First of all, I’d like to thank Brian for allowing me to post on his site. Over the years, I’ve been a regular reader of Brian—whether through his books, the Hard2Guard Newsletter, or this blog—and I’ve had the chance to have many discussions with him in the comments section of this site, on Twitter, and through email. I’m honored to have been given the chance to contribute to this blog and look forward to doing so moving forward. To give some background, I don’t have outstanding credentials. No PhD here. I’ve been coaching youth basketball for the last 5 years, and I don’t really have a list of achievements that I can give you. Hopefully whatever Brian sees in me, maybe someone can detect it and let me know because I’m way in over my head with this.
Before I came across Brian’s work, I had no idea what a games approach was. I was an old-fashioned, stress the fundamentals, use all the standard drills, stick to the script type of coach. As I went along, however, something nagged at me. The athletes who performed best in the drills weren’t necessarily the ones that performed best in the game. Many coaches attribute this to athleticism, but that answer didn’t quite jibe with me. The best performers weren’t necessarily those who could jump the highest, or run the fastest. The best players were, I found, those who were mentally intuitive, who had great court vision and could think a step ahead on the basketball court. The best players also had a high basketball I.Q. I often felt like the success of my players almost happened independently of our work done in our drills, because most of the drills don’t teach the court vision, the tempo of the game, and the basketball IQ.
When I first read Cross Over and eventually found this website, from the outset I was intrigued by this idea of teaching games for understanding, of the science behind motor learning and the gap between how coaches teach and how players learn. The idea of the perception-action coupling, that all skills include both the perception and the action, that developing skilled players entails including, as much as possible, the perceptual qualities of the game, was an eye-opener for me as a coach. Immediately I sought to implement a games approach in my practices. It didn’t go so well, mostly because I didn’t know how to implement it. So the next season I went back to how I had coached before—teaching the fundamentals, drilling in a block practice fashion by working on ballhandling for five minutes, then shooting, and so on. The drills went well. I was organized. The players became more technically proficient. Even still, I was pulled in by this idea of using a games approach, and my mind constantly went back to it. As soon as the season ended, I set out to research and study this kind of approach in a number of ways.
I sought out books on the topic at hand and read as much as I could. I followed coaches and sports scientists on twitter and went through my timeline each morning, reading their discussions and favoriting the links they shared for further reading. I watched coaching DVDs and noted the drills that fit the criteria of a gamelike drill, ones that include not only the action, but the perception as well. I began building a bank of those drills that I now use in my practices. I found other blogs that share the philosophy and emailed with various coaches back and forth. I started my own blog, HoopThink, not because I felt like I had anything special to say, but because I’ve always enjoyed writing, and I wanted to get feedback from other coaches. I also learn a lot when I write things down. I’m too self conscious to keep and write a journal, but yet I’m willing to publish something for the masses to see. Go figure.
Last season, I used the approach fully for the first time, with the confidence that I had a good plan of action. It was the most fun I’ve ever had as a coach. The players’ engagement level was off the charts, and their improvement level from the beginning of the season to the end was the best that I’d seen. Since I coached three youth teams that season, I’m convinced that it wasn’t a fluke, that there was not just correlation between how our practices were run and how much the players improved, but there was causation as well—a tangible link between the theory of motor learning and the performance that occurred as a result. So you could say that I’m hooked, and I’m in it for the long haul.
For the fall, I have three teams, a 3rd grade team, a 5th grade team, and a 6th grade team. I had the 6th grade team in the summer, and the other two teams are new. I’m an AAU basketball coach for Bay City Basketball, a local grassroots program in San Francisco. AAU gets a bad rep from some corners, but I really feel that there are programs out there that do a lot of great work for the basketball community. In the winter I coach for Jewish Community High School of the Bay, where I’m Head Coach for the JV boys team and an assistant for the Varsity boys team. I also work for the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, where I manage a basketball camp in the summer.
My goal, going forward, is to continue to study the games approach and use it to develop youth basketball players. I’ve decided to go back to school, a local community college, to transfer and major in Sports Psychology. I want to use my education to equip all players with the skill-set to be great players on the court and great people off the court. Coaching is my passion, and having only done it for 5 years, I have a lot to learn. As I continue along my journey and try to learn as much as possible, I look forward to posting on this blog. Hopefully other people get something out of it.
Once again, it is an honor for me that Brian has asked me to contribute to the web site. Knowledge about motor learning and sports psychology is, I feel, at the verge of a tipping point, and the Internet is the perfect catalyst for information to spread about how to coach and how kids learn. The Internet has been an absolutely pivotal source of growth for me as a young coach, this web site most of all. I look forward to being a part of this.
By Paul Cortes
Basketball Coach at Jewish Community High School of the Bay, Bay City Basketball, and the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department