The United States Basketball Development System
Part I: Introduction
In an interview, James Gist, the former Maryland Terrapin and San Antonio Spurs’ draft pick who played for Angelica Biella in Italy this season, says:
Europe is perfect for learning how to play the game right. Knowing when to make the right passes, when to run on a fast break or slow the tempo down, who to get the ball to when the time is right, all comes in to play when you play team basketball.
This is the growing perception, but I am unsure why people accept this as a matter of fact. I learned these things through playing pick-up games before I reached high school. My 8th grade coach never told me to slow down in a game – I knew when to break and when to run some clock. Our coach rarely called strategic timeouts to set up plays or press breaks or switch defenses. We just played, and we had a great understanding of the game.
Why does a player need to go to Europe to learn when to slow the tempo? There are plenty of good coaches and good opportunities to learn in the States. However, if former college players continue to go to Europe and make similar remarks, where is the break down?
- Are elite players given too much freedom by youth, high school and college coaches so they do not learn the nuances of the game?
- Do these players rely too heavily on physical talent, so they do not need to develop the mental side until they reach professional basketball?
- Are coaches too restrictive and too authoritarian, making all decisions and eliminating players’ decision-making opportunities?
- Are coaches too focused on game preparation and not enough on developing skills and basketball I.Q.?
Part II: Lack of Periodization
More and more, the media and coaches criticize AAU or club basketball for the lack of fundamentals in youth basketball and beyond. However, the issue goes beyond brands and organizations to periodization and the lack of an off-season. The competitive season is not the time to develop skills, yet for most players, the entire year is a competitive season, as players move from one team to the next or one season to the next with only a couple weeks in August away from competition.
“It’s a bad system for developing players,” says Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. “They aren’t learning to handle the ball; they aren’t learning to make plays against pressure. The emphasis with our high school players is to get exposure and play as many games as you can and show everybody how great you are. If I can win the 11-and-12 year old league and tell all my friends about it that is a whole lot more important than if my kids actually get any better or learn anything about the game.”
His indictment is true of all youth basketball, not just AAU basketball. Players play in a year-round competitive season and there is no true off-season for skill development. High school coaches are as guilty as club coaches. Many high school programs finish in mid-March and play their first off-season game by the end of March, play until August and start again in September when school starts. This is as problematic as the club programs, and when players play on a club team and a high school team during the “off-season” it exacerbates the problems.
In Europe, Mr. Van Gundy says, “those guys are doing five or six practices for every game. They are spending a lot of time in the gym working on individual skills. It’s reversed here.”
With the varying interests in the States, players average no more than one to two practices for every game. Without a properly periodized schedule and with a poor practice to game ratio, the entire youth system leans toward competition, not development.
The exposure events central to the anti-AAU argument impede players’ tactical development, due to the 1v1 nature of the events which are played for the benefit of college coaches. However, the NCAA limits the summer evaluation days to roughly three weeks in July (plus one week in April for women’s basketball) meaning the majority of these out of season tournaments occur outside recruiting windows.
The lack of tactical development and understanding is an indictment of the coaching as the coaches do not have to allow or promote 1v1 play. This is a symptom of all-star teams that rarely practice because teams feature players from all over (see Recruiting).
The fundamental answer is to devise a system emphasizing development. This requires a true off-season without competition and/or a better practice to game ratio (4:1) during the competitive season. Until the high school federations and the club teams adopt this mentality, it is up to individual coach.
Most youth (8-13 year olds) leagues and teams are organized as one-season teams. The player signs up for a league, is placed on a team, plays and joins a new team the following year. Many club programs exist for only one season or there is great player and coach turnover. Few organizations feature a progression from season to season with the same coach or at least coaches guided by the same philosophies and principles.
When a coach knows that he is likely to coach a player for only one season, it is hard to focus on the players’ long term development. One coach might focus on his players’ long term development, but if he does not win enough, the parents might force out the coach or leave to join a winning program.
I know a good youth coach who watched as players left his program year after year to find “better coaching,” “elite competition,” or “a better chance to go to Nationals.” After several years bouncing from program to program and playing high school basketball, parents would confess to the coach that he was their child’s best coach, and they never should have left.
As a coach, what do you do? Do you focus on long term development and lose players before your approach has an effect or do you change to a win-now mentality to retain players? Is it fair to criticize the coaches or do parents who jump from program to program share the blame for the dysfunctional system?
The problem is not that AAU is better or worse than the school system. The problem is that each system has short-comings.
School programs can create continuity and a year-to-year progression to teach the general skills to freshman and sophomores, allowing the varsity coach to concentrate on his specific system. A high school with a junior high and elementary school feeder program creates a long term continuity of development.
On the other hand, club programs that start with young players at a pivotal age and retain those players through high school create a long term program and season to season progression. However, this requires organization and communication between its coaches, as well as patience by parents to invest in one program rather than hop-scotching from program to program to find more playing time or exposure.
If people want real changes, the organizations which sponsor competitive leagues (AAU, high school federations) should outlaw spring leagues and tournaments for high school and high school-aged club programs, creating a true off-season. Allow a six-week window from mid-June to July for summer leagues and exposure tournaments and then prohibit leagues and tournaments until the high school season starts, creating another off-season from August to November.
Coaches, parents and administrators who organize and operate club and high school programs have to evaluate their methods and approach and ensure the best environment for their players.
Part III: Coaching – The AAU vs. High School Debate
A Wall Street Journal article titled “AAU helps American kids flunk basketball 101” stated:
One system that prepares young American players for the pros, the Amateur Athletic Union, is, by most accounts, broken…America’s basketball gems increasingly get their training from teams affiliated with the Amateur Athletic Union, a vast national youth-basketball circuit that has groomed many of the sport’s top stars.
This is half-true. American players, especially the elite players, get their training through three primary means: (1) high school program; (2) AAU/club program; and (3) individual skill trainers. If U.S. players flunk basketball 101, all three methods deserve the blame.
For some time, coaches have grumbled that the AAU’s emphasis on building stars and playing games over practicing produces a lot of talented prospects who have great physical skills but limited knowledge of the fundamentals.
However, why blame AAU coaches? There is no such thing as The High School Coach or The AAU Coach. There is little consistency between one high school coach and another or one AAU coach and another. Coaches are individuals. When you play for a high school team, there is no guarantee that your coach will be good or bad. The same holds true for AAU coaches.
However, if one argues that high school coaches develop skills and game awareness during the high school season, how do players lose these skills and forget their game awareness during the summer? When a player develops good habits or learns to play the game the right way, he maintains these lessons and habits. A good coach develops players who not only fit his system or play well in his system, but who fit and play well in any system.
After 8th grade, I played in a summer league with very little coaching. It was primarily an opportunity to play pick-up games in a gym with the same teams each day. Despite the general lack of coaching, I did not forget the lessons that I learned. I found the open man, made open shots, got back on defense, etc. I used the fundamentals that I learned in 5th – 8th grade.
I played recently with a bunch of guys in their 20’s and 30’s who grew up in the same 5th – 8th grade league, the Sacramento PAL. The group featured no high school basketball stars, and some guys who never played high school basketball. However, every player had good fundamentals – we hedged on ball screens, made left-handed lay-ups, made the extra pass, etc. If some high school players had played with us – as many of us did when we were in high school – the kids could have learned some things.
Just because our playing careers are reduced to pick-up games or recreation leagues, we have not forgotten the lessons that we learned. We take some bad shots and foul more, but that says more about a loss of athleticism and conditioning than selfishness or diminishing basketball IQ.
Several years ago, I suggested that we should develop players with the basketball IQ to fit into pick-up games. I wrote this after I grew frustrated while playing with younger players because they did not know how to play the game – they did not talk on defense, box out, make the extra pass, use their weak hand, etc.
Coaches thought the idea was idiotic. Who cares how a player plays on the playground?
However, if a player plays well in a pick-up game with other good players, he has a solid fundamental base. With this base, he can fit into different systems or play for different coaches. A well-coached player does not lose his fundamentals in a summer of club basketball or by playing a couple afternoons of pick-up ball. This player uses his learned skills and awareness on the court regardless of setting.
The Anti-AAU Argument
High school coaches often make two arguments:
- I don’t want my kids running something that is NOT part of our system.
- Players return from the summer with worse fundamentals.
First, coaches are far too protective of their systems. Before a coach concentrates on his system, the players should understand the basic skills generally. I have used Vern Gambetta’s concept of adapted vs. adaptable previously. If I only teach my players to run the Flex offense, and players learn to use a screen only in the context of the Flex, they are adapted to the offense. There is no guarantee that they can transfer their adapted knowledge to a new situation or new system. However, if I teach the general use of a screen, players are adaptable to any system, whether Flex, motion or whatever.
If a coach – AAU or high school – wants to develop a player, he or she should develop the general skills before converting the general skills to a specific system. If coaches focus on general skill development, they should not worry whether or not the player runs something outside their specific system.
Second, during any competitive season, fundamental skill execution plateaus because coaches emphasize game performance, not skill development. Players’ fundamentals are worse after the high school season than when the season started, and they are worse at the end of the summer season than at the beginning.
The perception that players only develop fundamentals during the high school season is a myth. A typical high school week features three practices and two games; coaches spend a large percentage of the time preparing for the games. We evaluate coaches by their winning percentage, so they coach to win. This does not preclude fundamental skill development, but on a team with 12-15 players with vastly different skill levels, it is difficult to prepare for games and challenge the top players to improve their skills. Instead, skill development occurs outside the competitive season when players can devote time to deliberate practice.
The argument is not AAU vs. high school, but periodization: competition vs. training. The competitive season is not conducive to true skill development because of the performance demands and poor practice to game ratio.
Problems arise when players as young as nine play for Peak by Friday coaches who care more about their specific system and winning their next game than teaching general skills and preparing players for the next level. In this era of win-now, year-round basketball, many coaches expect someone else to develop fundamental skills. There are many great coaches. However, there appears to be many coaches – club and school – focused solely on winning games.
When this happens, each subsequent coach inherits unprepared players, so he installs his specific system because it is the quickest way to go from today to the first win. This goes on and on, and players never develop the general skills to apply to different situations because nobody wants to sacrifice a win or two to teach general skills since we (the general public) evaluate coaches based on wins and losses (what we see during games), not how well they develop their players or prepare them for the next competitive level (what occurs in practice).
The issue is not club basketball or high school basketball, but the system’s disorganization, players and parents’ lack of patience and the individual coach who does not value fundamentals. However, these problems develop before high school. Players need access to better trained coaches at the youth level because players develop their practice and game habits early in their participative years.
A father/coach from Detroit called recently to ask about development-oriented programs for his 11-year-old. I advised the club route. To develop the development-oriented team for his son, I advised him to start his own club team and to write a strong mission statement. When parents sign up their son, they agree to the mission statement. Otherwise, there are plenty of other teams. To me, a youth development team does not cut players – a development program means a program that develops the players who walk in the door, not one that scours the country to recruit top players. I would limit the tournament play. Children need to play, but 11-year-olds do not need to spend every weekend playing tournaments.
High school-aged club basketball is not inherently bad either. However, the combination of high school basketball, high school “club” teams and true club teams creates an 11-month competitive system. Problems occur when communication between different coaches (AAU and high school) and different levels breaks down.
Playing for different coaches who emphasize and teach different things is a valuable experience. After my freshman year, I played in an independent summer league and my coach had vastly different expectations for a point guard than my freshmen team coach. I expanded my game and developed my confidence during the league with my coach’s guidance.
However, when there is no communication between coaches, players often over-train and over-compete. When there is no set progression for skills from one level to the next (from 5th grade to 6th grade), each coach starts over at the beginning of the season.
On the other hand, if players stopped playing club basketball (with an AAU team or their high school team) during the spring, summer and fall, and spent more time on individual workouts, lifting weights and playing unstructured pick-up games, they may develop better fundamentals and a higher I.Q.
Part IV: Recruiting as Player Development
The major complaint about AAU or club basketball involves recruiting. High school coaches blame club coaches or shoe companies when a talented player transfers. Many high school and college coaches bemoan the influence of club coaches on the college recruiting process. The media and others criticize an unregulated system ripe with shady activities including illegal payments and benefits for star players and their families.
Recruiting is the lifeblood of college basketball. Talent wins games, and winning keeps a coach employed. Therefore, college coaches spend an inordinate amount of time recruiting the top players. However, this recruiting mentality has made its way to lower levels of basketball, and now the most prominent form of player development is recruiting a talented player.
Recruiting influences basketball in the United States more than any other factor. Recruiting is more prevalent than jump shots or wins and losses. College fan message boards ebb and flow with tales of possible signings, the future of a program seemingly decided on signing day, not on the hardwood, while high school message boards announce the latest high school transfers and accuse the benefactors of recruiting. Even at the youth level, the top teams poach players from other organizations. Recruiting dominates basketball at every level.
I coached at the AAU National Championships and believe it is a great experience. However, the promise of a free trip to Nationals ruins youth basketball, as it seduces parents and players who skip from team to team to improve their chances to play at Nationals. Once upon a time, we played for fun and to teach basic fundamentals; now, there is an under-8 National Champion.
Youth club programs recruit recreational players by convincing parents that their son or daughter will fall behind if he or she does not play for a strong club program. I spoke to the president of a youth sports company who told me of a club program who approached the parents of seven-year-olds and warned them that if they did not put their sons on the right club team right away, they would be so far behind that they would not make a high school team (which was seven years away!).
Just because someone can collect the most precocious players does not mean the same individual can coach, and oftentimes young players peak early because of size or speed advantages. These players never develop the necessary skills to continue progressing once others catch up because their coach can recruit a new player to replace them next season.
Coaches use the lure of Nationals and free shoes to recruit new players. Parents hear Nationals and flip for the opportunity, especially when the new team foots the bill. They leave the program that helped the player develop the skills that led to the new club’s interest. This begins the family’s affair with the “Entitlement Affliction,” as parents and players believe people owe them something because their son had an early growth spurt or is especially fast or maybe has better coordination or strength for his age.
High School Basketball
High school basketball gets hammered from both sides, as high school coaches recruit precocious players (usually with the help of a club program), and college programs recruit talented high school players.
Once a high school recruits a player, the coach may or may not advance the player’s skills. He may or may not be a competent coach, regardless of his record. A local trainer told me about a high school coach who has been Coach of the Year twice and won an area championship. However, he is a poor teacher (based on first-hand experience) and prefers to work with already talented players. When a top 20-ranked player enrolled, his program won and he looked like a great coach. However, when the player left, his talented team lost in the 1st Round of the play-offs. Rather than spend more time with the underclassmen to return to the previous heights, the coach looked for potential transfers.
Eric Sondheimer wrote in the L.A. Times that transfers from high school to high school for playing opportunities are out of control:
- At Woodland Hills Taft, the City Section champions welcomed three top transfer students – 6-foot-5 junior Bryce Jones from Los Angeles View Park Prep; 6-7 junior De’Andre Daniels from La Canada Renaissance; and sophomore point guard Dominique Evans from Van Nuys.
- At Van Nuys, two players who arrived the year before from Sylmar – Victor Rudd and Willie Hankins – left for Las Vegas.
- At Renaissance, the state Division V runner-up, four players left, headed by 6-foot-10 Anthony Stover, who’s now at Los Angeles Windward. Two players arrived at Renaissance from Reseda and Pasadena Maranatha.
Parents worry so much about making sure that nobody is cheating or coaches decide to recruit because everyone else is going to do it, that we ignore the real purpose of youth athletics. In our effort to ensure a fair environment for our kids, school or team, we expend so much effort worrying about others that we ignore the development of our own players. We focus so much on winning, that we attract the already talented and spend our time devising ways around the rules rather than developing the players already on our team or in our program.
As a society, we ignore the important things in youth sports – competition, learning, development, pride, effort, achieving goals, teamwork – and instead concentrate solely on winning, either by recruiting the talented or by worrying about other teams who may or may not be bending or breaking the rules.
On the other side, as colleges recruit high school players, some get big heads. Others suffer from delusion, suddenly believing a college letter equals college interest and a scholarship. These players become obsessed with their recruitment and their rankings amongst other top players and spend all summer enhancing both.
Summers used to be the time for player development; now, summer is all about exposure. These club games begin as soon as the player’s high school is eliminated from high school competition, resulting in fewer three-sport athletes, greater specialization and year-round competitive basketball.
Despite this year-round basketball schedule, the search for the scholarship means games and more games, leaving little time for individual skill and athletic development.
The best players suffer deeply from “Entitlement Affliction,” as parents believe they know enough to suggest new coaches for their high school, or they change club teams if their son is not getting enough shot attempts. They buy into their own greatness.
The Internet, of course, does not help, as parents use anonymous message boards to criticize coaches for any number of reasons. One local school ran out a varsity head coach who one college assistant told me ran the best practice of any school that the assistant visited this year.
How does a team win more by firing a good coach? The answer is easy: by hiring a coach with connections to more good players. It is not a matter of finding coaches to develop the school’s talent – instead, you find a coach who can attract better talent into the school. It is college coaching gravitating to the high school level.
High School Club Basketball
In many ways, the high school club teams are the conduit for the recruiting at the high school and college levels, and in some cases, the club program’s influence stretches to the NBA.
A 2009 Dan Wetzel piece about AAU and SCA (Southern California All-Stars) head coach Pat Barrett, recounts this story about Barrett and Kevin Love, a former SCA player (while he attended high school in Lake Oswego, Oregon):
Kevin Love said he would’ve preferred hitting In-N-Out Burger with his family after another UCLA victory last winter. Yet, there was Pat Barrett, head of one of the top AAU basketball programs in the country, waiting outside the Pauley Pavilion locker room and pleading for Love to come with him instead.
Love had known Barrett since he was in fifth grade, played two years for Barrett’s traveling team and, as a result, said he felt obligated to go. What Love apparently didn’t know was a New York sports agency had donated $250,000 to Barrett’s team under the premise Barrett could deliver players such as Kevin Love – to dinner first, then as a client.
When Love arrived at Mr. Chow, the famed Chinese restaurant in Beverly Hills, the waiting group included Jay Williams, former national player of the year at Duke and 2002 NBA lottery pick.
Williams was there on business, as the chief recruiter for Ceruzzi Sports and Entertainment, the very agency that staked Barrett with a quarter-million dollars.
Not all coaches operate like Barrett, and a guy like Barrett and a story like this ruin it for all the club coaches who work hard and do it for the right reasons. Unfortunately, those coaches get lost as the coaches who recruit the top players have the most influence, and it is the money from the agents and the shoe companies which finance their recruiting efforts to land the top players.
Make no mistake: clubs like Barrett’s are not in the business of developing players. He finds talented players, gives them free gear and travel in exchange for the exposure to college coaches, and then makes money off the back end getting financial support from agents and shoe companies who foot the bill and then some. Meanwhile, the rare coach trying to develop players struggles to raise enough money to pay for gym time.
Talent wins games, and coaches recruit talent. Therefore, the hiring process for assistant coaches skews toward recruiting ability, not teaching ability. The emphasis is backward, as coaches should be teachers first and accumulators of talent second. But, due to NCAA rules limiting off-season practice time, recruiting is the single greatest element of college basketball.
Recruiting spawns the year-round play, as it is more convenient for college coaches to attend 2-3 tournaments with 40-50 teams filled with legitimate college prospects than to attend high school basketball games and tournaments. These tournaments masquerade as competitive games, though they are merely showcase events for college coaches and scouts. Borderline players travel to as many showcase events and tournaments as logistics allow, ignoring practice time and individual workouts that actually could improve their skills or physical attributes, which would increase their value.
Agents and shoe companies recruit college players to the League before they are ready. Teams have players on the end of their benches who do not have the basic skills to play, but who possess some physical attribute (height, long arms, quickness) which warrants their contract. Instead of added playing time on the college level (or in the NBDL), these players get the best seat in the house 82 games a year.
Players like Kendrick Perkins, Ndubi Ebi and Sebastian Telfair skip college because someone convinces them that the guaranteed millions are worth the jump, regardless of their preparedness or lack thereof. Consequently, players learn to play from the bench, rather than developing their games at lower levels and entering the league needing only experience and seasoning. Their development suffers without playing time, but their skill level and game awareness do not warrant playing time.
At every level, the game deteriorates from an aesthetic view, as fewer players understand the nuances of the game or possess fundamental skills. Few players are great shooters, yet each game consists of dozens of errant three-point attempts as players fall in love with shooting beyond the arc. Few coaches develop players, as the players illustrate no commitment to anything other than the best deal and leave if offered something better.
The entire system rewards the wrong things. We reward the marketers, the businessmen and the recruiters, not the players and the coaches who develop their talent. Our entire system of talent identification and development is based almost entirely on an economic system, not a skill assessment and development program.
Ultimately, parents control their choices and are responsible for the well-being of their children, but many are naive and do not understand the process. When a slick-talking runner or AAU coach offers advice, they trust someone who appears to offer advice, even when that advice is layered with marketing.
Colleges hire coaches for their recruiting ability. High school players enhance their recruitment by traveling to more and more exposure events, not working on their game. Even youth coaches ignore skill development and prefer to attract new players with better skills or athleticism. None of it makes sense, but it is consistent. From the top down and the bottom up, recruiting rules American basketball.
Part V: Following the Lead – What Can USA Basketball Learn from the USTA, US Soccer, English Premier League and Manchester United?
Any time an athletic organization struggles, the organization examines the failures and attempts to learn from mistakes to strengthen the program. From the United States Tennis Association to England’s Football Association, organizations evaluate their development programs when they have disappointing results at the professional or Senior National team level.
USTA’s Development Program
To tennis fans in the United States, tennis is in a crisis state. Beyond the Williams’ sisters, there is not too much to get fans excited. However, the United States Tennis Association is undertaking efforts to improve the quality of U.S. performers at the elite level.
Patrick McEnroe is one of those spearheading these efforts. Fortunately for tennis fans, McEnroe and the U.S.T.A. understand that change starts at the bottom, not at the top.
To get change at the top, McEnroe and the tennis association have to start at the bottom, helping to shape the system that molds junior players with training centers and clinics and by working with coaches around the country.
“It’s a huge undertaking,” McEnroe said… “We are building a foundation that will help the overall development of our players. I don’t think you can create a champion, but you can improve your system to find those champions a little bit earlier.”
Cross Over: The New Model for Youth Basketball Development started with the same philosophy. A player ultimately determines his or her level of success, but we can create programs to improve our efforts to develop better and more global players. The U.S. already produces the best basketball players. However, do we provide the best structure to support players from the grassroots level to the professional level?
As the New York Times article concludes:
There are plenty of people watching for the crème, but McEnroe is more worried about showing it how to get there.
As mentioned in the Recruiting section, we have replaced player development with recruiting. So many coaches wait for the talented players to develop, but we need to provide the structure to assist players with their development.
Like basketball, another New York Times article about the struggles of tennis development in the United States criticized the United States Tennis Association’s vision or its lack of leadership.
Pete Fischer, who developed Pete Sampras’ serve and his tactical all-court game, says the focus is misguided. “Everything is fragmented,” citing conflicting coaching techniques and different competitive priorities as inhibitors to producing champions. “I don’t see one vision. The U.S.T.A. is graded on how their players do in I.T.F. events. Who cares about that? Short-term goals get in the way of long-term goals.”
Beyond the fragmentation – similar to what I see in basketball with children moving from coach to coach and program to program without any continuity in the player’s development and no focus on the overall development of the player – John McEnroe points to a coaching philosophy.
McEnroe acknowledged the appointment of José Higueras as a national director of coaching. “The No. 1 important thing is to get a coaching philosophy in place for our program,” McEnroe said.
Meanwhile, USA Basketball, the NBA and NCAA have no foundation of development. Each state has a high school federation which governs its high schools and many club programs fall under the giant AAU umbrella (or smaller NJB, YBOA, BCI, etc umbrellas), but these organizations are concerned with enforcing their eligibility rules and securing a safe environment for children (a role not to be taken lightly) rather than with player and coach development.
There is no consistent coaching philosophy for basketball. Coaches coach to win their next game – the Peak by Friday approach – but there is little consistency in the learning and development of a player. If a 10-year-old leaves one team and moves to another as an 11-year-old, there is no expectation for what the player should know or understand. There is no criterion guiding player development.
Interestingly, the article points to Richard Williams – once described as an overbearing parent – as a good example of tennis development.
The Williams sisters played a limited age-group schedule until the age of 14 and tailored their tournament commitments. That may explain why they still have a competitive zest while other No. 1 pros like Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters and Martina Hingis left the game before turning 25.
The answer, at least to Martin Blackman, a former touring pro, college coach and now the senior director for talent identification and development with the U.S.T.A. is recreational recruitment and teaching the game in stages.
Recreational recruitment is growing. QuickStart Tennis, a format for three age levels announced last year, is in 1,200 facilities, according to the U.S.T.A. The youngest, 5 to 8, play on a 36-foot court with a foam tennis ball. For preteens, the court is expanded to 60 feet with low-compression balls. The third level plays on the standard court.
“You’re going to see a dramatic improvement in our junior players between 13 and 18 in three years,” Blackman said.
Youth basketball players develop in the same game as NBA players with only minor adjustments. The Playmakers Basketball Development League is an effort to break player development into different steps and encourage more small-sided competition for youth players. Small-sided games provide many advantages for youth players, especially more equitable competition and more touches on the ball. When players play in an atmosphere where the best player dominates the ball or the coach restricts certain players (tall players don’t dribble), players develop slowly. Young players need the ball and opportunities to improve their game awareness and confidence.
The F.A. and Man U
Manchester United is one of Europe’s most storied and decorated clubs. The English Premiere League is regarded as the best league in the world even at a time when England’s National Team failed to qualify for the 2008 European Championships.
In response, the FA (Football Association) hired a new National Team coach to restore England’s National Team to prominence, much like USA Basketball did with Coach K. However, more important, the FA commissioned a study to examine its youth development program and recommend changes to introduce nationwide. The article mentions Manchester United as the club to replicate because of its philosophy.
The FA’s report concluded:
The central argument of the in-depth report by Richard Lewis, the executive chairman of the Rugby Football League brought in by football’s governing bodies to advise on producing the next generation of Rooneys, Gerrards and Lampards, is that professional clubs must spend more time working with five to 11-year-olds on technique, rather than obsessing over results.
This is the United ethos. Backed by Sir Alex Ferguson, an Academy overseen by Brian McClair and Les Kershaw have focused on accentuating first touches in well-coached training sessions or four v four matches, rather than launching into rivals in competitive fixtures of eight-a-side or more. United are so committed to improving technique that they just canceled an Academy fixture with another club who wanted to play 8v8, not 4v4.
United employ one of the world’s foremost skills coaches, the Dutchman Rene Meulensteen, to hone the touch of their youngsters (and also the first team).
Sir Alex Ferguson is United’s Manager, one of the most respected coaches in the world. Imagine if Phil Jackson oversaw a youth basketball program which employed a skill development coach like Denver’s Tim Grgurich or St. Anthony’s Bob Hurley Sr. and focused on skill development rather than winning games. As the FA report’s author says:
“I recommend a change in ethos in age groups 5-11 so that much more emphasis is given to skill development and acquisition rather than an emphasis on results in matches,” said Lewis.
“If football in England wants to be the very best in the world, it must be the very best at every aspect of young player development,” stressed Lewis. “There can be no room for compromise.”
Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development argues that the Foundation and Fundamental stages are the most important stages for elite player development, as players learn the proper execution of general motor and sport-specific skills during the formative, skill hungry years.
The key area of Lewis revolves around what the Dutch call “the golden years” of learning. Skills acquired then, from the step-overs that United youngsters learn from Meulensteen to drag backs and kicking with either foot, set them up for life.
Lewis underlined how important “the formative years are to the establishment of correct technique”, adding: “Young players must be able to pass, control, kick and shoot correctly, as well as learning how to improve speed, stamina, flexibility, agility and balance. Their mental tool-kit must also be built up in their formative years”
Rather than examine the development process, USA Basketball’s solution has been to add role players to the senior national team and hire Coach K as the Head Coach. However, players still develop in an atmosphere focused on results, even for eight and nine-year-olds rather than focusing on fun, learning and development.
Skirmishes with local rivals are pointless. “An over-emphasis on results leads to a climate of fear, something remarked on by many in the system,” added Lewis. “I am not advocating the removal of the ‘winning ethos’, nor the downplaying of the very successful FA Youth Cup or the desire to produce winning England Under-21 teams. However, match results, especially at the youngest levels, are not all-important.”
Recently, I watched an AAU coach yank players in and out of games whenever a player made a mistake. The players were 12. The tournament was another meaningless tournament. How is a player supposed to improve when he gets yanked out of the game every time he makes a mistake? Why do we expect 12-year-olds to be perfect?
The position of youth coach must also be lent more respect, Lewis argued. “The coaching regime required for young players aged 5-11 is a highly specialist area, and coaches of these children must be rewarded appropriately,” Lewis maintained. “Quality coaching is critical.”
Just as with the U.S.T.A., the FA focused on the youth coach. In the U.S., we assume that the final coaches are the important coaches – when a player gets drafted, the college coach gets the credit; when a player signs a scholarship, the varsity high school coach gets the credit. However, we need to place more emphasis and devise a greater reward strategy for the youth coaches who work with players during the early, formative years.
The FA saw a problem, hired someone to examine it and now is implementing the changes. Maybe new developments in the USA will follow a similar path, though, to this point, there has been a lot of talk and very little action to overhaul the development system, or at least tweak its philosophy.
According to the L.A. Times, the U.S. Soccer Federation created a system similar to my Elite Development League proposal:
The Development Academy is a super league of 64 of the best-known youth soccer clubs from across the nation and it kicks off a finals tournament today at the Home Depot Center in Carson to close out its inaugural season…The tournament is split up into two groups, Under-15/16 and Under-17/18, both playing in a round-robin format. The groups are made up by the eight conference champions that survived a 10-month regular season…The U-17/18 championship is Friday at 8 p.m. and will be broadcast live on ESPN2. The U-15/16 championship game is a week from today at 8 p.m, to be broadcast on ESPNU.
In a Sports Illustrated article titled “American Futbol,” Grant Wahl writes about the Los Angeles Futbol Club (LAFC) in La Canada Flintridge. In the U.S. Soccer Development Academy this summer, LAFC was one of two clubs to qualify teams to the quarterfinals in the u-16 and u-18 tournaments.
“It was clear that this was a team that approached the game differently,” says Dave Sarachan, who coached the U.S. under-18 team until recently joining the Los Angeles Galaxy as an associate head coach. “They were highly technical and allowed to play, but within a structure. They were disciplined and entertaining.”
LAFC “plays soccer like I like to see it played,” says U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati.
The Development Academy was created in an effort to get up to par with the rest of the world in terms of cultivating young talent. The Academy shifts the environment from “an overburdened game-emphasis model to a meaningful training-and-competition model,” says Gulati.
A Los Angeles article about U.S. Soccer’s Men’s National Team Head Coach Bob Bradley suggests that his son Michael, a starting midfielder for the MNT, validates Bradley’s vision for elite youth soccer, as Michael went through U.S. Soccer’s Residency Program in Florida. Bradley’s vision rejects the prevailing model of countless (and meaningless) games and tournaments that foster burnout and limit imagination.
The U.S. Soccer Development Academy supports 148 teams and emphasizes the development of the player for professional and National Team soccer, as well as meaningful competition. In basketball, the disorganized schedule means that there is no true national championship tournament for club teams or high school teams, and there remains no focused philosophy for player development.
Part VI: A Proposal: Introducing the Elite Development League
At first glance, the ESPN RISE National High School Invitational appears to blur the lines between high school basketball and club basketball. Most state federations ban tournaments after their respective state championships, so the national post-season tournament conflicts with these federations. Therefore, many of the participating teams were prep schools who exist outside the state federations’ rules. In that sense, the Invitational is a step closer to the Elite Development League.
However, Phil Taylor’s Sports Illustrated article on Findlay Prep, the Invitational champion, portrays Findlay Prep in a way that runs counter to the philosophy behind the EDL proposal.
The EDL’s goal is to create a league-based development program that gives the best players an opportunity to play with and against each other prior to college while also eliminating the seedier side of high school basketball from the educational system.
However, Findlay seems like a destination for transfers who move away from home and live together in a five-bedroom house. Findlay certainly is not the first program to do this. While other schools have done this on the sly (and are usually caught and disciplined), this appears to be Findlay’s mission:
The Pilots represent the latest step in the evolution of elite high school basketball: a program that operates completely outside the traditional high school system and makes no pretense about its top priority — to acquire the best talent from all over the world. (Players from Canada, Mexico, Nigeria and Sweden have passed through Findlay Prep.)
The EDL focuses on player development and meaningful competition, like the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, and less on recruiting. Findlay uses the opposite approach, scouring the world for already talented high school players, acquiring the services of Texas-verbal commit, and Toronto native, Tristan Thompson in mid-season.
Findlay’s star was Texas-commit Avery Bradley, a McDonald’s All-American shooting guard from Tacoma, Washington who joined Findlay before his senior season.
Bradley…No. 7 on the ESPN RISE list of top seniors, is probably the best player Findlay Prep has produced.
Produced has different connotations, but I imagine the youth coaches in Tacoma, Washington, Bradley’s AAU coach with the Northwest Panthers and the coaches at his former high school, Belleramine Prep, might argue that they developed a player who verbally committed to Texas before he spent a day at Findlay.
Findlay gets credit for producing Bradley, so what incentive does a high school or youth coach have for taking a long term approach when a player like Bradley might transfer? As long as you have a talented kid on campus, you better win now because he might not be back next season.
The Invitational is likely the first step toward something like the EDL. However, to work as a development program, the next iteration needs to emphasize developing the local talent over a period of years rather than recruiting talented seniors. Otherwise, the focus remains on recruiting, winning and exposure, which differs little from the problems afflicting high school and club basketball.
The advantage of a school-based prep school like Findlay Prep which is outside the high school federation’s rules is the opportunity to create a more development-oriented schedule. At a typical high school, the federation’s rules limit development because teams have a short period of time to complete the season. However, outside the federation’s rules, prep schools like Findlay Prep could lengthen the season without adding any more games which would create a better practice to game ratio and slowly push the emphasis more toward player development and long term development as opposed to the recruiting emphasis and Peak by Friday mentality.
When people suggest that players develop better in Europe, the reason is not the coaching. Junior teams emphasize development over wins. The structure of the season emphasizes development, as teams spend more time practicing and less time playing games, even though the total time investment is not much greater.
According to FIBA Assist, Issue 37, here is a sample weekly schedule from the Unicaja Malaga Junior Team, one of the best clubs in Spain and throughout Europe.
The team coach must have reviewed the video of the team’s previous game by Monday, as well as one or two videos of the next team that his team will play.
- The players with scholarships work with the individual development coach. The training lasts an hour or less.
- Training is reserved for point guards, shooting guards, and small forwards.
- Training is exclusively designed for individual player development.
- The team does specific work following the yearly plan of the club.
- The team will work on individual game concepts and team game concepts in one-on-one, two-on-two, and three-on-three situations.
- The training lasts two hours.
- The distribution of the work on half court, half court+fast break, full court, and game rhythm is designed by the strength and conditioning coach:
- – 20 minutes of warm up.
- – 40 minutes on half court.
- – 10 minutes on half court+fast break.
- – 10 minutes on game rhythm.
- – 30 minutes of shooting.
- The coach reviews the previous game with the team and discusses and assesses the performance of individual players.
- The strength and conditioning session is organized by the strength and conditioning coach either in the gym (weight training) or on the court (quickness, footwork, jumps, body balance, flexibility, injury prevention)
- The scholarship players have individual work designed by the individual development coach.
- The training lasts one hour or less.
- Training is reserved for big men: power forwards and centers. Training is designed for individual development.
- The team performs specific work following the yearly plan of the team coach.
- The team works on both individual and team concepts according to the mistakes made in the last game (based on notes taken by the coach after having viewed the game video).
- Training lasts two hours.
- The distribution of the work on half court, half court + fast break, full court and game rhythm is designed by the strength and conditioning coach.
- Strength and conditioning work will last one hour at most.
- Scholarship players have individual work directed by the individual development coach.
- The training lasts an hour or less.
- Training is reserved for point guards, shooting guards, and small forwards.
- Training is focused on individual development of the player.
- The team performs specific work following the yearly plan of the team coach.
- Team works on team concepts (both offense and defense) according to the specific preparation for the next game.
- Training lasts two hours.
- The distribution of the work on half court, half court + fast break, full court and game rhythm will be designed by the strength and conditioning coach.
- The strength and conditioning work will last one hour or less.
- Scholarship players have individual workouts directed by the individual development coach.
- The training lasts one hour or less.
- Training is reserved only for big men: power forwards and centers.
- Training is exclusively directed at individual development.
- The team performs specific work following the yearly plan of the team coach.
- The team will work on team concepts without defense in five-on-zero, five-on-five (60 minutes), and shooting (60 minutes).
- Training lasts two hours.
- Strength and conditioning work lasts one hour or less.
SATURDAY AND SUNDAY
Game: Let’s play!
Before of the game, the team does 60 minutes of shooting (volume).
The most important questions for each player after the game are:
- What have I improved on today?
- Am I a better player this week than I was last week?
If the player feels that he has made improvements over the previous week that means that the workouts during the week have been properly designed. If the answer is “no,” more attention has to be paid in upcoming practice sessions to specific areas of individual player weakness.
Unicaja plays its games on weekends leaving weekdays free of travel. Likewise, club tournaments are almost all on weekends. During this past high school season, national tournaments that attracted out of town teams started on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. One team which played in several national-caliber tournaments missed at least 11 days of school in December. When I played, a road game typically meant 30 or more minutes travel to and from the game, plus arriving an hour early, plus one-and-a-half hours for the game, plus 20 minutes post-game. Rather than a two-hour practice, a weekday road game is a three-and-a-half hour time expenditure. So, how is club basketball or the European schedule a bigger threat to education than the high school season?
As for player development, let’s examine the basic schedules:
During the season, teams average two games per week. A typical game schedule is Wednesday-Friday. Therefore, teams practice three times per week (Monday, Tuesday and Thursday) and sometimes four (Saturday). The average practice is two to two-and-a-half hours. If a team averages one home game and one away game per week, and practices three times per week, the average time spent on basketball is about 13-14 hours. Some teams may add weight lifting – though many do not lift during the season – which could add 2-3 hours to each player’s commitment for a maximum of +/-17 hours.
During the spring, most club teams practice 1 – 2 times per week and play a tournament with 3 – 5 games per tournament on the weekend. Some teams do not practice because they attract players from a wide geographical area (out of state), so they run mini-camps on weekends when they do not play in a tournament. On average, let’s say that teams practice once per week and play four games in a weekend tournament. Therefore, the average expenditure of time is 10.5 hours plus travel time and dead time at the tournament. Most clubs do not lift weights.
Due to the lack of practice, many players seek individual training during the week to work on their individual skills. Also, many high schools (at least in California) play year-round, so players have team practices with their high school teams plus spring leagues and/or tournaments, which increases the overall time commitment.
Each Unicaja player has two days of individual or position-specific workouts for a total of two hours per week. They have four team practices that last two hours or less for another eight hours. They work with a strength coach on speed, quickness, agility and strength for no more than an hour on four days per week for, at most, four hours per week. They play one game on the weekend. Their total time investment is about 18 hours per week plus travel to the away games.
Unicaja’s schedule involves slightly more time than the average high school program that lifts weights and considerably more time than the average club team or high school team that does not lift weights.
However, Unicaja’s biggest advantage is that one person – the Head Coach – organizes the schedule. The assistant coaches, head coach, strength coach and others involved in the development process work together. If the strength coach thinks that the players look fatigued, the coaches can communicate and adjust the schedule or the training.
The problem with the club/high school schedule, especially since many players play for both during the spring, fall and summer, is the lack of communication and coordination. A club coach may give his players a weekend off because he feels that they are fatigued, but rather than rest, the players play in a high school tournament or work with a personal trainer.
I spoke to a mother a couple years ago when I invited her daughter to a free workout. Her mother was interested, but said she did not have time. She explained that her daughter had two high school team practices per week, two club practices per week, three sessions per week with a “plyo coach,” two workouts per week with a trainer and a tournament every weekend with her high school team and club team. She invested 15 hours per week plus the weekend tournaments.
The problem with her training schedule was that none of the coaches communicated. Her “plyo coach” worked separately from her workout coach and her club coach did not communicate with her high school coach. No coach overworked the player by him or herself, but the training accumulation over time was probably too much (close to 25 hours if you count the weekend tournaments, without a rest day).
If looking strictly at the high school schedule versus the Unicaja schedule, Unicaja’s schedule provides several advantages.
- Assuming that most coaches do not like to lift weights the day before the game, when can a team lift weights? Monday and Saturday. How productive are workouts the day after a game on the weekend?
- The Unicaja schedule incorporates two individual position-specific skill workouts, while the high school schedule is all team practices.
- The Unicaja schedule provides a day of rest twice a week (Wednesday and Sunday), while the high school schedule combines the two off-days (Saturday and Sunday).
- With a game only on Saturdays, Unicaja can practice hard Monday, Tuesday and Thursday and have a lighter practice on the day before the game. The high school schedule affords a hard practice on Monday.
- With two games per week, coaches spend much of their time preparing for their next opponent during their Tuesday and Thursday practices. With one game per week, Unicaja can use Monday, Tuesday and Thursday for more general practices and Friday to prepare for their next opponent.
The Unicaja training schedule favors player development through its structure. Meanwhile, the typical high school schedule is geared toward competition and game preparation. It is not about coaching styles or ability. The schedule emphasizes player development, while the high school schedule is rushed and focused on games.
Secondly, the Unicaja system keeps all parts – players, coaches, strength coaches, trainers – on the same page where they can work together for each athlete, while the current high school/club schedule lacks continuity as each segment works as its own entity.
The high school/club schedule puts a heavy emphasis on the player and his parents to understand his body and his training and to create an individual program within these different entities to meet his needs. However, the player’s best interests do not always align with the team’s best interests, which leave the player and parent at odds with the coach (club or high school) or force the player to ignore his needs to keep his coach happy.
Some players skip club practice to work with trainers because they feel the club practice is useless. Some players skip high school tournaments for club tournaments because of the better competition. Some players skip club practices for a high school league game because they feel that games are more important than practices. Their commitments stretch their time and force players to make choices which pit one coach against another.
The Unicaja system eliminates these choices and organizes the training activities in one location with one goal and one commitment. The benefits of the Unicaja system are those that I envision for the Elite Development League and see as an improvement over the current system. The EDL presents an alternative that negates the pressure that players feel to transfer schools to a better basketball program and creates a more unified development system rather than the current hodge-podge of programs to encourage a more balanced, periodized schedule which emphasizes player development with competition, not just game preparation and competition.