Mercy Rules And Running Clocks? Nope

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It wasn’t a moment I was proud of. The year would have been 1979. I was an 11 year-old little league baseball player. My team was one of the best teams in the league, losing only a couple of games until this particular day.

I wasn’t a big hitter by any means, but I almost always made contact, striking out only three times on the season. Two of those strikeouts came on this day against a hard throwing lefthander that I felt totally outmatched against. The level of frustration was high, not just for me, but for my whole team.

In a season where we weren’t used to losing, we were getting our butts handed to us that day. 17-3 after four innings to be exact. This is where my memory fails me. Either the mercy rule hadn’t come into being yet, or there were a couple of seasons where Little League played without it. Either way, games were played to the finish, regardless of score.

After taking our at-bats in the bottom of the 4th, we gathered our gloves and started to take the field for the top of the 5th inning. What happened next was unthinkable for a bunch of 11 and 12 year-old boys. Our coach gave up. He stopped us before we left the dugout, waving his arms and shaking his head. I don’t remember his words, but I know they were delivered poorly. The message was clear. If we can’t win the game, there’s no use finishing it. The game was over.

What came next is something that I hadn’t given much thought to over the years. I suppose because I thought I was just acting like a big baby when I reflected back on the events. It just seemed like a typical stupid boy thing to do. But now I realize I may have been onto something that was 100% correct and something that curses youth sports today.

In the dugout, our coach delivered some lame talk about how we had no chance to win the game and tried to explain why he did what he did. We weren’t buying it. I just grabbed my Wilson “Dave Cash” model glove and stormed out of the block dugout at Prichard Elementary School. We weren’t quitters. And I was mad as heck.

My big brother was on that team too, and we normally would have walked together to our mom’s car. But I stomped past him and started across the parking lot toward Main St in a manner that said, “I’m mad and I want everybody to know that I’m mad!”. I kept walking when I reached Mom’s car and she rolled down the window and asked me where I was going. I’m pretty sure that I simply told her that I was going home as I kept on walking.

Mom just let me walk. That’s the way she was. I guess I was cooled off by the time I reached our house about a mile away. Might have even felt a little foolish about it by the time night came around.

It may have taken me nearly 40 years to circle my brain back around to what was wrong with that day. And it wasn’t that I stormed off like a brat.

What happened then and what happens today is that adults are stealing the fun from the kids. And we’re sending them some twisted messages in the process.

Mercy rule? A Little League baseball team is losing 12-1 after 4 innings. Game over. The message for the adults may be mercy. Don’t beat somebody worse than you have to. Don’t leave a team on the field to be humiliated. Sometimes time and scheduling issues come into play. Yeah, I get that. But what about the kids?

Game after game, leaving the field without completing a game in a mercy rule loss (or even a lopsided win). What’s the message? Maybe in a kid’s mind the unintended message is that the only games worth playing (or finishing) are the ones that can be won. Maybe the importance of finishing even unpleasant things is lost.

I know how badly we wanted to finish that 17-3 game on that day. And I remember suffering through and finishing a 28-1 loss on a much weaker team the following year. We didn’t think it was the other team’s place to take it easy on us, and we certainly didn’t want the adults to end the game. It was ugly. But we finished.

Maybe it’s not a coincidence that those are the only two baseball scores I can remember from the days of Pee Wee, Little League, and Senior League. It’s possible that enduring those lopsided losses turn out to be experiences that can play a big part in shaping the character of young people.

Don’t give up. Finish what you start. And if you don’t like the way things are going, then it’s up to you to do something about it.

No, I’m not really saying that we shouldn’t have mercy rules. But I am saying that adults should give some thought to unintended consequences of obsessing over scores. Kids love to play. Kids need to finish. And they should be able to find more value (and fun) in playing a couple of innings on the short end of the stick than they do in not playing them at all.

The same goes for the running clock time at the end of a lopsided basketball game. The spirit of the rule may be correct. But its execution leaves a lot to be desired. “This game is decided. Let’s hurry up and get it over with”. Meanwhile, in the closing minutes of lopsided games, kids who may be on the floor for the most significant playing time of the year, looking for brief glimpses of success, essentially have their court time cut in half (because you can’t win, you know). Rushed through.

If the only games worth finishing are the ones that are winnable, then where does that lead the mindset of players on an 0-10 team?  Are the next ten games in an 0-20 season even worth starting?

Adults care more about records. Kids care more about playing. If they’re looking forward to their next practice and excited about their next game, that’s a huge win for any coach or parent in youth leagues. Most kids have at least some drive to compete to win. And most kids should be faced with a good number of games they have no honest chance of winning. They have to learn how to navigate those games and to not feel like a failure for losing an unwinnable game.

Play to win. Finish the game, regardless of score. Don’t let the clock run. Win or lose, learn how to deal with it. Maybe it’s a new thing or maybe I’m just noticing it. But I’m seeing a lot of adults, both young and old, that aren’t exactly setting the world on fire when it comes to coping, “dealing with it”.

I promise, when you’re 50, you won’t remember any of your win/loss records. And you won’t remember the scores of any of the games that you won. But you will remember the games and maybe even the scores of your worst beatings. And you’ll remember the times your coaches gave up.

How To Ruin Your Kid’s Life In Sports

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Picture it. A spunky 5th grader dribbles the ball across midcourt and loses her dribble. The defender scoops it up and goes in for an uncontested layup. In the two following trips, the same flustered girl throws ill-advised passes that have no hope of reaching her teammates and four more points are tacked on the scoreboard for the opponent. Trailing by ten points now late in the 4th quarter, all hope of winning the game is lost.

This young player, she knows exactly where her dad is sitting. After each turnover, she catches him out of the corner of her eye as she turns to sprint back on defense. His body language depicts anger and frustration. He leans back in his seat with excessive drama, throwing his hands in the air. She looks to her coach on the other side of the floor. His reaction is no better. He jerks his head back, rolls his eyes and stares angrily at his point guard.

She knows what went wrong. But she’s also smart enough to know that she’s not big enough or strong enough to make all the plays that are going to win every game. She needs more practice. She needs encouragement and patient teaching. And she needs freedom to have small failures without shame.

The game is lost. But more importantly the slide toward losing the kid is already in full motion. The steps toward confidence building just ran into a brick wall.

Somewhere in the gym sits an innocent bystander. He has no interest in the game’s outcome on the scoreboard. As the game unfolds, he watches intently, but his eyes aren’t on the same things as the coaches or the overly excited parents. His focus is on the looks on the players faces. Their reactions when plays don’t go their way. Their reactions to the coach’s instructions. Where their eyes turn when they know they’ve made a mistake. How they react to the words and body language of mom, dad, and coach. He wonders to himself if each player will be ruled by fear or by confidence as they grow older.

He’s watched enough kids in enough games that he’s disturbed by it all. To him, the kids are obviously overwhelmed by it. What should amount to simply playing and competing in a game, quickly evolves into playing to please adults. The joy and the freedom of children is stolen from them. When the atmosphere of this game is multiplied by 60 or more times a year for multiple sports over the course of grades 3 through 8, where does this leave a young athlete? Just messed up in many cases.

Fear, doubt, and lack of confidence. These things exist and grow pretty well inside the minds of kids without being fertilized repeatedly. There’s an awkward stage that may not go away until…….well, never for some. For youth coaches and parents alike, we’re all somewhat guilty. So much of what we do and say consistently over the long haul only serves to make it worse.

In the end, kids give up on sports and walk away for the wrong reasons. Not because of lack of ability, but because the fun left long before it should have. The doubts and fears eventually become too much. The pressures of misguided parents and youth coaches take their toll. Parents try to claim the level of excellence their child will reach. Efforts of youth coaches focus on simply winning. Player development and mental approach to the game are neglected by all.

So how do we change it? First of all:

Parents, please just shut up. 

Really, just stop talking and start cheering. That conversation you’re in danger of having with your kid in the car after a game, it’s worthless. The cumulative effect of your words, game after game after game X300, about what they can do better………is that they want you to shut up. They live in danger of reaching the end of their high school career someday, believing that they never played a single game that pleased their mom and dad. What you’re saying isn’t necessarily anywhere close to what they’re hearing.  And all that coaching you do from the bleachers, just stop. Most of the time, it’s just instructions on how your kid can score more, and not tips on how the whole team can fare better. You’re not helping. You’re cultivating selfishness and confusion. Just let them play. Just let them be coached. Just let them have fun. Just let the experience be theirs. In the end, you can’t pick your kid’s level of excellence. But you can help cultivate a love for the game, boost their confidence, and teach the values of work ethic and being a great listener. Yeah, it’s good to focus on those things.

Coaches, just smile more.

Be a cheerleader during the games. Don’t obsess over outcomes. See what you need to address in practice. Address it in practice. Games are the times when we all tend to wreck our kids’ heads. Instead lead their hearts and heads every bit as much as you coach their actions.

The greatest skill that youth coaches need is the simple willingness to smile and clap their hands.  The kid that just missed two straight wide open layups? That kid that just got a scowl from their mom? The one whose dad is gonna tell him, on the car ride home, all the corrections to be made so he can rack up 30 the next game? Yeah, every time those kids hit the inner turmoil of failing to meet their own or their parents’ twisted expectations, they need to see an assuring look from their coach. This is where your body language shines. Smile, clap your hands, and belt out one of these magical phrases:

“It’s alright”

“Keep shooting, the next one’s going in”

“It’s okay, just keep playing”

“We’re good”

“Hang in there, just keep fighting”

“Keep you head up”

“Put it behind you. Just be ready to make the next play”

I could drag out these points for pages and pages because I’ve made every parenting mistake along with every coaching mistake.  So maybe this is the most important point to end with in summary.

Look at your little 3rd or 4th grader on the court today. Give some thought about what your hopes are for them when they’re 18. If your goal is athletic greatness, I suggest that you adjust that just a bit. Maybe you can lead your kid in this direction:

“I hope my kid is able to play totally without fear of any task or any opponent, without fear of making a mistake, and with complete determination to simply do their job the right way every single time”.

Is this the direction we’re leading our kids in? I don’t think it is. I know I failed miserably in this area. And I know every court and every field is full of fearful kids. Most every time I look at the face of a kid in competition, they look like they’re afraid to make a mistake and most don’t respond well when they do. The fun is leaving. Let’s change that.

Smile. Clap your hands.

“It’s alright”

Last Place In the Last Race

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I found myself in an unfamiliar place at the end of what turned out to be Maddie’s last high school cross country regional meet. A strange series of events led us to stick around to watch the last finisher in the boys race.  I’d never even witnessed the last finisher in a girls race.

Maddie, a senior now, has been running in varsity races since she was a 6th grader.  At many of those meets, she has found herself in the shadow of a high-finishing big sister.  A running joke developed between Maddie and me over the years that her success would be measured in whether she puked or not after she finished.

“If you don’t puke, you can find a ride home with somebody else.”

Where you finish isn’t as important as how hard you compete and push yourself.  When I was tied up with basketball coaching duties and unable to watch our girls run, a text update from my wife might read, “Maddie isn’t sure what place she finished, but she wants you to know that she puked after the race.”

I wasn’t always there to see every race.  But I know that Maddie always finished well, never near the rear of the pack.  And her mother and I always wanted to get to her as soon as possible after she finished because she truly did push herself to her limit in every race (even when she didn’t puke).  I realized today I didn’t have a clue what it was like for those last finishers.  I’d never stuck around to watch them cross the finish line.

This being Maddie’s last meet, there was a somber mood when she was done running.  We talked, hugged a lot, and maybe even shed some tears.  Her mother reluctantly left to try to catch big sister’s final college soccer game of the season (3 hours away).

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Maddie and two of her biggest fans (her two brother) stuck around with me to watch East Carter’s boys run.  We drifted toward the finish line to cheer for our boys team as they finished.

There was a crowd of approximately 100 people lining both sides of the homestretch, cheering wildly as the top finishers came in.  Once approximately half the runners finished, it was pretty much determined who would qualify for the state meet. The crowd shrunk quickly.

We cheered the last of the East Carter boys as they finished.  I stuck around a moment longer in a reflective mood, thinking of all the years our girls had been running, and knowing this was the last trip.  Looking up, I saw only two runners in the distance remaining on the course.  At this point I noticed that the crowd of more than 100 onlookers had dwindled to only about 6 people besides our family.

And that’s when I witnessed the coolest event of the day.  A runner from Ashland Blazer’s girls team came running back from the finish line, toward the homestretch where the handful of fans were standing.  And she was doing her best to generate excitement and support for a teammate who was still on the course.

“Come on guys, we have to go cheer for David!”

But I didn’t notice anyone following her.  What I did notice was an Ashland runner way off in the distance, far behind the next-to-last place runner.  I turned to my three kids, “we’re gonna cheer for these last two finishers.”

A middle-aged man across the course from me, who may have been walking away stopped in his tracks and asked the girl, “what’s the boy’s name?”

The theme spread quickly among those of us who remained:

Spread out and cheer for David.

Eventually the last two runners passed.

“Good job buddy.”

“Hang in there.”

“Good job David”

“Almost there, finish strong.”

Those last two runners had a nice cheering section as they finished.  They might have finished to silence if not for the actions of the young lady from Asland Blazer.  A great teammate.

The athletes that finish consistently in the front and middle of the pack…….maybe they have the advantages of higher levels of talent, self-motivation, and support/encouragement from parents..

For the athlete that finishes in the rear of the pack, there is the danger of finishing alone and discouraged.  The danger of giving up.

Today, perhaps two runners finished last because that’s exactly where their training and experience placed them.  But maybe, simply by the actions of this young lady preventing them from finishing in silence…….they will be motivated to continue on next season instead of giving up.  And maybe their training and determination will reach a new level.

For the young lady from Ashland, well done!  Thankful that our family was part of your act of encouragement.

I Never Thought It Would End THIS Way

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For anyone who has ever coached youth sports of any kind, from pee-wee to middle school, and even high school sports in some cases………I have a deep question that has been floating in my mind in recent days. Just give me minute to circle around to it.

My youngest daughter wrapped up her high school soccer career tonight.  The days leading up to it flooded me with memories of all her games past, both far and near.  Thoughts of different leagues, cities, coaches, teammates, hotel rooms, victory, defeat.  Reflections of how she changed over the years as a player, a competitor, and a person.  Wondering how and why things have played out exactly as they have.  Thinking about influences both good and bad that could have or would have made things better or worse if they’d been different.

And I started thinking about the kids that I have coached as my kids have grown up, from youth soccer to travel soccer, Upward basketball to middle school basketball.  And I just can’t help wondering……

If all coaches could see into the future, to that very day when a kid puts away the cleats or the hi-tops for the last time and walks away from a game………would they choose to coach individual kids differently than they presently do?

Every kid walks away from their chosen sport someday…….then what?

Effective youth coaching is psychiatry and it is parenting.  Each player is unique, and they have specific needs that team sports can bring them.

Many coaches fail to fill those needs because they falsely assume they are training the next state champs.  They fail to see each child beyond that day when the sports equipment goes in the yard sale or the closet.

Shouldn’t the journey of sports teach these things and more to prepare kids for life beyond sports?

  1.  Standard of excellence
  2.  Work ethic
  3.  To believe in themselves
  4.  To trust others
  5.  The value of encouragement
  6.  To know they aren’t the center of the universe
  7.  To know that success does not come overnight (or in one practice)
  8.  To lose with dignity
  9.  To accept temporary failures without blaming others, and to realize these failures aren’t permanent
  10.  To be pushed to their physical limit, time and time again
  11.  To love and to be loved
  12.  To sacrifice for others
  13.  To respect authority and rules
  14.  Teamwork/unselfishness
  15.  To never give up

These things still matter when the cheering stops.

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The cheering stopped for Maddie tonight.  Her team lost in the regional semi-finals.  In a game where she and her teammates truly “left it on the field”, the score was tied at the end of 80 minutes of regulation.  Two 5-minute overtimes later, the score was still tied.  Penalty kicks would now decide the match.

Maddie stood over the ball, ready to attempt her shot with her team facing a nearly hopeless 3-1 deficit.

If she missed this shot, the game was over.  The season was over.

Sitting on my knees beside my wife, I simply mumbled, “Maddie needs to be to one to take this shot.”

Not because it could be the game winner………because it would be the shot that would seal the loss if she missed.

I don’t know what kind of reaction or look Kristy gave me, but I went on to say, “Maddie needs to be the one to take this shot, because I know she can handle missing the shot to end the game.  She can handle it.  That’s my daughter!”

And my voice cracked at the enormity of what I was saying in a trailing voice……..”that is OUR daughter”.

She missed.  Game over.  Season over.  High school career over for her and her senior teammates.

Maddie played her heart out.  And I was so proud of her.  But when those words came out of my mouth, “that’s our daughter” it hit me so clearly.  I was not proud of her effort or her performance.

I was proud of who she has become.

She met her mother and me after the game with head held high.  That’s our daughter.

Do your best.  Have fun.  Train and play to win.  In the end it’s just a game.  The end came tonight.  I’m thankful for all those who have prepared her in the right ways to go beyond this “end”.

If you’re coaching your 1st game or your 1000th, take an occasional peek toward the end.  Winning is a by-product of doing all things the right way.  Some lessons can’t be cast aside for the sake of early wins or just because you ARE winning games.

And while your players are dreaming of making that dramatic game-winning shot, you better spend some time preparing their toughness and character……for missing it.

Watching Me Watching You

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If we expect our children to become adults who work hard when nobody is watching, it’s important to take time when they are children, to notice when they are working hard and doing their best.

I spent some time Friday night watching my nine year-old son Kal participating in the Center Shot archery program at our church.  It’s his second year in the program, but he has no other archery experience.  More potential than skill.  What he knows about archery, he has learned through this program (his dad knows zilch).

I always watch him shoot at the target, but sometimes two kids are shooting at the same target.  I can’t always tell which arrows are his from a distance.  So I usually just watch his body language and facial expressions and see how closely he’s listening to instructions.  Sometimes he looks my way in the back of the church gym during the night, but usually not.

I wasn’t paying particularly close attention at one point because he had just finished shooting all of his arrows into the target.  I might have even been distracted by casual conversation with someone seated next to me.  But I looked up just in time to see Kal, looking back at me proudly.  He was pulling his arrows out of the target, but he was saving the best for last.  His hand waited on the arrow that stuck perfectly in the middle of the target.  Kal wasn’t going to pull it out until he was sure his dad had seen it (“look Dad, I did it”).  As soon as we made eye contact and I gave him a thumbs up, he pulled it out and went about his business.

I didn’t carry out any notable “dad feat”.  I just sat in a folding chair.  But it made me think of kids that hit a bullseye and turn around looking for encouragement or approval…….and nobody’s there, time after time.

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Today I watched my daughter Maddie run in her regional track meet.  The 800M run is her top event and her best chance to advance to the state meet for the first time (1st & 2nd place qualify).  She came into the meet as the 5th seed in region (I think?).  As a 16 year-old junior, Maddie and I have shared hundreds and hundreds of athletic contests, many of those with me as her coach at youth and middle school levels.

But in high school, I have tried to be a quiet presence of support, hiding in the shadows.  As a father of a teenage girl, the thought enters your mind that your daughter probably won’t even notice anymore if you’re not at her events (and does she even care if you come?).  When Maddie was on the track today, I had no reason to believe she even knew where I was.

I stood by myself at a spot just outside the track, about 75 yards beyond the finish line.  She looked strong as she passed me on the 2nd and final lap.  She moved up from 5th place to a strong 2nd place finish on the lap, finishing 5 seconds better than her season’s best time.

Silently from a distance I watched.  I wondered if she would look my way.  I delighted in the joy in her face, felt a sense of pride in her laughter and sportsmanship among the other runners.  And then she shocked me.  Maddie looked across the track at me like she knew exactly where I was the whole time……grinning at me from ear to ear giving me a big thumbs up (“I did it Dad!!!”).

I know it sounds cliche’ and cheesy but don’t underestimate the value of just being there.  Kids just want to be noticed when they do something good.  They need encouragement to continue on when they think they’re doing poorly.

As our kids grow older, will our kids choose us as parents to share their triumphs with?  Will they give up on something too soon because we weren’t there to help them believe in themselves?

Some kids feel constant pressure to be the best on the court, track, or field.  Kids that are playing to please somebody else are miserable.

But kids that look over their shoulder for support, encouragement, and direction…….and always find it, are something else entirely.

SECURE!

Whatever your kids are doing, just find a way to be there.  They don’t need you to be there to tell them how they can do it better.  They just need you to celebrate when they do it well (or give a a great effort, of course).

Don’t Live and Die By the Scoreboard

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Winning isn’t everything.  But playing to win is.

This post is sort of about sports.  Sort of about UK basketball.  Sort of about life.

Life mirrors sport.  Or does sport mirror life?

Sometimes we need to shy away from the obsession with measuring results.  Pass/Fail?  What’s on the scoreboard?

Effort.  Heart.  Intentions.  Shouldn’t these count for something?

A few years back, I coached a middle school girls basketball team that played their hearts out every game, but always had terrible trouble putting the ball in the basket.  So many times they heard this phrase, “Girls we did so many things well tonight.  Competed hard. Showed tremendous heart.  But unfortunately, this gym has a scoreboard too.  Don’t let our lack of points showing on it trick you into thinking you didn’t play well.”

Judgement in this case needed to be based on effort, not results.  Don’t let results discourage you.  Keep working hard.

Conversely, don’t let wins trick you into thinking your level of play is acceptable.

My wife runs marathons.  I don’t run.  If I challenge her to a one-mile race and she beats me by one yard, who really wins?  Which one of us needs to make changes in their approach to competition?  To allow me to finish close behind her, one or both of these had to happen:

1)  I showed more heart than her and out-competed her.  I raised up to her level.

2)  She didn’t give maximum effort.  Did just enough to win.  She dropped to my level.

Is that acceptable?  Yeah, if you’re satisfied with where you are.  Not if you want to be a champion.

It’s better to lose than to consistently play poorly and win.

Losing necessitates the need for change.  Winning does not.

Why the obsession with results?  Measuring results.  Keeping score.

Sometimes we look the other way when somebody half-way does something.  Sometimes we have no reaction when somebody does something that lacks good judgement.  Our reaction only comes comes when the aftermath of their actions affects us.  Everything is peachy as long as results are good.  But results are overrated as a measuring stick.

But what about intentions?  Effort?  Motivation?

So many times bad results grow from good intentions.  I find myself soothing peoples’ reactions to bad results with the half-joking,

“Well, she meant well.”

But it’s true.  Otherwise, we are measuring ability rather than heart.

When a friend presents a laundry list of all the things that another friend is doing wrong, do we simply agree?  Or do we try to look at the heart and effort of the accused?  “I know they do ____ poorly, but they are trying their best.”

The person who recognizes their faults and works to improve is more admirable than one who can “produce” more with little effort.

The UK basketball program lives under the constant microscope of fans and media.   I suppose my microscopic assessments tend to irritate my fellow fans.  I’m too critical.  I can’t be pleased.  They’re just kids, you know.

What sets me apart?  Most fans watch games looking for a win.  I’m just strange.  I watch games with an eye for players doing things right.  The amount of effort that goes into doing things the right way.

Regular season games are learning opportunities.  The impact of the lesson is diminished when poor effort and execution still results in a win.

It’s better to lose than to play poorly and win.  The scoreboard becomes more important in March.

This holds true as long as your goal is to make steady improvement, day after day, game after game……..in order to win when it really matters.

Last year’s Kentucky team lost 10 regular season games then made an incredible run to the NCAA finals.  A highly regarded team, loaded with ultra-talented freshmen  struggled throughout the season to the point of nearly missing the tournament.

Talent didn’t automatically result in wins.  Performance became so bad that I quit watching for a while, but not because of losses.

As a middle school basketball coach, I’m certainly not an expert on basketball, especially at higher levels.  But I do have a  firm grasp on the scope of fundamental skills and basketball knowledge that are necessary for success in high school.   If you can’t understand and carry out certain things, you don’t play.

Last years freshmen were the equivalent of passing a student through to high school that couldn’t read……….just because they were really good at math.  We had college freshmen who were absent of things that should have been present as high school freshmen.

As long as we’re winning playing zone defense, we don’t even have to learn any of the finer points of man to man defense.

As longs as Rivals has you rated high, there’s no reason to change your mental approach to game and practice.

As long as you can dunk over everybody, there’s no reason for you to learn basic low post footwork.

You get the picture.  Calipari’s team development was set back months due to the absence of fundamentals.  His elite freshmen had been allowed to skip over the finer details of basketball at all earlier levels simply because they produced results.

As a team, they were just beginning to grasp and execute concepts at the beginning of tournament time that should have been taught in their middle school days.

I was mortified at what 5-star recruits had become.  If we were going to get players like this every year, let’s change the model.  If 5-star guys have evolved into fundamentally poor underachievers, let’s get some 3-star guys that have failed enough to learn from it.  Let’s change the model.

Thankfully Cal has changed the model somewhat.  Kids that were headed for the D-league have stuck around for at least another year.  Cal’s fascination with winning a championship with all freshmen is a thing of the past.  And this year’s freshmen class has restored my faith in incoming high profile players.  These kids understand the game.  They compete hard.  They were properly prepared for college basketball.

In tough environments on the road, they understandably play like freshmen.  It’s part of the maturing process.  At home, they get complacent.  They get too comfortable.  They get outscored in the second half by teams that they lead by 20 at halftime.  And sometimes you look up and the opponent has a 34-17 rebounding advantage against our team that’s bigger than every NBA team but one.

Cal speaks one language to the media and public that sends a constant marketing message to incoming recruits.  He speaks another language to his players to make them the best they can be.  And he speaks yet another language to his assistant coaches (this would be the language of brutal truth).

I often speak the language of brutal truth when it comes to UK basketball.  Some people don’t  like to hear it.  If you only look at wins and losses, it seems to be harsh criticism of kids.  But if you listen closely……and watch closely, you’ll realize that I don’t criticize guys who lay it out for their school and their teammates, every second of every game.

When talented guys do this, the score will take care of itself.

Side notes:

*Why the Chris Gettelfinger picture?  Because if you don’t know who he is, don’t even try to argue with me.

*I have been accused of being too harsh in my criticism of the Harrison twins.  Cal has brought them along quite well.  They were grossly overrated coming in and expectations of them were unrealistic.  But they (along with James Young) may have possessed the poorest grasp of basketball fundamentals of anyone to ever wear a UK uniform.  And Andrew has the burden of playing out of position.  He isn’t a point guard and will never play a game in the NBA as a point guard.  His best bet for an NBA career is if his brother is drafted next year and he plays two years at 2-guard.

*If we don’t lose a game before the tournament, I think our chances of being national champs diminishes greatly.

*Lack of playing time for Hawkins and Willis has more to do with recruiting than it does with any other factors.  5-star guys in high school can’t see 5-star guys having to wait for playing time.

*For young high-profile athletes, I think there is too much hero-worshipping and butt-kissing on social media by fans and not enough honest correction and accountability by coaches and parents.  They float in the clouds because we put them there.  And we make excuses for them when the stumble………Jameis Winston is just a kid, you know.  But his actions are most likely a result of his heart & character…….not because he’s just a kid.  It’s ok to expect better.

I

 

 

Keep Talkin Even When Nobody Seems To Hear

KR 8th grade night

Some things are worth repeating, even when your audience doesn’t seem to care or understand.

Some messages don’t bring immediate results or even draw the attention of your listeners.

But concepts that are modeled and “preached” consistently still stand a chance of becoming a part of someone’s character.

Such is the case when coaching kids in youth sports.

At younger ages, the mom/dad/coach figure gets by with fumbling through teaching the rules of the game and basic fundamental skills.

As players get older, the pressure to win often creates an unhealthy mix between learning and winning (winning now!).  Teaching of fundamentals, good work habits, team-building, and strong character often gets shoved into a corner while practices and instruction are centered on winning now and developing the next superstar.

Coaches at any age have the responsibility to help kids become their best…….at life.  Work ethic, determination, a competitive spirit, accountability.  They all come into play along the way.  And somewhere along the way, coaches have to realize that the kids they’re leading aren’t going to be playing the game much longer.

I’ve been privileged to coach two of my kids in basketball through three years of middle school, most recently my son.  As my son passed through his final middle school season, I became very aware of the future of him and his teammates.  They weren’t all going to be high school basketball players, but they were all going to be high school students soon.

The talks before, during, and after practices and games began to take more of a tone of developing strong character and making good decisions.  Most of these subjects were met with looks of “can we just start practice?” or kids not even listening as they put their shoes on to leave after a game.

A lesson I learned early in coaching was this: If at least one kid is listening, then I will keep saying what is important for them all to hear (but everybody else has to shut up for that one kid to hear).

The man who shared coaching duties with me also shared in leadership philosophies.  So we kept preaching.  And we may have bored some kids to death at times.  But we harped on concepts that applied on and off the court.

-Make good decisions.

-Be a good teammate.

-Decide that nobody will outwork you in practice today.

-Don’t just settle for whatever falls in your lap.  Work hard.  Compete hard.

-Earn the respect of your coaches, opponents, and teammates.

-Success and improvement doesn’t come overnight.  Do your best every day.

-If you don’t like where you’re at or how things are going, do something about it.

-The world doesn’t revolve around you, think of others.

-Never be a blamer or an excuse maker.

– Be a leader.  Do things to make the people around you better.

My son and some of his teammates have moved on to the world of high school basketball now.  I watch as a parent, and not a coach, for the first time since he was a 4th grader.  But the “nervous parent locked in on his own kid” has left me.

I watch all my former players closely now, observing as both a coach and a parent.  Cheering for small triumphs for each one.  Seeing how hard they compete.  Seeing how well they respond to coaching at the next level.  Trying to get a gauge on how well we prepared them for the “nexts” in life.

At a recent JV game, I got an unexpected glimpse at a lesson learned……one of those lessons we were often selling and doubted anybody was buying.

A two-on-none fast break.  Ballhandler approaches basket from the left.  He has a teammate on the right side of the basket, about two steps behind him.  Player with the ball hasn’t scored or even shot in this game (a big lead with minutes left).  In fact, he has scored very few points on the season.  But his open teammate on the right has just scored what may have been his first points of the season minutes earlier (with much celebration from the bench.

Instead of shooting a wide-open layup, he hesitates slightly and shovels the ball to his teammate for 2 more points.  Another small eruption from the home bench and a good response from the crowd.

I watch in silence.  It was my son that gave up the ball.  I looked at my wife without speaking.  He gets it.  My reaction would have been the same for any of the kids that may have made the same play.

I’ve been more excited at sporting events for my kids.  My daughter scored an unlikely acrobatic last minute goal to tie a regional semi-final soccer game……….and I may or may not have screamed like a madman and raced down the sidelines.  My other daughter made a free-throw with no time on the clock to send a game to overtime in a huge upset win……..made greater because I could see that she was a nervous wreck after missing the first one.

But I’ve never been more proud of one of my kids in a sporting event than I was at that moment.  “Son, people notice those things.  It’s not a big deal if you take that shot, but it is a big deal that you didn’t. People will remember what you did.  Those are the things that build teams and make them better.”

It’s not a big deal.  But it is.

“Make good choices.  Be a leader.  Do things to make the people around you better.”

He listened.  I know others did too.

Parents and coaches……keep preaching it.  They may not seem to be listening.  It may not help you win the next game.  But it may show up when you least expect it.

We’re not really raising ballplayers……we’re raising winners.

If it’s worth repeating, keep repeating it.