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March 1, 2016

Player Development: The 80 Percent Rule

Player Development:  The 80 Percent Rule

TEAM TUESDAY – Any parent who has followed my patterns as a coach knows one thing. I do everything to make my kids uncomfortable even if that means demanding the best of them on every play. Even it means playing them up an age level. Even if it means demanding the best of them even when they are totally in over their heads at that age level. Even if it means we will go an entire season and not win a game or only just a few.

I do this because it makes someone else work a whole lot harder, too.

That person is me.

If I stay comfortable and content by putting the kids in a division where I know they will win, then I get to coast on and off. Winning too many easy games doesn’t feel as good as an honest, hard-fought struggle. I try to make sure the kids don’t get too discouraged, even for other teams in our league. If a team is getting pummeled every game, I go out of my way to throw in a team as a sacrificial lamb (again, usually one of my teams) to give the team that needs the boost a W or a fair shot at it.

Yet doing this is for the win. I love to win. I play to win. I get really mad when we lose, but as soon as the game is over, I do my best to turn it off (not true when I played).

Now I am always focused on — and borderline obsessed with one thing.

Player development.

I remember looking at one of our boys with the highest potential physically and telling him how disappointed I was with his lack of leadership in front of a gym full of younger kids who should be looking up to him.

“The thing that gets me is this: If you don’t perform to the standard I know you are capable of reaching and maintaining, then you are not the disappointment. If I don’t give you everything I have and I don’t tell you the truth about how much I believe in you, then I’m the bum.” 

I am demanding on my team players to the hilt for most of the games. I know readers may find this hard to buy based on how I write, but I’m not it’s not always negative. I root for them once they break through so much that I screamed across the floor on Saturday night, “Bennett, You are playing awesome tonight. I love it.”

He wasn’t the only one. This past Saturday night when my fifth grade kids were playing in a game that was billed mostly grade 6, but I’m sure there were some grade 5 kids on the other team. The other team had two huge kids that our kids could not move, and a few spindly guards. Our kids didn’t put enough eyeline pressure on the guards, and our “bigs” stayed behind their “much bigger” in the post. The kids on the other team just bulldozed us after they got the ball. If they missed, they’d just outhustle and outmove our kids.

I was like a lunatic on both Jakes, begging them to NOT let their guy get the ball. No ball. No problem to deal with. Just before I had a meltdown, the Jakes started denying and deflecting. We hit three three-pointers. The kids know we only do 5-8 foot mechanical shot drills at practice. They know I don’t like long shots. But the team left us open. My rule in the game is if it’s a good look, take it. But don’t look at the line and for the love of the basketball gods, do not as a young basketball player ever back up (or you will sit with me).

We were auditioning for the upper east side version of The San Antonio Spurs. The kids passed beautifully. We adjusted our defense by throwing a little junk at them, and ended up jamming up the bigs. We were just so smooth on offense with our passing and trust for one another. We went up by five.

One of the biggest reasons we pulled ahead was due to a boy on our team named Bennett, who I personally made a wreck at the beginning of the year. He didn’t know which way to run until I pulled him aside and we had this conversation.

“Bennett, you go to Collegiate, correct?”

He nodded.

“Well, you are in the right place because this is your warm-up. If you think I yell loudly, I know Coach Ray and he yells a lot louder than I do.”

Bennett just looked at me.

“Here’s the trick. You can either year me yelling at you. Or you can hear me saying something to you in a loud voice. This is a basketball gym. It’s not like I can whisper or just say it to you. Can you promise to hear what I’m saying instead of thinking, ‘She’s yelling at me?’”

He nodded.

“Good. Now you have two things to do out there and I promise if you do these two things and only these two things, everything else will begin to feel much easier. You with me?”

He nodded. (For the record, I tell his to kids repeatedly – he just needed my best sell.)

“Contain your player. Take care of the basketball. Do those two things and I can keep you on the floor. Not asking you to pick anyone’s pocket or have a spectacular block. Jus keep your guy in front and really care about taking care of that ball by always being in a catchable area. Got it?”

He nodded and went in the game and changed his game.

Last Saturday night, he was so good. He took care of the ball. He made great passes. He had this incredible rebound where I didn’t even see him then he was flying through the air. He had a steal. He had a three.

Then he had to leave early.

And that’s about the time we fell apart.  We didn’t just fall apart.  We lay down and the other team ran over us.

I’m not sure why Bennett had to leave early, and I know he didn’t want to go and neither did his dad.

“Where’s Bennett?” one of the kids yelled desperately, as if he was our raft.

“Had to leave. Stay focused.”

After playing so beautifully, for some unknown reason, the tide shifted and when it did, we of little faith were lost at sea. The last 4-5 minutes of the game were painful. The other team, a team that basically lives on the NYC diet of press, drive, chuck, chase down rebound then repeat just took the game away from us. The kids were shocked. None of them cried though. I think they often just don’t know how to feel or that they have to be told how they feel.

I told them that where I grew up, at least one of us would be crying and another one of us would be yelling at the others (not good, I know), but we wouldn’t be mute about it.

Casper, the Milbank coach, came up to me with his big smile and said, “Mo, I thought you had them.”

“Me, too.”

“You choked.”

I laughed.

“We did.”

They’re kids – good kids – and here is what is so awesome about this group.

They not only pass the 80 percent test, but they set a textbook case on WHY they pass the test.

The 80 percent rule is this: at least 80 percent of my players have to improve or I have not done my job. Note that it is not a 100 percent rule. The reason being is that sometimes kids don’t show at practice (hard to teach the no-show).

Some kids don’t have the desire.

Some don’t have the ability.

Some don’t show up to practice regularly.

Some don’t have the desire or ability and they skip practices often (and in 90 percent of the cases of disgruntled parents, these three boxes are checked.)

Sometimes I may not be sure if one of them actually passed.

That’s why I say 80 percent even if I rate my score 8 out of 8. I always think maybe I’m not being totally honest. Maybe 1-2 kids didn’t improve as much as I’d hoped, but as long as 80 percent did, I passed.

And here is why this team has passed:

  • Their parents. Not one complaint that I am aware of. I wish we had more games, but the blizzard killed a few. We have lost every game except a game vs. our orange team. Maybe they’re mad about losing, but I don’t think so. It’s because they see a group of kids really trying their best to be great teammates. These kids are not yelling at each other. They’re being supportive. They’re showing empathy. They’re nodding their heads at me even when they don’t think they can do something. Elias, who did a beautiful job the last two game with our usual point guard out, circled back to me at the end of the game and said, “Mo. Thank you.” I thanked him back. Credit goes directly to these parents.
  • They are just kids and kids need to have fun. We will do our pre-game FIRE UP speeches through playoffs this weekend. Most of them attended the optional shoot around with boys grade 7-10 before our awesome game (maybe we ran out of gas). They were so proud to be with the older kids. The morning after the game, they lead the team practice with an optional group of players mixed in. They were happy clams loving every second of our demo on how to play a junk D, how to run a Motion O, how to deny a big guy the ball. I told them how much we learned in that one game. I told the group that we had three threes in the game – missed a desperate 1-2 at the end, but that the kids ran the offense so well that they took what was given and those shots did not look or feel difficult. During a water break, Jed came up to me with something in his hand. He said, “My mom made a bunch of biscotti and she wanted you to have some.”

Jed took the loss the night before the hardest from what I could see. I said thank you. It was almost as if in taking that biscotti, I had lifted the weight. Jed smiled. I blew the whistle and he sprinted back on the court.

Being a coach is easy when you have kids like this who are all in and take your heat because they know it will make them stronger teammates and stronger individuals. Being a good coach is easy when you have parents who totally believe that the number one priority for youth coaches who are coaching youth basketball is passing the 80 percent rule.

While it’s auspicious to shoot for this same goal in high school and beyond, it’s not always attainable because you’re always looking for a better version of what you have or a polished version of what you need to show up for try-outs. And most higher level coaches can only go so deep. It’s hard to prove development-for-all when you look over your shoulder and see 12-15 players who so badly want one shot.

The thrill of winning feels so good, yet it’s also fleeting at this age level, even when we have upset teams (honest, we don’t do it often when we play up, but it has been done).

I hope parents keep this in mind going into playoffs where there is only one winner in the brackets when it’s all over.

Yet making at least 80 percent of the players under your wing better is always a goal a coach can control, and a fair way to evaluate one’s performance at the end of every season.