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Coach Fundamentals: teaching youngsters

I would like to start this topic by defining the job of coaches that teach young players. The main purpose of their job is to develop young players. Sometimes this purpose comes into conflict with the need to win games. For example, young big men aren’t as well developed as guards (generally speaking, small players are ready at a much younger age), so if you use them a lot and rely on big men, you are more likely to lose. But being patient and giving enough game time to them is what it takes to develop great big men.

However, the main focus of those who coach young players should always be on developing players individually, rather than trying to win games. Especially young coaches and their supervisors should keep this in mind. Everybody wants to achieve result in whatever he does. And the result for them would be complete athletes they developed, not a number of wins.

We’ve already talked about the importance of having a teaching method, especially for this kind of coaches. It’s the cornerstone of coaching job. Let me focus on this topic today a little bit.

Having a teaching method means that coach knows exactly what knowledge he is capable to pass on to his players. There is only one way to make sure you can pass some knowledge to somebody. That is to have a teaching progression. Teaching progression is a system of transferring knowledge. You start at some point and you add obstacles progressively to help players reach certain level in a given aspect of the game.

It’s like teaching a child to go up the stairs. The first stair shouldn’t be too low or too high. In a while the stairs should get higher to fit the kid’s skills and his experience up to that point. If the step is too easy, he’ll pass it easily and won’t learn anything. If the challenge is too difficult and he cannot make it, he’ll become frustrated and will eventually give up. So the key for a good teacher is to offer a player such a succession of steps that are challenging enough, but at the same time are not too frustrating.

These days with Internet and tons of DVD and books available, knowledge can be much wider than a decade ago. Anybody can get a lot of specific knowledge about techniques and tactics. But the defining feature of your job as a coach is the knowledge that you can pass to players. It’s either having this progression in mind or not.

Another important part of the teaching progression is the ability to navigate easily between two levels — the whole and the parts. You should know exactly into what small details the whole might be divided and know how to assemble the whole from those details.

Basketball is like music. Young players who just started practicing basketball develop an idea, though random, of what the game is. They start with a global idea that basketball, normally, is played in a harmonic way. Then you give them drills or exercises to master specific aspects of the game. And then you put everything together again. Basketball is unlike mathematics. In mathematics, you start with elementary arithmetic operation and, at that point, have no idea what further mathematics is. In music, in sports we have this idea where we would end up. It means coach must always keep in mind this whole-part-whole teaching method.

You cannot develop good players only with the part method. Your players may be great in doing exercises and still wouldn’t play basketball. Neither you can develop players only with the whole method — always going 5 on 5. Your players just won’t have sound fundamentals as they should. You should develop your own method where you combine both whole and part methods according to your understanding. It’s the key to be a teacher.

One more part of the teaching method is to develop an understanding how people learn. People best learn using trial and error method. You try, make mistakes and learn from them. Making mistakes is a big part of the learning process. That means you, as a teacher, should develop some level of tolerance towards mistakes. Being too aggressive or too neutral towards mistakes is bad. You must develop some kind of balance, knowing exactly what kind of mistakes you can or cannot allow. In trial and error method the crucial part is how coach and player relate to the error, not the error itself. The error is an integral part of the process.

In my opinion, to develop this kind of method is more important than to study a lot of techniques or tactics. To sum up, you may have a library with thousands of DVDs and books, but the basketball your team plays would be very primitive. It’ll depend solely on your teaching method and the knowledge you can really pass to your players. No matter what you teach — literature, maths, basketball — you cannot transfer all your knowledge. You need to be very smart and accurate in selecting the parts that should be taught using teaching progression.

You start with practices. Practices give you the room to experiment, make mistakes and implement new knowledge through trial and error. During practices you put more pressure on players so that they understand and challenge themselves to get to the next level. Once the practice is finished and you have a game tonight, the only thing you could bring to the game is what you mastered in practices. The game itself, especially against a strong opponent, cannot be used to experiment and to learn something through trial and error. You try to support your team, to use their capabilities the best possible way.

In practices, by always pushing your players to get to new level you sometimes damage their confidence. Then in the game, you encourage them, no matter what, like they are the best team in the world. Because what you have from them at that point is all you can get. And only by encouraging you can use it the best possible way. Sometimes players have a hard time to understand that the same person who presses them so heavily during practices, supports them so much in the game. But once they get used to your method, everything is okay. This is how it works for me.

It’s the same for the musicians. They practice and practice and practice to go on stage and at the day of the show they are completely confident they can do what they’re supposed to do.

Once you know exactly what you are going to teach, that’s your program. It might include shooting, passing, catching, timing, spacing, vision fundamentals, playing 1 on 1, playing defense and so on. But the program itself isn’t so important. Besides, the program couldn’t be abstract. First, you need to evaluate your players and decide what you are willing to improve. So the program couldn’t exist separately. It’s always adjusted to the level and the needs of the team and always depends on the method you use.

Personally, I always expect players in my team to have good basics. From that, if you want to prepare a team you usually start with a defense, because the defense is how you get the possession of the ball in the game. Once you make sure your team knows how to get the ball, you can teach the fast-break. After the fast-break you can teach the offense. That’s my view of the game. I always start with the defense, because it sends the right message to the players. If I started with offense, they’d underestimate the key part of the game which is getting possession of the ball.

Next time we’ll talk about some specifics of coaching professional teams.



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