Monday, March 26, 2012

Scrimmage for Fun and Development

  Most of your players, if not all, prefer playing the game over the alternative—drills and instruction. It’s a rare practice where I don’t hear one of my young players ask, “Are we going to scrimmage tonight?” Even if we always scrimmage, the question is asked by players to try and get more scrimmage time!

Since kids enjoy scrimmaging, let's consider how you can use this activity to not only satisfy their desire for fun and competition, but also teach principles, skills, and teamwork.

Different Perspectives

Coaches tend to view the benefits of practices scrimmages differently. Some coaches believe that scripted drills and instruction are the most effective use of practice time. These coaches may think that scrimmaging is worthwhile, but only when his or her team is “ready” to scrimmage (i.e., the players have a good understanding of skill fundamentals and their team’s offensive and defensive schemes). These coaches see little benefit in the confusion that typically arises when a group of novice players scrimmage.

Other coaches, however, believe that scrimmages are an important teaching tool—even when the coach’s players are not yet ready to execute his or her strategy and the play is filled with mistakes. They view practice scrimmages as a means to help develop each player’s fundamental skills and capacity to quickly (and correctly) react to game situations.

Practice Scrimmages—Controlled vs. Uncontrolled

Before we take a closer look at the benefits of scrimmaging, understand that scrimmages can either be controlled or uncontrolled. The latter is typically where a coach throws the ball out on the floor and simply lets the players play. In this type of scrimmage, the coach is not actively engaged. Uncontrolled scrimmages may be useful to let players enjoy some self-directed, competitive fun.

In controlled scrimmages, the coach sets the conditions of the competition and provides feedback to his or her players during the play. A coach may bark out instructions as opportunities present themselves, encourage players when correct decisions and plays are made, and sometimes yell at players who fail to make a proper play ("John! Alex was open under the hoop for an easy basket. Keep your head up when you're dribbling!"). When a serious mistake occurs, the coach may choose to stop play and provide more detailed instruction. Controlled scrimmages are usually the best approach for both learning and having fun, so let’s focus on the benefits of this form of scrimmaging.

Connecting Skills to Game Situations

First and foremost, scrimmages provide a setting that helps enable your players to connect a skill with a situational game opportunity.

For instance, a basketball low post player may understand how to perform a drop-step move to score a basket, but does he or she recognize the moment when the opportunity presents itself? Is he aware that his defender is positioned such that he can seal off the defender with his body? Does he recognize that his point guard is positioned (or will soon be positioned) at the correct angle to make an entry pass? And if defended a certain way, can he or she quickly identify the available options to regain positional advantage? Recognizing these game situations, and instinctively applying an appropriate skill, are most often learned by playing the game.

Yes, certain competitive drills can simulate a game situation, and may be a steppingstone to learning how to perform and apply a skill. Combined with instruction, these drills may be the necessary first step in this learning process. But most sports are a real-time, interactive experience that often requires split-second decisions and reactions. The constant flow of movement, the opening and closing of space, the fleeting moments that provide opportunities to gain advantage, are best understood when players participate in the game activity itself. And in an age where neighborhood “pickup” games are much diminished, scrimmages in organized sports programs play an essential role in exposing players to game situations—ones that provide an opportunity for the players to learn which of their “moves” work, and how and when to use them.

Teaching Moments Abound

Secondly, as touched on above, controlled scrimmages provide the team’s coach with one teaching moment after the next. As the scrimmage’s game situations change, the coach can shout out instructions to his or her players, helping them to understand and recognize opportunities to succeed, and any mistakes made. This type of engagement by the coach provides instant feedback to his or her players, and helps tie a game situation to an appropriate response. Where a serious error is made, or an opportunity missed, the coach can stop play altogether and instruct the player(s) on how they should have reacted or performed. The instruction that arises out of a controlled scrimmage can be especially helpful to beginners.

Setting a Scrimmage’s Conditions

Another important aspect of a controlled scrimmage is that the coach sets the conditions within which the play takes place. A coach can change the conditions as needed to help teach certain behaviors.

Each sport is different, but you can usually modify either the number of players on each team or the rules to emphasize a certain skill or principle. By reducing the number of players on each team, you can change the game’s dynamics (i.e., more space, more one-on-one opportunities, more ball touches) and also stress certain skills. Modifying the rules accomplishes a similar result, and also gives you the opportunity to change behaviors and tendencies that are unproductive.

For example, in youth basketball, many kids tend to dribble too much—often with their head down and concentration fixed on the ball or defender. The desired behavior is for the player to dribble the ball with their head up and see the court, always looking for opportunities to pass the ball to an open teammate and quickly advance the ball up the court. To help young players better understand this concept and break their tendency to dribble with their head down, I will occasionally scrimmage five-on-five—but with one important rule change:
Players are only allowed to dribble (one time) when converting a layup. At all other times, the player who receives a pass must advance the ball down the court by making another pass.

Players typically struggle with this rule at first, continuing to immediately dribble the ball upon receiving a pass. But after blowing my whistle a few times, they begin to make the proper plays.

What does this one rule change accomplish? Players who have the ball quickly realize that they need to keep their head up and have an idea where their teammates are located on the court. They find that upon making a pass they must move to get open (“move without the ball”) to again receive the ball. They learn that they cannot run away from the ball, but must instead go toward it when no other teammate is open. They realize the importance of being in control of their body when receiving a pass. They become aware that passing can move the ball down the court faster than dribbling. They learn how to play as a team.

Leverage FUN

Try to see beyond a practice comprised only of drills and instruction. Allocate time for scrimmaging in each practice. Even though your players are beginners, and your practice scrimmages full of confusion, use these scrimmages to better develop your players’ understanding of game situations and provide them with a measure of competitive fun.

Engage your players while scrimmaging, taking advantage of teaching moments as they arise. Use your imagination to modify the scrimmage’s rules to fit your teaching purposes (and refer to coaching books specific to your sport for additional ideas). You will find that your players enjoy these slightly twisted rules and modified scrimmages.

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)


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Pickup Games Are Dead!

  If you read enough articles about youth sports, it's hard not to come away with the belief that pickup games are dead. That with the rise of technology, two paycheck families, and safety concerns, this form of sports play is a quaint relic of our past. Great back then, but impossible now.

The baby-boomers of course still prattle on about how they spent much of their youth outside playing neighborhood games of pickup baseball, football, and basketball; how their moms used to kick them outside, telling them not to come back until lunch or dinner. But modern parents and youth sports pundits know better. Society has changed, kids are different, and youth sports reflect this new reality.

The golden age of pickup is dead—forever rest in peace. Hail to the new age of organized sports!

Or so it would seem if you believe all you read.

But wait, not so fast... Like the elderly man being hauled away in that old Monty Python movie, The Holy Grail, the spirit of pickup play is crying out, “I’m not dead yet!”

Pickup games are alive—at least in the sport of basketball. Take a look at the short video clip below. (I shot this a few weekends ago at my local YMCA.)

As you can see, the gym was filled with kids (of all ages) playing pickup basketball. There was a full-court game going on and kids shooting and playing on the side baskets. Other kids were on the sidelines waiting to play; many of whom were talking with their friends.

Technology was also on the sideline. Cellphones were laying on the floor near the wall (and many other phones were undoubtedly tucked away in sweatshirt pockets). Occasionally, a kid picked up a phone and checked for new messages. But technology wasn't winning kids' mind share in this gym—self-directed play was. Face-to-face, physical interaction was crushing "social networking."

I've coached several of these kids and am aware that they play on local school teams. They get plenty of exercise and basketball. But as this video shows, they still want to play in a more social setting with their friends (many of whom do not play on the school teams). They want to have fun—but a different type of fun than they experience playing organized sports.

Other kids, who either don't have the ability or desire to play on the school teams, were also on the court and sidelines. They were having fun, socializing, and getting exercise.

So what's going on here?

It sure doesn't look to me that kids have given up on pickup games. So why do so many proclaim that self-directed play is largely a thing of the past?

The Culture of Self-Directed Play

Pickup basketball games are alive and well at my local YMCA for a couple of reasons. First, the Y provides kids with a central gathering place. It’s a semi-supervised, safe setting in which kids can play basketball the way they want and need. The YMCA also serves a second purpose—the culture of playing pickup basketball is passed on within its walls. Older kids watch adults play pickup games and younger kids watch teenagers do the same. This transfer of culture and experience fuels the pickup game engine.

Unfortunately, things have changed in other sports (and settings).

Neighborhood games in baseball, basketball, and football once had the same transfer mechanism at work. Younger kids played with older kids, emulating their play. The culture of pickup play in the "big three" sports was continually passed on within neighborhoods. But not so much anymore. Basketball rims are still plentiful in driveways and streets, but the kids are not.

Other team sports in the USA—such as soccer, hockey, and lacrosse—never shared this same rich tradition of neighborhood pickup play. Kids have always played these sports mainly within adult-run organized programs. (One might even argue that youth soccer's growth helped fuel the overall cultural movement in the USA toward organized sports play.)

But even in these sports, there's evidence that the culture of pickup play both exists and is beneficial to the development of young players. A 2010 article, Dempsey a poster child for casual play, describes how Clint Dempsey—one of the USA's best soccer players—developed his creative style by playing "street soccer" in his youth. Other articles have discussed how soccer excellence in countries such as Brazil stem from a wide base of youth who play pickup.

So despite a healthy culture of pickup basketball at my Y, there's little doubt that the traditional pickup culture in several sports has diminished over the last few decades. And in those sports (soccer) where pickup games always played a minor role, organized sports continue to be the preferred form of play. Considering the benefits of self-directed play, why has this happened?

Are Parents Limiting Opportunities for Self-Directed Play?

We've all heard about how our world has changed and how it's affected youth sports. Neighborhoods are more dangerous; stay-at-home moms are an anachronism; and many kids prefer their electronics to pickup games. To some degree, these observations are accurate. But are they the cause of self-directed play's reduced role in sports play?

In talking with a good friend who is the father of a young boy, he made an astute observation: "One of the biggest problems is that kids are over-scheduled. They don't play neighborhood pickup games because they're all off participating in organized activities. I would like my boy to play more pickup, but I also don't want him sitting around by himself playing games on his XBox."

Despite a neighborhood full of kids, no one is around to play. As a result, my friend feels he needs to sign his boy up for multiple organized sports.

Over-scheduling children in organized activities is but one example of how parental choice affects self-directed play. Other examples include limiting self-directed play because of safety concerns and choosing organized sports because the "experts" says this is the best developmental approach.

Whether these choices are rooted in parental fear, a misguided belief that all knowledge must come from adult instruction, or some other motivation, it is about choices. It's about how parental choices affect a child's opportunity to experience sports.

Are Today's Kids Different?

What about the kids themselves? Is this generation that different from past ones? The above video would suggest otherwise; it certainly seems that the core issue isn't kids who just want to play on their computers and XBox 360 all day.

Kids still want to play pickup in sports like basketball. And there's no inherent reason why they can't also do so in other team sports. Each sport has its small-sided games and other variations of play that can readily provide neighborhood fun for kids. Expensive equipment is not needed to engage in this type of sports play.

So let's put aside the mistaken notion that kids have inherently changed, that technology has corrupted their desire to play sports on their own, or that our "new" society has irrevocably changed what we can and should value.

What today's kids do need is more exposure to each sport's respective culture of pickup play. And just like kids from past generations, today's kids need the opportunity to engage in self-directed play.

Seek Solutions

As I've discussed in other articles and in my book, The Joy of Youth Sports, pickup games provide kids with many benefits—ones not easily replicated in an organized sports setting. Because of this, let's not casually toss pickup games on the scrap pile of history along with our VCRs and Walkmans. Let's instead seek some innovative solutions to strengthen this valuable form of play.

Technology can work for and against self-directed play. Although it may draw some kids away from playing sports, it also potentially provides answers to some of today's problems that inhibit self-directed play. Texting and social media provide kids with tools to more easily communicate and organize pickup games. For parents concerned about safety, mobile phones provide parents with easy access to their child and his or her location. Inexpensive cameras can also provide additional monitoring where needed. Consider how these technologies might be used to create safe play environments in neighborhoods with fewer stay-at-home parents. Like the semi-supervised setting of basketball at my YMCA, is there an opportunity to create similar settings for other sports?

Beyond technology, youth sports advocates and parents should step back and reevaluate their perspective on various issues related to children's play. Consider whether safety is a real issue in your child's play environment, or one driven more by our society's expanded awareness of every tragedy that occurs. Reevaluate the risk/benefit ratio and the best way to manage the risk component.

We also need to better understand why boys readily engage in pickup games, but girls do not. With the emphasis on getting more girls involved in sports via organized activities, have we distorted how they experience sports? And more importantly, have we distorted parents' view of how all children should play sports?

Pickup games are too important to let them casually fade into the night. Let's do all we can to create the best, most balanced opportunity for kids to enjoy sports.

Do you have any innovative ideas on how to promote self-directed play and pickup games?

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, March 5, 2012

Player Success in Team Sports—Finding Your Role (Part 2: Primary and Secondary Roles)

  My recent articles on How a Coach Builds a Team and Player Success in Team Sports—Finding Your Role (Part 1) both emphasized the importance of team roles and how they affect the success of individual players and their teams.

In part one of Finding Your Role, I gave you an overview of a simple process that you can follow to discover where you best fit your team and coach's needs. As I pointed out, this approach can help you identify the available team roles and which ones best fit your abilities.

By targeting the right roles, you can improve your chance to make a team, gain more minutes, and play in a way that is appreciated by both your teammates and coach.

Because roles are so important to finding success in team sports, let's dig a little deeper into this topic.

Although we can view team roles from a few different perspectives, let's start by breaking them down into two major categories: Primary and Secondary.

Primary Team Roles

Every sport requires excellence in certain primary roles. In basketball, most successful teams require quality play at the point guard and low post positions. A successful basketball team also usually requires that someone play the important functional role of “scorer.”

Each team sport has its primary positional and functional roles. A pro football team’s most important positional role is the quarterback. Baseball games are more often won by the team that has excellent pitchers. Soccer, hockey, and lacrosse teams need a forward who can "score" and a goalie who can "defend."

Failure at key positions can doom a team’s chances for success, negating any advantage the team may have at other positions. For instance, a basketball team that lacks a guard to bring the ball up the court against a pressure defense will rarely have the opportunity to get the ball to its outstanding big men.

These primary roles tend to go to the better athletes and individuals with exceptionally strong skills that match the requirements of the associated position. But through diligent training and effort, less talented athletes can sometimes succeed in these primary roles.

If you’re expecting to play one of these “glory” positions, understand that you will need to show your coach that you have the required talent and skills.

Secondary Team Roles

While there are only a few primary team roles available, there are many secondary roles. You should understand that these secondary roles are essential to a team’s success. Understand also, that almost every coach appreciates this truth.

These roles encompass all the “little” things that lead to a team’s success. Examples of functional secondary team roles include “defender”, “ball-handler”, “rebounder”, and “utility man.”
TIP: Each player who plays a secondary role benefits from having the ability to additionally play other roles. For example, a basketball player who is an outstanding defender, but is also a good passer and threat to score, provides more value to a team (and its coach).
Again, try to identify any attributes you possess that can lead to success in one of your sport’s secondary roles. In Part 1, I discussed the "defender" role. If you have a stubborn, persistent nature, are reasonably quick, and possess good endurance you may find success in that role in any number of sports. Other functional roles are also available to you. For example, if you lack outstanding athleticism, but have the ability to accurately focus on and consistently hit a target, you may still find success as a “shooter” (spot-up shooter in basketball, football place-kicker, etc.).

Remember that coaches are always looking to find players to fill team roles.
WARNING: Playing a secondary role well only takes you so far. If you’re missing an essential skill, it’s less likely that you will find success playing that sport.

Your Role Can Change

As you mature and continue to develop your skills, the team role you play often changes.

A physical change can suddenly provide you with the ability to excel in an entirely different role or position. For example, the middle school volleyball setter who gains a foot in height after puberty may become a hitter on his high school volleyball team.

Skill development can also lead to a different team role. A basketball shooting guard, for instance, may work hard to improve his or her ball-handling skills and evolve into an outstanding point guard.

Good coaches constantly evaluate their player’s ability and skill. They realize that individual player development is a path to improving their team’s likelihood for success.
TIP: Your role may change as you move to higher levels of competition. Where once you were the outstanding athlete and “scorer”, you may now play a secondary role. Be prepared to adapt, especially when you first move to a higher level.

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)