Thursday, August 30, 2012

Don't Confuse Athleticism with Talent

   Many players, and unfortunately some coaches, look at other players and judge their ability solely based on athleticism—how quickly the players moves, how high they jump, how much they can lift, and how smoothly they execute a sports skill.

Although athleticism is often an essential component of a superior player, the history of amateur and professional sports is full of famous, successful competitors whose physical attributes were far from perfect. Examples include:
  • Larry Bird: Although he was a great NBA basketball forward who possessed an outstanding outside shot, incredible court sense, and an indomitable will to win, he lacked quickness and jumping ability.
  • Andre Agassi: One of the best ball strikers of all time, his tennis success was based more on superb hand/eye coordination, exceptional anticipation, and aggressive game tactics than any outstanding physical characteristics.
  • David Ortiz: Despite being heavy and slow running the base paths, his outstanding ability to hit a baseball has enabled him to enjoy great success and a long career in Major League Baseball.
  • Mike Eruzione: Considered too small and too slow by professional scouts, he captained the 1980 USA Olympic hockey team, scoring the game winning goal over the heavily favored Soviet Russia team.
At lower levels of competitive play, many athletes with limited athleticism are successful. Young athletes with less than ideal body types find ways to win against opponents with more perfect physiques.

Non-Athletic Factors Often Define an Athlete's Ability

Talent is not limited simply to a player’s physical characteristics; but also can encompass characteristics more closely associated with the mind and “heart.” These less tangible attributes are not as easily seen and measured as the physical ones, but they are important. Performing under pressure, demonstrating character and leadership in difficult moments, persistence, and the will to prepare are all special qualities that can distinguish one athlete from another.

Still another non-athletic talent is an athlete’s sports “IQ.” An example of this type of intelligence is the ability to understand the time and space relationship between moving objects (ball, players) and correspondingly anticipate opportunities to react before others do. Players with this ability are the ones who always seem to be “around the ball.” In basketball, they’re the undersized player that “gets yet another rebound.” In football, they’re the defenders who are “involved in every tackle.”

You should also understand that these types of talents are ones that many other players do not inherently possess. Don’t underestimate their importance. They can provide you with a competitive advantage against physically superior athletes.

One Success Story

Several years ago, I coached a middle school basketball team that included a seemingly non-athletic eighth grade boy who moved awkwardly, without much speed or quickness. He lacked ball skills and the ability to consistently convert any shot other than a layup. In evaluating John, my first impression was that I would need to find limited roles for him to play. Although having only average height and jumping ability, the forward position was the one best suited to his physical build and abilities.

In our first practices and games, I noticed that John was always around the ball, running the floor, constantly positioning himself to receive passes and rebound the ball. He had an uncanny ability to anticipate ball and player movements, and position himself to gain an advantage.

As John’s shot improved through the course of the season, and he learned more individual skills and team concepts, he became one of our team’s most valuable players, helping lead us to a victory in our league’s championship game.

So, even when you don’t possess the ideal physical characteristics for your sport, remember that there are still many paths to success.

Copyright © 2012 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

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, August 23, 2012

Should a Parent be a Coach?

   Here's a guest post from Mike Mancini, a parent and coach who writes about youth sports. Mike brings his parental perspective to the sometimes sensitive situation involving a parent who coaches his or her child. You may also want to check out my post on this topic: The Coach's Kid Always Plays.

As long as there have been sports around, there have been parents who have coached their children. As parents, we have heard the rallying cry from our sports administrators – “Get Involved!”. Some parents partake of that message in different ways. For example, some may put time in working the concession stand, while others take it upon themselves to spearhead the fundraising activities, while others take the plunge and coach.

Coaching your child is a delicate balance, even for those of us who believe we are the most objective folks to ever walk the good earth. At times, fair or unfair, perception plays a larger role in this situation than in a “normal” coach – player relationship.

That relationship at times comes into play as a matter of course. The high school varsity baseball coach who coaches their child while the child is in high school, is one example. A number of other parents volunteer to coach, generally because their child is in that sport. Many will follow their child to various age levels, as well. In either circumstance, however, it still becomes a gentle dance of tact, professionalism, and objectivity.

Here are a couple of points to keep in mind if you find yourself coaching one of your children:
  1. Know your sport – This seems rather obvious on the surface, but for some, I think it may not be evident. A parent may be so excited about coaching their child that they lose sight of the fact that they do not have the proper expertise to do it. I have seen this come into play with my daughter and nephews in various sports. Well-meaning parents are out there ‘coaching’, when all that happens is a glorified babysitting, back slapping, snack chomping session.

    If the sport is organized, there should be teaching going on at each practice and game. If you do not have the expertise to be able to actually teach the sport, your help is best served off of the field and not on it.

    Even if you feel you know the game, ask yourself if you can teach the proper, age appropriate techniques for your sport. If you cannot honestly answer “Yes” to that question, than look for other ways you can help.

  2. Be Objective – Again, here is what is perceived as an obvious point, but it becomes even more important if you are coaching your child. Are you, as a coach, willing to do what is best for all at all times?

    I’ve seen some coaches in this situation overextend themselves on either side of the coin. Some coaches come down extremely hard on their child, to make sure everyone can see that they are not being overly persuaded by their kid. That can take a toll on the child. My brother-in-law coaches his kids in baseball. I’ve seen (and heard!) many discussions between he and my sister on that very topic. While thinking he’s showing his impartiality, from another observer he may be coming down more than he probably would normally do on his own kids.

    Of course, I have been a part of the opposite scenario, as well. The coach plays his child at enviable positions and for a greater time periods than others. These are well meaning coaches, as well. However, since they know their child better than anyone else, they give them the extra added benefit of the doubt, if you will, and honestly have a different perception of the child’s skill level.

    In either case, I have found that the best suggestion is to ask for feedback from a key observer, or two. Do not open it up for all, or you’re going to get bombarded with comments and go through too much ‘analysis by paralyses. Pick out one or two key folks that you trust to give you some honest feedback on a regular basis. This can help in creating as objective of an atmosphere, as possible.
Coaching is a tough and challenging calling. The coach has the responsibility of teaching and guiding a number of players on a team, not only individually, but also bringing those individuals together to meet a desired goal. That is a daunting task in and of itself, let alone adding on the focus of being the parent, as well. It can be quite rewarding for sure, but be thorough in your focus, thinking processes and preparation before coaching your child.

Written by Mike Mancini, coach, parent and website owner of Athletic Training Now specializing in youth sports, athletic and sports training, where you can also pick up the Free Report - “Jump Start Your Training.”

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, August 16, 2012

Add Fun Contests to Your Practices

   If your practices only consist of drills, structured walkthroughs of your team’s plays, and instructional lectures, you will quickly lose your young players’ attention and enthusiasm. An effective practice that fully engages your players must also include some fun competitive activities.

Let's take a look at some of the ways you can both liven up your practices and still teach important lessons.

Scrimmage for Fun and Learning

Your players’ favorite competitive activity is scrimmaging—playing the game and competing against other players. Pick two teams, throw a ball out, and your players would have fun playing each other for the entire practice. Of course, we want more from our season, and scrimmaging is only one component of a well planned practice. But it’s an important one.

Scrimmages afford your kids an opportunity not only to have fun, but also put to the test newly learned individual and team skills. As a coach, scrimmages provide you with the opportunity to implement your offensive and defensive systems and practice team play.

But more important to each player's individual development, scrimmages provide you with a unique opportunity to "coach your kids up." Young players often miss the game moments when opportunity presents itself. When a player doesn't make the open pass, fails to recognize an opportunity to gain advantage, positions themselves incorrectly, or otherwise makes a mental mistake, you can stop play and instruct your player on the correct action. Without stopping the action you can also bark out instructions, comments, and compliments. If you're physically able to practice with your kids, you can also actively demonstrate correct behavior. For example, you can aggressively call out commands ("Pick Left!, Help!, Switch!") to show kids how to communicate with each other on defense. You can also instruct the player you're matched up against.

In all of these cases, you help the young player better connect opportunity with action. This is especially useful to those players who don't regularly play pickup games. Although they may have mastered essential sports skills, they are unfamiliar with patterns of play. They often haven't developed an innate sense of how and when to use their skills in a fast-paced, competitive game.

Always include scrimmage time in each practice.

Some Drills are Fun

You also need to identify other competitive activities and drills that your players enjoy. If you are new to coaching, most coaching books include help in this area. Also, watch your kids before and after your practice and note any games they are playing as a group. You may want to add this game to the end of your practice.

In my basketball practices, the free-throw shooting game “Knockout” is popular at all age levels. In this game, players line up behind each other and one-by-one shoot a free throw, rebound any misses, and then convert a layup. If the player behind them makes their shot before they do, they are “knocked out” of the game. This fun game emphasizes shooting both free throws and layups under pressure. As an alternative, I occasionally select two teams and have them shoot free throws at different baskets. First one to ten wins. In a close contest, the excitement always builds toward the end of the game. Even conditioning exercises such as sprints are more fun when you add a competitive element.

Look for similar games and fun contests in your sport. For example, in baseball, kids enjoy base running drills that involve racing. You can finish your practices with a relay race between two groups of players, each starting at opposite bases (e.g., home and second). Give the first player in each group a ball and have them pass it to the next player in line after they have completed a lap around the bases. Similar to the free throw contest in basketball, your kids will get excited as the race nears the finish line.

Add some spice to your practices to keep your players interested and the energy level high. Do you have any favorite fun drills or other activities that you use in your sport's practices?

Copyright © 2012 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

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, August 6, 2012

Everyone Loves an Underdog and So Should You

   You will face many situations where you're seemingly over-matched against a superior opponent. Possibly you’ve heard about how good some player is or (at higher levels) read newspaper articles praising the player’s talent. Before your game, you may observe how big, tall, or strong your opponent appears. You may notice how the player seems to smoothly execute skills during warm-ups. The player or team may have all of the clothing and equipment “accessories,” suggesting that they’re well prepared and know what they’re doing.

But once a game begins, you will often find that many of the apparent advantages your opponent holds over you are mere illusion.

Winning, Underdog or Not

Although physically impressive and athletic, your opponent may not understand how to play the game. Your opponent may also lack a competitive character that equals yours. For example, the tennis player, owner of multiple racquets (in plastic wrap) and beautiful ground strokes, may also possess a game that falls apart at the first sign of pressure. You will encounter many situations where appearances don’t match actual ability. Do not put your opponent in the winner’s circle or assume you have some inherent disadvantage based on appearances.

There are times when you are the underdog—contests where your fundamental talent and skills are inferior to your opponents. But one of the attractive qualities of sports is that a lesser opponent can rise up and sometimes beat a more talented opponent. You may play above your typical performance level and your opponent may play below their capability. The way in which your abilities and talent match up against your opponent’s may also work to your advantage. As Chris Berman, the popular ESPN sportscaster, often says, “That’s why they play the game.”

Rising to the Challenge

What seems impossible is sometimes possible. One of the most amazing examples of an athlete performing above their apparent talent level happened in the 1968 Olympics when a long jumper named Bob Beamon won the gold medal. In a track event where the world record was regularly broken by a couple of inches, Bob Beamon jumped 29 ft. 2 ½ inches, 21 ¾ inches better than the prior world record. Don’t underestimate your possibilities to perform at a higher level when challenged.

One of my best moments in sports came in a high school tennis doubles match. My partner (Terry) and I were facing the first and second singles players from a nearby school, with the winner advancing to the sectionals tournament. We were the clear underdogs. Our opponents walked out onto their home court, dressed like Roger Federer, each carrying two of the best tennis racquets of that time. They were confident, relaxed, and looked every bit the product of many tennis lessons and year-round play. For our part, Terry and I had decent strokes and net games, but we depended more on our general athleticism than grooved groundstrokes.

As the match began, our opponents quickly asserted their dominance. Before long they started acting cocky, joking and carrying on in a disrespectful way. After losing the first set, I remember becoming mad at both our play and our opponent’s smug, casual attitude. I turned to Terry and said, “Let’s go. We’re better than this!” We began to run down every shot, keeping the ball in play, and letting our opponent’s overly confident attitude catch up to them. Slowly, the points started going our way. Our play became more aggressive and confident. I can’t recall whether I exchanged any words with them, but there were certainly some looks across the net that said, “Okay, let’s see what you can do now.” As the tide turned, they were unable to recapture their smooth strokes and high level of play. As often happens when the momentum of a game shifts, they began to feel the pressure. We beat them convincingly in the third set to win the match.

Interestingly, I again played one of our opponents in a sectional team playoff a week later. Although he still owned those beautiful strokes, our previous doubles match had destroyed his confidence. I easily beat him in two sets.

Remember that your opponent’s apparent excellence is sometimes only a thin veneer covering substantial defects in his or her game. And though you will face superior opponents, there are often ways to compensate for your shortcomings. Instead of accepting your supposed disadvantage, relish these challenges and opportunities to succeed. You may create a proud memory that lasts a lifetime.

Copyright © 2012 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

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)