Is coach education important to improve basketball development?

A fraction of coaches are insulted any time that anyone (me) suggests that changes are necessary to improve the basketball system or environment, especially when one of those necessary changes is more coach education. Coaches argue that great coaches like Bob Hurley demonstrate that there are plenty of great coaches, yet conveniently ignore coaches like Joe Keller who illustrate exactly why reform is necessary.

In reality, coaches like Hurley and Keller are the outliers; most coaches, and in fact the average coach if there is such a thing, falls on a spectrum somewhere between Hurley and Keller. The average coach, if you were able to quantify every coach who works with 6-18 year olds in the United States, is more likely to be a volunteer mom or dad or a semi-volunteer high school teacher than a could-be professional coach like Hurley or a money-sucking child exploiter like Keller (based on the depiction in George Dohrmann’s Play Their Hearts Out).

The need for reform or more coach development has nothing to do with intentions. I firmly believe that 99% of coaches start coaching for the right reasons. I do not believe that anyone signs up to coach thinking that they are going to ruin a child’s life or intentionally teach the wrong things. However, that happens. Often, it happens because the coach does not know better. They have vague memories of their childhood experiences playing sports, and they emulate those. Of course, we remember emotional experiences far more than the mundane, so many people remember their coaches as yellers and screamers even if it happened infrequently because those are the emotional experiences etched into their memories, while the daily activities which more typified the experience are long forgotten.

While learning from a mentor is valuable, blindly doing what someone did 20 years ago is not. If I ate the food that I ate as a child, there is no way that I would maintain my current weight. Food recommendations have changed. When I was young, Gatorade was viewed as a health beverage, while chocolate milk was deemed bad because of the sugar. Now, many in sports recommend skipping the Gatorade, but drinking chocolate milk as a post-exercise recovery beverage. When I was young, pasta and cereal were health foods; now, many suggest moderate intakes of each because of the carbohydrates. When I was young, fat was evil. Now, there are good fats and bad fats. If I fed my son as I was fed, and my parents had every intention of providing healthy, nutritious food, I would violate many of the new ideas on healthy eating and food consumption.

In coaching, things that were standard procedures when I was a young player are no longer viewed as best practices. Few if any sports scientists would recommend that basketball players run long distances at a slow jog as pre-season training or static stretch before practice, but that was conventional wisdom when I played. Because it was conventional wisdom, and every coach did it, those who coach today without any additional education or exposure to new ideas and training methodologies perpetuate these practices from a bygone era. They are not intentionally coaching poorly; they simply are not professional coaches and do not spend hours researching sports science because they teach history, raise families, etc.

While these coaches should not be criticized for their volunteer efforts, we also should not stand by idly as they perpetuate poor practices for another generation. Rather than allow coaches to languish on their own, and face the wrath of parents who expect professional coaching at recreational-league prices, leagues and governing bodies should attempt to assist these coaches through coaching materials, affordable clinics, mentoring and more.

Parents will not send their child to an unlicensed barber, yet they will drop off their son or daughter and leave them with a coach who in all likelihood has no formal training as a coach. Bars require bartenders to be licensed mixologists and to have a certificate in handling food, yet we expect nothing from those who play such an important role in the development of our children at young and impressionable ages.

Youth sport is when athletes need the best coaching. Initially, athletes need coaches who inspire or ignite a passion for the game and for improving. After playing for a year or two, players need good instructors who can enhance players fundamental skill development. Players who fail to develop the interest in playing at a young age and/or who do not develop good skills by the early teens are much less likely to continue playing either by choice or by cut. These coaches are tasked with teaching the basics and establishing the right practice habits and attitude for the sport and training. By comparison, teaching plays to experienced, knowledgeable, motivated college players is a much less complex job. College coaching has its complexities and challenges, but they are reduced from an on-court perspective when they are able to recruit players who have been well-coached as youths and high school players.

It would be ideal if we had a system to pay youth coaches to make youth coaching a full-time job. This would raise expectations, and it would make coach education and development a mandatory requirement for aspiring coaches. As it is, however, we rely on the generosity of volunteers to sustain our youth sports, and we should never forget that. My youth coaches were a real estate broker, an accountant, a couple doctors, a call center manager, a history teacher, a 5th grade teacher, a construction worker and a Gap manager. They went to work early or worked weekends to be able to coach my teams. I thoroughly enjoyed all of them and appreciate everything that they did for my teams.

I was lucky. On the spectrum of coaches from Hurley to Keller, my coaches were far closer to Hurley than Keller. Unfortunately, it seems like every student who took my Introduction to Coaching course this summer had a coach who was much closer to Keller than Hurley. Some coaches were poor because of their treatment of athletes, and some were poor because of their lack of knowledge. My coaches made up for a lack of knowledge, especially in soccer as it was a fairly new sport in the early 80s, with their enthusiasm and ability to create a great team environment. I may not have learned to “Ben it like Beckham” or even to juggle a soccer ball, but I had fun, stayed in shape and made friends, and have nothing but good memories.

Could my coaches have better? Sure. They coached in an era before the Internet and when ESPN was one very new channel, not an ubiquitous sports enterprise. I never saw “real” soccer until late in high school. Finding new and current information and connecting with other coaches was more difficult then. However, after we developed an interest in the game, we could have used more technical and tactical instruction to improve our fundamentals and game understanding.

This is the need for coach education. Well-meaning coaches who want to develop their players, but who lack the time to search through the Internet or bookstores to decipher the good information from the bad. Leagues and governing bodies need to do the searching and sorting for the coaches.

While we need to appreciate our volunteer coaches, we also need to raise the expectations. Being a warm body should not be enough to coach youth sports. A 1-3-hour coach training should not be too much to expect, even from a volunteer. According to the Duracell commercial, something like 50-60% of firemen are volunteers: do they simply show up at a fire? They are volunteers, yet I assume that they go through training and are required to sustain some sort of fitness level as well as a working knowledge of firefighting procedures. Do our homes deserve greater protection and commitment than our children?

Leagues and governing bodies have a responsibility to create a convenient, painless coach development program for their volunteer coaches, and coaches – whether teachers or volunteers – have a responsibility to do more than show up on time. This isn’t about winning and losing games; it’s about creating great experiences for children, much like those that I was lucky to have as a child.

By Brian McCormick
Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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