So what the heck does this have to do with basketball? Well, to be honest, a lot. When we talk about basketball in the US we can come up with a list of issues. Below are some of my favorites.
1) Kids don't know how to play
2) Lack of skill
3) Entitled kids
4) Kids being all about making D1 and the NBA
5) Selfish players
6) Players lacking toughness
7) Players moving teams for the best "deal"
8) Players don't spend time working on their game
9) Players being uncoachable
10) Lack of effort and poor attitudes
11) Players don't watch basketball
I could go on, but I won't...
All of these are definite problems, but in my opinion are not "the problem" but merely symptoms of the bigger problem. I don't think that we are seeing the problem. In the clip, the problem isn't that the A's lost Giambi and Damon, it's what caused those two to leave and the fact that the As were playing a different game. So what is the bigger problem in American basketball? While I do believe our current basketball culture has a lot to do with it, and I believe that getting rid of our current High School/AAU model and going to one governing body is part of the answer, I don't think that's even it. I think the problem is even deeper still.
Something I've noticed in basketball is that many of our players are lacking an enjoyment and passion for the game. They are playing out of a sense of duty, because they feel like they have to, or for personal glory, not because they love the game. As adults we have cultivated a culture that doesn't develop an early love for the game - instead we develop players who play for a number of other reasons other than love and enjoyment. The other day I asked one of our better players "when was the last time you enjoyed playing basketball?" He gave me a blank look like I was crazy.
I once read "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell. In that book Gladwell talks about a correlation between NHL players and pond hockey. Someone studied the players in the top juniors programs in hockey and which ones made the NHL. The ones that made it most often played a lot of pond hockey as kids They played pond hockey for fun at a young age and developed a strong passion and love for the game. That love for the game helped carry the hockey players through the "grind" that was necessary to make the NHL. Players that didn't play as much pond hockey quit early, didn't work as hard, and thus were not as successful. Right now our basketball players are not playing enough at early ages for the love of the game, they are missing on that development piece and it's hurting our game. But more importantly it's hurting our player's experience.
So how does the lack of love of the game correlate to the big list of issues above? Well I suspect (with no hard evidence) that not having a love for the game contributes to a lot of these. If you don't love the game you are not going to work hard on your own to improve your skills and get better. You are not going to play on your own so you won't learn the game as well. If you are not playing for love what are you playing for? You are playing for extrinsic reasons - fame, get your name out there, play division 1, get to the league, a coach, your parents, etc. Because that is your motivation of course you are going to always look for the best deal with teams and situations and not be loyal to anyone. And you are not going to want to put in extra time, watch basketball on your own, etc because it's a grind and not fun, so why would you spend your free time on it!? Even at a young age, it's not a game or something to enjoy, it's a business for athletes. That's a problem.
So why was the love lost? The reason the love is lost is because of our basketball culture. It's a win now, win at all costs, culture. It's also a culture of adults taking advantage of kids as "promoters", "handlers", "hypers", and "services" that rank and hype kids as far down as elementary. People are making way too much money and getting too much notoriety by using kids. We've developed basketball into a race for a scholarship or pro contract, not a game for kids to enjoy. From an early age it's an all out competition and race to the top - everyone trying to get an edge to get that scholarship. We don't take time to develop the love of the game because we are too busy trying to push kids to be the next LeBron (even look at all the hype around LeBron's elementary school kid). So of course all of the above problems are going to happen when players work in this culture that we as adults have established.
Now, I'm not a fan of offering up problems without solutions. The solutions I'm going to give are not simple, and probably not feasible. Why? Because adults would lose way to much money doing this and we know it's all fun and games until you start taking away people's money. With that said, my solutions are below. The recommendations are for the K-8 grades because I believe that's where most of the love is built. High school and above is a different animal that I will address at another time.
In order to build our players love for the game, we need to do the following between kindergarden and 8th grade:
1) Start competitive basketball no earlier than 6th/7th grade
Why do 3rd, 4th, or 5th graders need to be playing 10 traveling tournaments a year? No one cares who won the Roseville 5th grade tournament this year. Instead of playing in a bunch of tournaments, put the emphasis on fun and skill development so when they get to the older levels they have the skills necessary to be successful. Offer opportunities for these aged kids to play with their buddies for fun - no score, everyone plays, etc. Make everything as fun as you can to get them excited and passionate about the game.
2) Re-construct our "Seasons"
I would love to ban playing organized 5 on 5 outside of the regular winter season for kids under 8th/9th grade. Right now these kids are playing 50-80 games a year with traveling and AAU basketball. The number of games isn't the problem (outside of the injuries later in life). The issue is that these games are structured, run, and set up by adults. That's not fun for the kids and they are not experimenting and learning about the game. They are not growing as players in these situations. Kids need to be kids and playing that may structured games doesn't develop a love for the game - or any skills.
Instead, outside of the season kids can play all the 5 on 5 they want, on their own. Give them opportunities to organize and play at rec centers, YMCAs, open gyms, etc. They must organize and run their own games without adult interference or anyone pushing them.
Also, I would love to see 3 on 3 leagues in the spring and summer. These leagues are not coached by adults and the teams are not picked by adults. Ideally the leagues would consist of different teams each week based on who wanted to show up. Minnesota currently has a group that does something similar to this, and I am a big fan of it.
Lastly, offer TRULY OPTIONAL development opportunities for kids who WANT IT, not for kids who's coaches, handlers, or parents want it. Have the gym open and be there for the kids that really want to work without forcing the kids who don't to show up. Giving players autonomy will go a long way.
Of course this won't happen because there is too much money for adults to lose, the $demand$ is there as well as people willing to meet that demand. One can wish though.
3) Use a more athlete centered approach at all levels.
The bottom line is we need to do a better job of involving kids in the decision process. This is a journey that I've started, but am not good enough at. Give the players some freedom to help in the decision making process for the team. It will engage them and create a feeling of autonomy. Also put skill development as the cornerstone for this - we are working to be as good as we can be.
4) Teach players HOW to play more.
Teach players how to play. It doesn't matter what system you run, you can teach players how to play. Syracuse players know how to defend, even though they are a 2-3 zone team. The Creighton kids know how to play even if they are a set play team. So it's not just about running motion and man (which I love), but moreover is about teaching players how to be basketball players.
5) Give opportunities for free play.
Free play is essential to developing a love for the game. Have players organize an inner squad, outdoor, summer league. We did that in high school hand had a blast. Allow players in the off season to just play - not to impress anyone, or accomplish anything else other than enjoyment. The more kids play the more love for the game they will have.
6) Give players a true "off season".
With the high school season, spring season, summer season, and fall leagues when do kids get a break? And some of this stuff is "optional", but let's be honest, players KNOW they need to do these to keep up with the Joneses. So they are doing all of this out of duty, not because they want to. As a basketball community we need to come together and give players time to just do whatever it is they want. If they want to do basketball that's great, let them seek out those opportunities on their own.
7) Let players push themselves to get better
Think about your life. Do you love people making you do stuff all the time? Of course not. You want autonomy and the ability to do things on your own. Our players are the same way. They need to make the decisions on their own in terms of what they do outside of the season. Give them the autonomy to do what needs to be done and let them do it.
8) Use positive coaching
Our coaching needs to build men through positive interactions.
9) Teach life lessons through sport.
Make our sport about more than basketball. Use basketball as a tool to teach important life lessons - not just winning and losing. When it's about more than basketball, players will take a lot more away from it and feel that it's more important.
10) Put the emphasis on fun and improvement.
We need to put the emphasis on fun and becoming the best player we can be - not a star. We have this pre occupation with "stars" and we send the message that if you are not a star you were not successful. We need to shift the focus to developing yourself to the best of your abilities is success. If we can do this, players will love the game more.
11) STOP HYPING/PIMPING/COVERING MIDDLE SCHOOL KIDS!
Can't believe I forgot this when I wrote the first post. We've got people crazy enough to Tweet about, cover, hype, rank, recruit, anoint kids as the next _____, and basically pimp middle school KIDS for the sake of "exposure". There is that word that many adults use to justify their sketchy actions and hidden agendas in regards to youth sports. What exposure do middle school kids need?! The answer is none, obviously. What does this "exposure" do for them you ask? Simple, it fills their heads with the wrong ideas about what sports is about. It diverts their focus from fun, passion, playing for your team, and puts the focus squarely on everything that it doesn't need to be on. So middle school kids need to be off limits.
So the bottom line is that we (adults) need to do a better job here. We need to find ways to help players to love the game early and build an intrinsic motivation that will last a life time, as opposed to the extrinsic motivation of coaches, accolades, or being "D1". Until we do that, we are going to see the same problems year after year, and they are only going to get worse.
I would love to get some feedback and thoughts on this post. It's midnight, so I know I'll have to revise it some tomorrow, but it's a topic I feel strongly about and wanted to get it down. We all need to do a better job of developing a better basketball culture, but it's especially important at the K-8 level because that's where the love is born.