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How to help your child to become a pro athlete

Many people ask me for a piece of advice on how to help their child to become a pro athlete. So today I'll try to address this issue and share some of my ideas.

First of all, it will be extremely helpful for your kid to try both an individual sport and a team sport when he's young in order to develop himself mentally and physically. For example, I was very lucky that my daughter tried judo for 3 years when she was in primary school. This really helped her to develop her personality, to overcome her lack of self-confidence, to know her body better and to discipline herself a little bit.

At the same time, I think that the dynamics of team sports are something that should be experienced as it helps to learn how to deal with other people, how to understand your role, how to assume responsibility not only for yourself but for the team. So I think trying a team sport is extremely helpful from the educational point of view.

In Italy we make a big mistake by deciding very early what game a kid should play. In the United States, kids have a chance to try many different sports before choosing which one they devote themselves to. For example, Trajan Langdon not only was drafted by an NBA franchise, but he was also close to be drafted by MBL team, because he played both basketball and baseball in college. In the US they have a chance to try many options partly because they have the system where seasons in different sports are spread through the year. As a result, a kid can virtually try everything. In Italy, due to the lack of facilities, usually, you send your child to do either football or basketball or volleyball or tennis.

Suppose you've already chosen any specific sports. If I were to make a suggestion, the first thing that I would consider as a father is the quality of the coach. Many parents who are not very familiar with a particular kind of sports may be attracted by the system that focuses on the result. But there is a huge difference between playing sports on the professional level and teaching it to the youngsters. You'd better send your kid to the place where the focus is on the development of his personality and his qualities of a player, as it's much more important at that age.

If you are lucky enough to find such a coach, second, you should not hurry to make your kid a pro athlete that has four or more trainings a week and dedicates a lot of time to sports. Personally, I think, this should not happen until the kid turns 14-15. Young kids that are exposed to a very high level of pressure physically, technically and mentally, usually, cannot stand this kind of pressure. I would like to find a teacher for my kid who will be able to offer a reasonable level of challenge to the young players and develop some kind of group mentality, still respecting everybody's personality.

This might be a difficult task to find such a coach, though. Due to financial reasons, children are usually coached by young people. I went through the same routine. I started coaching when I was 17. Turning back, I see that I made a lot of mistakes. It was good for me, as I had a chance to learn from my mistakes, but some of my players paid for it. There is not enough investment in children's sports so that experienced coaches could be attracted to work there. At the same time, we need young coaches to develop. But only those, who are able to get something from more experienced coaches, will become good teachers.

However not all older coaches are necessarily better coaches. Let's get down to the key question: how a parent who never played a pro sports could decide what coach is good for his child? First of all, neither the parent nor the coach should be attracted by immediate results. Second, all of us can understand if there is balance in the behavior of another person. Even if my son received more attention in terms of shooting, playing time, I would be suspicious. Because treating him like a superstar when he's 13 years old is not a good way to develop his personality.

Suppose I don't know basketball and choose a coach for my child. The most important indicators for me would be a) my son's mood when he comes back home after practices and b) the level of togetherness of his team when I watch their games. If I see that my child comes home perfectly adequate and most of the times positive, and his team is playing with a good sense of togetherness, for me that's the sign that you might want to stay with this coach. If, by contrast, he comes home frustrated or behaves in some strange way, he'd better leave and find someone else.

Trainings should be the time when the kid is challenged in a constructive way. You can understand whether it's working this way by simply looking at your son after practices. Talking about myself, if my son Filippo wants to play basketball when he gets older, it will be an extra-pressure both for him and his coach to have me around. So, I will need to find a way not to stay too close, but at the same time not to stay too far away from him. If I stand too far, he might perceive this as I'm not interested in him. So it would be a very difficult for me to find a balance at that moment.

Right now Filippo is crazy about basketball. He lives inside basketball. He comes to see our practices and games, he knows all the players, he has his CSKA jerseys and T-shirts, he's already a player in a sense. But when we go back to Italy, he plays a little bit of football with his cousins. Anyway I don't want to press him to choose basketball over other sports.

He's excited about basketball to the point that when he's home and a friend of ours comes, Filippo always wants to play two-on-two. He has his routine. He switches off the light and starts introducing players: number four — Theo Papaloukas, number six — Nikos Zisis, number seven — Anatoly Kashirov (who, by the way, is his favorite player)… And so on until the last one, then he turns the light on, he does a little warm up and then we finally can play. During the game he sometimes calls a time-out, goes to sit in the corner or waves a towel. So, basically, he imitates all the things he sees during our games.

The difficult part was when we, his mother or I, had to make him lose sometimes. We realized that our natural instinct was to let him win. We had to make it more realistic. Honestly, it was dramatic for him to lose a game at the beginning. Now, he finally understands that losing is also part of the game, as well as playing bad sometimes and recognizing that mama or papa played better.

When he will be 12-14 years old, he'll find an environment that will be easy for him to understand. Sport is a great help for youngsters to develop their personality. The reason is very simple: sport is a metaphor of life. You win, you lose, you experience frustration if you lose or joy if you win. But, if it's not your profession, you experience all this for free. In normal life, if you experience some failure (in relationships, in work or school or any other major field), sometimes it costs a lot. Sports give you a little bit of understanding how you will feel in real life when something similar will happen there. This is the great advantage of any sport. So I'd like my son to experience this, so that he will be more prepared for the real life.

Until kids turn 12-13 it's not only sport, it's more a game. By game I mean something that can be played with a lot of mistakes. It should involve a lot of fun. It's like in school when you experience all the fun when you start to read, to count or to discover something new. It's more a game for the first 4-5 years. Then it becomes more serious and you should start asking those kids to be much more selective in their understanding and their learning. You start pressing them a little bit more to organize their ability to study.

For example, in Italian school system the difference comes when you're ten. At ten you graduate from primary school to medium school, which lasts 3 years and prepares you to high school. And then after 5 years of high school you go to college. So, for sure, everything of the 5 years of primary school, from 6 to 10 included, is a game. Even if you start introducing a little bit of discipline.

The same in sports, it should not be about fundamentals until at least 10. For sure, you can teach your children to know their body through the use of the ball: how to catch, how to roll, how to run with the ball etc. In Italy, for example, we have mini-basket (smaller ball and the baskets are placed lower) which is mostly a game, not sports, with the exception of situations when coaches press the kids to win by all means even in mini-basket. And that is an abuse in my opinion. Besides, mini-basket is a pure fun to play where children under 12 can toy with the ball and participate in contests.

I've heard many things about Russian system where kids have one or more trainings a day from a very early age. In the US, you're not allowed to practice for more than a certain amount of hours a week. And they are very strict on that, even in NCAA. I agree with this. It's not realistic that your kid is 10-12 years old and he lives like a professional player, practicing two times a day.

When they ask me, at what age it is best to start training like a pro athlete, I answer with a question: How important is school education to your child? When I was coaching young players in Italy in the 80s (from 1978 to 1989) some parents told me: «Take my son to the gym as often as you can, because I'm not interested in school, I want him to become a professional player». Due to economic situation, many families see their children succeeding in sports as a way to improve the quality of their life. I respect that. But at the same time I still believe that education in school is very important. And it'll never be a good idea sacrificing it.

I believe that you cannot be a good, smart player, if you didn't study at the minimum level, if you didn't learn how to use your brain. At least, in Europe. NBA is different. As in Europe the game is played in a more sophisticated way, sometimes I'm happier to see my player reading a book, than staying in gym after practice. I'm very worried when everything outside basketball for them is PlayStation and iPod. I respect PlayStation and iPod, but there is something else in life beside that. For sure, you have to be a smart and educated person to play at the highest level.

So the question is either you want your child to be good in school in case his career didn't work out or you want to play in the lottery and bid everything to his pro athlete career. If you want him to study, he cannot practice two times a day until he finishes school. It's very simple.

As for fundamentals to be developed until players are 16-17, the most important thing to check is coordination and balance. I would not be so paranoid with all other things. Then, obviously, you teach them how to catch, how to pass, how to shoot, how to dribble, how to move without the ball. But if they don't have the balance and coordination, it's difficult for them to become good basketball players. For example, Ricky Rubio is helped a lot by the great balance, coordination and quickness he has. It gives him a great advantage. It's amazing that in Joventut they manage to raise so many young players year after year. For sure, their system deserves to be studied.



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