to practice skills and improve your game.

It’s essential for you to understand that different types of pickup games provide you with different benefits.

Playing Up

You can pursue competitive play with older, more skilled athletes. This is referred to as Playing Up. This kind of play provides you with an opportunity to test your skills against better players. You can see what works, what doesn’t, and where you need to improve. You can observe how these more experienced kids play and possibly learn new skills. You may even find an older kid who will give you some advice and tips.

You also have a chance to learn different team roles. Against players who are the same age as you, you may be the star scorer. But against older kids, you will likely find yourself playing a more supportive role (playing good defense, passing the ball, or setting screens for the more skilled players). Learning other roles is beneficial. It helps make you a more well-rounded player that coaches will appreciate—an important asset when you reach a level of play where you are no longer the star player.

WARNING: Don’t Play Up with a group of players that have skills far better than yours. If you’re severely overmatched, these types of games won’t help your development (and may hurt your confidence). Much better players will not want to play with you and they’ll let you know it. If you’re unsure whether you’re a fit for a group of players, just hang around to see if you’re asked to play. But be prepared for rejection!

Playing Down

Playing Down is when you play sports with younger or less-skilled players. These may be the kids in your immediate neighborhood who are not especially athletic, but enjoy the communal aspect of playing sports with their friends. You may also find younger kids who love sports, aspire to be more like you, or just want to be included in the neighborhood gang. In either setting, you become one of the better players.

Playing Down is important in two ways:

First, it provides you with a more relaxed, fun environment in which to enjoy playing. There is little pressure on you to perform, and criticism about your play is unlikely. When you’re burned-out from playing competitive organized sports, Playing Down with your friends can also help rekindle your enjoyment for playing sports. If you’ve just finished a long, hard season, take some time to relax. Decompress. Go out and just “shoot around.” Play some catch with a friend. You’ll feel your joy for playing the game quickly return.

Second, Playing Down provides you with an opportunity to develop and try out new skills. You can experiment with different “moves” without any fear of criticism. You can shoot the ball more, receive many more “touches”, and see what it’s like to play the role of the star player. Besides improving your skills, you also gain confidence—an important quality that leads to success in more competitive play. With added confidence that you can do something well, you’re more motivated to practice and continue your development. All of which translates to even greater success against better competition.

Here's a diagram that summarizes the benefits of Playing Up and Playing Down:

The Joy of Youth Sports

If you enjoyed this article,
you may like my book:

The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the best youth sports experience for your child (Amazon $8.95)

(Kindle Edition $2.99)


Saturday, August 6, 2011

Help Your Child Understand His or Her Gifts

In sports, and especially youth sports, there are different ways for an athlete to enjoy success. As discussed in You're NOT too Small, Heavy, or Slow!, many physical attributes are compensatory--they limit performance in one respect but help in another. For instance, if a child is smaller than other children, he or she is likely quicker. A larger child who is slow typically enjoys a strength or height advantage.

But children often tend to focus on the negative--the differences that make it more difficult for them to fit in. They compare themselves to other children, see their shortcomings, and are disheartened. But you can help.

If your child struggles playing sports, help frame their disappointment in a fuller light. Remind your child that he or she is young, and that changes are on their way. Point out the possible ways in which a limitation can also provide an advantage.

Also help your child recognize all of the gifts they may enjoy. A good friend who coaches youth soccer passed on to me the discussion below that he has had with his daughter (and likewise a couple of the kids on his teams). If your child is struggling in sports, you may want to have a similar talk.

"Kristen, you were born with many gifts ... you're pretty, well mannered, smart, a great dancer, and have lots of friends. Many of these things come to you quite naturally and others required a lot of hard work to obtain - some of these things (dancing) you excelled at because you love it and have worked very hard at it. You do not have a great arm nor are you a natural athlete. If you want to excel in this area you are going to have to realize you need extra work and you're going to have to practice/work four hours (when the other kids have to work two). God gives us lots of gifts. Rarely does anyone get all the gifts. So don't worry that XYZ can throw better than you etc ... we all have different gifts. Focus on what gifts you have and work hard on the areas where you are not gifted."

The Joy of Youth Sports

If you enjoyed this article,
you may like my book:

The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the best youth sports experience for your child (Amazon $8.95)

(Kindle Edition $2.99)


Thursday, June 30, 2011

What to Look For in a Youth Sports Camp

I read an article today in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette about a local baseball camp and Jerry Matulevic, the man who runs it. Unlike camps run primarily to make money, this one seems to get it right. The story is heartwarming and well worth reading. Here's the link:

30 years of fond memories from the Jerry Matulevic Championship Baseball Camp

Mr. Matulevic, a former high school baseball coach, knows that kids enjoy a successful experience in youths sports when they're taught the fundamentals in a positive, enthusiastic environment. With a mastery of a sport's fundamental skills, a child gains confidence and self-reliance, gateways to success.

The article and testaments from former camp attendees all suggest that Mr. Matulevic is the real deal—an authentic teacher who wants only to see his students become better baseball players and people. If you're considering sending your child off to camp this summer, try to find a camp that embodies the same principles as Jerry's. Forget the star players, T-shirts, and extras. Find a camp that focuses on teaching, rather than simply playing games.


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Avoid Taking Credit for Your Players' Success

There are games in which coaching makes a real difference. Besides providing leadership and strategic direction, a coach sometimes makes crucial tactical decisions during the game. Diagramming an excellent play during a timeout may even result in a memorable, last-second victory when your players execute the plan to perfection.

But despite your contribution, it’s usually a mistake for you to take any direct credit for your team’s success. Your players will begin to question your motivation and integrity—especially if you preach a team-first philosophy.

I made this blunder once in a middle school basketball tournament game. With a couple of seconds remaining on the clock, down by one point, I called a timeout. We were directly under the opponent’s basket so I called our “Box” out-of-bounds play. Normally, the two forwards located on the blocks screen for the guards positioned at the foul line. The guards then dive towards the basket looking to receive the inbounds pass.

The other team had seen this simple play a number of times. To possibly catch our opponent off-guard, I told my best forward on the ball side to take two steps toward the guard at the foul line, and then sharply reverse direction and cut back toward the ball.

Andrew perfectly executed the play, received the ball and scored a layup as the buzzer sounded. My players ran over to the bench, screaming, yelling, and jumping on each other in celebration. I congratulated Andrew and then, in an instant of self indulgence, said, “I’m going to take some credit for that win!”

I recall Andrew smiling at me, but there was also a curious, questioning look on his face. Andrew was a great, warm-hearted kid who, in his modesty, let my imperfect moment pass without comment.

Let the glory go to your players and quietly enjoy the personal satisfaction of knowing that you made an excellent game-time decision.


Friday, May 27, 2011

Helping Your School-Age Child Succeed at Team Sports

A couple of months ago, I posted an article on How Parents Can Help a Child Become a Team Player.

Much of its content came from the ideas I originally provided to Robin Stevenson, Senior Editor for the Canadian Family magazine. You can check out her article (including my quotes) at:

Helping Your School-Age Child Succeed at Team Sports

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Choosing the Best Youth Sports Program for Your Child

Ideally your child plays for a coach who is an excellent instructor—one who recognizes teaching opportunities and communicates lessons in a positive, uplifting manner. But in addition to a good coach, participating in a youth sports program or league that fits your child’s needs is essential to fully develop his or her skills and enjoyment of the sports experience. Choose the wrong program and you risk damaging your child's desire to play sports.

Just as a coach should find a team role in which a young player can succeed, you must locate the youth sports program that best suits your child’s age, interests, and level of play. Only by providing your child with a progression of playing opportunities that match these factors, will you provide him or her with the best sports experience.

For the youngest children playing organized sports for the first time (ages five through eight), the emphasis is primarily on fun and basic skill instruction. Fun at this level is running around with a minimum of structure and rules. Within a couple of years, your child can more fully participate in the adult version of the game and begin to learn additional individual skills and team concepts. Competition is also introduced at this level. Youth sports programs that are developmental in nature and participation-based are essential to children in both of these age groups. You should make sure that your child’s youth sports leagues emphasize these principles.

As your child ages and his or her skills develop, you may see your child excel in one or more sports. You will then face the decision of placing your child in a more advanced, competitive league. Possibly your child will have the chance to play with older children. An opportunity for your child to begin specializing in a sport may also appear. In these decisions, carefully weigh the pros and cons. For a child that truly enjoys their sport and exhibits a competitive nature, playing at higher levels with better players will usually improve their level of play. But advance your child too quickly and you risk your child’s confidence and enjoyment of the experience.

Specializing too early presents the risks of injury, burnout, and loss of crossover benefits from other sports. Several studies (most recently a 2011 study conducted by Loyola University Medical Center) have found a higher incident of injury associated with early specialization. For children who have not yet reached puberty, specialization in a single sport is also risky because physical maturation (changes in body type) may limit their ability to succeed in that sport. A young girl who grows to be six feet tall is unlikely to find success as a gymnast.

Try to balance your child’s development against these risks and select youth sports programs that you feel best match your child’s particular personality and ability. The right youth sports program should challenge your child, but also enable them to enjoy the entire experience.

Should your child participate in select travel teams, you should still look for a program that provides good instruction. A league that is comprised mostly of competitive games, but little practice time, will not provide the opportunities for a coach to teach and develop his or her players.

Also remember that competitive, talented athletes often still enjoy leagues which emphasize participation. These leagues can provide a chance to play with friends in a more relaxed environment. They also offer better athletes the opportunity to develop and exercise leadership skills. As a parent interested in your child’s happiness, you could do a lot worse than placing your child in a participation-based instructional league.

And finally, provide your child with opportunities to play pickup games with other kids. This unstructured, self-directed form of play complements organized sports and affords your child with other essential benefits. [See The Role of Organized Sports in Your Child's Life for an in-depth discussion of the importance of self-directed sports play.]


Monday, April 25, 2011

You're NOT too Small, Heavy, or Slow!

When you look at yourself in the mirror, what do you see? Are you tall, short, fat, or skinny? When you participate in sports do you see yourself as slow-footed, weak, lacking excellent coordination or jumping ability? Unfortunately, many young athletes look at themselves and assume that their body type and other physical attributes necessarily limit their ability to succeed in sports.

But there’s a principle called compensation—and just as it applies to other aspects of your life, it also applies to sports. The basic idea is that a physical characteristic that limits you in some way also provides you with an advantage.

For example, you may be shorter and heavier than other players on your basketball team. You may find it difficult to defend the lighter, quicker players in open space and you’re seemingly too small to rebound against the taller players. But if you’re observant, you may also notice that your extra weight and low center of gravity provides you with an advantage in certain situations. When you set a screen, defenders have a difficult time getting past you; should they make contact, they “bounce” off you. When you post up a taller, lighter player with good jumping ability, you find that you can easily push them with your hip and gain the position you need close to the basket. You can also easily “seal them out” so you can receive a pass underneath and put the ball up for a layup. Likewise, when you rebound the ball, you notice that you can get the inside position and leverage your low center of gravity and weight to push your more athletic opponent away from the rim—letting the ball come down to a point where you can grab the rebound.

Understand the different ways that you can physically succeed within your sport. Small players are often quick; heavy players are usually wide and strong; slow players may have a quick first step (or anticipate well). Know your physical strengths and use them to your advantage.

Likewise, know your weaknesses and minimize their exposure. As you get older and the level of competition increases, compensating for your weaknesses becomes more challenging. But even at the highest level, there are superstars who are extremely weak in a few areas but compensate for their deficiencies through their exceptional strengths.

One example is Steve Nash, the All-Pro NBA guard. By most basketball standards, Steve Nash has outstanding natural attributes and excellent athleticism. But at the NBA level, he’s small and lacks the necessary quickness to defend well. He compensates for these weaknesses with exceptional ball-handling and passing skills (he’s ambidextrous), along with an excellent outside shot. His unique mix of attributes has led to his two-time selection as the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. His basketball IQ and ability to make other players better on the offensive end continue to amaze—even as he approaches the end of his career.

You should also recognize that the principle of compensation applies across different sports. A certain body type or set of physical characteristics may be a weakness in one sport while a strength in another. A tall girl is unlikely to find success in competitive gymnastics, but may excel in volleyball or basketball. A slower, larger boy may struggle in sports that put a premium on speed and quickness, but fare well as a lineman in football where size and strength are important.

Keep an open mind to all of the possibilities; always consider how you can translate a supposed limitation into an advantage.


Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Sometimes the Reward IS in Playing Your Best

There are times in sport when the reward of participating in a hard-fought contest goes well beyond who wins or loses. The prize won is a deep sense of personal fulfillment based on the knowledge that you prepared and played to the best of your ability.

I learned this lesson at an early age when I played my good friend (also named Jeff) for our town’s youth badminton championship. In our age group, Jeff was probably the town’s best athlete, talented in all sports. Although not as athletic or physically mature as Jeff, my ability was close to his.

Our match that day was well-played from the beginning. Each point was closely contested. Unforced errors were few and far between. As the match progressed,
Jeff Abell; Jack Hesslink; me
the quality of our play seemed to continually reach new heights. We each ran down the other’s shot, making one outstanding save after another. We split the first two games, and took turns winning points well into the deciding game. But in the end, Jeff made one or two better plays to claim the championship.

As the town’s recreation supervisor presented us with our trophies, he told us that he had never seen a better competition at our age. Both Jeff and I knew how well we had played - and how each of us had brought out the best in the other. Even years later, when I came to have an edge on Jeff in high school athletics, we occasionally made reference to that special, fulfilling moment when we were young boys.

If you only equate success in sports to winning, and base your self-esteem on this value, you will inevitably sacrifice the greater rewards that come from playing sports. Striving to win is important—it’s the ultimate real world measure of your preparation and play. But if you see winning and losing only in absolute terms, and not relative to you and your team’s quality of play and effort, you will lose out on countless moments of joy that sports can provide.

Everybody likes to win, and you should try your best to achieve this result. But sometimes being part of a great contest, or performing to the best of your abilities, is deeply satisfying in and of itself.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

Everyone Fails Redux

Yesterday, the Nebraska Cornhuskers basketball team lost to Oklahoma State. It was a close contest with Nebraska losing by one, failing to convert a basket at the end of the game that would have won it.

I took a special interest in the game because Nebraska’s senior point guard, Lance Jeter, played high school basketball at Beaver Falls, PA—a league opponent of our local team (Quaker Valley).

As a junior in 2005, Jeter helped Beaver Falls win WPIAL and PIAA (State) championships. In the class AA title game, he banked in a 30 foot shot at the buzzer in the third overtime to give Beaver Falls a 79-78 victory over Aliquippa. He also had made a long 3-pointer at the end of regulation to tie the game. A few weeks later, he beat Aliquippa with two free throws in the PIAA semifinals.

In 2006 when Lance was a senior at Beaver Falls, he was the WPIAL high school athlete of the year.  (Boy's High School Athlete of the Year: Lance Jeter) Along the way, he beat an excellent Quaker Valley team in the PIAA semifinal, converting a free throw with 3.2 seconds left to give Beaver Falls a 71-70 victory. (Beaver Falls guard does it again)

As his high school coach said at the time, “When the game is on the line, the ball seems to find its way into his hands, and every time the kid comes through.”

But not yesterday. With 16 seconds left, Nebraska got the ball into Lance’s hands. After a teammate set a screen to free him, Lance drove across the lane. As he started to turn toward the basket, he tripped over the feet of his opponent and fell to the court, losing possession to an Oklahoma St. player.

Despite all of his prior successes and last minute heroics, Lance failed.

I suspect Lance will always remember this moment. On occasion, he’ll probably feel that unique twinge of regret that comes from an opportunity lost.

But I also suspect that Lance realizes that everyone fails. And that he also knows the best players fearlessly want the ball in their hands at the end of the game.

Congratulations Lance on an excellent career at Nebraska.


Thursday, February 24, 2011

How Parents Can Help a Child Become a Team Player

I was contacted last month by an editor for a family magazine who was writing an article on youth sports. She posed an interesting question:

“How can parents help younger kids to become team players—the kind that appreciates the efforts of their teammates, that don’t hog the ball or blame others for losses?”

Let's take a look at this issue, examine some of the underlying causes of selfish behavior, and discuss the steps that parents and coaches can take to promote a child’s behavior that balances both individual and team interests.

The “Me-First” mind-set

Negative behaviors such as “hogging the ball” and forcing bad shots can result from a beginner’s misperception of how to play a sport. Young kids generally want to be around the ball. That’s where the action is. And some players, regardless of ability, want to be part of what they perceive to be the “fun” part of the game.

Other factors in “not being a team player” can include sibling rivalry (brothers/sisters fighting for attention) and those occasional instances where “The Coach’s Kid Always Plays.”

Over the years I’ve had a few kids ask me, “Why can’t I bring the ball up the basketball court?” These are often beginners who can barely dribble or make the first pass necessary to involve their teammates. For me, this is a warning sign that a young child may not yet understand the importance of roles in a team sport.

Most kids get it

Over my many years of coaching, I really haven’t had that much of a problem with the kids I’ve coached. Most young players appreciate when another player has more skills. Most realize when they’re not yet ready to take on a crucial team role. With a little coaching and talk about the importance of roles to our team’s success, they usually adopt a team-first attitude. And they typically get a big smile on their face when their teammates and coaches complement them on playing good defense, grabbing a rebound, or setting a screen that leads to a basket for our “scorer”.

But coaches should provide opportunities

Through the course of a basketball season, I try to provide opportunities for every child to have fun and explore different roles. Where possible, I provide most of the kids on a team with at least a brief exposure to playing the point guard position (in practice or possibly a game). But this has to be done in the context of limited practice time and the needs of the other children. It’s no fun for the other kids (especially the more skilled players) when a teammate continually turns the ball over. My goal is to provide an experience that all of the kids on my team enjoy. As a beginner’s skills develop, and they become more proficient, I try to expand their team roles.

Sometimes the parent is the problem

On rare occasions, I encounter the parent who insists that his or her child play a certain position—regardless of the child’s ability relative to others on the team. I’ve had a couple of parents complain about his or her child not getting exactly equal playing time in a given game. And a few parents bark out instructions to their kids, instructing them to play a certain way that is not necessarily in the team’s best interest. In the more extreme instances, this strikes me as the adult version of the “me-first” child.

For the most part, these types of adult behaviors rarely occur in the equal-participation oriented leagues in which I usually coach. It’s especially rare at the youngest levels. At the more competitive levels, however, this parental behavior may be more evident.

Outgrowing problem behaviors

Do kids outgrow this attitude? I expect that any change comes with the proper leadership from parents and the child’s coaches. If you have a parent constantly telling his child to shoot more, regardless of the child’s actual ability, that child will likely continue to take bad shots. A child’s peers also help constrain individual behavior that is problematic. That’s one of the reasons why I’m a strong advocate for self-directed play and pickup games.

Steps to promote a team-first attitude

Here are some specific steps a parent can take to help promote a team-first player attitude:
  • Search for coaches who not only teach individual sports skills, but also emphasize team oriented skills such as passing (and related principles such as “keeping your head up” and looking for his or her teammates). These coaches will employ drills that require teamwork. In basketball, for instance, a coach can modify a practice scrimmage’s rules to prohibit a player from dribbling. This forces the player with the ball to keep his or her head up, pass, and move without the ball.
  • A positive coaching or parenting style is contagious. Players will begin mimicking this behavior in how they relate to and treat their teammates. They will begin to understand that success in team sports is not just about winning, but also about community and learning how to become a better player and person.
  • Early on, place your child in an “equal playing time” league where team success depends on the beginners and less athletic players improving. A coach can convey to the team’s older, more skilled players that the team’s chances of winning are improved when the strong players support the weaker ones.
  • A parent and coach should communicate the importance of roles in a team sport. Although every team needs a scorer, a team will usually not win without the other players performing their particular roles well. Also, a child’s roles will likely change as the child matures or is placed in a different situation. Each child (including the team’s “star” player) should understand this principle and appreciate his or her teammate’s contributions.
  • Parents should provide their child with the opportunity to engage in self-directed play (i.e., neighborhood pick-up games). In this setting, children are required to manage their own games and behavior. Self-indulgent behavior (hogging the ball, criticizing others) will negatively affect “the game” and will quickly result in the group shunning the offender.
  • If parents are aware of any problems in this area, they should discuss their child’s behavior with the coach to make sure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to possible disciplinary action.

And for the parent coach, here are some additional approaches that might be helpful in counteracting selfish behavior:
  • Praise others on the team who demonstrate team play (in front of the problem child). Also, praise the problem child when he or she makes a play that benefits the team. You may, on occasion, also want to consider reducing the child’s playing time when his or her selfish attitude hurts the team.
  • If the player is talented, but selfish, try to emphasize to the child that great players make other players on the team better. Acknowledge their talent, but also try to get them to take an ownership/leadership stake in the other player’s success.
  • Another common technique is for a coach is to pull a player when he or she makes a poor (selfish) decision, instruct the player on what they did wrong, and then immediately reinsert the player back into the game.


Monday, February 7, 2011

Youth Coaches—Don't Sacrifice the Fundamentals

At the beginning of each season, you are faced with an empty canvas—an opportunity to lay down the initial brushstrokes that form the base of the experience you hope to create for your team. A lack of practice time in some youth sports programs complicates this process. Sometimes you feel that you don’t have time to teach the necessary individual and team skills. You may only have one or two practices before your first game.

In your desire to provide your team with a better opportunity to win, you may be tempted to take some shortcuts. Don't! Teach your players the essential, fundamental individual and team skills that they will eventually need to succeed at a higher level.

Avoid team strategies that hinder player development

One specific mistake to avoid is employing a team strategy that inherently impedes the development of essential individual skills. For example, a zone defense in basketball is often the most effective defense against layups and screens—especially with younger age groups where the players are not yet good outside shooters. A simple zone defense is also easy to teach, with each child told to cover a small area of the court. But as a child progresses to higher levels, almost all coaches expect their players to have the ability to play excellent man-to-man defense.

Youth coaches who primarily use zone defenses may harm their young players’ development in the long run. Lacking the proper defensive technique and experience, these players will often not have the ability to cover their man one-on-one in space. In addition, playing a zone defense well at higher levels requires a firm understanding of man-to-man defensive principles. Good footwork, the ability to aggressively steer the ball handler into a trap, denying an entry pass to a low post player, etc., are all man-to-man skills that are applied when playing a zone defense.

It’s fine to teach team techniques that compensate for individual player deficiencies or mistakes (e.g. “weak-side help” in a man-to-man defense). Avoid, however, team strategies and tactics that entirely hide or cover-up player deficiencies or otherwise hinder the development of important individual skills.

Balance the teaching of individual and team skills

Another mistake is for you to focus your instruction entirely on teamwork and team skills, accepting each player’s individual skill level as fixed. The coach who only teaches “set plays” (versus a mix of individual skills and team play) may gain a few more early season wins; but will inevitably limit his or her team’s growth and potential as the season progresses. Team play is leveraged upon individual skills. You must teach both individual and team skills, and do so in the proper order to best prepare a young player. For example, before a team can execute a play requiring multiple passes, each young player must first know how to execute the pass (and also be able to keep their head up to see the passing opportunity). Improve your players’ individual skill level early in the season, and your team’s performance can dramatically improve by season’s end. More importantly, your players will enjoy the sport more and be better prepared for success at higher levels.

Also understand that most team sports have fundamental team play elements that involve two or three players and regularly occur within the flow of the game—or as part of a set play. Examples include the “give and go” and setting a screen (both to and away from the ball). In basketball, the “pick and roll” is a common two man play. Each child should understand these simple “plays” and how they help form the basic structure of more complex team play.

Teach all essential individual skills

As a child develops the fundamental skills necessary to effectively execute team plays, higher competition will require an even greater command of various individual skills. If a player can pass the ball well within a team play, but has not gained confidence in handling the ball (e.g., dribbling) under pressure, this skill deficiency will impede the player as they progress to more difficult levels of competition. It is your responsibility to teach your players all essential individual skills.

When I think back to my own childhood experience, my early gym teachers and basketball coaches taught me excellent team-oriented skills and individual defensive skills. However, ball handling and outside shooting technique were not sufficiently emphasized. In retrospect, these skill deficiencies hurt my success throughout my years of playing organized basketball.

Resist the dark side—don’t give in to the temptation of quick fixes for short term success. Instead, build your team from the bottom up, emphasizing the basic fundamentals and teaching the necessary individual skills.


Monday, January 24, 2011

The Joy of Youth Sports Adopted by Wingate University's School of Sport Sciences

I was pleased to learn that Wingate University's School of Sport Sciences adopted my book, The Joy of Youth Sports, for use in its SMGT 306 "Sport for Children and Youth" class for the spring 2011 semester.

Here's the link to the Wingate University bookstore:

SMGT 306 Required Materials


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Are Sports Your Passion or Your Child’s?

One of life’s most fulfilling aspects is finding an activity for which you have a passion. Whether it’s sports, music, art, science, or any of the other countless areas of human endeavor, discovering an area in which you’re both passionate and capable represents found treasure. If your passion is sports, it’s natural that you want your child to experience the same joy. Unfortunately, parents can mistakenly believe that their child has the same enthusiasm for a sport, or sports in general, that they do. Instead of pushing your passion onto your child, simply provide the opportunity to participate and give words of encouragement.

Growing up, I was fortunate to have parents that provided me with every opportunity to play a variety of sports. Throwing a baseball or football around with my Dad, enjoying pickup games in backyards, playing Little League baseball and football, earning varsity letters in multiple high school sports, and playing a year of college basketball were all meaningful parts of my young life. My parents possessed the good sense not to force any sport on me. They simply provided the basic equipment, car rides to and from my youth league practices and games, words of encouragement and small doses of constructive criticism.

Should your child desire not to participate in a sport, make sure that the reasons are good ones and not simply based on avoiding some uncomfortable situation. A measure of success can make all of the difference as to how a child views participating in a sport. A good youth coach, individual lessons, unstructured neighborhood games, or the right words of parental encouragement are all potential gateways that can transport a child to a new world of fun and satisfaction. But in the end, despite your best efforts, the child’s true nature will prevail.

Remember that your goal is for your child to find a passion—not your passion!