Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Different Ways to Get a Scoreboard Win

   As I often remind readers, "winning" isn't always about the scoreboard—especially in youth sports. But in this article, I want to focus on the more traditional concept of winning and some of the game day factors that influence a competition's outcome. More specifically, I'll discuss the less obvious, non-physical aspects of a player's performance and provide a few illustrative stories from my personal experience.

Winning—It's Not Just About Athleticism

In sports you can win or lose a game in many different ways. Sometimes seemingly overwhelming advantages evaporate when confronted with a particular combination of skills, strategy, and tactics. Injuries and other fateful events can sometimes play a role in determining a victor. Not all outcomes are predestined—no matter the apparent advantage.

This reality can provide you with your greatest victories. And it can also bring you heartbreaking losses.

Whether you’re favored to win or are the overwhelming underdog, always keep this principle in mind. Your opponent may look physically superior, either in athleticism or skills, but lack in some other less visible area. He or she may not handle pressure well or may make too many unforced errors. Likewise, your opponent may appear physically inferior, but still have an understanding of the game and its tactics that far exceeds yours—providing your opponent with an advantage that is not fully evident until the contest is well under way.

For me, this lesson was driven home during my junior year in high school. To win a singles spot on our high school's varsity team, I needed to beat another teammate in a playoff match. I was clearly the better athlete. I possessed more powerful groundstrokes. But in our match for that spot, my teammate won, playing better angles and varying the pace of the game. His command of game tactics was superior to mine and provided him with the edge that eventually led to his victory.

Beware of Gamesmanship

Gamesmanship can also play a role in determining who wins a contest. As it relates to playing your sport, you or your opponent may have a better understanding of human nature and attempt to use it to gain advantage. Player actions, comments (trash talk), and attitude displays will sometimes affect an opponent’s state of mind, disrupting that player’s concentration. Players susceptible to these tactics are easily taken out of their games, neutralizing their effectiveness.

Don’t let your opponent distract or upset you. Once your opponent realizes that trash talk and other intimidating antics can affect your play, you will receive more of the same abuse. Ignore any trash talk and continue to concentrate on playing within each moment. If you do get mad, translate your anger into positive actions—play harder with more focus. Use insults as motivation.

The "Elements"

Sometimes the environment in which a game is played also affects the contest’s outcome. Fan support, home field advantage, and playing conditions can all play a role in determining a winner and a loser.

At the close of my high school tennis career, my partner and I played in a local doubles tournament. Although we were seeded number one, we played two players from a private city school in the finals who clearly possessed better strokes and a more refined game. It only took a few minutes of warming up with our opponents to realize that we were in trouble. But there was another external factor that would eventually help determine the match's outcome. The weather. It was an extremely windy day.

The match began and we played poorly. While the wind carried our misplaced shots well out of bounds, our opponent’s superior ground strokes seemed to cut through the wind and give them winner after winner. At first we were grumbling and moaning over our misfortune, then yelling in frustration, and finally laughing in disbelief at our incompetence. But the wind, our wild shots, and visible behavior began to work to our advantage—our opponent’s game slowly began to fall apart. The stop and start, erratic nature of the match disrupted our opponent’s flow and concentration. As they began to make unforced errors, we pulled ourselves together, raised the level of our play, and eventually walked away with the championship trophy. Our opponents were disgusted with themselves, unable to comprehend how they lost a match to "less-talented" players.

Avoid Over-confidence

Approach your contest with confidence, but don’t overlook the possibility that events may conspire against you. Live in each moment of the game, letting your skills and ability naturally exert their dominance, building your advantage over the course of the contest. Never grow too confident in your physical ability or skills—realize that game tactics and other factors may play an important role in determining a contest’s victor. Always seek to understand the different ways in which a game can be won or lost.

Copyright © 2013 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)


Friday, January 11, 2013

The Importance of Team Roles for Young Players

   To provide opportunities for young players to succeed, you should identify the roles best suited to each player—the ones which enable them to immediately contribute to the team.

A child’s sense of success comes from performing certain tasks well. Each child has his own actual and potential set of abilities, body type, personality, and level of confidence. As a youth coach, it’s your job to match these traits to the specific individual and team roles that best fit each child.

Let's take a look at how you go about this task.

Individual Paths to Success

As your kids scrimmage and perform drills, note each child's strengths and weaknesses. See how they react to your instruction. Are they eager to try new things out or are they shy? You want to teach everyone everything, but when possible, tailor the message to each individual's own unique personality and learning style.

Focus on more then the obvious. Try to perceive each child’s latent abilities (and potential roles) that may emerge during the season under your tutelage. Although lacking skills, is the child aggressive going after the ball? (Possibly a good rebounder in basketball or defender in another sport.) Despite some lack of coordination performing a skill, are there underlying physical movements that suggest latent athleticism? (With instruction, a player who may quickly develop his or her sports skills.)

As you absorb all of this information, you will likely start to see the team roles that are well-matched to each child. Take some time with this process and let it play out. By finding and assigning appropriate roles, you will give each child a better opportunity to experience authentic individual success. And in doing so, they will experience a sense of fulfillment knowing they have meaningfully contributed to their team.

Expand Roles as Players Develop

When assigning roles to a player, it’s important that you do not limit a child’s potential. In practices, you should teach every skill to all of your players. Highlight the need for each player to practice newly learned skills on their own. Expose each child to different positions and roles. Judiciously look for game situations that can challenge and stretch a player’s abilities (putting newly mastered skills to use). A child’s physical traits and skills will often undergo quick transformations and you must teach toward this possibility.

Roles and Young Beginners

It is essential that you teach beginning and less skilled players how to play a specific role. Many times, these players are overwhelmed by the speed of the game, its rules, and their physical immaturity relative to older or more experienced players. They often cannot process game information fast enough and may feel that they can’t compete because of their body type or lack of skills. For these players, roles simplify the game. The tasks associated with each role represent realistic, achievable goals. They provide the beginner an opportunity to make a difference and contribute to the team’s success.

When I am faced with instructing a child who has never played basketball, I usually concentrate on two roles: staying with their opponent on defense and setting screens on offense. Many young beginners initially lack the concentration to stay with their man on defense, tending to look at (and move toward) the ball. Getting these players to position themselves between their opponent and the basket is often a challenge. On offense, most first time beginners cannot dribble or shoot the ball well. They may also struggle passing the ball. Providing these beginners with a specific position in an offensive set, and having them set a screen toward the ball is a good starting point. With these simple roles and assigned tasks, a beginner has a framework for success that they can understand and goals they can achieve. As their skills and knowledge of the game increases, their roles are gradually expanded to include more responsibilities.

Communicate That Every Role Has Value

It’s also vital that you emphasize the importance of these roles to the team’s success. Each time a beginner performs a positive action, shout out some encouragement! Make sure that other players see your reaction so they understand the importance of the beginner’s contribution. In basketball, when one of my beginning players sets a screen during a game that frees a player to score, I loudly congratulate the beginner from the bench. Do it in games. Do it in practices. You will start to see smiles appear on the faces of these beginners as they too realize that they can succeed and play a meaningful role.

Copyright © 2013 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, January 3, 2013

Encourage Your Child to Participate in Multiple Sports

   As your child progresses through youth sports, he or she will inevitably change—both in skill level and interest. Most likely, one sport will emerge as the favorite, while others, although enjoyable, will fill a different secondary role.

In some situations, parents or coaches strongly push a child to concentrate on a single sport at an early age. More talented athletes are identified early and funneled into lessons and competitive leagues that dominate their young athletic lives. The idea of course is to quickly develop advanced skills and maximize the young athlete’s potential. This approach is often taken by parents who see their children as potential prodigies in individual sports such as tennis or gymnastics. In competitive youth team sports, Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and club teams often pull a child into a single sport mode.

Unfortunately, there are several risks associated with pursuing specialization at too early of an age. Let's take a look at some of these risks, and more importantly, the benefits provided to your child when he or she participates in multiple sports.

Crossover Benefits

As your child develops specific advanced skills (while specializing in a single sport), he or she may miss out on the crossover benefits that are generated by playing additional sports. Each sport has its own set of skills and effect on an athlete’s body--and sometimes these provide an athlete with an advantage in another sport.

For example, an athlete’s improved movement and footwork gained by playing tennis may translate into an unexpected advantage when the athlete plays soccer. Strategic and tactical skills often cross over from one sport to another, and may help an athlete take a more creative approach within their primary sport. Likewise, hand-eye coordination translates from one sport to another.

Overuse Injuries

Playing several sports also safeguards the health of your child. Participating in different physical activities helps avoid overuse and excessive strain on particular muscles and joints. Other sports require the use of different muscles and movements. These attributes can complement the ones used in your child’s primary sport, providing a better-rounded and balanced physical capability that will lead to improved performance. For example, a child who participates in a summer youth swimming program may become stronger and find that this added strength benefits their performance in basketball.

More Fun, Less Burnout, and Great Memories

In addition to the crossover skill and physical benefits, participating in other sports can provide a more relaxed form of competitive fun. This, in turn, can prevent your child from burning out in their primary sport.

These secondary sports can also result in great sports experiences that create memorable, satisfying moments. Although I played three years of varsity tennis in high school, tennis was less important to me than basketball. Nevertheless, tennis provided me with several memorable moments, both good and bad. One of the most satisfying “comebacks” of my personal sports life occurred in a sectional first-doubles match. Down a set to a talented (and arrogant) doubles team, my partner and I gathered ourselves and went on to take the match from our surprised and frustrated opponents.

Baseball also played a similar role. Having been the worst player on my freshman team, I learned how to throw a knuckle curve from one of our pitchers. In Pony League play that summer I was an all-star pitcher (and twice beat a team comprised of many of the freshman team's players. Although I only played one more year of summer baseball before focusing on basketball, that experience is one that I fondly remember. And I'm not alone. I've talked with several former players I've coached. Every one of them remembers those special moments in youth sports.

Provide Balance by Encouraging Self-Directed Play

Your child doesn't have to play multiple organized sports! He or she can play pickup games in many team sports. Make sure your child has the time to engage in self-directed play. If you schedule every minute of your child's sports life, you remove your child's opportunity to enjoy the many benefits that pickup games provide.

Involve your child in multiple sports when they are young. As they age and their focus tightens, continue to encourage participation in multiple sports for both the crossover and enjoyment benefits. At a smaller high school, your child may enjoy the opportunity to play in multiple varsity sports. Remember also that some sports such as golf and tennis can be played through adulthood and into one’s senior years.

Copyright © 2013 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)