Where is the Love of the Game?

basketAs crazy as it seems, since I wasn’t a big fan of my own son (sorry Jason) during the same years, for nearly 20 years I have coached 6th to 8th grade boys basketball.

I Coach:

  1. To see the love of the game shining at the youth level;
  2. To see the light go on when a skill that’s been taught over & over finally clicks;
  3. To see the bond that a team with great chemistry has in their 2nd & 3rd years;
  4. To see the boys get to the point where they don’t have to be begged to play as a team;
  5. To see the boys pull themselves together to erase a big deficit for the first time; and
  6. To see the pride & confidence the boys develop between 6th and 8th grade.

The number of hours that are devoted to communicating with parents, preparation, practice, games, tournaments, recruiting new players, negotiating space to practice, fundraising, dealing with the politics of the ever-changing youth sports landscape and more is staggering.  We play year round, rarely have a weekend without games and all of this is done as an unpaid volunteer without even having a child in the program anymore (it’s been 13 years since our son played). The years I’ve spent devoted to preparing middle-school boys for High School Basketball makes it really hard when I hear about boys, a few who were formerly in our program, that want to quit playing a game they once loved.

I completely understand the desire to quit or make a team change if:

  • A coach is verbally or physically abusive;
  • A coach displays an obvious and/or unreasonable dislike for a player;
  • A player is being bullied;
  • A coach favors their own son above all other players/employs a “Daddy ball” mentality;
  • They have had a bad experience with a coach at the next level;
  • I even get it if the player comes to a realization that they don’t genuinely enjoy the game and being part of a team (although I’d really want to talk about it and understand why).

Especially in the turbulent early teen years from 6th to 8th grade, in order to always know how a player is feeling about themselves and their team, I’d recommend having frequent and open discussions with your son:

  • Why does he play? I’d want to know he wasn’t playing because I love the game (as his parent or coach) but because he loves the game and wants to continue playing.
  • Does he like his teammates and coaches?
  • Does he feel like he is learning and getting better at the game he loves?
  • What are his basketball (or whatever sport he’s playing) goals?

It’s no secret that I was a tomboy. I played schoolyard ball as a kid and team ball from 4th grade all the way through high school. Although I had no female basketball idols, I loved watching the 1970’s & 80’s Lakers play anyone and everyone. To some extent, I tried to imitate the games of players like: Magic Johnson, Clyde Drexler, Dr. J., James Worthy, and I even loved the toughness of Dennis Rodman (before the strange behavior…) on the boards.

I don’t see the same focus or even knowledge of the game in today’s kids.  When more time is spent playing basketball on their video game consoles than they do on the school yard, in the park or on a basket in their driveway, it’s no wonder that so many youth players are so badly out of shape and in possession of such poor ball handling skills.

I am also really worried about the influence the increased “Me, Me, Me” focus today’s NBA game is having on youth athletes.  They know who the top scorers are, who can “hit a sick 3,” and who “throws down monster dunks,” but they don’t seem to care or recognize great rebounders, defenders or other team focused aspects of the game.  It’s all about trying to imitate an ESPN “Sports Center Top 10” shot, and it’s really frustrating trying to teach them unselfish team play.

Sportsmanship, teamwork and humility are being replaced by bad attitudes, selfish play and unacceptable on-court behaviors that the kids on my team know will get them a spot next to me on the bench:

  • Throwing up 3 fingers after hitting a long basket;
  • Not getting back/walking on defense (only playing offense);
  • Intentionally fouling or hurting any other player;
  • Taunting the other team by word or action;
  • Using foul language on the court or the bench;
  • Showing disrespect to officials, coaches, or parents;
  • Questioning the officials;
  • Trash talking the other team or (even worse) each other;

Unfortunately it’s not just the NBA that’s teaching these kids to act the way they do. Respect for and love of the game is often killed by overly critical parents applying undue pressure, expressing disappointment in their sons, nit-picking their effort, and demanding perfection/excellence every game.

We need only look into the stands at any AAU game and we see parents and others:

  • Applauding/encouraging their son’s selfishness and arrogance;
  • Yelling at the officials, chirping back and forth with opposing team parents, loudly bad mouthing players on the court and openly questioning the coaches;
  • Unable to objectively view their kids’ within the context of the team as a whole;
  • Berating their kids in front of others for “poor performances” after games; and
  • Blaming the coaches for their kid not being ready for the NBA in the 6th grade.

Over the course of 20+ years, there have been about 1/2 dozen times when we’ve had to cut boys because their parents were:

  • Convinced their son was recruited to play because the team needed a “savior;
  • Angry that the offense isn’t designed to showcase their son;
  • Indignant when they are not treated as special and are asked to pay the same team fees as every other player;
  • Obsessively focused on only their son’s individual stats & achievements;
  • Unable to grasp why their son isn’t starting/playing every second;
  • Uninterested in hearing about the growth of their son as a team player;
  • Concerned that sons of friends/family were scoring more points per game or, even worse, are the star on their team(s) when their son is “better than ___” yet the same can’t be said of their son;
  • Openly critical of other players on the team: their son doesn’t get as many minutes as so-and-so, who (in their opinion) can’t dribble/dribbles too much, can’t shoot/shoots too much, turns the ball over/won’t pass to their kid, etc.;
  • We had a big lead in another game and, after we’d told the team to hold the ball, had a dad who yelled orders to his son, “You get yours _____.
  • We’ve had kids who, after a specific play is drawn at a time out, ignore the coaches and jack up/miss a 3 and then aren’t at all apologetic about it.
  • We had a kid who, while really nice, couldn’t handle the ball to save his life.  Ignoring that indisputable fact, his father (who admitted his own lack of athletic skill or basketball knowledge) insisted that his kid “deserved to be the point guard.”  When I pointed out that the kid couldn’t dribble, couldn’t run the offense, refused to drive, and turned the ball over nearly every time he touched it, the father’s response was, “I’ve been working with him.
  • We had a mother of twins who, despite many parent meetings where the reminder was given that equal playing time was never going to happen at the competitive upper AAU level we were at, attempted to rally the parents against the coaches because one of her sons wasn’t getting the exact number of minutes as his brother.
  • Another parent, after we’d lost a very close game, said loud enough for players, parents and other coaches/league officials to overhear and report, “It wasn’t the team’s fault.  Your coaches are terrible.”

When a player wants to quit after so many years of working so hard, I have to question the real reason. How did they lose their love of the game? Is it because of a current coach? Did they have a parent who broke down their confidence? Was a parent trying to live vicariously through them without recognizing that they had a son who didn’t want to play the game?  Or, in his years between beginner and future high school star, when he was in my care, did I fail, as a coach, to try and insulate him from the unreasonable expectations of his parents, or others influencing them, until he was able to voice his feelings himself?

When it all comes down to it, no matter what the answer is, it breaks my heart.  Hmmm

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