Sunday, June 22, 2014

Buck Showalter's Righteous Attack on Youth Baseball Coaches and Parents

Anytime I hear that Buck Showalter is going to appear on Mike Francesa's WFAN talk show I have learned to expect a refreshingly honest and insightful interview, but what I heard this past Thursday went well beyond expectations. What started out as a simple Q and A about pitchers quickly turned to a dialogue about the "epidemic" of  recent Tommy John surgery, but what came next was completely unexpected.

The average age for Tommy John surgery is now in the teens, and Coach Showalter used this sobering fact to lament on the state of youth sports today, with most of his venom directed at "travel teams," with equal parts acrimony directed at varsity coaches and unrealistic parents who feel that they can "turn" their child into a star. In the minds of both Mike and Coach Showalter, athletes with professional level skill have "G-d given talent," and that they would excel at any sport they chose to play. The Coach in fact says that to him it is a "red flag" whenever he sees an athlete that plays just one sport. He goes on to site an example of players who don't know "how to fall," and believes that is the result of baseball players who forego other sports. Both Mike and Coach Showalter point out that a lot of great players pick up the sport late in life, and that such players tend to have more passion for play than players who have been playing for so long that the sport has become routine, like a business and devoid of emotion.

The overuse of certain muscles, resulting from repetitive motion of unnatural movements, is destroying young bodies and a direct cause of the exponential increase of sports related injuries in this country. Travel team coaches, who directly profit from teenagers participating year round, have convinced too many parents that they are providing a service to their children, and of course it isn't until it is "too late" that parents realize they have been fed unrealistic expectations and have set their kids up for monumental disappointment.

Frankly, I have yet to meet a college coach who is in favor of a young player specializing in one sport and one position. In fact, they prefer selecting athletes who have been involved in a variety of activities, and even prefer players who spend time in "unorganized" sports.

Hopefully we can begin to turn the tide against these travel teams and their "hijacking" of youth sports. They have transformed athletics to the detriment of the players and the sports themselves. Children deserve better decision making from their parents. It is time for the voices of reason to fight back.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Spurs Offer Lessons for Youth Coaches

The incredibly unexpected dominance of the San Antonio Spurs on the home court of the Miami Heat have left many experts baffled. Initial comments looked for deficiencies in the Heat's game that "allowed" the Spurs to overwhelm them in consecutive games, but attention has now turned to the Spurs own game philosophy, and it is here that we can learn a couple things applicable to youth sports.

One is playing time: the Spurs are the only team in the league where no player averaged more than 29 minutes of play in a game. Coach Popovich has made clear- on those rare occasions where he actually gives answers- that the balanced approach to playing time isn't so much to rest players as it is to give his bench players the opportunity to apply what they learn in practice to game situations and to hold them accountable for their performance in the eyes of their teammates. Throwing players in a game only during "mop up" minutes poorly prepares them for more critical junctures of a game and makes it difficult for them to improve their game IQ. The poise these bench players display, and the clear willingness of the starters to cycle the ball through these reserves is testament to this strategy; it is something that should be emulated at the youth level. This is going to be difficult for coaches consumed with "winning" to relent to, but I am convinced that coaches who make clear that each player is accountable and that it is every players responsibility to improve their individual game will be rewarded by these bench players, and by the parents, something that pro coaches obviously don't have to worry about :)

The second aspect of Coach Popovich's philosophy that should be emulated at the youth level, especially in sports like basketball, lacrosse, and even ice hockey, is the motion offense. Spurs players are constantly in motion, as is the ball. The defense rarely gets an opportunity to get set, making it very difficult to anticipate what the offense is doing. Now granted we all know the pick and roll is coming, but after that? No defender can let up, and by having to stay in motion they are much less prepared to know their immediate responsibilities with "sliding" to help out on D. The defense is under constant pressure, and you could see in the eyes of the Heat players the frustration and weariness.

The convergence of motion on offense and more balanced playing time is that the players are comfortable keeping the ball moving, regardless of who ends up with the ball. That is why you will see games with the bench players as leading scorers, and why you see so many assists in the post game line score. The Spurs are the consummate team.

I have coached teams with one or two extraordinary players, and early in my career I was content with just giving them the ball, having the other players clear out, and just letting them "do their thing." But it became clear- too slowly to be honest- that the other players were not only getting resentful and "trouble" in the locker room, but were showing little if any improvement in their game. Our game became "handcuffed" to this game strategy, and I was left to deal with a majority of disenchanted players and parents. The winning- and yes we did win games this way- was not enough to justify this coaching strategy, and I realized over the years that my happiest days as a coach, and my happiest teams, was in those years where we had no "superstar," just a lot of motivated players happy to share time with each other on the field. It was during these years that every player took the idea of accountability to heart and worked tirelessly to improve their play. The motion on offense became a requirement, not just a strategy, and win or lose we did so as a team in every sense of the word.

As you watch the final few games, and who knows what might happen because the Heat are certainly capable of the same type of play, study what is transpiring. You might even want to send out a blast email to your players sharing your observations. Don't be surprised if your team is seeing the same thing, and might expect the same thing, when they get back on the field.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

About Participation Trophies

The handing out of participation trophies for youth sports- mostly recreational youth programs- has become one of the most contentious of all issues in recent memory, and to be honest I don't see how the issue can ever be resolved to everyone's satisfaction. Much like the abortion debate, participation trophies raise what could be called "first principles" people; views are deeply philosophical and unlikely to be swayed.

Those opposing the trophies are adamant that people should not be rewarded simply for participating, that it reinforces the idea that striving for excellence and winning are no longer important. Just trying is enough to deserve recognition. If everyone receives an award it cheapens the idea of "earning" something. I certainly understand this point of view, but for youth recreation sports it is a view that is far too narrow minded, fails to realize the point of youth sports, and also fails to realize that awarding such trophies and rewarding excellence are not mutually exclusive.

Participation is in fact one of the goals of youth sports. There is so much research indicating the positive impact of youth sports (for the sake of this issue we are not addressing issues regarding the quality of the coaching and guidance the players are receiving) that simply participating is something that should be encouraged, and awarding these trophies is great reinforcement.

Now there are some sports where a township youth program has enough participants to have a league unto itself, and so if records are kept there will be a winning team; the issue of whether records should be kept is also one I'll reserve for another post. In other sports, lacrosse comes to mind, many towns only field one or two teams per grade level and compete against other towns. Arguments against these trophies usually arise in the first instance.

Here's the point: there is no reason why a town program can't acknowledge participation for everyone AND give a second award to a team that has been deemed the league "winner." Further, there is nothing preventing a team from giving out its own team awards that do reward exemplary effort within their team, whether it is an award for hustle, batting average, sportsmanship, ground balls scooped, assists, or any other skill the coaches want to emphasize. I would strongly encourage these awards, much more so than an award for simply being the "winner," as they help teach important life lessons and remind the players what skills the kids should work on if they desire to achieve excellence in the sport.

Since having fun is also a crucial element of youth sports, and one of the reasons players stay with sports- the fact that 80% of youth players opt out of youth sports by age 13 is distressing to say the least- I would also encourage coaches to hand out some "goofy" awards, though they must be careful not to conceive them in a way that is embarrassing to the player and not to give those awards to only the least talented players on the team.

The bottom line is that there is no shortage of things that youth players can receive awards for, and that participation is certainly a category worthy of recognition, even if it goes to everybody. However, opponents of these awards have some legitimate concern if there are not also awards going out to players to reward excellent or exemplary performance. One simple way of doing this is to have your youth league/program create a "team of the year" award to reward the team that is recognized as the one that best embodies the values of the league and might be seen as a "model" team. Yes, there will be those that will object to such a selection; there is no getting around that. There are always parents (and coaches, and players for that matter) that feel that their kids team is always the most deserving. That's life, but like all things that are voted on, and where there are "winners" and "losers," as long as the system is beyond reproach you will find that these parents voices will get drowned out.

So reward participation, but find lots of other things to reward as well. You will find that the benefits far outweigh the "harm" of acknowledging those that "simply show up and get something." For those that have made participation trophies an issue, it is understandably a serious issue, but, frankly, it should not be an issue at all.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Playing Time for Your "Bench Players"

There can be nothing more frustrating thing for a player than sitting on the sideline waiting for his or her turn on the field, a turn that all too often never comes. At the youth recreation level is it unforgivable for a player not to get meaningful time on the field, and no team should ever have too large a roster to accommodate that desire.

At the high school level, where differences in ability justifiably translate into differences in playing time, the desire for playing time is no less real. Players at that age and at that level are usually cognizant of those differences in ability, and in a close, competitive game, a coach that substitutes out the better players at a critical juncture late in a game, just to satisfy the idea that all players must step on the field, is doing a disservice to entire team, including that player who has been pacing the sideline all game.

I used to face this situation often, justifying the situation by promising the player significant playing time in an upcoming game against an inferior opponent. That is all well and good, but no doubt makes such players feel that they are only capable of playing in predictably lopsided games. Then one day I was confronted by a player who had enough of this routine. He attended every practice, participated in the drills and learned our philosophy, and demanded the respect he felt he deserved with the reward of playing in all the games. I promised I would think about it. Then, as fate would have it, we were shorthanded in our next game- a tense and competitive game- and when one of our starters was injured, I was "forced" to put in that player.

I would be lying to say I wasn't praying for the next 3 minutes, hoping that the move would not backfire. What I soon realized is that I never gave enough credit to players like him, not because he came in and became a phenom on the field, but because he was smart enough to understand the situation, understand his role, and used his skills to do the things he was capable of doing.

Another benefit coaches need to consider is that by giving your starters more time on the sidelines, they have time to study the player they are matched up against. This learning may prove invaluable when the starter returns to the field, as they now have time to learn his/her opponent tendencies:  do they cross their legs, do they drop their stick head, do they overrun on defense, do they throw checks every "x" seconds. The sideline is a classroom, and it is up to you as the coach to see that your players view it that way.

Frankly, at that moment I felt like a complete ass, but an ass that was capable of learning and capable of changing. It was at that moment that I changed my whole attitude towards winning and towards my players. My coaching philosophy is deeply steeped in the idea of player empowerment, and I take great pride in the fact that once the game starts it is the players that are "in charge," making important decisions on the field themselves. I'll speak more about this in future posts, but the point here is that even my bench players had the confidence to elevate their game to fit right in.

As far as playing time, the main point of this post, it was here that I made an important decision, one that I believe all coaches in sports like lacrosse, soccer, and hockey should adopt: make sure that every player on your team step on the field in the first half of the game.

By doing this, you will never be faced with the situation of denying your players their opportunity, and right, to be part of the game. You will never be forced to look a player in the eye and tell him: "I'm sorry I couldn't get you in, but the game was just too close and I could not risk taking out my starters at that critical moment." Can you imagine how that must feel for a player to hear that? Please don't tell me that you would understand, that you would accept staying benched "for the good of the team and so that we would have a better chance to win."

That is such an unnecessary conversation, and in fact it creates a situation that could have damaging repercussions in the locker room. I had my serendipitous moment, and this change in my approach has had a positive impact on every team I've coached. I implore every coach to adopt this policy; it is a proactive step that will diffuse problems with players and parents before they even start. I am a better coach for it, my players are better for it, and their teams are better for it.