Mater Dei head coach Kevin Kiernan cheers on his team during the Nike Tournament of Champions. (File photo by Kelly Kline)
Mater Dei head coach Kevin Kiernan cheers on his team during the Nike Tournament of Champions. (File photo by Kelly Kline)

The Ackerman Report (9): Coaching is teaching, not strategy

September 10, 2013 - 1:59pm

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

At one level, coaching is roaming the sidelines barking out instructions, drawing up nifty plays at timeouts and making innovative strategic adjustments that win games.

If you listen to TV announcers, that’s the impression you’d very likely get of what a coach does, and that’s how a sizable majority of youth and high school coaches view their role.

Back in the day, though, before the glorification of college coaches as tactical wizards, the image of a coach was the high school teacher who also worked with young athletes after school (think “Hoosiers”).

And in fact, that latter image is what youth coaching really should be about – but isn’t.

Several years ago, USA Basketball tried to reform the way American youth basketball is structured to create more emphasis on teaching and skill development, and less of an emphasis on playing tournaments and winning games, but the effort foundered in turf wars among the many competing groups that have a financial stake in youth basketball.

But let’s say reform was possible, without the threat of lawsuits from well-known and highly paid figures in women’s basketball, and with the cooperation of the National Federation of High School Associations and the Amateur Athletic Union. What would a better system look like?

1. Trained coaches. One of the big differences between soccer – a sport that is growing much more rapidly than basketball on the girls’ side – and basketball is that soccer coaches must go through rigorous training and certification. To coach at higher levels, soccer coaches must have taken a series of courses and passed a series of tests.

In girls’ basketball, there is no certification for coaches who are not involved at the high school or upper levels of summer basketball. And even then, all coaches basically have to do is not have a criminal record, and they’re good to go. (Different states do have certain requirements to coach in high school, but little of it has to do with teaching the game. First aid, CPR and some overall philosophies are discussed, but generally the requirements are for coaches of all sports, not just basketball.)

So step one would be to require coaches to have actual training in how to teach fundamentals. They would be taught the mechanics of making layups, the proper footwork for shooting threes, the body position for defensive slides, and all the other little fundamental details that players must learn. In addition, coaches would be taught how to teach this skills, rather than just relying on showing girls how to make a layup and expecting to pick it up from just that.

2. Fewer tournaments, more clinics. As the saying goes, everybody wants to get to heaven, but no one wants to die. In the same way, girls (and parents) want to maximize their skills, but too many families would rather play in tournaments than spend time on fundamentals.

And since it’s much easier, and more profitable, for club coaches to organize tournaments than it is to set up clinics, every year there are more and more tournaments on more and more weekends – and more pressure for girls to play with their teams on all those weekends.

Ideally, there would be more weekends devoted to clinics and instruction that would make players better, because it doesn’t take long for the law of diminishing returns to set when all girls do is just play games.

Equally important, when the score is being kept, and parents are in the stands cheering, players are going to default to doing what they do best. They’re not going to try that drive with their off hand and risk missing – instead, they’ll continue to work on what they do best, and their development will stall. (And their coaches have no incentive for them to add to their game if it costs them wins. Parents want their girls to play with winning teams, and they generally can’t see the value of fundamentals.)

Also, certain players do certain things in game situations. The better ballhandlers dominate the ball, some girls seldom shoot, and posts stay on the block and don’t work on extending their game. A girl can play a four-game weekend tournament and take only a handful of shots and play only a few minutes (one player I know of traveled hundreds of miles, paid a lot of money and played 35 minutes in five games, and she’s far from alone). A two-hour open gym session would give girls much more playing and development time, especially if it was preceded by some instruction and some focus (that is, in this game to 11, work on your left hand, say).

3. Play more three-on-three. Ice hockey is making a serious push at the lower levels to get away from full-rink games and play with smaller groups. This means more people touch the puck, and more players develop more skills instead of just skating up and down chasing the good players.

The same is true for basketball, as in a five-on-five game, even if everyone touched the ball equally, a particular player would have the ball in her hands only 10% of the time. In reality, of course, some players control the ball much more than others, and often pass to only certain teammates. In a three-on-three game, everyone has to pretty much do everything, and a wider range of skills is required, and developed. (Two-on-two is an excellent developmental game as well, especially for the pick-and-roll, and one-on-one will expose weaknesses very quickly.)

Playing three-on-three, especially with older guys, is probably the single best way for girls to develop a better understanding of the game. The biggest difference between the men’s and women’s game is not the dunk, but ballhandling. Strip the names off of college full-season stat sheets, and there’s no real way to tell whether it’s a men’s team or a women’s team – except for assist/turnover ratio, where the men are vastly superior.

That’s because boys play two-on-two and three-on-three much, much more than girls, and not only are forced to handle the ball more, but also quickly learn that turnovers cause losses, not to mention causing your teammates to get upset with you. The more girls play three-on-three, the more skills, mental and physical, they will develop.

But all these very specific suggestions are worthless without one more ingredient: The willingness on the part of parents and coaches to play fewer games and spend more time on teaching and instruction. Parents need to be educated on the importance of instruction, and coaches need to be taught how to teach the game.

It’s no accident that participation in high school girls’ soccer is growing at 7 percent a year while participation high school girls' basketball is shrinking by 3 percent. Soccer coaches are trained and make the whole experience of playing soccer more satisfying than untrained basketball coaches can. It’s not that the people who coach basketball are lesser coaches – they just haven’t been given the tools necessary to be the best coaches they can be.

And in the same way, young female basketball players aren’t being given the tools they need to be the best players they can be, and the game as a whole, at all levels, suffers because of it.