Coaching young players, it is important to look on the bright side of things. Focus on what might happen in the future, rather than what didn’t happen or what went wrong. Emphasize what the team can start doing now do improve later, not what they can’t do or must do. Maintaining the balance between a positive team culture and an expectation of high standards tests a coach’s ability but it can pay dividends down the road.
The regular season is not a final exam but a homework assignment to prepare for the end of the year. As long as the team does well enough to be in the right position at the end of the year, the coach has done well. At that point, it is time to utilize every extrinsic motivation trick in the book. Burning the players out early in the year by making a crisis out of nothing loses them when you need their full attention later on. Besides, what could happen on a youth basketball court that could really be that bad?
The first few practices and exhibition games are merely a diagnostic assessment in order to set appropriate goals for the rest of the year. Priorities at that time include establishing a team culture – qualities like work ethic, teamwork and tenacity suit any level of talent – and keeping athletes engaged. It is never too early to talk, on and off the court, because a running dialogue will solve many problems. Attributing blame to an individual or according too much credit to another is unproductive in the long term.
I’m not advocating that a coach take it easy or step aside early in the year or when coaching a young team. The coach will always be their own toughest critic and there is just as much evaluation required now as there will be when reflecting upon the end of the season. However, this is more subtle: determining the level of the team, observing which drills work best and assuring that positive habits are filled.
The rotation in October is not the same group as it will be in March. Given the distinction between practices and games in terms of intensity, all players should get some opportunities to showcase how they perform under pressure. An eight player rotation may be ideal for the playoffs but now it is a matter of inspiring everyone to play together and looking for effective combinations. A player who feels like a significant contributor to the team can step in when there is an injury or foul trouble in a critical game but someone who disengages in the preseason never will.
Open the team’s eyes towards what they can do. They may not even realize what they can accomplish or perhaps some will assume that they will fail. An adverse result on the scoreboard after the first game is part of the process, not the ultimate outcome. Despite problems with defense, chemistry or toughness, highlight what could be achieved when it all comes together. Instead of “Defense was terrible. How could they get so many open shots? And why didn’t you attack on offense?” try “We took good shots when we attacked the paint. We led in the second half but then defense let up. Imagine what we could have done if our defense had been consistent for forty minutes.”
Making mistakes is acceptable and even inevitable. But making the same mistake twice can be avoided and should be discouraged. Even a young team should debrief after each game; self-evaluation is a learning skill that everyone should possess. There is no reason to accept poor performance from yourself, especially when there is enough time to correct it. Early in the year, coaches must model this behaviour so that athletes learn how to benefit from the routine.
Two points from John Wooden: “Success is never final, failure is never fatal” and “‘I’m not going to be talking to you about winning or losing because I think that’s a byproduct of our preparation. I would much rather be focused on the process of becoming the best team we’re capable of becoming.” Consider a philosophy that features preparation rather than winning; if a young team believes in the former, the latter will follow when it counts.