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.

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