You Can’t Teach Instinct

By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck

I was watching a college basketball game on television and saw a player make a play that did not warrant any ‘oohs” and “aahs” from the commentators, and it was not shown on replay or on any highlight shows the next day. But it struck me because I realized that no coach had taught this kid to make this play. And it got me thinking about the way most youngsters today are learning their sports.

On this particular play, the player was heading toward the basket full-speed when he received a pass from underneath. Without even dribbling he went up for a fake shot, then made a perfect pass back underneath for a layup. He had less than a second to process where he was, where the defender was, and where the basket and his teammate were. He simply reacted. There was no time for thought.

No coach could have possibly taught him that move. I can’t imagine a scenario where a coach would slow practice down and work on this exact situation so that a player would have that in his repertoire. Rather, that came from years of trial and error, probably playing pick-up games for hours on end.

Do our kids get enough of that? Of course, there is a place for structured practice. The fundamentals need to be taught through various drills. There is value to private, one-on-one lessons for those who can afford to send their kids. But if you had to choose, would you want your kids to have the best technique, or the best instinct?

Kids should be encouraged to play on their own, away from structured coaching. This is not only good for their athletic instincts, but for their life skills as well.

My boys were lucky that there were three of them, pretty close in age, and they had a cul-de-sac that they could use as a wiffle ball field. They drew bases in chalk and had tournaments against each other that lasted weeks. They made up their own rules, settled their own disputes, but most importantly, they played and learned. Learned when they could take that extra base. Learned how to make a fake throw and tag someone out.

When I ran practices, “Live Situations” was always part of the plan. We’d essentially play a live game in a controlled environment where we coaches could stop the action and praise something a player did right and explain to the team why and how he did it. We could also correct mistakes. It was like a scrimmage but with a pause, rewind and play button.

I’m thinking of all the boys and girls my children’s ages who spent countless afternoons alone with some private instructor honing their mechanics. Many of them had and are having success in their athletic careers so I’m not criticizing it. But I wonder if they’d have had as much benefit or more from just playing.

Now, as I’ve written before, I understand that in this day and age it isn’t as easy as it might have been thirty years ago to tell grade-school kids to just go down to the school and to be home at dark. But imagine if ten families, each paying for their child to attend individual private lessons at various locations, instead, all paid one tenth of the amount to one coach who would simply supervise them play against each other at a field without saying a word. That sounds kind of radical, but why? What if, in lieu of coaches, parents all rotated and took a day to do the same thing, and let the kids organize it all?

This may just be a fantasy of mine, but I don’t see how anyone could argue the benefit. Again, there is a time and a place for structured coaching. But if you want to see your young players really learn how to “play”, that’s exactly what they’ll have to do.

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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