I have been coaching youth in baseball and basketball for a long time. I am constantly trying to improve. If you have read my other blog posts you see that I have interviewed coaches that I admire and believed they coached the right way. I go as often as I can to our local high school games. I sit as close as I can behind the bench and observe and try to learn. I am fortunate to work and live close to a major university and one of the top basketball programs in the country. Their practices are open, so I go as often as I can to observe and try to learn.
This season I had the incredible opportunity to coach an 8th grade girls’ team and I am currently coaching a 6th grade girls’ team. The 6th grade piece will become relevant as the story goes on. The 8th grade season came first. A condensed season, squeezed in at the end of the year before the middle school season begins in January. I had not coached this age group in a while and due to the condensed nature of the season and the long layoffs due to holiday breaks, I knew I would need to revise how I normally prepare players.
To complicate matters, these young 8th grade ladies had not had the best coaching experiences in the last couple of years — as relayed to me by most the parents. Many of the girls had considered not playing and just waiting for the school season. I watched them at tryouts and had brief interactions with the players. Numbers were light so all who wanted a spot on the team were offered a slot.
This story is about one young lady in particular. A point guard, a ball-handler with skills that exceeded her 8th grade level, but with plenty of room to grow. To sum up her psychology, she was disillusioned. A myriad of “life” variables and bad basketball experiences had put this player in an interesting place. She is an incredibly passionate player but at the same time her basketball psychology is bi-polar. Riding high when things are going well and dysfunctional, at best, when things are not.
This team and this player in particular had me going to my basketball psychology “bag-of-tricks” often. I so badly wanted to “reach” this player. I so badly wanted to her to see how “things” could be. I know I reached some of the players. I know they bought in. Others “played” along. I just never felt like I closed the loop with this player.
Fast forward to last night. Here is where my 6th grade team comes in. My 6th graders practice at 7:30 p.m. in the “old” gym at the middle school. The new gym on this evening was the site of an intense game between a rival and the 8th grade team that is mostly made up of players that I coached earlier. I stopped by the new gym to see how things were going before setting up for my 6th grade practice. I struck up a conversation with the site coordinator and he explained that the game had been close the whole way. With a minute left to go, the team that I love, found themselves trailing by two. Fast forward again, through all the fouls and timeouts, our player in this story finds herself at the free-throw line shooting one and one. The site coordinator had shared that throughout the game our player had missed the front end of several one and one’s. Here is her chance to tie the game. Opponent calls a time out to freeze her and talk about what to do with the seven seconds that remained. Our coach is visibly anxious but is reassuring our shooter. Teams come out of the time out and set up for the free throws. Our player is visibly nervous, but she has a great shot, so I believed as hard as I could that she had this. First shot goes up, whistle blows, lane violation; she stepped over the free-throw line. Ball to opponent. Player devastated. Opponent fouled at other end; double bonus; makes the first, misses the second, but opponent gets the rebound and time expires. Good ladies loose a tough game.
I leave the new gym and head down to the old gym to get ready for my 6th grade practice. My 6th graders are arriving and getting dressed for practice. I look out the gym doors and down the hall and I see our 8th grade player walking toward the old gym. I am standing in the paint as she walks over. I reach out my arms as does she. We hug. She doesn’t utter a word, nor do I. She turns around and walks out.
I really don’t know the “psychology” involved or what happened leading up to that exchange, but I am so glad it happened. It is yet another reminder that these young people always teach me more then I teach them. And, that your job as a coach doesn’t end when you hang up the clipboard for the season.