Instruction v. Exposure

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For anyone who works with youth sports, particularly high school aged youth sports, you’ve probably heard a player or parent ask: “How can I get more exposure to college coaches?” I believe that we should refocus this question to “Where can I get the best instruction?”

I understand and appreciate the desire to “be seen” by college coaches in your sport. I had the opportunity to play college basketball and it was one of the most impactful and important experiences of my life. I have seen, however, too many families who are only focused on the exposure they are getting once they have made it to high school and have started to dream about the possibility of playing their sport in college. Instead of enjoying the game and improving their skills, they focus on who is watching and how their individual play is being evaluated. Why is this a problem? In order to understand it, it is important to look at the roots of the words “instruction” and “exposure.”

The word instruct is simply defined as “to teach someone a subject or skill.” When you are receiving instruction in your sport a coach or other teacher is spending time teaching you skills important to the game. The environments that this teaching takes place usually are safe places where it is ok to make mistakes, it is ok to stop and discuss things with the teacher, and it is ok to ask questions of others. By nature, a teaching environment does not contain the pressure of a performance environment, thus allowing the student to learn at his or her own pace and focus on improving weaknesses. All too often, when athletes get to the high school level they believe that they don’t really have anything else to learn; they usually know the basics and their physical abilities have made them better than most of their peers. This false sense of security leads players to de-emphasize or completely ignore their need for skill instruction from qualified coaches and teachers of their game. The reality is that as your game advances, it becomes even MORE important to get quality coaching and instruction to get better. One of the coaches that I’ve had the pleasure of working with at the Jay Bilas Skills Camp is Alan Stein and he shared his experience in working with Steph Curry, arguably the most skilled player in the NBA today. Continuing to learn and receive instruction will ensure that you continue to improve your game.

On the contrary, the word expose is defined as “to reveal something hidden.” If you think about this, how often do you really WANT exposure? Players and parents alike think that anything that is providing them exposure to college coaches and scouts is a good thing; the reality is that every one of those “exposure camps” or “exposure events” is designed to reveal something hidden. Every time you play in front of a college coach, they are looking for you to expose your weaknesses. If you can’t guard one on one, that will be exposed. If you aren’t a good teammate or aren’t coachable, that will be exposed. If you are one dimensional in your offensive skills, that will be exposed. The whole purpose of exposure events and the evaluation periods for college coaches is for them to determine which players they are going to spend time pursuing in a more personal manner. The easiest way to shorten that list is for your skills to be exposed in relation to others of your same age group. Once you step between the lines in games at these exposure events, your game is what it is and it will be exposed.

I get it, players and parents still want a chance to play their sport at the college level and our current system relies on exposure events to give college coaches a chance to see players who may be able to play at their level. I’m not suggesting that there is no value to exposure events and that everyone should stop attending them. What I am suggesting is that skill instruction SHOULD NOT BE OVERLOOKED for high school athletes. It isn’t good enough to just get your teaching during your high school season and then go play on a club team or travel team to get exposure. Players who are serious about continuing to improve so that they can COMPETE at the next level, should seek out opportunities for instruction in the off season as well. This might mean choosing a club team or AAU team that is focused on teaching and improving your game. This might mean going to camps where the focus is on improving your skills, not showing off for college coaches. This might mean skipping a few ‘exposure events’ so that you can get some one on one instruction from a qualified teacher of your game. And it definitely means a lot more individual work on your own and small group work with your friends to improve your skills. If you focus more on INSTRUCTION, I can almost guarantee that there will be less to EXPOSE when you’re in front of those college coaches.

I DO Care, But I Still Love Him

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“I don’t care if my kids play sports, I just want them to be happy.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say this, often some of my best friends, and almost always the parents of kids who are playing sports and loving it. This comment is usually a part of an explanation as to why they have their kids playing a sport year round at 9 years old or when they are telling me that their kids WANT to participate in 2 different leagues that require practice 4-5 nights a week. Essentially, it is always the parents whose kids ARE playing sports who say they don’t care. And always I wonder…would they say that if their kids DIDN’T play sports?

Tonight, as I was walking around the neighborhood after dark on a pretty crisp January night for North Carolina, I heard the bounce of a basketball. I followed the sound until I found one of the neighbor boys, a middle school aged kid, shooting baskets in his driveway by the light of the streetlight by himself. I was instantly taken back to my middle school days when I would shovel the neighbor’s driveway in the winter so I could shoot baskets on their garage hoop because I didn’t have one of my own. They had a light on the corner of the garage that lit up just enough of the driveway to see and I knew how to get in the garage and turn that light on (and they were patient enough to let me keep on shooting). It was where I first started to really love the game, where I first honed my skills, and where I first dreamed of playing college basketball (for Lou Henson and the Flying Illini!) Watching that boy shoot hoops in his driveway reminded me how much joy the game brought me as a youngster.

My wife and I both achieved many of our athletic goals – we were both scholarship athletes in our sports in college, we both coached at the high school and collegiate levels, and we both worked in big time college athletic departments. Sports were and remain a big part of our lives and who we are as people. To this day, I earn my living working with sports organizations at the college and pro level.

The thing is, despite our passions, abilities, and interests, our kids (ages 9 and 6) don’t play sports. Our kids aren’t even really that interested in sports. We’ve tried to make them play…not interested. It isn’t that they aren’t athletic – both are in the top 10% of height and weight for their age and both run and play around outside all the time. They just don’t play sports.

And I DO CARE! It bothers me. It makes me sad that I don’t have to call them in from the driveway for bed or tell them we have to stop playing catch because it is getting dark. It makes me sad because both Jessi and I have experienced first hand the value of team sports and are the people we are today because of our sports. But as I walked home tonight, I also realized that I LOVE THEM ANYWAY.

The picture above pretty much sums up my son, Jack. He’s happiest in a book store, sitting quietly by himself or playing in his imagination in a solo world. My daughter teaches her baby dolls all sorts of lessons and tags along with her big brother on his neighborhood exploring, which seems to be her happiest moments. And I’m learning to appreciate what makes them who they are and what makes them happy. But I’m not going to lie about how I feel about them not playing sports – I do care, but I love them anyway.

I hope that parents who say they don’t care will just stop and instead admit that they DO CARE and stop apologizing for it. It’s just what they enjoy doing right now and all you really should do is love them. Just be sensitive to what they really WANT to do and when they do want to stop playing sports, whether they verbalize it or not, let them. While they do want to play, encourage them but don’t overdo it, because when they stop you’ll realize that your really DO CARE and it may make you sad when they don’t.

A Broken Mindset

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I’ve written before about some of the negative things that go on in youth sports in America and how sad I am about that state of affairs. Until now, I haven’t coached either one of my kids, but I figured if I was going to rant and rave about the degradation of youth sports, I’d better try to be a part of the solution; so this year I’m coaching my 8-year-old in his youth basketball league. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that, because last night we got the season started with a coaches’ meeting and a ‘draft,’ and what I witnessed during those two hours started to shed some light on why parents act the way they do at practices and games.

I’m not sure if you caught that last line…we had a DRAFT! I’ll point out that this is an 8 and under, Parks and Recreation League in suburban Charlotte, NC. There are 14 teams in the league and my assistant and I were two of about 25 guys in a room at Town Hall that were given a spreadsheet with every participant in the league, in SKILL RANK order. Over the last couple of weekends, the league has had ‘skills and drills’ days where the kids just come and do some drills and practice individual skills. During that time, they are apparently being evaluated in order to rank them for the draft. The list I received when I walked in the door had name, age, height, Ranking (1-5), and any notes that the parents might have included with their registration. Most of the notes were things like “teammate with Johnny Smith so we can carpool,” or “can’t practice on Monday nights because of piano lessons.” However, my first disturbing moment of the night was the note I saw on 5-6 kids on the list: “NOT on Jimmy Williams’ team.” That’s right, parents specifically requesting not to be on a certain child’s team. (I made up the name)

As disturbing as that was, it was just getting started. I found my seat just before the draft instructions started and I sat down behind the guy pictured above. I’m not sure the picture really does justice to the absurdity. This coach, who is the dad of a kid in the league, had attended both of the skills and drills days and taken copious notes on each player (they had numbers on at skills and drills). He then took the extra step of putting all of those kids into a spreadsheet and color coding them in some way to guide his draft day decisions. As I was busy throwing up in my mouth, I didn’t have time (or the stomach) to ask him his methodology, but as the draft went on, it was clear that he had this well planned. If it was just one outlier who went to the effort to take notes on kids and prepare to that extreme I might pass it off, but he wasn’t the only one. He was the only one who typed it up and color coded it, but almost every coach had a folder of some sort with their strategy clearly laid out. I was clearly out of my league, and my assistant coach could sense it.

As the draft went on (for 2 hours), some of the discussion about individual players was embarrassing. Throughout the course of the night I overheard “that kid is fat and slow, we don’t want him,” “no way we’re taking that guy, he’s a pain in the ass,” and “that kid is really an athlete, he’ll dominate, we’ve got to get him.” There were trades, trading of picks, negotiations not to take a kid because he lives in the neighborhood of some other kid, and all manner of back door deals.

Meanwhile, I took what was my intended strategy of just sort of picking kids at random and trying to get a couple of kids that my son knew on the team. My son’s final instructions before I left the house were “don’t get any guys who are going to be critical and take it too seriously.” My assistant had been through this before with our town’s youth baseball program, so he had more insight on the skills set and athleticism of many of the boys, so we may luck up and have a good team. But we might not. We might lose every game. Honestly, it really doesn’t matter to me. What matters, and matters even more after what I saw last night, is that every kid on our team has FUN, learns something about basketball they didn’t know before the start of the season, feels great about themselves because they know they improved, and starts to develop a love for the game of basketball, no matter how good of a player they are as they get older. You see, of the 140 kids in our league, most of them will end up going to the same high school. That means that less than 10% of the kids in the ENTIRE LEAGUE will ever play high school varsity basketball and even have the chance at a college scholarship. So to me, it is a lot more important for the health of the game that all of the kids on my team learn the game and learn to enjoy the game so that as they grow up it will always be a fun part of their lives regardless of whether they are a spectator, jv player, coach, or NBA superstar.

I don’t really know what else to do to fix what I view as an epidemic in youth sports where parents have taken everything, at every level, to the extreme. All I know to do is coach the 10 boys on my team to the best of my ability, teach them the game that I love, treat everyone at every practice and every game with respect, and make sure that we all have fun. Hopefully the result will be one other dad or mom that sees that example and decides to do the same thing when they coach.