Parenting through the Athletic Process

When I was a child, parenting a wannabe athlete was much easier: in the fall, I played soccer for the club affiliated with my church; in winter, I played basketball for my school; in spring, I played Little League at the league five minutes from my house; and, during the summer, I was fortunate to attend a camp or two around family vacations and going to the local pool and basketball courts.

These days, there are so many choices and, with the advent of the Internet, so much more information and misinformation. There are so many different sporting opportunities. Heck, there is a professional soccer league, poker players on television and mainstream mixed martial arts. There is NJB, AAU, YBOA, BCI and other youth basketball organizations; there are youth strength training facilities; private basketball skill trainers; private basketball facilities; showcase events and more. How does a parent navigate his or her son or daughter through the youth athlete development process?

The Sacramento Bee recently ran an article with the father of two collegiate golfers. While golf is different than basketball in numerous ways, the advice and examples that he offers parallels in many ways the research conducted on talented teenagers and expert performers by sports psychologists and educators like K. Anders Ericsson, Benjamin Bloom, and Mihaly Csikszentmihaly.

My biggest regret – and greatest warning to others – is letting golf become the center of the family to the exclusion of the needs and desires of other family members.

Looking back, the scheduling of golf tournaments should have been subordinate to the scheduling of family vacations. There’s always another tournament to play.

When they were 15, the boys quit going on our church’s week-long youth camping trip because they needed that time to practice for the U.S. Junior tournament…

Interestingly, the closest either of them came to qualifying for the U.S. Junior was the day after they returned from church camp – with no practice – when they were freshmen.

I always see advertisements for big AAU Tournaments that seem to coincide with family-type days: Mother’s Day Madness, Easter Classic, Father’s Day Spectacular. It seems like those would be the best times not to schedule a tournament and to give the players (and families) a week off. As the dad says, there is always another tournament to play. Unfortunately, it seems like we have this mentality that if you miss a week, you will fall behind.

In the athlete development process, we place too much emphasis on the on-court action and ignore the idea of the 24-hour athlete: if we assume that an athlete trains two hours per day, the things that he or she does in the other 22 hours per day has as much of an effect on his or her success. If the player lacks proper nutrition or does not sleep or otherwise does not take care of his or her body and mind, the player undermines his or her on-court training. Skipping a weekend tournament to celebrate Father’s Day or missing a week of summer league to go on a family vacation is not going to stunt a player’s career, but going 52 weeks straight may affect the player’s drive and motivation.

Next, the father suggests:

Find your child a great instructor who can help them as they grow and who understands their swing.

You can look at this in two ways with basketball, either a coach or a trainer. The benefit of a trainer is that you can stay with a trainer as you change coaches. I’ve worked with a player for several years and he has probably played for 10 different team coaches in that time. It is hard for any one of those coaches to take a long term view of the player’s development if he only coaches the player for a short season or a couple months before he moves to the next league or moves to the next level at his school.

On the other hand, some programs do a good job of keeping players together over the course of a number of years. For youth club/AAU programs, I think this should be the goal, as opposed to recruiting new players. Many parents however are persuaded to leave a good club for various reasons. I worked with a club that was a great learning environment with very good coaches who cared about the players and all the players got along really well. However, one parent was nudged by an outside influence and she decided to move her daughter to a more prominent club, and the club started to fall apart competitively. I have seen this happen several times. Most of the time, the local club with caring coaches, plenty of playing time and friendly teammates is a better overall experience than chasing a better coach or more competitive program.

If you find a program with players who stick together over a period of several years with coaches who care and work hard, consider yourself lucky. Don’t mess up by thinking that there is something better out there. The grass ain’t always greener.

If your child has a goofy swing, grip or ball flight, fix it sooner rather than later. At the college level, you won’t see “four-knuckle” grips or big hookers or slicers.

On the basketball side, I see this all the time. Players spending a great amount of time playing the game and training to become better, but they have incredible shooting flaws. If your son or daughter loves the game enough to train – as opposed to playing for fun – find someone who can teach him or her to shoot properly. Now, a couple lessons are not enough. To correct a player’s shooting technique requires a lot of time and concentration, and the player must be motivated to work on his or her own, not just play games or train with a trainer.

When I train players, I help them for an hour or two per week, but the development has to come on their own in the in-between times. If I am a good trainer, I help the player learn the correct feel so that he can self-correct when he works out on his own. But, if the player does not practice in between sessions, my impact is minimal unless their budget is endless and they want to hire me five days a week. Players who want to be great do not need basketball babysitters – they are motivated to work on their own.

If your kid goes from shooting in the mid-80s to a scratch golfer in a few years or less, it doesn’t mean scores in the mid-60s are just around the corner. Sometimes shooting par or the mid-70s is as good as a kid will get. This is especially true if the items above are ignored.

This is an important and neglected point. I hear from parents, players and coaches who seem to think that the hours and money invested in youth basketball mean that the player deserves a scholarship. Unfortunately, that is not how it works. Colleges recruit based on needs and talent. While a college scholarship is a reward, in a sense, it really isn’t. It is a reward in the same sense that when you graduate from college and get a job, you are rewarded for your effort in school. It is not a reward in the same way that being voted all-league is a reward. A college scholarship is the beginning, not the end. Coaches recruit based on what they believe you will do in the future, not what you have done in the past.

Improvement is not a continual forward, upward line. There are hills and valleys. How a player handles the struggles ultimately determines, to a great degree, the eventual success of the player. One of the most important skills for a player to develop is the coping skills to handle mistakes, failure or rejection.

Navigating youth sports is different for parents today than it was during their youth. Unfortunately, there are many questions, but few places to turn for real answers. Most answers on message boards and through the media are tinged with bias and agendas, and most people follow the herd, figuring that if Player A earned a scholarship and went through XYZ, then XYZ is the path to a scholarship. However, the process for one person may not be the right process for another – many players reach a level of success in spite of the road that they took, not because of it.

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

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