I have been helping out at my son’s Suburban basketball team, mostly scorekeeping, but I did substitute for a coach one night. I was working with the “bigs” on close to basket shots feeding them a pass with the kid turning and shooting and then rebounding and shooting again if they missed the first shot. I noticed that the kids, especially the tallest kids, were not super motivated to jump, rebound, or to get the second shot in. The two coaches have been noting the same things and discussing it with the team. After they had a lackluster performance during yesterday’s game – not jumping, not rebounding well, not moving towards passes, etc. – one of the coaches basically told the team yesterday that he can’t coach motivation.
In my owning coaching, especially in baseball, I have definitely thought the same thing. But I starting thinking about my Heffernan Fly Ball challenge experience. I have been seeing more and more in my own coaching how what we practice and the drills we make up affect the kids when they come to games. This is expressed well with a phrase I read in a Cal Ripken baseball coaching book, “Practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.” (Ripken Jr, Ripken, & Lowe, 2007)
I was an assistant coach two years ago on a 4/5/6 Cal Ripken baseball team. The coaching was very good especially on teaching baseball fundamentals and diagnosing hitting, pitching, fielding issues. But the team was in a slump. The team hit a nadir during one game when kids were missing lots of fly balls, making a lot of mistakes, and not hustling. The lowest point came when the coach’s twins got into a physical altercation on the bench. However, the other coaches’ attitudes bothered me more than the kids attitude. The coaches were really yelling out when kids made mistakes and showing their displeasure when it happened – especially with their own kids. I got to wondering if that was inadvertently increasing the pressure on the kids, which has the side effect of causing more mistakes, which further decreases confidence and causes even more mistakes. This whole process, I was wondering, results in a hard to correct negative spiral. I think this especially true in baseball when the spotlight is really on the player fielding, hitting, and pitching.
And was this really all on the kids like the coaches were saying? I recall one of the coaches saying the same thing as the basketball coach – that they could not teach motivation. While there is some truth to that and some kids are motivated despite what coaches do, as a teacher, I knew that adults can strongly influence all aspects of teaching and coaching, including social-emotional factors.
I learned from many years of training and performing with my two whippets in the dog sports of agility, obedience, and rally is that proofing can be the hardest part. My dog Wyatt was great at home but it was much, much harder for him in actual trial setting, especially in the less action oriented sports like obedience. Dogs can find it difficult to transfer their knowledge and their training to different locations, different equipment, and to busy or distracting environments. Dogs can also be super sensitive to their handler’s changes. Increased nerves can translate to the handler being slightly different – even though we are not necessarily aware of it. What’s this all have to do with the fly ball issue the team was having in baseball?
Well, one of things I really liked about the baseball coaching on this team was that drills were turned into fun games and contests. I later learned that this a big part of the Cal Ripken coaching philosophy. I had a chance to lead a practice one day when the head coach was unavailable. The practice field is opposite an ice cream stand where we would sometimes take the team after practices. I got the idea to make a team challenge for fly balls that would increase pressure (but in a enjoyable and not a stressful way). The kids got the “proofing” but in a fun way. Increasing the pressure in a fun way can help kids handle game pressure and also have more fun playing in actual games. As a team, the kids had to get a certain number of points to get various levels of ice cream – 100 points was a small cone, 125 was a small cone with sprinkles, and 150 points was a medium cone, 200 was a medium cone with sprinkles. I then made a system for getting points.
1 – regular catch
2 – running catch
3 – shoestring catch
4 – diving catch
I added a point for an accurate throw back to me. I also made a time limit, which was both practical but also a way to subtly increase the challenge to more closely simulate the pressure of a game.
I hit the fly balls to the kids and had them record their own points as a team – hopefully increasing their ownership and excitement in the drill. Well, it certainly increased the kids’ motivation and they immediately bought into the idea and were encouraging each other. One of things I noticed right away was that kids were really hustling to get to the ball, which had been a real problem in practices and hence games. There was a marked decrease in the number of errors and a marked increase in good catches. Some kids (see discussion of inadvertent side effects) were doing diving catches when they were maybe not actually needed (my own son being the prime example). However, they were so into it they went for and earned the highest point level and we had a fun time at the ice cream stand.
I thought it went well and I was hoping some of it might transfer. When the next game rolled around, I reminded the kids before the game of the fly ball challenge, specifically that they could catch and it could be fun and they should show the same hustle they showed during practice. I was blown away by the huge difference in the fly ball fielding. Kids were running to balls and not making any errors! I used the same challenge last year when I was a head coach of my own grades 4/5/6 Cal Ripken 40/60 team with similar results.
Getting back to basketball, I wondered about ways these kids could be more motivated, especially the bigs. I did notice the team was super motivated when the coaches were occasional creating contest drills. Would more contests help this team be more motivated, jump more, hustle more, etc.? Well, I did not have much time but I tried to think of way to make our turn and shoot drill into a contest. Many of the “bigs” were super lackadaisical about getting their rebound shot in. I said if they missed a certain number of second shots, they had to do a lap. Meanwhile, I did explain about “game speed” and perfect practice makes perfect. But I think that talk needs to backed up with drills that expressly show the kids what is meant. When I added the lap thing, the kids immediate perking up and got exciting but there was an inadvertent side effect of them slowing down and really setting up that second shot, which I did not want. So as coaches we have to really watch for these inadvertent side effects.
I see this a lot when one part of the drill is the focus but we don’t look at the second part. One of example of this was a drill we did when one kid shoots and the second rebounds. In this case, the coach was focused on the shooting part but not the rebounding part and I saw that at rebound kids were walking with the ball and not even dribbling or passing after the rebound. We certainly don’t want the kids traveling after the rebound but was what we were inadvertently teaching. We have to always be thinking of what it should look like in a game and how drills should teach game speed and desired game behavior.
I am still trying to think of way to design the drill to make the whole thing fast including the rebound shot, if any. Maybe have two teams, one on each side of the basket, complete to get the most shots (which might include second or subsequent shots) in a certain amount of time. Then the kids would be motivated to make the whole process as fast and as accurate as possible.
So I think we as coaches can help teach motivation by how we structure our practices and drills. However, I still agree that “you can’t teach height.”
Ripken Jr, C., Ripken, B., & Lowe, S. (2007). Coaching Youth Baseball the Ripken Way. Human Kinetics.