Last week, after watching some of the youth teams in the club play, I asked to organize a coach’s meeting. My purpose for the meeting was a desire to create a club philosophy. Within our club, coaches change almost every year, as most youth teams are coached by senior players. Therefore, there is little consistency from year to year, and the growth and development of the players appears slow and fragmented.
Yesterday, however, Finnish coach Harri Mannonen posted a blog about clubs designing their feeder systems around a staple system and questioned whether this limited development rather than enhancing it. Whereas a philosophy and a staple system are not necessarily the same thing, and in many ways are different, what is the purpose or the benefit of developing within one club?
In the U.S., it is rare for a basketball player to develop within one environment fro several consecutive years. Even when I coached with a very good AAU program – Hoop Masters in Los Angeles – it was rare to retain good players for more than 2-3 years. I worked with another lasting program, the NorCal Sparx, but it imploded during the high school years. Another former club, the Santa Monica Surf, kept a group together for 2-3 years, and some for a couple more, but eventually the players split.
There are advantages and disadvantages to a one club or one coach system. For instance, when I was at Hoop Masters and coached u9 boys, we emphasized several things with the belief that their coach at the u10 level could complement this development. Therefore, we focused on individual defense, ball handling, and lay-ups, and believed the next coach could build on these skills with more team defense and shooting concepts. Because the majority of the players on the u10 team had played together on the u9 team, they had similar skills and a similar playing background which could be used as a foundation to continue to build and develop skills.
Instead, oftentimes players move from coach to coach without a natural progression. For instance, if a child plays in a local Parks & Recreation league as an u9, there is no guarantee of what skills his or her coach will emphasize. When these players move to u10, there is no guarantee that players will play for the same team or that the u10 coach will know the u9 coach. Therefore, the players may or may not have a similar playing background or skill set.
As a small example, with our team, every player handled the ball. Every player had varying abilities with the ball and varying size and quickness, but every player did every ball handling drill. We did not designate positions. Whereas there was definitely a discrepancy between the best and the worst ball handlers at the end of the season, even the worst ball handler was capable with the ball against a full-court press, which several opponents noted to us. In another environment, a coach may tell the bigger players not to dribble or focus only on one to two players dribbling the ball at all times. If one of the bigger players from this environment had joined with the players who we had at u9s, he would have been far behind. There would have been multiple foundations from which the next coach would have to start.
The disadvantage of the one coach or one club system, from an individual’s perspective, is the other side. What if your skills or strengths do not mesh with the coach’s approach to the game? For instance, what if Dirk Nowitski had played for coaches who believed that he should never leave the key, that a 6’10 player had to rebound and protect the basket, not shoot jump shots? If he was stuck in a one club or one coach situation, he may have quit the game because that approach did not fit his skills or his desires or he may not have developed into the player that he is today.
I worry about this with the teams that I coach. What if I miss on a player? What if a player excels at something that I am not noticing and I stunt his growth? Two years ago, I asked the varsity coach to promote a freshman player to the sophomore team because I id not feel like I was maximizing his talent. I did not think that he was the best player on my team, but I thought that a new coach might be able to get more from him than I was able to. I was worried that maybe he did not fit my system or our personalities did not mesh or whatever. In a one club or one coach system, however, what if that player was stuck with me or with my ideas for his entire career? When I trained a number of players, I encouraged them to try other trainers to see if there was something else that they could learn rather than being limited only to my knowledge and teaching.
When I played, I thought the best experience was playing for other coaches, whether at summer camps or summer leagues. In truth, my game and my skills never fit with the systems that my school teams used even though my school teams were always very successful. When I played in other environments, I was able to utilize my full skill set. As an example, as a high-school freshman, as a point guard, I basically dribbled the ball into the front court, passed to the wing, cut away and became a spot-up shooter. That summer, in a summer league, I was basically Steve Nash with the Suns. The coach gave me the ball, encouraged us to run, and let me use ball screens all game long. In the summer, I was able to use and improve all my skills even though our school-team system did not require those skills. If I only played with my school team, I may never have developed those skills.
Despite my fun and learning with my summer teams, most of my skill development occurred with my school teams. From 5th-8th grade, I basically had the same coach. Our skills progressed on an annual basis, as we progressed with the same foundation from 5th grade to 6th grade. With the summer team, I was the fortunate player chosen by my coach – there were other players who rarely ever touched the ball as I was the dominant ball handler. I was the one with the higher skill level. My coach once admonished me for passing up an open shot to pass to a less-skilled teammate for a lay-up which he missed. Whereas this built m confidence as no coach had, what was it like for my teammate? Was he developing? Would that situation been good for him had that been his only coach for his entire career?
Therefore, I don’t know if there is a correct answer. I imagine players can develop in either situation. In the U.S., there is an embarrassment of riches. With the freshman player on my team, if he did not develop, there were another five point guards in the class behind him. If he never maximizes his talent, someone else will, and the success of the program will likely not be altered; just his individual career. In small clubs, like the one where I am now, we cannot afford to lose a player. We cannot afford not to maximize each player. My first team has only one true homegrown player; that means the club has to find ways to attract an entire team’s worth of players. That means finding jobs for some, enrolling some in schools, etc. Luckily, we are the only club at our level for miles and miles, so a couple players choose to drive an hour to play for our club in a more competitive level, as opposed to playing for their home club. On my second team, I have 3-4 homegrown players. The next level is the u16s, and they have only 8 players. Because of the dearth of players, we essentially have to develop all eight players and maximize the talents of all of them. Imagine coaching a varsity high-school team in a district where there were only 8 players playing on a combined 6th-8th grade team. It’d be pretty difficult to build a program. You would feel a need to develop all eight players to maximize their skills. That is a very different situation than being in a large public school where 70-100 freshman tryout for the team every year. If one of those 8th graders quit, there are plenty of players to replace him.
In a small club, I think there needs to be greater organization governed by a club philosophy. The philosophy does not need to be restrictive, but it should help to guide the coaches and players. When I watch our clubs play, each team from year to year plays different defense and runs different offense. Is that enhancing adaptability, as Mannonen suggested, or is it simply leading to a lack of mastery?
When I studied English at UCLA, I remember a professor telling us about the haiku that the greatest constraints allow for the most creativity. Because a poet no longer has to think about rhyme scheme or syllables per line because the haiku constraints the poet to three lines in a 5-7-5 pattern, the poet can focus entirely on the creativity of the content and the idea. In the same way, whereas a philosophy could be seen as reducing variability or creativity, simplifying the process may actually serve to create more creativity.
“Variability is one the main principles of motor skill learning. But if the club has a staple system, it will make the players repeat the same motor patterns over and over again, season after season. So having a staple system is counter-productive when comes to motor skill learning.”
Which motor skills? If a club adopts a packline defense philosophy for all levels, does that ensure that players will repeat the same patterns over and over? Doesn’t that depend on the offenses? If a team becomes very adept at its basic defensive principles, won’t that allow for additional creativity?
I agree, for the most part, with Mannonen’s argument because he is influenced by more restrictive systems, as he wrote:
“Sometimes clubs – at least here in Finland – will put an emphasis on designing a staple system of play for all or most youth teams within the organization. This staple system may be drawn up in great detail. It may include set plays, a continuity offense, a distinctive set of defensive rules and so on.”
My goal with my club is not to create a restrictive system or to force all the coaches to run my plays, my defense, and my drills. However, I do believe that a philosophy, an objective, and a systematic progression for players will enhance our club’s player development. From year to year, this development will be shaped by the individual coaches, who will change, but some things should be absolutes for all the teams or for specific ages.
What does that mean? Based on the way our teams have performed, I think we need to emphasize speed with all our age groups: speed of play, speed of foot, speed of thought, and speed of decision making. The better teams play so much faster than us at the youth ages, and much of that starts at practice. We need more of an emphasis on shooting at every level, as only one or two homegrown players is an above-average shooter for his or her age group. As an extension of speed, we need more attention placed on individual defense, as very few players in the club at any age group excel at moving their feet and containing dribble penetration.
My goal is not to design one specific system for the entire club so every team runs the Flex and plays the packline defense. My goal is to create some absolutes and allow each coach to use his or her creativity within those absolutes. I think that the u16 coach should have an expectation of skill levels and knowledge base when players move from u14 to u16 rather than starting over each year.
Essentially, I think the goal of a club should be to utilize the best of both approaches (one coach/one club vs. hodge-podge), whereas, I think my club, due to the constant changing of coaches is stuck with the worst of both. I believe a club should have a continuity of learning for players as they progress from level to level. The teams should speak the same language so I can pluck an u16 player for my 2nd team, and he can adjust quickly to the new team because we have the same basic principles. However, I also believe that individual coaches should have some freedom to use their own drills or their own style, as long as they achieve certain skill-related benchmarks with their players and speak the same basketball language. In this way, there is continuity in each player’s development, but there is the opportunity for players to learn from different coaches and different styles, even within one club.
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