Why coach education falls short

This is a coach education web site. I just returned from 3 weeks of training coaches in Africa. I, more than anyone, should believe in the power of coach education. However, when people view a national coach education program as a means to transform basketball in the United States, I believe that such an approach will fall short, and not just because a complete transformation is an outrageously lofty goal. 

By all means, I believe that every coach should continue learning. The best coaches are self-professed life-long learners who constantly seek out new information to inform their coaching. However, when you follow great coaches on Twitter, how many focus their learning on specific sport-related information? As an example, Vern Gambetta tweeted this picture of his recent reading:11903759_10153698642343738_6461889032424874766_n

All of the books are related in some way to coaching, but how many of the topics would be covered in a coach education curriculum? Having completed the Level 1 and Level 2 courses through USA Track & Field, and the Level 1 through USA Weightlifting, I would say that none of these topics is covered directly.

I believe that a standard coach education curriculum would fall short because the problems with basketball in the United States have nothing to do with drills, plays, or minor teaching points, which are the topics covered most frequently in coaching clinics and the questions most frequently asked. Lack of drills is not a problem. Any coach with an Internet connection can find more drills on YouTube than you can use in a lifetime. Of course, filtering those drills and deciding on which one’s are useful could be a problem, but who decides? Put 20 coaches in a room, and you will get 20 different answers. Whose answer do you use? Therefore, using coach education as  platform to filter drills probably is impossible, and at the end of the day, whether a coach uses the three-man weave or keep away to practice passing is not going to revolutionize the game of basketball or the development system.

Similarly, teaching points are fairly well-established and easy to find. There are minor differences between coaches, but, again, whether or not you teach a drop step or a hip turn is not going to revolutionize basketball development.

True change has to be philosophical or structural. If every youth coach adopted a long term athlete development philosophy of some kind, there would be a true change. A long term philosophy would require more cooperation than competition. Coaches would look out for the best interests of all players, not just the best. Environments would be created for everyone who wants to play rather than trying to cut children as quickly as possible. Last fall, I had a middle school coach tell me that if it was up to him, he would cut all but the top 8 players. Not from the 8th grade team, but from the entire middle school program. Rather than having 12-15 players on a 6th grade team, 12-15 players on a 7th grade team, and 12-15 players on an 8th grade team, he said that he would keep 8 players TOTAL and focus on developing those 8 players! He basically wanted to pick his varsity team for the 2022 season! No coach education program is going to change that mindset, and any mandatory rules will have loopholes or ways for coaches with this mindset to game the system.

Therefore, this is impossible. How can this be regulated? This would have to be a conscious choice by every coach, but Americans are too competitive. Coaches would always search for a way to win because that is why we play games and that is how coaches are evaluated. Many coaches are not interested in the long term. Of course, that is where many problems start, but we cannot eliminate those coaches because we need more coaches to increase participation. Educating coaches on the effects of Relative Age Effect and a long term philosophy and similar ideas might change the minds of a few coaches, but there will always be the competitive coaches looking to win, and there will always be parents who measure a coach’s value by wins and losses, even with u8 teams. As long as these mindsets persist in parents and coaches, a philosophical revolution is unlikely.

Therefore, to me, for those who want real change in basketball development, the answer is structural change. Disrupt the game in a way that makes it more developmental. With young children, the biggest issues are the height of rim, the size of ball, and the distance of the three-point line. To change the game, to revolutionize development, these are three issues to fix. Personally, I would argue for 3v3 for young children too, but that is a lesser issue developmentally. U.S. Soccer is pushing through standards for all leagues to play small-sided games for young age groups with standardized field sizes. If U.S. Soccer can push through these reforms, why can’t USA Basketball push through reforms on basket height, ball size, and three-point line distance? Sure, it is easy to tell players not to shoot three-pointers, but everyone wants to shoot threes. Also, when the three-point line is so far out, the defense does not have to leave the three-second area. However, if the three-point line was 15-feet instead of 19-feet, more players at young ages would be a threat at the three-point line. Defenders would have to honor players away from the basket. This could open up more space at the basket. Combine the shorter three-point line with a lower rim and a smaller ball, and children would not need to heave the ball to get it to the rim; they could shoot properly at younger ages.

I get frequent comments and emails that the U.S. needs to develop players like they do in European leagues. Nobody seems to know what this means, other than some vague reference to academies. Sure, every youth club team could call itself an academy, but would that change anything? Does calling your team “elite” make them elite? No. It’s a name. The biggest differences that I have seen is that until u14s, players in my club in Denmark played on  lower rim with a smaller ball. They could shoot with proper technique. They did not develop as many bad habits at an early age. Most of the players specialized early and practiced less. There were few if any pickup games among young children. Therefore, many of the other issues that we lament were no different there. However, the rim and the ball were big differences.

I believe that structural change would begin philosophical change. Coaches behave differently in tee-ball than they do when children start to pitch; the presence of the tee demonstrates unequivocally that the children are different than professional players. Once children start to pitch, the difference is smaller and more problems arise as a subset of coaches treat the players like mini-professionals and they engage in their playstation coaching. By lowering the rim, playing with a smaller ball, and shortening the three-point line, there would be a visible reminder that children are not professional athletes and should be treated accordingly. As long as these changes are present, hopefully these structural changes would cause some philosophical changes that could last even when the basket is raised and the three-point line moved backward.

Coach education is not bad. Coaches should be encouraged to continue their learning. However, coach education alone is insufficient for driving major changes to the way that we develop basketball players. Instead, the changes need to start with the way that we structure the game for the youngest participants.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

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