‘Keeping-up-with-the-Joneses’ is hurting youth basketball

As we head into basketball season, I wanted my first blog post to be a re-post of what I wrote for Stanford Women’s Basketball blog 3 years ago. As you will read, nothing much has changed in the world of youth basketball:

With the evidence of higher skill leveled European players as compared to our own, America’s youth basketball system has come under scrutiny. Our children are playing too many league games and not enough time is spent working on improving their skills. We blame the coaches, the clubs, the shoe companies, etc. But, I feel that parents, like myself, are the blame as well.

You may not know this about me, but I am a huge fan of satire comedy. Fun with Dick and Jane was one of my favorite movies not due to any cinematic brilliance but because of the actual seriousness of its underlying themes. One theme being the negative result of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses and what we will go through to do so.

‘Keeping up’ is normally confined to obtaining material possessions, like our drive to have the new iPhone 17. However, this thinking has trickled down to youth sports, particularly basketball.

The Force is Strong With This One.

I was fortunate to be a two-time NCAA Champion and All-American as well as play basketball professionally.  Even I feel the pressure to have my basketball playing son, Victor, in every hoop opportunity for fear of him being left behind.

You would think I would be immune, above it all. Above the irrational thinking that if my son does not play for a certain team, travel every weekend to tournaments, and play 50 games per season, then his sports career is doomed.

The Force is strong with this mentality. (That’s a Star Wars reference, by the way.) So strong that it can make you forget about what’s really important – the long-term development of your child.

Out of Balance.

I started playing basketball in a different era. One where my sports of choice were tag, hopscotch or double dutch. I accidentally discovered basketball in 7th grade, after not making the cheerleading squad. Being almost 6 feet tall and 12 years old, that uniform would not have fit me anyway.

When I first started playing, my father did not go out and look for a team for me to play with. He took me to the park and worked on the fundamentals of basketball. The same fundamentals that allowed me to be successful at the collegiate and professional levels. Fundamentals that would have been impossible to hone if I were playing games all the time.

We know the conversations. I have been an active participant in them. “Joey plays for the Super Mutant A team.” “My Suzie hit 7 three-pointers in her tournament last weekend.”

[Insert my one-up here]

Meanwhile Joey can’t shoot a left hand lay-up and Suzie’s shooting form makes Dr. James Naismith cry in Heaven.

Don’t get me wrong, I think there is a need for competitive game play, but there also needs to be a healthy balance. Currently, the hoop universe is out of balance and I believe the long-term ramifications will be substantial to the state of basketball in the USA.

They Said It…Not Me.

“My parents didn’t want us playing AAU because they didn’t want us to lose our skill level. AAU gets kind of crazy. In the summer, my Mom and Dad [would] get us in the gym and work on our games.” -Steph Curry, 2015 NBA MVP, Golden State Warriors

Here is an excerpt from the New York Time article, How a Soccer Star is Made. If I did not know the article was about soccer, I would have thought they were talking about basketball.

Americans place a higher value on competition than on practice, so the balance between games and practice in the US is skewed when compared with the rest of the world. It’s not unusual for a teenager in the US to play 100 or more games in a season, for two or three different teams, leaving little time for training and little energy for it in the infrequent moments it occurs. A result is that the development of our best players is stunted. They tend to be fast and passionate but under skilled and lacking in savvy compared with players elsewhere. “As soon as a kid here starts playing, he’s got referees on the field and parents watching in lawn chairs,” said John Hackworth, the former coach of the U.S. under-17 team and now the youth-development coordinator for MLS’s Philadelphia franchise. “As he gets older, the game count just keeps increasing. It’s counterproductive to learning and the No. 1 worst thing we do.”

 The Stanford Basketball Advantage.

The time I spent at Stanford makes me a better basketball mom. Stanford was a place where the value of skill development and quality practice was solidified forever in my mind. Where I realized that our training sessions were so hard, games were easy. A place where the best  gift you could give your teammate was to push her everyday in practice, which ultimately made our team better. Where our best players were the hardest workers. I watched Jennifer Azzi not leave the gym until she made 8 out of 10 from each spot. Or Trisha Stevens perfect her footwork when we had position breakdown.

I am not saying that Victor should be going through college level drills or not leaving the gym until he makes 500 shots. But, I do want him to fall in love with hard work as I did. I want him to develop the type of work ethic that is transferable to school and life, striving for constant improvement. Those intangible fundamentals, derived from practice, are as important as learning to perform an Allen Iverson-like crossover.

My Vow.

So, I know there is an epidemic of basketball skill anemia caused by overdosing on game play.

But, I did not truly see the long-term effects of our basketball system until I had conversations with two different Division 1 coaches.

One coach actually recruited me in high school and has been a coach for over 30 years. The other coach played college basketball and is a former WNBA player.

Both coaches felt that kids are playing too many games. I also learned that players are not fundamentally sound by the time they get on campus. Coaches are having to teach basic skills that should have been mastered in the beginning.

Could you imagine a freshman in college that has to be taught how to throw a baseball pass?

I vowed that this would not be Victor if he is able to play at that level.

The Fix Begins With Us.

We have to begin with the end in mind. Our basketball goal should be to produce fundamentally sound, creative, smart players who love the game and enjoy playing it. This is irregardless of the final level reached.

It will take parents standing for the importance of basketball player development while at the same time retraining our brains to diminish the importance of games. It will take educating ourselves about what good coaching really looks like, so that youth and club coaches are held to a higher standard. And lastly, it will take erasing the fear of not keeping-up-with-the-Jones.

You may have the same end in mind but take a different path with your baller. For our family, it is shifting the balance of power from game play to practice, focusing on skill development and having fun.

What path are you following with your young athlete? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

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