(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.


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Friday, January 21, 2011

Coaching 5th and 6th Grade Rec League Basketball, Continued

It's hectic, practice is, when you have 1/2 of a court in a gym with roughly 3 full courts, with the middle one designated to be empty because its wings spill over into the wings of the practice courts on either side. It's noisy, there's no place for the parents to sit, and the boys are a little tired after a long day. Yet, they come, many early, and they're eager not only to play ball, but to learn how to get better. Thankfully, their parents are supportive, which explains the dedication of most of the players. My co-coach and I also would like to think that our communication with the parents helps create a dynamic where the kids are focused on teamwork and, yes, winning.

We do a few things that work pretty well, so I figured that I'd take the time to share them with you.

1. We start out practice with a few reminders of what we did well and didn't do well in the last game. We continue to emphasize the fundamentals, and we also make sure that they don't rest on their laurels after a win. For example, we won one game pretty easily, but we could have put up a dozen or so more points had our best players not turned the ball over too much. The players didn't blanche at the comments -- they knew that we had a point. It also helps that we convey our messages with a smile -- a knowing smile -- one which makes the point but which also says, "you know that you can do better than that, and so do we."

2. We emphasize the same themes repeatedly. One of our major themes is crisp passing (you'll note from the previous paragraph that the messages don't always get through). We tell our players that a bad pass helps the other team play better defense, helps the other team, and takes an opportunity away from us. They nod, and their passing has improved. But they're just kids, so sometimes they'll telegraph a pass from too far or get too ambitious. That's better than not caring or just being plain lazy, and they work too hard for that.

We also talk about the importance of being disruptive on defense. Sure, we'd like the kids to steal the ball or yank it out of an opponent's hands, but we also talk of how major college teams keep statistics on how many times their players deflect a passed ball. I also relayed that Michigan State's Tom Izzo thinks that this is a key statistic. This particularly piece of advice has worked -- our kids fight hard on defense.

3. We get the oldest and best kids to take the lead. This is a key aspect to creating good chemistry. As a coach, you might be in a bit of trouble if you're trying to enforce discipline or get the kids to play hard. Thankfully, we have two leaders who give the last full measure during the two quarters they play -- one's our leading scorer, the other's our leading defender -- and their hustle creates a dynamic where everyone else wants to keep up with the best players. What's even better is how unselfish they play and how supportive they are of the other kids. The past couple of weeks, our first-quarter unit staked the second-and-fourth quarter unit (consisting of the older and better players) to big leads, playing their best basketball of the season. When the younger, less experienced players came off the quarter, the older kids chest-bumped them and high-fived them. It was great to see.

4. We try to have structure but to let the kids improvise. Okay, this seems contradictory, but here's what I mean. We do have several set plays on offense and an inbounds play, and sometimes we switch roles to give more kids a chance to run the offense. We like that structure, because even when the plays break down we've taught the kids sufficient fundamentals to set a ball screen and roll and create something. It doesn't always work, but without some set plays we'd have kids running to the same spot on the floor and bumping into each other, and the team would play poorly. That said, we typically run the set plays after either the other team has scored or if they've done a particularly good job of getting back on defense. But if they don't do a good job getting back on defense, we'll shout to our point guard to rush the ball up the floor and try to convert a layup. Why? Because it's easier to score in transition, when the other team hasn't set up its defense.

5. At this age, defense is the keystone to success. We create many opportunities on offense through a steal or a deflection, so that's one reason. The other reason is that if you continue to play hard on defense and cover well, the other team tends to stagnate on offense. They tend to force things, they tend to turn the ball over, and they tend to take bad shots. You can have all the talent in the world, but if you don't defend, you'll have trouble winning. Many of our opponents work hard on defense, but there's an occasional team that doesn't focus on it, and that makes for an easier game for our offense.

6. Our drills in practice are elements of the plays that we run. No, I'm not claiming to be Mr. Miyagi from the original Karate Kid series of movies, but the basic pick-and-roll, shoot off the blocks, jab-step drill, give-and-go and other drills are building blocks for the plays that we run. First we do basic dribbling, passing and screening drills, then we run the drills I just mentioned, then we highlight our plays. It seems to work.

7. They keep score, so we play to win, but. . . It's the rec league, it's fun, and we try to encourage each kid and will work patiently with any player so long as he's willing to work. The kids seem to feed off the structure of our practices, over how the drills are designed to help them improve, and over the fact that the team is successful. Yes, much of the success stems from the talented group that we have, but we've put a structure and process in place to help ensure that they achieve.

Preparation (drilling and repetition), organization and motivation = a recipe for a good season.

Good luck!


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