Nitty-Gritty Basketball
How Winning Can Make You A Big Loser

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by Sidney Goldstein

"Winning is the only thing" is a widely-quoted sports proverb. This hardly novel idea takes more away from the game than it gives to it. We coaches routinely use winning as a rationale for many types of improper behavior. Winning often overshadows the reasons for participating in sports ­ having fun, learning, and staying healthy.

Here are some detrimental consequences associated with a focus on winning:

Coaches judge both their team's and their own success on winning and losing. They say, "We won, so we must have played well. I also did a great job coaching," or, "We lost. We need more practice. I must work harder." None of this is necessarily correct. Coaches need a more concrete basis for evaluation, so that we can effectively coach players. Thinking in terms of winning and losing, there is none.

Will coaches who focus on winning coach anywhere? Or will they exclude many places and players? I coached in several summer programs in which I had no chance of winning. Against many area all-star teams, I pitted our high school JV and varsity. We were trounced when mostly JV players showed up. However, we learned fundamentals despite the score. Winning says, "work with the all-stars, forget the others." Teaching allows coaches to work with all players regardless of ability.

An emphasis on winning requires coaches to recruit as many good players as possible and then merely manage them. The philosophy is, "teach the minimum needed to win. Teach short players dribbling and tall players rebounding. Maybe we can skip dribbling all together if we have one good dribbler, because that's all a team needs to bring the ball up court." Teaching says that all 12 players on a team need to learn all skills and as a coach you are responsible for teaching them.

How do winning coaches treat players? Through the coach's influence, do good players become good or at least worthwhile people? Do we coaches spend extra time to make sure the stars get to practice, games, or class and even pass the algebra test? Do we cover up if they don't? Try to find a coach who disciplines a poor player who skips practice or doesn't try out for the team. Many colleges routinely recruit illiterate players with the rationalization that they are helping the underprivileged.

A focus on winning also encourages coaches to play only the best players in the game. The other players do not deserve consideration, even though they put out the same effort in practice. I'm always amazed that coaches routinely bench most players on the team.

How often do coaches get angry at players for making a mistake? Winning demands players do things right whether or not they know how. Teaching on the other hand, says that the only limit to a player's ability to learn is the teacher's ability to teach. Face it, players' mistakes often stem from coaches' inabilities. Teaching encourages coaches to study basketball and to examine themselves; it is giving of one's self, whereas winning only manipulates, demands, takes, and uses.

For some so-called winning coaches, sideline antics are routine. Since we learn more by example than from what is said, how do coaches' rampaging on the sidelines affect others? Would we see this behavior if no score were kept? For teachers, games are of secondary importance ­ they serve as a test of players' learning and coaches' teaching.

Coaches obsessed with winning may try to emulate their counterparts in the movies. Tinsel town's winning coaches routinely need to uplift depressed players by dazzling speeches ending in, "Let's do it for the Gipper" or mom or apple pie. Of course these words turn the tide, and the winning team again triumphs. I can't remember when depression effected my performance as a player, and I'm sure uplifting speeches can't take the place of hard work. Coaches need to teach players in practice, and then on game day focus players' concentration on specific tasks. Great speeches can't make up for lack of expertise, effort, and practice. Great speeches are for politicians, not teachers.

Winning can also become a moral issue. Winners are perceived as good in every sense ­ good in basketball, good as people, morally righteous. Coaches who want to win at any cost, and too many other people, elevate physical ability to the status of moral character. Losers are folks that are no good in every way and, further, do not deserve any consideration. Calling someone a loser is a derogatory statement, not an objective comment on a coach's win­loss record.

Winning most assuredly corrupts. If winning is the only thing, what is to prevent coaches using illegal and unethical actions to achieve this end? Unethical and illegal recruiting is commonplace at every level of play. Pacts between coaches and referees, corruption among timers and official scorers, and, in general, too many non-game related tactics take advantage of others. On the other hand, teaching only needs better methods, not better schemes.

Despite the use of so many winning tactics, it's obvious that too many players have not learned basic basketball skills. We watch games and see that even all-stars and pros do not know the basics of dribbling; that too few players pass the ball; that boxing-out is as extinct as the dinosaurs; that foul shooting percentages often do not increase much between 9th grade and the pros. The reason: winning does not demand teaching and learning. It only demands scoring one more point.

Paradoxically winning always makes you a big loser, because nobody wins all the time. Only one team wins the championship. All the others lose. On the other hand, when you teach, you win, in a real sense, all the time. If players learn, every practice and every game are a win.

Belonging to the fallible human race, we can say without reservation that, of course, everyone wants to win. Do you think that kids need a rallying cry from coaches, sports legends, sportscasters, and other adults in responsible positions to do so?! Or should the emphasis be shifted to the teaching and learning aspects of basketball: that basketball is a subject just like any other one; that the court is a classroom, not a place to let egos and kids run wild.
Your comments are welcome.


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