The Peak by Friday Mentality in High School Basketball

Prior to my game this week, I spoke with the opposing coach. He made a comment about another team in our league. He said something about their players being talented, but undisciplined, and how they just needed the coach to work with them. I joked that I imagine outsiders say the same thing about me and my team. Especially here, where most teams like to slow down the game and run set plays or Flex every time down, since there is no shot clock, we look wildly out of control in comparison. You never hear me calling out a play or telling them to slow down. Definitely different, and oftentimes we make mistakes or look disorganized because we have versatile players who play multiple positions and I encourage every player to push the ball rather than slowing down to give the ball to the point guard. In fact, I have gotten on bigger players for not bringing up the ball, but haven’t gotten on any for a turnover created when they did attack. From the outside, however, I imagine that we oftentimes look like we have a clueless coach.

During the game, one of the officials said that to me. He said that he knew most of my players, and they were better than my coaching. Hey, sometimes I think the same thing. I stay awake at night wondering why we don’t play harder, make more shots, make better passes, rotate faster on defense, etc. I spend evenings after games talking about our performance with a college coach who comes to most of our games. Despite my self-reflections, there are two issues with these comments as they pertain to coaching high school basketball in general:

The first problem is that it shows how coaches coach in the fishbowl. It’s easy to sit in the stands, watch a game, and criticize the coach or players, but how many people attend practices to see if the coaches work with their players? I know the official has never been to one of my practices – he made his comment based on less than half of a game played after four days without a practice. Whereas we did play poorly, we also shredded their press without needing a timeout or a press break and forced them to back into half-court defense. We simply missed numerous lay-ups and could not make a shot, probably because none of the guys had touched a ball in four days and our bus got lost on the way to the game, so we had 15 minutes to warm up. We also played a team that is basically an AAU team that plays year round and has played year round for years. They’re a good team, and we did not play our best, and therefore we were beaten.

The second issue is one of philosophy. In both cases, the comparison was between teams with a short-term focus and a long-term focus. In my game, our opponents played 8 players until the very end of the game when he substituted his other 3 players for a minute in a game that was ostensibly over. Meanwhile, I played 15 players in each half. Would it had been a different game if I played only my top 8? Maybe. Who knows?

My primary objective is not to win the games; I am more focused on giving each player an opportunity and helping each player improve. Whether I am successful or not is up for debate. Our opponent in the game also likes to make the game ugly; they played a 3/4 court 1-2-2 zone, and they run numerous set plays. Comparatively, we play man defense, run four plays, have no press break, and only four out-of-bounds plays (really one play run four different ways) which we have not practiced since the day we instituted them. OB plays are an effective way to score, especially in freshmen basketball, but my concern is not to get players to run great plays.

I am not saying one way is better than another. If the goal is to win the game, I have a poor approach. I think we would win more games if I had focused on 8-10 players all season. We might be more successful if we mixed up our defenses more or had more options on offense or changed our ob plays when we played teams a second and third time. However, I am trying to teach a couple things, primarily spacing, using an on-ball screen, getting open, moving the ball, stopping penetration, rotating on the back side, etc. If I played a 2-3 zone every time an opponent went to a Flex offense, we would not be working on the things that I am trying to teach. We might win, but is the win worth the loss of focus on the process goals? Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on your goals and philosophy.

Similarly, the coach who was criticized plays 12+ players and rotates between man defense and a 2-3 zone on makes and misses. They run some plays, but rely primarily on ball screens for their point guard, who is a very good player. I don’t know their coach, but he coaches as if he is more concerned with development than winning. We played a one-point game earlier in the season, and neither of us benched players because the game was close. He did not play his point guard 30 minutes, and I played all 13 of my eligible players (benched a starter for missing practice). The closeness of the game did not dictate our coaching; both of us appeared to maintain a focus on the long term.

At the high school level, I am torn as to which philosophy is better or right. The reality is that some of the guys on my team will never play competitive basketball again. Would their final season be better if we played to win? What if that means that they did not get any minutes? Is it better to give them minutes in their last competitive experience or for them to have a great record?

If I pick a top eight and give them most of the repetitions, aren’t I making the decision who will and will not make the team next season? What if I play the bigger, stronger, faster guys this season because it gives me the best chance to win, but one of the smaller guys grows this summer and the bigger guys don’t? My football players are my best athletes, but most are better at football than basketball; if they gave me a better chance to win this season, but quit to focus on football, where would that leave the basketball program? My two savviest basketball players might be the two players who look least like basketball players; should I not play them because they don’t look like basketball players?

Obviously, I lean toward the long term view. However, I understand those high school coaches who do not. Sometimes, I think that I am doing a disservice to the better players by not giving them more minutes. I sometimes think that the better players deserve more minutes to enhance their development rather than giving the minutes to players unlikely to make a varsity team. I know that I would be upset if I was the best player on the team and I played only 20 minutes a game because every player had to play. Of course, I would be more upset if I was the 10th man and my coach played only 8 guys and never gave me a chance to see what I could do in meaningful minutes in a game. I don’t know that there is a perfect solution or a perfect way to coach. Playing less than 20 games without a shot clock (so games are shortened by long possessions) does not help either.

I don’t criticize the coaches who play only 7 guys against us. That’s their choice; that’s their team and philosophy. However, sometimes when I look back at the game and think about our problems, I have to remember that their best player played 30 minutes and handled the ball the entire game, whereas over half of my team spent time as a primary playmaker at some point. It’s different, which is why the scoreboard is not the only way to evaluate players and coaches at the youth level.

If I wanted to look like a good coach, I would run a bunch of plays. I would call out the play on every possession so everyone knew that I was in charge. I would demand that players ran the play precisely. Unfortunately, that is often how people outside the fishbowl evaluate a coach. That’s not me. I do not want to eliminate the players’ thinking; I want to encourage it. Does that mean we’ll make more mistakes? Probably. Does it mean they’ll learn more? Hopefully. Does it mean they will end up as better players in the long run? I hope so.

I have an advantage because I can laugh off naysayers easily, as I have coached beyond freshmen basketball, and nobody is going to evaluate me as a coach based on my won-loess record here. The problem is that many freshmen coaches – typically less experienced, younger coaches – are not as lucky. When they are put in the fishbowl, what happens? Do they change their philosophy to look like a better coach and avoid the criticism? Do they focus on wins and losses to improve their chances to move up to junior varsity? If every coach cares more about the wins than development, how does that affect the players?

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

12 thoughts on “The Peak by Friday Mentality in High School Basketball

  • I agree with the philosophy of developing players even at the varsity level. Early in the season I always play at least 10 players in every game and many times in each half. Often we lose to teams early in the year and then beat them later on. An example is the job I am in now. I took over a team that lost 3 or 4 starters, ran a Princeton continuity offense and a number of set plays. The previous coach was a really good X’s and O’s guy and a good friend of mine. But our philosophies on how to play and coach are very different. I teach what most people would call motion. Its all learning how to play the game. We looked at times horrible early in the year. Last night we beat a team by 16 who we lost to by 30 and 20 early in the year. We have beat them twice in district the last two weeks the other game by 4 points. I have had this argument before with coaches, friends, parents and family. My teams always play better at the end of the season, the team you play late in the year is not the team you played early in the year. When would you rather be successful? If you aren’t prepared to suffer the defeat to get what you want and persevere through it you will never create a culture that consistently improves year to year. Just my two cents.

  • Great post Brian. This is why I read everything you write. Coaches taking the long term view might be in a minority, but it is hard to argue with trying to develop decision making for your players who want to continue to develop in basketball.

  • Thank-you for your honesty. It is hard to be a team that has more “mortal victories vs. real wins.” Long term development is right way to go, just difficult to get the best players/their parents to understand agreed.

    The most common complaint I hear from parents “How can their son (elite player) develop to their potential vs. their peers if they don’t get more playing time?”

  • Bruce:

    We have a winning record. Honestly, Christmas break killed us, as we were just hitting our stride. Oh well. I struggle with that too. One reason that I wrote this was to show the negative side. I generally write about the positives to playing everyone and focusing long term, but I think there are negatives too. It’s a matter of balancing them. Do the positives outweigh the negatives? When I had 12 players and a shot clock, I had my mind changed. Playing everyone was forced upon me by a varsity coach; previously I had been an 8 or 9 player rotation coach (albeit primarily at the professional level). With 12 players, I definitely thought the benefits outweighed the negatives.

    15 players, however, is somewhat unwieldy, and I am not as confident in its efficacy. The problem then is who shouldn’t get minutes? One benefit is that from game to game, my best player is a different guy. Of course, the negative is that we almost never have everyone playing their best together, likely because playing time can be sporadic when trying to juggle 15 guys.

    I agree with the parents who say that the lack of minutes may short-change their development. In California, we would get to games an hour before the game and run a practice for our warm-up because I was never worried about anyone being tired. Here, however, we tend to have only 20 minutes. I used the long warm-up to get more time on task; that’s when I stopped going into the locker room for pre-game chats or anything like that, and I still don’t.

    One issue with the team who we played in the story is that they have been together and play year-round with the same coach, whereas we have played 16 games as a team. I think that is an issue in terms of our players’ development. These players need more games and better competition in their formative years.

  • The guy who I think does the best job at balancing player development with structure and game preparation is Bob Hurley at St. Anthony HS. I think it’s worth it for all coaches to look at his program because I am continually amazed at the job he does building skills and teaching motion offense and man-to-man defensive principles in a way that’s cohesive and progressive for his players.

  • Hi Brian, first time commenter here. As a youth coach, my goal is character development (ie. developing skills and characteristics that transfer outside of basketball). If you share that objective, do you think trying to win is all that bad? I’m not sure which is better for these boys in the long term- trying to develop basketball skills or teaching them the necessary ingredients for a winning team. Thanks for all your hard work, very informative and provacative!

  • Eric:
    I think it’s important to teach players how to compete. I don’t think winning is bad or trying to win is bad. I’ve actually defended teams who win by big blowouts because I think we have become a society that appreciates mediocrity and punishes the exceptional, which I don’t like.

    My main focus is what trying to win means. We try to win every single game. I keep track of winners and losers in every drill in practice. However, I try not to let the goal of winning the game become more important than the goal of long-term development. To me, that means that I focus on trying to help players become the best that they can at the things that I feel are important, rather than worrying about putting together game plans to take opponents out of what they want to do. I don’t want to tell players not to dribble or not to shoot; I don’t want to limit their long-term development to limit mistakes in the short-term. That’s kind of the difference to me, if that makes sense.

  • Fascinating Brian. I have a similar playing time philosophy in the world of soccer. Some object to distributing playing time roughly equally based on the fact that diminishes a player’s reward and incentive to try hard harder. Any thoughts on that argument? In my view its very hard to measure ‘effort’ objectively…

    Also I think that what you do with playing time can reflect your objective. Are you trying to develop one or two exceptional players? Or are you trying to improve the level of all players? For me its the latter, and that means effectively reducing the playing time of my best players so all players can get some meaningful playing time. Where I am (rural WV) there seems to be a negative correlation between Middle school record and High school record. There isn’t depth across the board at the High School level, presumably because the best players just played all the time at Middle school, and there isn’t all round development of all players.

  • Illuminating post. The development versus winning conundrum never goes away. In elite youth soccer, for example, teams that play the long ball and exploit defensive mistakes win a lot of games until 16u or so, when teams that have a philosophy of playing through the back and using short passes start to take the major championships. By that time, though, it’s scary to imagine how much verbal abuse the Barcelona-style coaches have endured from parents, players, and other coaches after their years of losses and conscientious player development.

    What I really wanted to do here, though, is to sincerely thank Brian for his research, encapsulation, and explanation of the LTAD and Crossover methods that have provided endless benefits for the players I’ve used them with over three seasons of youth basketball. The greatest benefit has been the joy of play. At practice we play tag and 3 v. 3 games with amended rules, some serious and some silly. For 60 minutes once a week on half a reduced-size elementary school court, and despite the metal backboard and basket that can no longer be adjusted to the proper height, our teams learn explosiveness and agility without realizing it, hone their basketball IQ well apart from the context of set plays or a true motion offense, and practice by practice come to love the game of basketball as much as they love the playground games they invent themselves. Interestingly, Crossover teams, at least at the elementary-school levels, also win a lot, too (because the players’ athleticism, skill levels, and basketball understanding rise so quickly during the season). Who knew that Dribble Freeze Tag could do so much for young athletes?

  • So what is the tipping point for coaches who adopt a small sided games approach? Why do they change and why don’t other coaches who hear the same message refuse to change?

  • Dennis:
    I don’t know the tipping point for most coaches. I kind of spoke about my various tipping points in a recent article (especially the comments):

    I think many coaches do not change because change is hard, especially if a coach has had some form of success doing it one way. It’s easier to change when things are falling apart or you have a bad season or you had a bad experience as a player.

    I also think the fishbowl affects coaches as well. The way that we view and evaluate coaches certainly has to have an effect on their mentality. How many coaches at any level can afford to have a couple losing seasons in a row because they are trying to develop skills? I know parents on 10 year-olds who will move their children to “more competitive” teams after one poor showing in a tournament!

    I also think there is a reluctance to change because of a misunderstanding of learning. Many believe that neat and orderly drills at practice leads to better learning, but research has shown this not to be true. Here’s an example:

    I walked into a gym for a practice run by a professional coach with a huge ego. The gym was organized. There were stations at 6 baskets. There was a clock tracking the time for each station. Each station worked on a different fundamental skill: lay-ups, shooting, dribbling, boxing out, etc.

    Now, had I had the same group, we would have played tag, 3v3, keep away, etc. Here’s a small video about a camp I did this summer:

    I think most people would walk into the first practice and see order and recognizable skills and drills and think the coach was doing a great job. I think many people would walk into my gym and wonder if I had ever coached before. When I walked into the other coach’s gym, I thought the drills were mostly a waste of time – I really don’t think they did one thing applicable to a game. I don’t believe that doing stationary figure eight dribbling drills improves game ball handling and I don’t believe that throwing the ball off the glass and catching it teaches rebounding. Now, these drills may have a small place in the overall player development picture, but if these are things done frequently or every week, I’d feel it was a waste of time, even though most people would think that it was very well-organized.

    Point being, if people would question me and my approach, but approve of the stations, why would you want to change and play tag and games and be judged poorly?

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