Making the Right Coaching Decisions

I received an email from a mom of a sixth-grade boy who was playing basketball for the first time. She said that, while her son does get to play in games, his coach has instructed him never to dribble. When he gets the ball he can only pass to someone else. She asked if I thought this was wrong. I told her that I absolutely did. But I then also gave her some advice I’m not sure she expected.

My first thought when hearing this story was that this was a coach who had his priorities skewed, who only cared about winning and not about developing players. And I still believe this is probably true. But while this may be an extreme example, every youth coach in the world has to walk the fine line each day of doing what is best for individual players and doing what is best for the team. Because they might not be the same thing.

Some kids want to win. They love playing their best, scoring goals, getting hits, diving for balls, giving all-out effort to do their best. Other kids don’t care about winning. Don’t really care as much about accomplishment as with simply playing and having fun. In youth rec leagues both these types of players and everything in between are blended together onto one team. How does a coach make everyone happy? If he plays the best players most of the time and rewards them with wins and championships he is often considered a “win-at-all-costs” “over-the-top” jerk. If he only cares about “having fun” and doesn’t even notice the score, then is that fair to the players assigned to him who are competitive? What is the perfect balance? In fifteen years of coaching with four kids, I struggled with it with every team I had.

In the situation with the coach who wouldn’t let the player dribble, I told the mom I felt this was one of the few times it might be appropriate for her to have a discussion with him. But the advice I don’t think she expected was that it would also be great for her son to try to improve on his own. I don’t know how much time the coach spends with this boy at practice on ball-handling, and if he’s a good coach he should work with him to get him to get better. But if he has no one to help him, then all of the individual attention he gives to this one player would be attention he can’t give to the rest of the team. If this boy were to practice 20-30 minutes a day, on the street, in the garage – anywhere – he’d develop skills pretty quickly. (There are 13 really good dribbling drills in our CoachDeck for Basketball). This youngster could, in a short period of time, go from being one of the worst ball-handlers on the team to one of the best if he worked on it.

So whose job is it to ensure that a player gets what he wants? That he plays a specific position, or certain amount of minutes. That he be allowed to dribble. Is it the coach’s responsibility? Or the player’s? Because these lessons carry over to life. There have been many times that one of my kids has been assigned to be part of a group project in school. And often I’ve heard stories about one of the group who “couldn’t make it” when they all got together on the weekend or who contributed nothing to the project, but who still got the same grade as the students who did the work. Is that fair? And isn’t that kind of the same thing we’re talking about on youth teams?

The dynamic of player, coach and parent is one that so often causes controversy and extreme emotion. Yet for some reason, when you read or hear about friction in youth sports it is almost always the coach who is made out to be the bad guy. Maybe that’s one of the reasons it is so difficult to get volunteers to do it. We all react to what we see happening to ourselves. But being part of a team means being part of something bigger. In all cases, if you’re a player, a parent or a coach, it will be helpful to understand that this is about more than just you.

Brian Gotta is a former professional youth baseball coach and current volunteer Little League coach and board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels which can be found at www.booksbygotta.com. He can be reached at brian@coachdeck.com

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