Month: October 2011

Church, Vegetables, Being Nice and the Camouflaged Idiot

When I was a small boy growing up in Connecticut, I had to do two things:  go to church on Sunday and eat vegetables.  It should come as no surprise that as a grown man in Florida I do neither.  I was urged to “be nice” by my mother and the results on that are subjective and erratic at best.  Psychologically, I am a contrarian.  If forced or urged to do something, I will likely do the opposite as soon as possibly can.  Presently there is no other purpose for writing this paragraph than the simple fact this was stuck in my head.  The true purpose of the blog is to enjoy some cut day stories in stream of conciousness fashion….

First off it is absolutely imperative that people are cut face to face.  The persons effort in trying out deserves a face to face explaination of the decision.  Case in point, the camouflaged idiot.   At Winter Park, we had a massive tryout of some 70 kids for JV and Varsity.  Much hilarity ensued as players ill-suited for a driveway pick up game botched up drills in ways that were virtually unpredictable in their random incompetence.  Chief among the offenders was the camouflaged idiot, a athletic, but extremely uncoordinated and not very bright kid, who wore camouflaged cargo shorts and a wife-beater to tryouts.  He was so out of control as to be a danger to himself and others.  Serious consideration was given as to whether he should have been Baker Acted.  At the close of try-outs, the JV coach, acting on his own accord, read off a list of names of players that made the squad.  The camouflaged idiot was not among them, but this fact escaped him, and forty-five minutes after the JV try-out ended he stormed back into the gym and asked what time practice was tomorrow…..

During that same season, we cut a senior that had some talent, but was entirely incapable of accepting the limited role we anticipated for him.  Please note it is generally a great idea to cut seniors without a meaningful role unless they fit the profile of the last man standing.  This guy did not.  In the hopes of moving things along, we quickly advised him of our decision and the rationale, but then were quite literally held hostage in the basketball locker room as he began to tell his life story, highlighted by a general theme of getting screwed by “the man”.  Finally after pressing 91 on my phone, he relented and left without incident.

A few seasons earlier, we cut a very quiet player, who true to character did not say a word as we told him of our decision…..until he was asked if he had any questions.  This query was made more out of courtesy and to make sure the player was actually still alive.   Alive he was, and with great sincerity he asked “what is an appropriate shooting percentage?”  We were caught off guard, and a wave of panic struck.  Was it possible this player had calculated his shooting percentage for the entire try-out ?  Hesitantly we offered 60 % on all shots including free throws and lay ups.  A full minute that felt more like an hour passed until the stoic player mumbled thank you and left the room.

One of our proudest moments came when dealing with four players who also played football.  Well in advance of try-outs these players and primarily their parents had expressed concern that they would be screwed cause they played football.  The back story is that these four kids had been in conflict with a number of our varsity players throughout the summer and fall, and we had little incentive from a pure basketball or chemistry standpoint to keep any of them.  Nonetheless try-outs  proceeded and we decided to keep two of them (knowing this effectively undercut the four person alliance and any complaint of inequitable treatment), and within three days the two we kept quit and we were rid of the whole lot.

The Lesson of Kyle McClanahan

I experienced a wave of muted excitement yesterday while sitting in my office. I received a text message from our head coach announcing the arrival of a long 6′ 4″ athletic-looking sophomore at our school three days before try-outs. This should be good news, but my excitement was muted because in the summer of 2004 I met Kyle McClanahan. Had I been able to send or receive a text at that time, it would have unceremoniously announced the arrival of an ostensibly laid back, skinny 5′ 9″ freshman.

The proof, however, is in the playing and he could play. During the summer of 2004, our head coach had an AAU team and we put together a scrimmage between the AAU team and couple of our Winter Park players. But for the intervention of fate, I have no idea why or how Kyle came to be there that day. He was the smallest, weakest and youngest player on the floor, but it didn’t matter. He belonged. He by no means dominated the play, but he held up in every respect defending, handling the ball, moving to open space and scoring all within the flow of the game.

A couple of months later, Kyle led two other freshman to the final of an all campus 3 v. 3 tourney. Such was the quality of his play then that it took us several months to realize that the other two guys he played with completely sucked.

Kyle made the varsity as a freshman and played a significant role. By the end of his high school career he was the school’s leading scorer and had played in two final fours. He was still a skinny and laid back, but now about 6′ tall.

Kyle had gifts of soft hands, hand eye coordination, balance, vision and the capacity to play the game at the right speed that transcended his physical dimensions, foot speed or leaping ability. They were the foundations of his success, and should not be underrated in assessing a prospective player.

Kyle’s skill set allowed him to play the game of basketball. The hands enabled him to catch, shoot and pass the ball quickly and on time. The hand eye coordination accounted for steals, deflections and the ability to subtely alter a dribble or release point on a shot or pass. The balance was essential to staying in front of his man defensively and contributed to his ability to blow by far more athletic looking defenders at will. The vision and ability to play at the right pace enabled him to remain poised, see plays and opportunities develop in advance and to react to them appropriately.

I do not look at a player without measuring them against Kyle’s standard in these qualities, and while I haven’t found anyone to measure up it is a valuable gatekeeping function in my evaluation process.

Assembling the Team

The venerable Tim Larsen asked me what I was looking for in tryouts? My snap response what “players”. It’s the same response that the regional ODP director gave to the parents last Saturday morning in Gainesville. See my previous blog on “The Five Attributes of a Player”.

As I continued talking, I realized the analysis is not that simple. Particularly in the high school setting talent is limited, and what I am looking for becomes a multi-tiered puzzle.

A few summers ago, I was speaking to current Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson during an AAU tournament at Disney. He was heading into his second season as coach of his alma mater Princeton, after a difficult first season. He felt several players in the game we were watching could play at Princeton or in the Ivy League, but he didn’t have much interest. The reason was the players before us where threshold players for the league, but not difference makers. To push Princeton out of the doldrums he needed players that created problems for the rest of the league. He needed difference makers. At any level, the first thing you are looking for is someone that your competition will have a problem dealing with. The more, the merrier.

The next tier is the core. Players that will start and/or play signficant minutes for you on a nightly basis. These will be players that have a balance of the “Five Attributes“, and show an inclination to buy in to your vision of the team. They are the believers, and will determine the strength of your team through their daily commitment to work and the bonds they develop amongst themselves.

The final tier are peripheral guys and the last man standing. These are players that will not play on a regular basis, sometimes not at all for long stretches. This portion of the roster is about expectation management. You must be honest with these players up front about their role, or lack thereof. These players must be honest with you and more importantly themselves in responding. In some instances this can be a young player who has the potential to move up a tier or two, but usually this is a player who, must have an interest in being on the team that transcends playing time in games. Some potential profiles for these players include two sport players with a greater investment in the other sport, players who despite limited abilities genuinely aspire to coach, or sociable kids, who have the requisite skills to get through practice and derive most of their enjoyment simply from belonging to the team.

The profiles to avoid are low energy loners or delusional players that believe they should have a far more significant role.

Last Man Standing

I met Ted Baxa as a 7th grader at Trinity Prep. He was the prized player of Trinity’s 7th grade class. A sturdy built, wing player with incredible tenacity and an ability to score points. The 7th grade coach at the time felt Ted was the jewel of a golden class of Trinity players that would take the school to unprecedented heights.

The 7th grade coach was a delusional jackass. His golden class had done little more then enjoy success in a barely competitive Maitland Park and Rec league. And the jewel, Ted Baxa’s father was all of 5-7 in height. Ted was bright, competitive and somewhat blessed to make it to somewhere near 6-0. Ted left Trinity before reaching high school to go to a public school at which point I proclaimed his basketball future DOA (dead on arrival).

I followed Ted to Winter Park a few years later, and did not believe Ted had any role in our plans for Metro Conference domination. He proved me wrong. He was the perfect last man on our state runner-up team.

Ted’s self-driven nature made him value every minute on the floor in practice. He would not let rotation players go through the motions. He was skilled enough to get through even the most intricate drill without slowing the team down. He was smart enough to know every set and defense from every spot, and could easily pick up a scout team assignment. And he was likeable and low to no maintenance on a team with plenty of characters.

I would be remiss if I didn’t retell my favorite Ted Baxa story. It was a practice midway through the year the team was scrimmaging and a loose ball headed out of bounds near the ticket table in the corner of the gym. Ted, and only Ted, went after the ball which was easily out by the time he left the floor to get it, but this detail did not prevent Ted from flying into the table and nearly getting decapitated. A strange display for someone so smart, but an indelible moment none the less.

The last man standing is a special role with a defined skill set. You are not looking for a player who thinks he should be starting, but rather someone who plays like he is starting. A player can move through practice without drawing attention to his shortcomings as a player and is respected and preferrably liked by the rest of the team.

Making the Team

A week from tomorrow at 6:30 pm, Winter Springs boy’s basketball will have tryouts. Within 48 hours the raw material of the varsity, JV and freshman teams will be in place and the team building process underway. Here are a couple of my views on the try-out.

I believe the try-out must resemble an actual practice, and not be some estranged exercise. The drills in the practice must involve essential skills that will be a part of your program. In doing these drills, it will be readily apparent as to which players lack the requisite skills to be on the team. And by being on the team, I don’t mean necessarily playing much in games, but simply being a member of the team capable of getting through practice without botching every drill. This is an underrated skill.

Punitive running or pointless, random or unassociated drill work is useless. You will not convince anyone that they shouldn’t play basketball because you ran them too much. You have a decent chance of showing them they can’t play if your try-out is skill-based and relavent to what you will do all year.

Coach the players during the try-out, correct mistakes and see who responds. Include your personality, in my case, a particular sense of humor, and read the response to that as well. If a player is unresponsive to coaching or you individually, they will not enjoy the experience of playing for you, or get much out of it.

Watch the interaction of the players closely. Who is well-liked by their prospective teammates? And who seems to rub everyone wrong? Do certain guys defer to others? If you see either case, confirm it informally by talking casually with the players about the player in question. Particularly when coaching in a community setting, remember that you are often inheriting long-standing relationships, even rivalries. Theses dynamics can be changed and improved, but it easier to do so if you are aware they exist.

Incorporate pick up scrimmaging into the tryout, and do not over coach that segment. Watch what each player does instinctively. Who gets the ball? Who leaks out? Who defends or rebounds? Who runs the floor? Who goes inside and who stands around the perimeter? Who is involved in the game and who disappears? Ultimately who wins? I believe in the adage ‘sports don’t build character, they reveal it.’

Talk to each player individually about thier role on the team or tell them they didn’t make the team. Lists on the locker room wall, or calling out names or numbers is disrespectful to the effort of the player.

Selection Process

I spent the last two days in Gainesville with Bryson for Olympic Development Program try-outs. Bryson played well and made the cut earning the right to try-out at the state level in January. I tied Gator God Tim Tebow in banging chicks within the city limits tallying a robust zero. Happy times all around.

The tryout process entailed six hours of soccer scrimmages spread over three sessions in 6 v. 6, 8 v. 8 and 11 v. 11 formats. The scrimmages were monitored by qualified coaches who at 11:35 am this morning called out the numbers, including #537, of those that made it. During the scrimmages, coaches would occaisionally pull a player to the side and impart some technical wisdom, but beyond that no coaching was done.

The ODP representative addressed the parents and explained the process thoroughly. He advised they were looking for players, not positions or prototypes. They understood performance could vary with young players and that it’s important to the evaluate the players throughout the entire process, and not dismiss them on the basis of one spotty performance. He further conceded that additional scouting in necessary, and that players could improve or tail off dramatically between now, January and beyond. All proper things to say.

Having been selected, Bryson and others will have the opportunity to attend two training centers before the January try-out where they can receive coaching from ODP coaches.

Make no mistake, I am delighted with Bryson’s progress as a player, his selection at this try-out and beyond that the total experience of this process for him individually. To be fair, this process has much to do with the progress or lack thereof with US Soccer.

By tomorrow each of the players selected will return to their respective homes and resume training with their club teams. They will perhaps return with heightened confidence a likely continue as a top player for their club. They will not be in as competitive training environment again more than twice until the calender reads 2012. In European and South American soccer culture, players of promise are placed in competitive academies where they train with professional coaching and among other top players on a weekly basis. This accelerates the development of the player.

I know the US has some academy training, but with the vast geographical expanse of the nation, and limited space available our development of young players is exclusive rather than inclusive. Without the financial backing of professional clubs, ie Ajax, Everton and Barcelona, the training is cost prohibitive to the individual player/family. This all serves to limit and retard the pool of players the US has at it’s disposal.

The selection process takes precedence over the development process.

An Addendum on Conditioning: Be Good at What Happens Alot

I am compelled to join in the rant against prolonged conditioning, specifically as it relates to running. I believe in threshold levels of cardiovascular fitness to compete, but this must be put in context. A high school game is 32 minutes long. On a typical team that plays 8-9 guys in a rotation only 3-4 of these players are likely to play more that 24 minutes of the game spread over 1:15. The remaining 4-6 players in the rotation will play 16 minutes or less over the same time. Weighing in deadballs, half-time, time-outs and quarter breaks, high school basketball is not burdensome from a cardiovascular stand point. The excessive amount of conditioning is the result of two things.

One, an old school mentality, of conditioning as a boot camp. This overlooks the fact that most decent high school players, play year round anyway with the season, summer ball and AAU. Many of those that don’t are actively engaged in another sport like baseball or football. The players are not out of shape and in need of dramatic conditioning.

Second, short-sighted rules from high school officials. In Florida, our FHSAA, limits fall activities to “open” gym, and conditioning out of season, and even prohibits “open” gym during the two weeks immediately before the season starts. If a coach wants to have his players working together in the offseason, he must turn to weight training and conditioning by excessive running. This does not help players develop skill, and this is a tragedy. Players need to be able to shoot, dribble and pass, because these are the things that happen alot in a basketball game, not run the mile under a designated time. The prohibition against allowing coaches to work with their players on these skills is without merit or plausible explaination. Further, it creates a cottage industry for “coaches” training players on basketball skills that could be developed by the high school coach for free. This is problematic because it disadvantages kids that cant afford to pursue this coaching, and it puts an economic investment (with expected return) on those that invest in these ancillary services.

None of this is in the interest of developing better basketball players, which is the function and purpose of the basketball coach.

Basketball requires fitness and strength. Weight training is an essential component of player development, but from a fitness perspective, as our previous blog attests to, as much or more can be accomplished with an intense, well-structured skill work out.