Sunday, 17 July 2011

Let them be kids!

So I am reading a fascinating book right now called “Play Their Hearts Out” by George Dohrmann.  It is about amateur basketball in the United States and how it has turned into a machine of recruitment and shoe company corporate dominance.  I wanted to blog about some of the concepts in the book because I find them interesting and at times a little scary.
I know our system in Canada isn’t set up the same and I am not professing to say that we are perfect up here.  It just seems like we are just more “untapped” to some degree.  I would say one of the major reasons is that basketball isn’t our main sport.  A few years ago I had the opportunity to coach at a summer camp for a Division I school in the U.S.  I was shocked to see the amount of kids with so much raw talent.  During the summer that school ran 6 basketball camps for only high school boys (there were other camps going on as well).  During the same summer in Calgary, where I was living at the time, each of the 3 colleges or universities ran only 1 camp each for boys.  One of the main colleges had to cancel the camp due to lack of interest that year.  I had my mind blown at that U.S. camp because 1) the boys were so skilled compared to the level I was used to coaching and 2) the boys at the camp were huge in terms of their height and muscle development.
Through recent research I have come to see how involved shoe companies are in the development of young athletes in the U.S.  and I think there is negative cost when you have sponsorship that entrenched in sport.  The book indicated that the ratio of sponsored to unsponsored coaches was 20:1 in the Los Angeles area alone.  That area also produces more Division I talent than any other metropolitan area in the U.S.  Essentially, shoe companies target coaches that have access to talented players and the “relationship building” begins. 
The talent of the coach on a skill and fundamental development level is secondary when compared to the access they have to talented players.  Often these coaches go after talented players from other teams to make their teams better.  They seem to be more about sales then coaching and skill development.  These coaches aren’t necessarily interested in building the talent themselves if they can just take the player and pass the end result off as their own product. Just because a player enters a tournament on your team doesn’t mean you have played a significant role in making them better. In fact, these shoe companies use this to their advantage because these coaches are seen as consultants operating independently.  So the shoe company gives access to product and in return they get unrestricted access to players.  If by chance the coach does anything off side the sponsor separates themselves by indicating that the coach is operating on their own accord.  It seems the company gets the best of both worlds and can side with any coach they choose as long as they get the player to see the best in their product. 
Many of the coaches who don’t already have a shoe deal have a hard time keeping up financially with those that do.  Getting one of those coveted coaching contracts is tough because these companies aren’t looking for more coaches they want more players to have access to the coaches they chose to back.  Some of the things they say to lure talented players away from unsponsored coaches would be “do you want to risk your son’s future by playing for an unknown coach?”  They use the term “exposure” to sell parents on landing a college scholarship by promising they will attend high end tournaments or have personal relationships with college/NBA coaches or scouts. This may or may not be the case but based on results parents buy in to what they are sold.
It is scary to see the progression at which sponsorship has evolved and as the years progress it continues to get younger and younger.  It went from the NBA level, to college, to high school and now is edging its way into junior high and even elementary school.  It makes me wonder when it will stop.  I could just imagine these companies busting into the delivery room to get their branded baby booties onto any newborn with parents who have a potential basketball pedigree. 
The idea of moulding a 10 year old for the NBA seems ridiculous to me.  Thinking back to when I was 10 years old I wanted to be an interior designer, teacher, fashion designer, model, business woman (so I could wear fancy suits) and a garbage woman (because no women did that in my small town and I thought I should be a trailblazer).  These were my thought processes in the span of a week!  Let’s be honest here these are children!!!  Thinking back most of the boys in my class wanted to be professional athletes of some sort because dreaming big is part of being young.  It is an amazing amount of pressure to put on a young athlete who is not even allowed to stay home alone, probably wants to eat junk food all day because it tastes good and has to be reminded to brush their teeth on a continual basis.  Plus it doesn’t take into consideration any jump in ability, growth spurts, injury, body development or even an interest in the sport long term which will happen as they mature.  No 10 or 11 year old has the capacity to be mentally tough enough to deal with the situation and it seems that parents with stars in their eyes don’t either.  Is seeing their young child on the cover of Sports Illustrated for Kids all that matters? 
The concern should be for the long term development of the person and ensuring they have a strong foundation to stand on in whatever path in life they choose.  Michael Jordan often makes the comment to let your children develop the love of the came first and I tend to agree.  Do corporations start trolling the playground for their next CEO?  It seems ridiculous when you compare this same concept to that of the corporate world.  They wouldn't be interested in succession planning to that degree because their are far too many unknown factors involved.      
Some of the most successful coaches in the world stress the importance of basketball fundamentals (dribbling, passing, shooting, and defence) at this young age.   If individual play is put first, in my opinion, it ruins the game because growth becomes stunted.  Some of the greatest lessons in sports come from losing.  Not being successful teaches humility, sportsmanship and hard work to strive for excellence.  If excellence comes without struggle it is similar to what happens when a baby chick is helped out of it shell in that it becomes weak and dies. 
Personally, some of my most memorable moments in basketball have nothing to do with the score board or getting a win.  They have to do with mastering something difficult my coach was teaching me and using it in the next game.  Overcoming an injury and getting back to playing at a better level than when I left.  The point is to be your best and to strive to reach your goals but no one puts on their resume when they won the Championship for 10 year olds and were sponsored by a shoe company.  The lessons have to be much bigger than just winning and the brand on your shoes.  
Before he passed, John Wooden, former coach of the UCLA Bruins, used to talk a lot about how style over substance was risky because fundamentals need to always come first.  He was also a man that wouldn’t compromise himself.  I remember reading one of his books on leadership and he talked about how many times he was offered sponsorships.  He mentioned that he always refused them because he wanted to be accountable to himself and make decisions based on what he thought was right.  I don't think that all sponsorships are wrong because their are some very worthy companies that have a great message.  There is a big difference between an adult making a decision based on their long developed principles and a child choosing which shoe company to play for at 10.  I think we need to let these players be kids first until they are old enough to know what makes sense for them personally. 

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The Ultimate Teammate

In school I was a no non-sense girl when it came to sports.  The evolution was amazing because I started out as a shy little girl to a fearless warrior.  When the game started the goal was to win.  I attended the same school from Kindergarten to Grade 12 and was always the 3rd tallest in my class behind Luke and Tim.  When they hit a growth spurt I wasn't far behind.  I was very thin and was often teased with the usual nicknames like "Stretch", "Bean Pole", "Baby Giraffe"... you name it I was probably called it.  People even called me things like "Pipes" because when I flexed as hard as I could my tiny bicep would pop up or "Wings" because my arms looked like they were touching my knees when I was standing up straight.  When I stretched them out to the sides they seemed never ending.  I refused to be the tall girl that slouched because I was proud of my height. I barely had any muscle definition I was just lean and mean!   I would get teased all the time about how big my feet were, how gangly or uncoordinated I looked but the point was I didn't care!  The more people teased me the more relentless, determined and aggressive I became when the game was on. I learned early to channel that anger and let it out when it was most productive... on the battle field! Soon the teasing stopped.   

My classmates would line up against the gym wall to make the teams.  The usual cast of characters would get picked early on: Tim, Luke, Dusty, Jordan, Jerett and me.  All of the other girls would get picked last except my best friend Tamara who was the prettiest girl in the class and always seemed to have someone crushing on her. I loved getting picked before the other boys!  It was like being a girl was an oversight and if I could contribute then I could play.  The feeling of being respected for my contribution to the team, instead of being the eye candy, definitely built my confidence.  (Tamara was sporty too so she wasn’t just eye candy)

I have to admit that sometimes it was hard fitting in with the girls because when my team lost in gym class I took it hard. You would too if you loved gym as much as I did.  I would count down the days for the next battle.  When I was in a funk the other girls would just go on to their cutesy drawings and tell me things like “who cares”, “it’s just a game”, or “you can win next time”.  I wanted to win every time! Didn’t they know that?!?  Playing sports with the boys every recess would have been ideal but I knew that sometimes I would have to do skipping and hang with the girls to have friends.  Plus I wasn’t a complete “tom-boy” . Sure I liked to play sports but I also was a bit of a fashionista with my accessories.  I wore a lot of pink and was very particular about my 80’s neon fashion rocking the side ponytail, slouch socks and bike shots with lace.     

When I hit junior high I was on all the teams: volleyball, track and field, badminton but not basketball.  During try-outs the unthinkable happened. I was cut from the team by the teacher everyone called Mr. Zamboni behind his back.  He was the teacher that drew the short straw and HAD to coach the Junior Girls Team.  I was so hurt!  How could he do that? It took the wind right out of my sails and I was contemplating not playing sports forever.  My Sister Mandy was not having it.  She hated to see me defeated and was determined to make me as strong as possible.  She told me about how Michael Jordan was cut from the varsity team and to use that pain as fuel to prove everyone wrong and that I should do the same with Mr. Zamboni. 

She used to call me outside and would throw the ball at me until I would catch it.  It didn’t matter if I was ready for it or not she was throwing it.  If I was running away from her she would throw it.  If I would go in the house she would come after me and throw it.  If I hid or ignored her she would find me and throw it.  Her methods were questionable but over time she wore me down, by imprinting my entire body with basketball bruises, and we got to work. 

She started out easy using the hoop on our garage to teach me layups, dribbling, shooting and her very effective form of passing.  The driveway was quite the slope so you went from shooting a 10 foot layup, an 11 foot outside shot and a 12 foot three.  So, most of our shooting practice took place at the nearest playground that was often referred to as Bosch’s.  After school and in the summer we spent hours playing and practicing.  She taught me all the things she had learned and although a lot of our sessions would end in fights we both refused to give up on each other.  The next year I made the junior high team and ended up being one of the best players on our squad. When she heard one of my teammates bragging about how many points she scored my sister piped up and said “you’d have a lot more assists if you would pass the ball and maybe you would have actually won the game!” She has never had a problem with speaking her mind.  We continued to work on my game as she learned new things. 

By grade 9 I hit another growth spurt and had improved tremendously.  I made the Senior Varsity Team... it was the same team she was on and to top it off we played the same position.  She was in grade 11 and what she lacked in height she made up in heart.  She was the best rebounder and post player on our team.  I was taller than her at that point and the battle was on!  I respected her so much and wanted to be like her.  Not only was she tough and tenacious but she could trash talk like nobody I had ever met.  She probably taught Gary Payton what to say! Sometimes I would get so fired up because she knew the exact buttons to push for me to lose my temper.  For those years I think we were barely sisters because we just were so used to battling each other as teammates.  Soon I was used to playing mad and my teammates knew it.  During a rebound they might take turns hitting me to make me play better and give an extra boost to the team. 

I wanted to gain Mandy’s respect so I kept getting better and playing hard.  I never knew how much she cared about me because we were both too proud to show it.  When my parents got divorced she took a part time job at a restaurant to make sure that we both had money to play sports.   She wouldn’t give me an inch of room for error and I wouldn’t show her that I cared what she thought.  In a small town it is easy to get trapped in the easy life so she set a very high standard of achievement and was like my second Mom when it came to reinforcing her plans. 

I learned all the concepts of being a good teammate from her.   If she hit me in practice it wasn’t personal it was to make me better.  If I got knocked down she was the first one there to pick me up.  She did her part to make sure I did my best and wouldn’t give up on me.  She pushed me to make me stronger and picked me up when I was down.  She stuck up for me when I needed support and battled me to make me better. I went on to play in many practices, games and tournaments long after we were teammates.  I never forgot the passion, drive and desire she had.  For me the motivation never changed when I looked at my coaches I saw her face I wanted them to be proud.  When I looked at my teammates I saw her face because I wanted to beat them and make them better.  When I looked at my opponents I saw her face and wanted to destroy them by doing my best.
She planted the seeds that helped me achieve many of the goals I have reached.  My Sister - The Ultimate Teammate.