Our real success was seeing players improve over the course of the season, getting more confident handling the ball, learning to create space on the offensive end, and learning how to play defense by identifying and staying with the player they were guarding.
I began the season with two goals - to play every player at every position equally and to help them improve their skills. While I believe I followed through with those two goals, I also failed at them.
First, by playing the players at every position, it reduced the incentive for players to feel the need to come to every practice and to be dedicated while at practice. Over the course of the season, their discipline declined. My response to that, starting with the last two games of the regular season, was to instill a policy where the kids who showed up to practice and worked hard would play in the game, regardless of their ability to execute.
I had every intention of following through with that. However, our semi-final game was against the best regular-season team who had not lost a game. I was determined to get our team to the final. Sure, every player would get in the game, but some would get very little playing time while a few others would get a lot. The idea was to get the opportunity to get another game and to give the players the experience of getting to a championship.
We ended up losing and, I lost some of my values in the process. A couple of very hard working players who were not the most developed sat on the bench for almost all of the game because of my goal to win. That's one of the things that I'll carry forward.
The second thing I learned was how to structure practices. One thing I've learned about child development in athletics is that 9-12 years old is the "golden age of skill development." It's the best time for kids to learn skills, but just before they become good at learning strategy. So, I focused on dribbling, shooting, and passing. While those are all very important, I did not also teach them basic basketball plays.
As it turns out, being able to run a play is a skill. Before this season, I thought that teaching plays was the same thing as teaching strategy, but it is not. Teaching a play is showing players where to go when the ball is in play. Teaching strategy is telling them why. Not the same.
So, going forward, here are a few changes that I'm going to make:
- Time during practice to learn a basic play. An inbound play in basketball, a throw-in in soccer, a zone entry in hockey, and so on and so forth.
- As part of my practice plan, I'll predetermine who will play various positions so the players gain experience doing so at practice, then rotate from week-to-week.
- In my game plan, I'll write down who the hardest workers were in practice so that I remember to get them good playing time if playing time isn't going to be equal for all players.
While I wish I had thought of some of these things during this basketball season, it's not something that I regret. By learning from each season, something about my style evolves. This basketball season was definitely the most challenging season of my coaching "career." It also taught me the most. Just like the players, I learned lessons over the course of the season that I'll carry forward to seasons ahead in every sport.