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.