Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Play the Ball (Don’t Let it Play You)

   If you've ever played baseball, it’s likely you learned that to best field a ground ball you need to move forward toward the ball as it’s approaching you. By doing so you control the point at which the ball reaches your glove, making it easier to field. Should you stand still and wait for the ball to reach you, the ball may take a hard-to-handle short hop. (In baseball parlance, “The ball will eat you up.”)

This principle, in a more general way, applies to other situations in sports. By being proactively aggressive, you take control of situations as opposed to them controlling you. You dictate the conditions (even in defensive circumstances). You provide yourself with more opportunities to succeed. You further bolster your confidence, while possibly lessening your opponent’s.

Let's take a look at a few of the ways you can apply this principle to your game.

Proactively Defending an Opponent

If you’re defending an outstanding player in a team sport, you have two choices:
  1. Defend your opponent after he or she receives the ball.

  2. Defend your opponent before the ball is received.
The first approach requires you to react to your opponent’s actions. At this point, you may be helpless to handle your opponent’s considerable offensive skills (or you may need to foul your opponent to prevent a score).

The second approach, on the other hand, is one in which you dictate the conditions. You aggressively try to deny the ball from ever reaching your opponent. You choose to defend another part of your opponent’s game—the ability to get open and receive a pass. Without the ball, he or she can’t score. You negate an entire part of your opponent’s game. And just as important, your aggressive defense may psychologically “take your opponent out of the game.” Without the ball, your opponent may be the one who becomes passive and ineffective.

Similarly, you can deny your opponent the opportunity to dictate play in individual sports. For example, a tennis player may choose to regularly serve and volley against a baseline player who doesn't possess a good return (or who wants long rallies).

The Dangers of Being Passive

To the opposite, if you’re passive, you will likely lose control of the play and subject yourself to more of those “short hops” that lead to errors. But it’s not just that. You will also miss out on opportunities to make big plays—the home runs that sometimes win a contest.

In describing his frustration over his team’s lack of a punt return game, the NFL coach, Wade Phillips wryly said of his punt returner, “He’s not really a punt returner, he’s more of a punt catcher.” Like most NFL coaches, Wade was looking for his punt returner to make plays. Simply catching the ball (or watching it bounce and roll dead) wasn't good enough. Wade knew his team’s chances of winning were improved by the occasional big play.

And it’s not just missing out on the big plays. Passively watching and reacting almost always leads to mediocre performance. You are back on your heels and off balance, not only in a physical sense, but also in a psychological one. You’re on the defensive and this tends to sap your confidence over time.


Instead of watching, you need to proactively engage—and do so at a point where you can more easily control the play and outcome. For instance, if you’re a basketball or hockey player helping out a beaten teammate in a defensive situation, you shouldn't wait until the attacking player is close to the goal and about to score. Instead, if possible, engage the opponent earlier to prevent a score (and avoid fouling the player as he or she shoots).

Of course there are situations and match-ups where you need to be defensive and selectively look for opportunities to attack. But these are ideally under your control. You choose to play more conservatively. You set up your opponent for your counterpunch. You’re the spider, weaving the web.

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, November 22, 2012

10 Reasons I'm Thankful for My Life in Sports

   Sports are often about the moment. The last-second winning goal, the flawlessly executed shot, players moving together as an improvisational “One.” Perfect moments. And of course there are the moments of opportunity lost. An instant of inopportune hesitation, a fatefully poor choice, the basketball that rolls around then off the rim.

But connecting these moments are the greater themes. The reasons why we play, watch, and coach sports. The experiences gained, the lasting satisfactions, and the regrets of opportunities lost.

On Thanksgiving, in this setting, it seems appropriate to serve some personal reflections on this subject. So here are ten reasons why I’m thankful for my life in sports:
  1. I’m thankful for the opportunity to express myself. To find a venue to achieve some individual excellence—to both fit in and stand out.

  2. I’m thankful for the warm sense of community that sports have provided me.

  3. More than the community itself, I’m thankful for the lifelong best friends that sports have brought me.

  4. I’m thankful for those instances where I worked hard, played well, and achieved success. They are forever within me and cannot be taken away.

  5. I’m thankful for never having a serious injury in my youth that kept me away from my sports.

  6. I’m thankful for parents that were always supportive and provided me with the opportunity to fulfill my passion for playing sports.

  7. I’m thankful for the connection with my dad that sports provided. Playing catch, after dinner games of ping-pong in the winter, and coaching me in youth sports, all helped strengthen our relationship.

  8. I’m thankful for those perfect moments—when I was one with the play and sometimes rose above my own expectations. (How did I do that?)

  9. On the backside of life, I’m especially thankful for the opportunity to coach kids and possibly make a difference in their lives. Coaching helps keep me connected and is the closest experience to playing.

  10. I’m thankful now for some of my failures, difficult times, and even some youthful betrayals. They've provided experiences that have prepared me to better handle similar situations later in life.

I hope all Inside Youth Sports readers have a happy Thanksgiving Day. And if you've got the opportunity to play in a pickup football game, enjoy it!

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)


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Kids Don't Talk (And What to Do About It)

   Through their development years, many children are shy and reluctant to stand out among their peers. Sometimes this is because they lack sports skills and confidence. Other times the reason lies in either the child’s inherent personality or group dynamics related to age and sex differences. When these children are the center of attention, they say few words, speak in a low voice, or unintelligibly mutter their words.

Since team play always benefits from players who communicate with each other, you need to reinforce the importance of talking. You need to get your quieter kids to come out of their shell. So how do you do this?

Early in your season, emphasize the importance of communication. Wherever a role or specific play requires a player to call out instructions, have the player say the words loudly with emotional emphasis. Ideally, each player should have the opportunity to play some role that requires them to call out a command.

One Example of Getting Kids to Speak-up

I have a little fun each basketball season when I teach my team our out-of-bounds plays. The most basic one is the “Stack” play. The first step in executing this play is for the player taking the ball out to yell the name of the out-of-bounds play. The players then align themselves in the proper formation; in this case, four players line themselves vertically in front of the one putting the ball in-play.

Invariably, young beginners will weakly say “Stack.” I’ll say, “Louder!” The player will again say “Stack”—this time with slightly more volume. As before, I’ll say “Louder!” but with more force and volume. Now the player says “Stack!” with more emphasis. This still isn't loud enough, so I yell out “STACK-K-K!” The player usually gets it right the next time. As different players take the ball out, players start competing to see who can scream “STACK-K-K!” the loudest. Along with the laughs, the players start losing their inhibition to speak in a commanding voice when necessary.

Communicating on Defense

When playing man-to-man defense in basketball, communication between the players is absolutely essential. Players must call out screens. The player defending the ball must sometimes call out defensive switches or ask for help. In addition to walk-throughs where I instruct multiple players to call out the screens, I constantly reinforce the importance of communicating during scrimmages often yelling “Talk on defense!” If necessary, I’ll blow my whistle and mildly reprimand a player for not calling out a screen. I view the failure of players to communicate as an unacceptable mental mistake.

No Room for Shyness

Always teach your players the importance of communication in team sports. Break down their inhibitions using drills and plays appropriate to your sport. Make it fun by having your kids yell their commands and instructions as LOUD as they can. There’s no room for shyness when it comes to players communicating with their teammates during a game.

Of course, some kids talk too much. They can be too gregarious. But that's another problem unrelated to communicating game situations. (This issue is the topic of an upcoming post.)

Do you have any good exercises, drills, or other methods to get your kids talking?

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)


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Why's My Kid Not Starting!? (8 Key Points to Consider)

   In competitive youth sports programs and high school athletics, coaches are free to select which players start a game and how many minutes of playing time each receives. Some players may not play at all in a given game.

Parents are sometimes confused as to why their son or daughter is not starting or playing more. You may watch your child score and dominate other players on offense and shake your head as the coach substitutes for your child. Your child may play great defense and shut down opponents, but still not make the starting team. It's natural for you to ask, "So why's my kid not starting?"

It's also natural in these situations to begin wondering if the coach is treating your child unfairly.

Yes, you and your child may sometimes encounter favoritism or parent politics (see The Coach's Kid Always Plays). But there are also plenty of valid reasons—many of which are not always obvious—for a coach to select one player over another.

Understanding the Coach's Evaluation Process

Coaches evaluate their prospective players based on their physical attributes, sports skills, how well players fit into the roles that comprise team play, and on other more intangible qualities. Some of these factors are controllable by the player while others are not. Generally, the key to more playing time for your child is to understand this evaluation process, and to focus on improving performance in controllable areas important to the coach.

So let's dig deeper into how a coach evaluates players. To help you better understand the process, let's do some role playing.

We're going to name you the head coach of your child's youth basketball team. Let's also assume that it's the first time you've coached in a competitive league. You're fair-minded, want to develop each of your kids, but also want to give the team it's best chance to win. It's time for you to pick your team. Are you ready?

Although you're a novice coach, you do know there are some key team roles that need to be filled: a point guard to bring the ball up against defensive pressure, a "big man" who can get rebounds, and at least one player who can also score. So with this in mind, you watch your kids practice and begin the process of figuring out who can do what. Here are the 8 key points to consider and related questions you need to ask yourself:

  1. Your first and most obvious task in evaluating a player is to consider the child’s physical attributes. Is the child small, large, tall, short, athletic (i.e., quickness, speed, jumping ability) or non-athletic relative to his or her teammates? These physical characteristics sometimes initially dictate a child’s position and role. For example, the tallest or heaviest child often plays close to the basket in basketball; a small, quick child likely would play a guard position away from the basket. (Other sports have similar matches: the largest boy is a lineman in football; the child with the strongest arm is often the pitcher in baseball.)

  2. Next, consider the child’s skill level in each of the sport’s key individual areas and note the strengths and weaknesses. Each sport has its own set of individual skills. In basketball, for example, the offensive skills include ball-handling, passing, outside shooting, inside shooting (e.g. layups, half-hooks), free throw shooting, and rebounding. Defensive skills center on rebounding, blocking shots, steals, tenacity, and an ability to cover an opponent man-to-man. Consider whether a child's skill-set trumps his or her obvious physical attributes. For instance, one of the shorter players may still be an outstanding rebounder.

  3. Is the child’s nature and personality a good match with his or her skill set and position? Some players have a “scoring mentality” while others are more comfortable as role players. Mismatches here, trying to fit the square peg into the round hole, will often hurt the child’s chance to excel.

  4. Does the child demonstrate a high sports IQ—understanding player and ball movements, anticipation, spacing, and timing? Does the child minimize mistakes both in practice and in pressure game situations—and do the child’s positive actions outweigh the mistakes (plus/minus)?

  5. How does the child function within the team framework? Does he or she make other players better? Do the child’s strengths somehow compensate for another starter’s weaknesses, better balancing the team dynamics as a whole? Is the child willing to make individual sacrifices for the benefit of the team or is the child instead a disruptive force or otherwise negative influence on the team?

  6. What is the child’s attitude in both practices and games? Is he or she coachable? Does the child respond immediately to the coach’s whistle, or is he the last one to listen? Does she go all out in drills and scrimmages, or do only what is expected? (Average players who view practice as a necessary evil usually don’t get noticed by the coach. Early in the season, players earn their game minutes by what they demonstrate in tryouts and practice.)

  7. Does the child demonstrate outstanding personality characteristics (“champion’s heart,” “never gives up”)? Does the child have the ability to translate negative situations and energy into positive actions?

  8. How does the child’s age and year in school compare to other teammates? Does he or she have the potential to dramatically improve?

As you can see, there are many attributes that a coach must consider when judging a player, determining the player’s best role on the team, and whether he or she should start.

The differences are often small in determining who starts and who comes off the bench. For example, a coach may think that two players are roughly equivalent, but notes that one seems to play better as a starter while the other plays well off the bench. A player, who is extremely strong in some areas, but equally weak in others, will often come off the bench to play a specific role in a certain game situation.

What You and Your Child Can Do

If you child is not starting, but seems to have the necessary physical attributes and skill set, the best approach is for your child to concentrate more on the controllable factors. Your child should clean up any possible attitude issues, minimize mistakes, and seek practice matchups where he or she can dominate a starter and compel the coach to realize who the better player is. Every coach likes a player with desire, hustle, and a willingness to sacrifice for the team. These are all controllable behaviors that will often help a player receive more playing time relative to similarly skilled teammates.

Sometimes, even after calmly considering your child’s situation, you may be at a loss to understand why your child is not playing more. If you feel that the differences favoring your child are significant, you may want to arrange a meeting with the coach to learn more. Collect information and try to understand the reasoning behind the coach’s judgments and decisions. As you listen to the coach’s explanation, weigh his comments against the factors described above.

It’s not always easy to keep an objective perspective when it comes to your child. In your desire to see your child excel in his or her sport, avoid communicating negative attitudes that can lead your child to believe they are somehow the victims of poor coaching or other circumstance. Instead, stress to your child the controllable ways in which he or she can influence a coach’s decision. Hard work, practice, desire, tenacity, and a team-first attitude will go a long way to securing more playing time for your child.

By supplying positive parental support, you can make a difference—helping your child to learn what it takes to achieve success both on and off the court.

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)