Monday, 28 December 2015

Playing in Paradise

With one of the warmest winters on record here in Ontario I got thinking about other times when I experienced warm winters in the past. When I was in my final year of high school I moved to Hawaii to play basketball and to finish my Grade 12 year.  It was February and the new term was just starting.  It was so strange to be in a deep freeze one minute in Southern Alberta, where I was born and raised, and then a few hours later walk off the plane where a wave of warm humidity just took over.  Going a winter jacket to tank tops and from boots to slippahs (sandals or flip flops) was a welcomed change.  

The summer prior I had been staying with my Aunt and Uncle who live in Hawaii.  I was taking care of my cousins during summer vacation and so as payment my Aunt and Uncle sent me to a basketball camp on the other side of the island from where they lived at the time.  It was at a basketball high school where they held really great summer development camps.  From when I got there I really loved the atmosphere of the school.  It wasn’t pristine or perfect by any stretch but what it had was a lot of character!  The doors of the classrooms all faced out, which was weird to me, there were also palm trees and flowers everywhere. 

As fate would have it the Head Coach of the girls’ basketball team ended up being one of the counsellors at the summer camp that week. I guess over the course of the week he really liked how I played.  At the end of the camp he asked if I would consider coming to school there the next year.  I never thought in a million years my parents would agree to it but they eventually did.  They knew that I was mentally ready for the challenge and also thought it was an amazing opportunity for me they didn’t want me to pass up.    

Over the next couple of months arrangements started to take shape.  My Coach and I would talk weekly about my progress with my team as well as different plans that needed to be made over the course of the next few months.  Since my Aunt and Uncle lived on the other side of the island from the school it wasn’t possible for me to live with them so I stayed with a host family on the weekdays and on the weekends when I didn’t have basketball I stayed with my family.

Now, I want to say that this wasn’t an easy situation to go through. The experience was definitely extremely challenging but one of the most rewarding opportunities I have had. It shaped my life in many profound ways.  My parents had always raised me knowing that if they did a good job I wouldn’t need them anymore.  They taught me to think on my feet and to make good decisions.  I was as ready as I was every going to be and made the move to leave home at seventeen.  

I learned to be independent as well as self sufficient.  I also learned a great deal about challenging myself and bringing my best every time I stepped on the court.  The school where I was coming from was a fraction of the size of this school in Hawaii. The competition level was through the roof here.  I would say the equivalent of going from high school to college level basketball in the span of days.  The learning curve was steep and very intense as expectations were very high.  

I was used to playing games that consisted of me scoring 43 of the team’s 52 points. I dropped a lot of weight when I first arrived because the practices, games and competition level was at such a higher level plus I was a bit home sick as well as experienced some culture shock.  I also found it hard to play in the heat.  I was going to have to go from being a starter who played all the minutes I wanted to play to being at the end of the bench working my way up by earning the trust of the coaching staff.  It got to a point in the season when I was the “6th man” or the first sub off the bench which I was incredibly proud of. My coach told me at one point he thought I should be starting but one of the girls would be shattered to lose her spot and we needed her contribution for the team. Starting didn’t matter that much to me as long as I was contributing and he knew that.       

Since I was living with people I barely knew I had to also learn to trust strangers and be open to new opportunities. I was really grateful to them for opening up their home to me to live there because without there contribution living my dream wouldn’t have been possible.  They were incredibly generous and understanding but it was challenging living with other people and getting used to a different culture.  I often wonder about what they are up to now and if our paths will ever cross again.  

I also had to get used to my new coach.  Although he was really nice when he was recruiting me his demeanour changed during the season.  He was a coach that was very vocal and demanded excellence every possession.  He was so loud when he coached that I found myself just only listening to him and so afraid to make a mistake when I got on the court. My former coaches were intense too but in a very different way than this coach.  The volume of his voice and how he expressed himself was really scary so when I played I would be looking at him which didn't work well.  It is hard to react when you are waiting for instructions.  

It got to a point when the sound of his voice was something I learned to drown out.  I had to learn to play my game and not get scared when he screamed every thought that came into his mind. I had to learn to play through mistakes and not expect to have the perfect game every time.  If I made a mistake I had to let it got and learn from it quickly.  He was the first coach that ever explained to me that I couldn’t just focus on scoring offensively.  If I was a liability on defence I wasn’t going to get any playing time.  This forced me to develop my defensive presence which I would rely on when I played at the next level. 

While I attended school I found it so interesting that I got to take Marine Biology as well as Cinematography.  Those were courses I wouldn’t have had a chance to take in Southern Alberta.  I also thought it was cool to learn American History.  Even though initially we thought the academics would transfer to my college education it turned out they weren’t able to.  I had hoped to get recruited to an college but I probably didn’t stand out enough. Plus, I also found out that the colleges and universities in Hawaii mostly went to the Main Land to recruit their players.  Very few players were recruited from my school to play at colleges in Hawaii.  Even two of our best players were overlooked from getting recruited to play in state.  They ended up playing on the Main Land when they graduated. 

As a team we managed to win our division title but we didn’t do that well when we got to the State Tournament.  When the experience was over I ended up coming back to my small town school and challenging my exams from the semester.  I passed them all and enrolled in college where I walked on to the team there.  I know for sure this basketball experience and being away from home definitely helped to take my game as well as my life to the next level.  I know it was an experience in which I learned so much from.  I will never forget the impact it had on me for as long as I live.  Playing in paradise was the opportunity of a lifetime and I am so grateful that I was able to experience all that it had to offer in such an complete way.     

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Being a Good Teammate

Since basketball is a team sport the success of a team depends quite profoundly on the ability of the teammates to connect with one another.  Everyone has had teammates on their team that they just love to be around.  They make you feel great and really help the team to be much more cohesive.  Generally speaking, cohesiveness helps to increase the success of a team. It is an “X Factor” that can help to gauge how well the season will go as well as the longevity of the team.  

On the other hand their can also be teammates who can be very divisive and damaging to the group.  After being involved in teams as a player and coach I can see the importance of developing these types of positive relationships.  It can be such an effective way to maximize the ability of each individual because when good teammates do more their is a multiplier effect within the team.  It often causes a chain reaction of reciprocation.  

There are some simple things that can be done to solidify being a good teammate:

1. Be Positive - 
There is a reason this one is number one and that is because it is the most important one.  When things aren’t going the way you want them to in a game or practice the fastest way to turn them around as a teammate is to remain positive and encourage.  I remember reading an article once about giving 3 positive statements for each criticism.  This way when the criticism is made it is like making a withdrawal against some deposits that have already been put in the relationship’s bank account.  If you start making withdrawals first it can be tough to build a relationship.  

It is just like that old saying goes you catch a lot more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. 

2. Be Happy - 
One of the most important things to remember is that when your teammate is successful you are too.  This is how it works in team sports.  Celebrating the success of your teammates in a game or in practice is one of the most solidifying things a team can go through.  When a teammate makes a great pass and thanks the passer the team gets stronger.  When a teammate makes an incredible shot and gets dog pilled by the team the bonds solidify.  When a player gets a great steal and teammates chase him down the court to make the sure the shot goes in the team becomes a unit.  It is all of these little things that make a team great.  

If a teammate does well you should never feel like they are taking away from you. Each player is the reason that success was able to present itself. Players who are being singled out should recognize this as well. On a team you never accomplish anything alone.  

3. Hand out Encouragement - 
Possibly one of the most consistent qualities of great teammates is that they are expressive with their encouragement.  They give out high fives and encouragement freely without holding back. When the tides of the game are going against the team they are the ones that help to spark the change by providing the right amount of positivity to help the pendulum to swing in the opposite direction of where it is currently going. Great teammates don’t hold back on encouragement they give it out knowing fully that when they need it they will get it right back.     

4. Sacrifice 
Teammates that sacrifice themselves for the good of the team are great teammates.  Other people recognize this and it becomes contagious.  Soon members of the team are doing all sorts of extra things to reciprocate such as making the extra pass, sitting on the bench so someone else who doesn’t get to play often gets some playing time (this could be during a game when there is a big lead) and then cheer them on when they do something positive.  

5. Remind Don’t Reprimand 
Being a good teammates requires that you understand you are not the coach.  If you want excellence from your teammates then remind them don’t reprimand them.  There is a fine line here because one helps to create bonds while the other one creates walls.  Reprimanding when you are a teammate is risky.  There is resistance that is formed when you try to tell someone else what to do in a nasty way.  If you tell them in a way that makes them feel like you are reminding not reprimanding it makes a big difference.  Remember body language matters too so make sure your words and non-verbal communication are coinciding. When you remind with the proper tone it makes it look like you are trying to make the other person look good. Whereas reprimanding with the wrong tone makes it seem like there is judgement and you are trying to make your teammate look bad. Try to use reminders in a way that you are solidifying what your coach has said without judging or criticizing.    

(I will say this last statement as a bit of a disclaimer for teams as they get older.  Sometimes players who are the leaders of the team can speak up towards there teammates in order to get them to pull together at an opportune time.  During a season it can't always be rainbow and butterflies sometimes things don't go well.  Getting upset is a tactic that is used in order to solidify what the Coach is saying.  It is probably a good idea for players to keep it positive until they are mature enough to handle the fallout that may come from a teammate being upset about being called out.)  

In closing, there is a great John Wooden quote that says “It is amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit.”  Great teammates live that quote day in and day out.  When you see a team full of great teammates it is really something special.  The most important thing great teammates do overall is make their teammates feel great about themselves.  They care and show it on a consistent basis.  

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Success Takes Time - An Unsung Hero's Story

This is dedicated to one of my players Jason a member of my York South Silver Knights team.  
He sat there quietly on the bench as usual.  I called his name and he eagerly checked into the game.  The play went back and forth a few times as it settled in on the offensive end. The ball shifted around through his teammates and all of a sudden he found himself outside the 3 point line, all alone and wide open.  This time he didn’t hesitate, he didn’t over think it he just shot the ball and watched it sail through the mesh.  It was GOOD a perfect shot!  His teammates cheered on the sideline. I heard things like “Nice shot Jason!”, “Oh Yeah!” and just overall cheering.    

He ran back on defence and our team got a stop.  Again the ball bounced around to his teammates and he was wide open again so he shot the exact same shot he just hit moments before and it was in again!  Now the team was really getting into it.  His teammates were on the edge of their seats and cheering him on with more energy than before.  A few more possessions passed and he found himself wide open for a third time after the ball moved to him again.  This time when he got the ball his teammates were all watching collectively holding their breath.  Some of them had their arms outstretched intensely examining and silently thinking “Is he going to hit the shot too?”  Just as he caught the ball and let the shot go it rotated through the air and went right into the hoop hitting nothing but net for the third time in a row.   

His teammates and our fans in the stands exploded to their feet.  They were jumping around like he just hit a buzzer beater in game 7 of a championship series. It still only the first half of a game in the regular season tournament but that didn’t matter to his teammates much at all.  They were loving it and he was hearing about it.  It was a very impressive moment and I still remember the goosebumps rising up on my arms.  

To see a team celebrate a hard fought battle of one of their own is something incredibly special but in all honesty very few players have the ability to gut it out the way Jason did.  For about 2 years he didn't get much playing time to speak of.  His commitment and loyalty to his teammates helped to keep him coming back to practice where he just continued to keep getting better.  Some players are naturals they do things incredibly fluidly from the way they run to the way their natural instincts kick in when they play.  They seem to make the right pass or hit shots whereas other players take years to develop, learn, grow and evolve.  Some players can experience “easy come, easy go” syndrome meaning that when they have to work too hard they lose interest and give up.  Every player has their own path and the longer the player takes to give up usually indicates how much they will end up evolving individually.  

There are always those who have big dreams of what they plan to accomplish with basketball at the next level.  Not every player who steps on the court is setting out for that though.  I hope they achieve a personal form of greatness by following their own path.  Jason, like many other players, is extremely bright and has a lot going for him in terms of academics.  Whatever he decides to accomplish in life I sincerely hope that basketball helps to shape his journey.  

Jason is a great teammate in that he celebrates the accomplishments of others which is why when he lit up that game other people celebrated him.  He is a hard worker that doesn’t cut corners or skip the steps he doesn’t feel like doing.  He is above all a leader of self that is willing to look at himself honestly and continue to strive to get better. Being that introspective is hard because it can be painful.  If he was upset with his playing time as the coach I never heard about it.  He just continued to earn my trust in practice and over the course of the minutes he got in games and he did the little things that made him stand out. 

I have no doubt that players like Jason have great lives ahead of them no matter what they decides to aspire to.  All of those on his team are fully aware of his capabilities now and I know he isn’t the only one out these types of players out there. If you have a player like this on your team please be sure to celebrate their greatness.  Unsung heroes are incredibly important to every team they are apart of. At opportune times they can be incredible difference makers as we have witnessed with Jason.  

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Playing Too Much

There are a lot of opportunities for many athletes now.  Summer teams, travelling teams, summer camps, spring clinics, personal training sessions, speed/agility/quickness sessions, provincial teams, and so on.  Every single one of these items can be very important for the development of your athlete. It is very important to learn which ones are the priority for your individual child.    The trouble is when the amount of training becomes too much for growing bodies.  Many young athletes are playing games all year round and are on a very high impact schedule which can be a crash course in overtraining and increased risk for potential injury not to mention premature athlete burn out.  

There are many athletes that are in this very same boat in that they are playing for their school team, a club team and sometimes are doing additional training either with a trainer or another group during the year.  The average athletes now plays for at least 2 or 3 teams every year.  If there is one coach involved in all of these teams they can help to guard against overtraining. However, if the athletes are dealing with many different coaches then parents are tasked with looking after the overall wellness of the athlete.  Players shouldn’t be tasked with doing this on their own because they are too emotionally invested and may lack the decision making abilities.  This can be a very challenging task for adults who: 
1) May not be former athletes or have limited interest/knowledge in sports
2) May not know the signs or symptoms to look for when it comes to overtraining or identify when an athlete is at risk
3) May have their decision making impacted by their interest in seeing their athlete succeed 
4) May be a source of anxiety for their athlete due to the undue pressure they are putting on them to succeed 
4) May not want to disappoint the athlete by turning down opportunities they view as very important 
5) May be interested in getting their child “exposure” to be seen by high profile coaches
6) May be worried about being the one to decide when to take it easy and let the athlete relax and recover

It seems there are young athletes that are playing the equivalent of an 80 game NBA schedule.  Plus, they continue to train all year round with no breaks or end in sight. It should be acknowledged that this level of activity is hard for a fully grown freak of nature professional athlete to endure (and they get an offseason) never mind a growing athlete that is also going through puberty.  These athletes also have the pressures of school assignments and tests, family obligations and requirements, playing other sports, hanging out with their friends, and tasked with also being a child or teenager as well as growing. 

It is completely understood that parents want the best for their kids (and coaches want the best for their athletes) but unfortunately this also entails having athletes not feel the pressure of taking on too much.   When the parent’s focus gets blurred by seeing only the opportunities but not the risks of overtraining it is dangerous.    This catapults the athlete into a tough position because now they are limited in terms of someone looking out for their best interest.  The adults in their life need to have the perspective to prevent overtraining in these circumstances.  Unfortunately, many times this is not the case and as an outside observer it can be very challenging to weigh in.      

No one wants to have their playing career cut short due to injuries especially due to over use injuries.  Even more so when they could have been prevented by resting or taking care of it with the help of healthcare professionals or sometimes even the use of common sense. Parents please keep in mind that higher level athletes are used to pushing through pain in order to achieve their personal best.  It is very rare that you will find an elite athlete that wants to just be lazy (with younger kids this may be harder to govern as they will have different reactions to injuries).  Athletes are more likely to resort to hiding injuries or not telling the full story so they can continue to play.  During the process it is important to learn to protect the athletes from themselves even if it means they get upset over your decision. 

It is also critical to prioritize and evaluate the most important opportunities.  One of the ways to evaluate is taking a look at the places the athlete is being fulfilled, growing and challenged.  There are so many potential opportunities so this is one way to narrow down the most valuable opportunities.  This is also one of the ways to cut out extraneous activities that take extra time and don’t give much in the way of progression.  There is only so much time in an athlete’s schedule so it’s important to maximize that time by using quality opportunities to feed them going forward.