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Coaching Myths & Realities

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Basketball Coaching Myths That Stifle Improvement
by Sidney Goldstein Copyright © 1996,2002,2010,2015 by Sidney Goldstein

Basketball as a sport has been hyped too much by sportscasters and advertisers. What was once primarily considered a fun, learning, and healthy activity for kids can now be foreshadowed by dollars, winning, and recruiting. The big losers in this situation are not only the kids we coach, but also us, the coaches, because we are relentlessly inundated with materials and ideas contrary to what we need to acomplish. If you better understand each myth that inhibits your growth, you can achieve more than you ever dreamed.

Myth number one is that basketball fundamentals are only for sixth grade girls; that only coaches at the elementary level need to teach shooting, dribbling, passing and so on; that players without these skills need to go back to their elementary school and learn them; and that it is an insult to the intelligence and integrity of any coach to teach at that level. This makes no sense, because the primary job of a coach is to teach exactly that: individual fundamentals like shooting, passing, and dribbling.

Fundamentals are the building blocks of basketball, so everything done on the court depends on the execution of basic skills. Proper execution of each team skill depends on fundamentals, not how well or how much you practice plays. I think some of the best coaches in the history of the game like John Wooden, spent lots of time teaching individual skills.

Because my discussion involves team skills, individual skills, and fundamentals I want to better define and differentiate what these words mean. Team skills involve coordinating movements of players on the court. It's as easy as moving X's and O's around on a piece of paper. Individiual skills involve how players actually do this movement. If you were to diagram a play, this is a team skill. If you talk about how to look, fake, read the defense, time a cut or pass, pass, catch, pivot, shoot, etc. you are talking about individual skills. Many coaches have never even heard of, let alone taught the most improtant individual skills needed for team play.

Most fundamentals involve individual skills though there are fundamentals of team skills too. Trying to teach team skills and individual skills together is like trying to teach algebra along with calculus. They need to be taught separately, one usually before the other. Team skills take little time to teach whereas individual skills take forever. A coach who has problems with team offensive play often confuses the two types of skills. Teaching them together never yields much success.

Here are two detailed examples of how team and individual skills differ:
1) When a player flashes into the lane for a pass there are a myriad of skills involved like looking, communicating, faking before the cut, cutting, jumping to the ball, catching, and pivoting to name a few. Not being able to timely perform any one of the skills will prevent proper execution in a game. Many coaches might think they have a team skill problem if they do not recognize that players lack many individual skills.

2) The success of an out-of-bounds play is not determined by where a player sets up and by predetermined movements, but by how well a player reads the defense, then reacts using basic skills like faking and cutting. Reading the defense and reacting involves what I call looking skiils: looking at the defense, looking at your offense, communicating, and looking to find the open area. On an out-of-bounds play each player needs to read the defense and react in unison to take advantage of the situation.

Another word or two about faking that will maybe blow your mind. A player needs to faking just about 100% of the time on the court weather on offense or defense. A Pro or experienced player does this without thinking. An inexperienced player can become experienced very quickly if taught.

Another myth is that fundamentals are easy to teach and learn, and team skills are more difficult. It's just the opposite. Any grandmom without any experience could become expert in teaching team skills in weeks, whereas you need a lot more knowledge and patience to teach individual fundamentals.

Individual skills are especially difficult for youngsters to learn because of the coordination, agility, and strength needed. NBAers learn more quickly than 5th graders, but pros still need to spend most practice time on individual skills. I'm always surprised when pros do not improve shooting, foul shooting, dribbling, passing or boxing out. I can't remember seeing an NBA player who dribbled without palming the ball. If the coach worked on individual skills, an NBA team would show marked improvement in a short period of time.

One more myth already alluded to involves the importance of plays. When I started to study basketball, I found many books entirely devoted to offense, describing at least five zillion plays with 6 zillion options. Surely one of these must work well all the time or surely there must be a good play against the next opponent! I subsequently learned that if players have sound individual skills, you can teach enough plays for the season in one practice. After that practice, I used plays to teach individual skills.

A further problem develops if you regularly practice set plays because players learn to look and cut only one way, not look and cut for an opening. This is another real good reason not to spend much time on plays.
You want a player looking everywhere all the time for an opening. The offense then expliots defensive movement.

Myth number four is that you can't teach many skills like shooting and dribbling. Coaches who regularly go the NCAA's tell me that. This is only true the coach does not know how to teach individual skills. Because teaching individual skills is so difficult, it has become almost traditional not to bother. Many coaches realize they have never had success before, so why waste time. It's much easier to just work on team skills and repeat the mantra, "players either have it or not." My books and videos cover each skill that these coaches think unteachable and a host of other skills they never even thought were teachable skills.

Another myth is that the most skilled players are the best players. Unfortunately, you need more than skill to be a good player. An 80-year-old sharp shooter will not be effective in a game because he/she can't move fast enough. Conditioning, strength, quickness, and agility are additional requirements for a great basketball player. Skill only goes so far. And, most of a coach's practice should involve improving a player's athleticism--conditioning, agility, quickness and so on. A better athlete is automatically a better player, especially on defense. Most successful coaches run their players into shape. The coach from the movie Hoosiers had the right idea.

Another myth is that repetition yields improvement, practice makes perfect. In a way, this is correct. If you do something 100 times incorrectly, then you become expert at doing it wrong. To practice correctly yielding improvement, one must practice properly all the time.

Here's one incorrect way to practice. How is it that a player can make 40 foul shots in a row in practice, then shoot 20 out of 40 in a game? To understand the answer, one must know a little more about shooting.
Shooting success depends on improving technique, the mechanics of moving the body, the arms, wrists, fingers, etc. A player must develop proper technique, then practice to maintain this technique. Shooting 40 foul shots in a row does not develop or even help maintain technique. As a matter of fact, shooting 40 shots gets players into a shooting groove using a technique that may not be reproduced another day. I call this "Technique du jour." On game day this player uses a completely different technique, leading to usuall less successful results.

There are a many other myths about shooting. One is you must shoot from longer distances to improve your shooting. No. Shooting irresponsibly from longer distances will destroy your technique and shot. Another shooting myth is that shooting is mental. Shooting is 100% mechanical. To improve a player needs to develop the mechanical parts of the shooting motion which I call technique. Basic shooting technique involves: pivoting, wrist motion, touch (the ball), arm extention, body motion. To improve a player must improve shooting technique. Shooting at the basket will not improve technique. Only dedicated technique practice works.

Many myths involve sport's mottos. Each one is antithetical to common sense and coaching.

"No pain, no gain" is one that causes many unnecessary injuries. You don't have to push a youngster or older player to do more than they should on an athletic field. Youngsters, even adults, always do more than they should, not less. A high school and junior high playe swill gladly break their neck at practice. Your job as a coach is to prevent them from doing so. You need to slow them down, teach them how to pace themselves and properly peform skills. You don't want players (or yourself) putting in that one big effort that will put them out of commission for a week or month.

Any type of conditioning or training takes time. You can't cram it in all at once. Just like learning anything, you need to do a little each day. This is how anyone benefits from practice and training.

Another sports motto, "Winning is the only thing," maybe true if your job as a professional coach depends on it. Most of us are not in pressure-cooker situations like pro coaches. If we work with youngsters, our objective should be to make sports a fun, learning, and healthy activity. We don't need reckless abandon to recruit the best players, cater to them, and neglect the others. We don't need to put only our best players in the game, benching all others in order to win. Winning only means that you scored one more point than the other team. It does not mean that players learned, improved, or played well. It doesn't mean that you, as a coach, have done a good job. I think a great coach is one who works with kids, even if they don't have a chance to win the championship.
The teachers never receive the outward credit they deserve.

Several other myths involve inspiration. One is that coaches need to get their players up for the game. If you ever coached or breathed air outside a vacuum you know that kids are always up. Kids are especially happy when they play sports. If your kids are depressed then maybe they need a psychiatrist; maybe you need one too.

As a player I can't remember any time I was depressed for more than 3 seconds regardless of the score. So, why do you need to get players up? As a coach I found I needed to do just the opposite - I needed to regularly calm and focus players on the job at hand.

Another myth, maybe it should be called the movie myth, is that inspirational time-outs or halftime talks can greatly influence the play of a team. Let's do it for the Gipper, and all that stuff. Nonsense. Players need specific information and ways to do things, not uplifting speeches. An uplifting speech can't teach players, only working on fundamentals will do that. Leave inspirational talks to politicians and actors; coaches need to teach.

I have presented some of the myths passed down from one generation of coaches to the next and from coaches to their players. None make sense, and most importantly, most cause problems rather than help a coach. If basketball were viewed as a fun, learning, and healthy activity for kids, not entertainment for fans, these myths would be more obvious. If coaching was viewed more as teaching, then more coaches at every level would have interest in the basics of the game. By dispelling myths and hype I hope that "basketball" can get on with the important business at hand - teaching and playing the game - not cashing in on the ability of a few talented players.
Your comments are welcome.

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by Sidney Goldstein
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