Saturday, May 31, 2014

On Evaluating Talent

   Anyone can recognize the abundant talent of a star player, but can you also recognize a talent that isn't as obvious? What about the player who has the skills to succeed now, but does so in a non-athletic, awkward, or quiet way? Can you watch a beginner play and recognize the potential for that child to find success and enjoy the game?

Look Beyond a Player's Athleticism

One of the attractions of sports, especially team sports, is that there are a variety of ways to succeed. Although certain team positions seem to require a given body type and skill set, it’s not always that simple. Sometimes, an extremely strong skill may offset an obvious weakness. Other times, “intangible” behaviors and attributes are the defining quality that enables a player to succeed. Couple these factors with a child’s potential to change and grow (in mind, body, and skill level), and you are often faced with a significant challenge when evaluating a player’s abilities.

One Boy's Path to Success

A number of 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 take was that I would need to find certain limited roles for him. Although having only average height and jumping ability, the forward position was the one best suited to his physical stature and abilities.

In our first practices and games, I became aware that John was always around the ball, running the floor, constantly positioning himself to receive passes and rebound the ball. He innately understood how to leverage his body and gain an advantage against his opponent. His ability to judge time and space relationships, anticipate ball and player movements, and position himself to gain an advantage was uncanny. As his shot improved through the season, and he learned more individual skills and team concepts, he became one of our team’s most valuable players and helped lead us to a victory in our league’s championship game. As a senior in high school, and still lacking height, jumping ability, and any outstanding ball skills, John started on the varsity basketball team.

The Evaluation Process

When evaluating a player, begin with the obvious physical characteristics and demonstrated skills. Then watch closely how the player reacts in actual scrimmages against different opponents. Note the unexpected and watch for the subtle attributes that enable a player to win matchups against apparently more skilled or physically gifted players. Does the player understand and anticipate movements on the field of play, and react accordingly? Look ahead, and see how your coaching might unleash some barely visible trait or talent. Imagine how that player’s strengths and weaknesses will complement those of your other players, possibly adding exceptional value to your team. Consider the child’s personality and how it relates to the child’s performance and possible roles. Is he or she hungry to score, tenacious on defense, concerned about minimizing mistakes, or willing to compete by playing team-oriented roles? Observe the player’s actions both close to the ball and away from the ball.

Consider all of the above factors as you evaluate a young player and determine the role that they can best play on your team.

Copyright © 2014 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

($8.95; Kindle: $2.99)


Friday, May 9, 2014

What's Wrong with Organized Sports (Part 2)

   Here's the conclusion to last week's article, including a few suggestions from this parent on how to improve the overall youth sports experience.

"There is no way you can convince me that this is good youth development. No way."

How are these boys going to gain the creativity needed to play when Johnny’s coach yells at them for trying to backhand a ball? For swinging at a bad pitch? For trying to throw a runner out but missing that cutoff man – at age 9? It’s absurd.

I’m not sure my son has ever picked a team. He’s never had to shoot free throws to decide who’s next. Lord knows he’s never made his own out call.

We aren't playing All Stars this year. Two reasons:
  1. My boy doesn't want to. He says the tournaments are boring. Who am I to argue? He’s right.
  2. As someone who knows a little about athletic development and what it takes to be good I would rather pitch 2 sessions a week, hit BP with another couple of kids, and hit infield a couple of nights a week. I figure we can work the equivalent of 6 innings, 40 at bats, and 60 chances in the field.
Now you tell me. Who will get the most of their talent?

Another thing. I played basketball with a guy growing up named Mark Strickland. Good player in high school but certainly not great. Mark was lucky as well. He also grew up playing at the park. He just played, and played, and played. He played enough to get offered a scholarship to Temple to play for the great John Cheney.

He could jump out of the gym. That’s it. His only skill. He was a gangly kid who frankly could be pushed around. Not the most coordinated.

Mark was barely an all section player in high school and at age 11 probably was not very good at all. I’m glad he didn’t play baseball and have some dude tell him he wasn't good enough and end up quitting because he finally got it and ended up playing 9 seasons in the NBA. That’s the NBA – the most competitive athletic league in the world.

Should we really be in the business of deciding the haves and have-nots at age 9 or 10? Of course not.

I believe America needs a collective “Come to Jesus” meeting with regards to youth baseball (or any other sport for that matter). Here are some alternatives:
  1. No travel ball/all star teams until age 11. Competitive baseball can be played locally through age 10.
  2. Achieve this by running “Open Diamond” programs during the summer to encourage kids to just play. After all it’s the actual playing part that matters right?
  3. Allow young athletes to “control their own experience” more. This is something that happened 40 years ago in America and now only seems to happen on basketball courts. Tell the parents to go away for a while.
I honestly believe we are doing it all wrong. I also believe that it will take some brave folks to change it.

I hope my luck holds out…

Copyright © 2014 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

($8.95; Kindle: $2.99)


Thursday, May 1, 2014

What's Wrong with Organized Sports (Part 1)

   Here's a guest post from a friend who is both an ex-athlete and father of a young boy participating in organized youth sports. It's an entertaining read with some interesting thoughts on the value of organized sports versus self-directed play. Since it's a long article, I decided to break it into two parts, the second of which I'll post next week.

I’m a lucky man. No really. As I start to experience things through a father’s eyes I realize how lucky I was and am.

Athletics has largely defined who I am for most of my life. Certainly my youth. I was fortunate enough to have been offered athletic scholarships to several Division I schools to play football as well as eventually signing with a small Division I school to play basketball (my love) to play collegiately.

I also have done a little coaching at both the college level as well as high school. I can’t tell you how much of a joke college guys think of AAU ball (I mean who needs travel basketball at age 11?). But I digress.

When I was little I was always pretty good but I don’t think I was ever the best player in my league. In fact, since I went to a large inner city public high school I was never even the best player on my high school team (rare for a D-1 player). I do know that I was known as a kid with a large capacity to work and that I always got better every year.

This is not to say I was without talent. I could play.

One of the byproducts of playing at that level is that you get to know real quick how many truly great players there are and where you fit into the pecking order.

I never played much organized ball growing up beyond the 7 or 8 games you play at the local YMCA in Winter. I do remember one thing though. I remember the exact day I fell in love with basketball…

Sometime in early spring 1983 my father took me to the Omni in Atlanta to see the McDonald’s All America Basketball Game. The player of the year was Reggie Williams (who played on one of the great teams of all time at Dunbar Baltimore) as well as future greats Kenny Smith, Dallas Comegys, and Tommy Amaker, but the guy who changed my life was Pearl Washington.

I won’t bore you with it but the day I saw this guy from Brooklyn play it literally changed the way I lived and breathed for many many years.

He was a New York City guard in every sense of the word.

I was 12 and literally walked out of there with my Dad and knew what I wanted to be. I don’t think that has ever happened to me since.

It’s funny - my Father was a tough as nails southerner who had played pro baseball and worked as a scout for the Reds and I can’t remember him ever encouraging me to play ball. Never. He grew up in a cotton mill town of the depression era south and even though athletics got him out of the mill he was never a guy who hounded me about sports. Helpful – yes. Pushy – never.

Anyway, after seeing Pearl play I lived at the park. You see, the best thing about basketball was that you didn’t need to be on a team to play. You could simply go down to the park at Piedmont, Ralph McGill, Grant, etc… and get a game. Day, night, really late night - didn’t matter. I could go somewhere and get a game. My time was actually spent playing the sport that I loved. And FYI, this still goes on in every community in America. I currently live in perhaps the most white bread place on earth and I can still go to the local YMCA and play ball. All day if I want.

Let me repeat. I was able to succeed because I played. My time was spent dribbling, shooting, passing, competing (and if you don’t think that matters – try losing a game in the August Atlanta sun with 30 guys waiting to play. I promise – one plays to win).

I know that was a long prologue but I wanted to set a stage. You see I have a 9 year old son who plays baseball. – America’s pastime. Apple pie, Chevy, and the rest of that BS.

He’s pretty good too. He has enough ability to probably be a decent high school player. I’m not sure that he’s as gifted athletically as I but I think he’s good enough to have a good experience playing team sports.

Which brings us finally to the theme of this rant…

He’s also good enough to play travel ball…

Here’s my problem (and you can apply it to pretty much any youth sport these days – including basketball):

I think that youth baseball travel ball only gives the illusion of playing baseball.

Bear with me.

Johnny gets picked for the travel squad and mommy and daddy say, “Oh, great! Johnny will get so much better because he will be playing so much more baseball!”

Here’s how it really works: Johnny and his folks leave the house at noon on a Sunday to drive 30 minutes (if your lucky) to a field by 12:30 for a 1:30 game. The game takes 1 ½ hours and Johnny gets 4 at bats, 2 chances in the field, and pitches 2 innings. 20 minutes is spent gathering stuff/post game meeting with a 30 minute drive home to eat dinner.

Meanwhile some kid in Santo Domingo did that before he ate breakfast. And he did it with some socks in his back yard.

Think about it. You just spent 4 hours for Johnny to get 4 at bats, catch 2 balls, and throw 35 pitches! All the while some idiot who most likely never played a meaningful inning in his life acts like Leo Durocher or Bobby Cox.

There is no way you can convince me that this is good youth development. No way.

Check back next week with Inside Youth Sports to read the conclusion of this article. Find out what this parent believes is a better approach to more fully develop a young athlete's potential!

Copyright © 2014 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

($8.95; Kindle: $2.99)