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.