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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Who do you believe?

We frequently receive letters from parents and coaches asking for advice. Below are representations of two such letters, written about the same child: One from the child’s parent and one from his coach. You will notice, the two authors see the same situation from completely opposite perspectives.

“Dear Sir: My son’s coach is so unfair! Let me give you some background. My boy began playing competitive basketball when he was eight years old. He is now eleven. He has always been one of the best players on the team and has been used to getting lots of playing time. This year we moved him to a new team that is supposed to be in a more competitive league. Even though he is one of the youngest players on the team, he is still clearly as good or better then anyone else, including the coach’s son. But guess who suddenly is sitting the bench while the coach’s son plays nearly every minute? When he does get in the game he is so nervous because he knows that if he makes one mistake he’ll be yanked and put on the bench. Some games he hardly plays at all. This is devastating to my son and I’m concerned that he’ll lose the love of the game and not want to play anymore at all. Other parents have even come to me and said they think he’s a great player and they can’t understand why he doesn’t play more. It is everything I can do not to confront this man but my son doesn’t want me to. The team wins most of its games so that is probably why no other parents seem angry. Do you have any suggestions for how I should handle this? Should I speak to the coach even though my son begs me not to?”

Signed,

Parent of a great player.

“Dear Sir: I coach an 11-12 year-old basketball team in a competitive league. I am not a paid coach and my son, who is twelve, is on the team. Lately, I’ve been having difficulty with one of the players, or maybe more specifically, his parent. The boy in question is eleven and he is a nice kid, like all of them are at this age. The problem is that, in my opinion, he isn’t ready for this level of competition. I think his parents pushed him to be on this highly-competitive team more than it was a case if him really wanting it himself. As I said, he is younger, and one of the smaller players as well. He is a pretty good defender and shooter, but needs to work on his dribbling, and he struggles grasping our offensive scheme. I try to give him extra time at practice, but I find that takes away from the other kids. I can see him getting more and more discouraged and his attitude is suffering. He pouts at practice and  especially at the games if he’s on the bench. In our last game, when I put him in, he got the ball three times and all three times he turned it over. First, he dribbled off his foot out of bounds. Next, his pass was stolen and taken the other way for an easy lay-up. Then, he was trapped in corner by two defenders and held the ball until he got a five-second call. Finally I called time out so that I could get someone to take his place before we gave up our lead, plus I didn’t want him to be totally embarrassed. I could tell that his mother in the stands was furious but I don’t know what else I can do. Any advice would be appreciated.”

Signed,

Coach of a not-so-great player.

Isn’t it interesting how two people can view the same circumstance so differently? So where does the truth lie? As usual, probably somewhere in the middle. And since they asked for our advice, here it is – for both sides. To the upset parent: Is is possible that your child might not be ready for this level of play, and that you are seeing his talents from a strong bias? If this coach is unfair, why aren’t other parents complaining? And since this is a competitive team that cares about winning, if your son was good enough to help the team, don’t you believe the coach would play him more? How much time does he spend on his own trying to improve? Putting aside our thoughts about the wisdom of ultra-competitive teams for eleven and twelve year-olds, this is what you signed up for. Rec leagues are designed so that everyone plays and the emphasis is not on winning. But you can’t have it both ways. If you want him to play with elite competition, he has to work hard to earn playing time and not just expect it to be granted.

And to the coach: I understand you believe this child may have been pushed into a situation he wasn’t ready for. But your job as a coach is to try to find a way to get the most out of each player. You say he is good at certain aspects of the game. Why not put him in situations where those talents will be utilized and his deficiencies will be minimized? At practice, it doesn’t take any extra time to praise a player when he does something good. That will usually get them to stop “pouting” and maybe make them more likely to want to play harder. And, I understand that this is a competitive team, but calling time-out to take a fragile eleven year-old player out of the game might be taking the desire to win too far. In our opinion, your greatest accomplishment as a coach would not be to run the table and win the championship, but to bring this player out of his shell and turn him into a positive contributor who wants to come back and play again next year. If you can do that and win the championship, more power to you.

There are always two sides to every story – two perspectives. The letters we get rarely recognize this, probably because we tend to get so emotional about our kids and youth sports in general. When we’re feeling angry or mistreated, both coaches and parents would be well-served to put themselves in the other’s place. Walking a mile – in someone else’s shoes – might be the very best way to calm down and gain perspective.

Brian Gotta is President of CoachDeck LLC (www.coachdeck.com). He can be reached at brian@coachdeck.com.

What “every parent” should read

Kudos on the article!  Exactly what needs to be seen by EVERY parent of a young athlete.  Problem is, they never connect it with their own.  Blinders are the obstruction.  Loved reading it!

This is a recent comment we received from someone who came upon what continues to be one of our most popular articles, Parents and Playing Time. What do you think about the issues this article addresses?