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.

Copyright 2009-2012 Jeffrey S. Rhoads; All Rights Reserved


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