There was a time in this country when making a HS varsity basketball team was a fairly simple process. That is, hopeful kids tried out for the team under the watchful eyes of the head coach and his staff, in the hope that one would impress enough with one’s skills, size, experience, and speed to make the squad.
There were no outside influencers at work: no AAU teams, no travel or club teams, no letters of recommendation from one’s private coaches.
Just work hard, and hope and pray that all the time you spent working on your skills over the previous summer and fall would pay off in a big way.
Of course, those simpler times are long gone, but I thought it would be a good starting in my discussion with long-time HS varsity basketball coach, Bill Thom, who after 33 years of coaching kids in hoops, is going to retire at the end of this season. In March, he’s going to be inducted in the NYS Basketball Hall of Fame.
Coach Thom certainly agreed with how things have changed dramatically in boys’ basketball. “It seems as though kids and their parents are always looking for that extra advantage, to move up their game to a higher level, whether it be playing all spring and summer on an AAU team, or hiring a private coach.”
The problem is, as Coach Thom pointed out, that while it’s fun to chase the dream in basketball, it’s important to keep a sense of reality in focus. “In all my years coaching at Croton,” he explained, “I have had several players gone to play Division II or Division III basketball, but not a one at the Division One level.”
And the truth is, that’s the reality for most HS players. After playing four years of HS ball, the bottom line is that very, very few go onto play in college.
COMMUNICATION WITH YOUR PLAYERS = SUCCESS
But Coach Thom is one of those rare HS coaches who thinks proactively about making sure his players (and their parents) do stay on track. Key to his coaching philosophy are the following pointers:
Before the season begins, sit down with every kid on the team and define what you think their role is going to be on the team for the coming year.
It’s very important to get on the same page with each player before practice begins. That way, if the kid has different visions or expectations than you do, this is the right time to discuss them. Just make sure that you give the youngster a chance to voice his thoughts in case they are different from yours. And listen to him – don’t just blow him off.
Also, once you have defined his role e.g. “I want you to be our sixth man, to come off the bench and provide energy and instant offense,” just make sure that as the coach, you follow up on that promise. That is, if in the middle of a close contest, you decide to put another player into the game as your sixth man, understand that you’re going to have to explain your move to the player you promised but have now disappointed. Be careful!
Regarding kids hiring private coaches. “I always make sure I personally check out the private coaches, so I can give some real insight to the kids and their parents who want to hire them,” says Thom, “Otherwise, the kids might not get the right kind of instruction, and that can really backfire, plus be expensive.”
DEALING WITH PLAYING TIME ISSUES
Coach Thom also sits down with his team before the season to map out playing time.
“I have the players write down on index cards what their goals are for the year, and in particular, how many minutes they expect to play in each game. Once I have all the cards, I add up all their expected playing minutes with all the minutes from the other team members, and then I show the entire team how there just aren’t enough minutes in a HS game to accommodate all of their wishes. I find that exercise with the cards tends to be very helpful in illustrating to the kids how very few minutes there are in a game.”
As for the continuing expansion and influence of AAU ball?
“Well, AAU basketball serves the needs well of the top, top Division I players,” says Thom, “but for all the other kids who play, I’m not so sure. I do hope, as do many of my coaching colleagues, that the NCAA will very soon intervene and begin to gain much greater control on AAU teams. That’s the great hope.”