Texas A&M celebrates winning the 2013 SEC Tournament. (File photo by Kelly Kline)
Texas A&M celebrates winning the 2013 SEC Tournament. (File photo by Kelly Kline)

The Ackerman Report (8): What's more important? Winning or getting better?

September 6, 2013 - 1:55pm

(This is the eighth in a series of commentaries on Val Ackerman’s report on the state of NCAA women’s basketball.)

Everyone likes to win.

The more competitive a person is, the more driven she is to win, and the more important it is to win. Good athletes are, not coincidentally, competitive people, so the cycle feeds on itself.

On top of that, sports is an island of certainty in an ambiguous world: When you play a game, you win or you lose. You can make excuses, or blame the refs, but in the end, the scoreboard doesn’t lie.

What does this have to do with women’s basketball at the collegiate level? Ask any college coach, and they’ll tell you that young girls spend too much time playing games and not enough time developing skills. They would love to see players arrive in college with more fundamentals and fewer trophies – but given human nature and the system that has developed over time, change is going to be difficult.

Still, if the quality of the game is to improve, so must the skills of the players, and if college coaches have to spend tons of time working on fundamentals, then they don’t have time to spend working on more advanced aspects of the game, such as decision-making or immediate adjustments to changes in defensive or offensive strategy.

Ideally, then, a basketball player with elite athleticism would arrive at her college possessing the ability to get to the basket with either hand, good form on her shot and a grasp of basic defensive and rebounding techniques (help defense, say, and screening out).

This, however, remains just an ideal, as unlikely as finding the Holy Grail under the bench at halftime. Too many players with the athletic ability to excel in college come to the first summer sessions with a game that relies almost entirely on quickness, speed and strength, qualities that have allowed them to overwhelm less gifted players at the high school and AAU level. But now, playing against a higher caliber of competition, and older, stronger opponents, those athletic gifts are usually not enough.

So why aren’t girls taught more skills? Because everyone wants to win, starting at a very young age.

Let’s back things up, to that very first team in fourth or fifth grade. It costs money to play and buy uniforms and such, and there’s a coach who played in high school and has a daughter on the team. He watches a lot of NBA and men’s college games, and has listened to so much Dick Vitale-like commentary that he thinks the key to having a good team is strategy – that is, having a good full-court press, or a well-drilled zone attack, or excellent inbounds’ plays.

All those things are important at some level, but what’s more important for young players is learning how to dribble, pass and shoot. (One of the best pieces of coaching advice I ever received came from a long-time college coach who now is an NBA scout. He looked at my less-than-impressive talent and said “All you should work on is dribbling, passing and shooting. If you can’t do those things, the other stuff doesn’t matter.”) The problem is, it’s much, much easier to teach young girls to run plays and press than it is to teach them how to dribble, pass and shoot – and it’s a lot more fun.

I remember my first day as a basketball coach at the high school level. This was junior varsity girls, way back in the day when many of the girls hadn’t played much at all. I thought, “We’ll just start with layups for a couple minutes, and move on.” After a couple minutes, though, I realized that only a couple girls could actually make layups, and even worse, I had no idea how to teach girls to make layups. I would just dribble in and lay it up, but I’d never thought about the footwork, or the relation of the ball to the body, or the release.

We spent about 45 frustrating minutes on layups that day, and over the years, it became clear to me that the more time I spent putting in neat inbounds’ plays and three defenses, the less time I had to teach girls how to dribble, pass and shoot. And this was at the high school level, where I had the girls for 90 minutes a day five days a week. Recreation-level teams, and even top-flight AAU teams, often only practice for two or three hours a week, and maybe get 10 hours of practice before their first game.

And when they play, what happens? An opposing coach who wasn’t worried about teaching the defensive stance rolls out a 2-2-1 three-quarter court press, or traps out of a 2-3 zone once the ball crosses half court. And if a team hasn’t worked on how and where to deal with those kind of strategic assaults, the result is preordained: A bad and embarrassing loss that makes the coach look like an idiot – and makes the parents wonder why they spent their money on this team.

So coaches have to use a lot of their limited practice time preparing for various defenses, and they often decide that they need to respond with some strategic tricks of their own, which eats up even more practice time.

Which means that even less time is spent on fundamentals.

Meanwhile, the naturally athletic girls on any team find ways to score, which usually involve using speed, quickness and strength to get to the basket. Layups, after all, are a lot easier to learn how to shoot than three-pointers, so why bother? Missing threes will lose you a game; making layups will win – so which do you choose?

And those athletic, aggressive girls are also going to get steals and rebounds, and those two will lead to scores. If they have to run around the key to shoot a right-handed layup because they can’t dribble with their left hand, no one’s going to complain, because they’re going to score, and give their team its best chance to win.

This pattern doesn’t change as girls get older. In high school and summer ball, more coaches can teach plays than can teach fundamentals, and coaches don’t get pressured to develop players with skills, they get pressured to win. If they don’t win, they don’t coach for long, and again, the choice is obvious.

So what to do? That’s for next time …