What I Learned in Italy about the American Youth Basketball System

What I Learned in Italy about the American Youth Basketball System (guest blog written by Kareem Kalil)

Kareem Kalil at College Prep

This blog summarizes the key differences in the American youth basketball system and what I encountered working with Alex Sarama at College Prep in Italy. I discuss the youth basketball system from a motor learning, basketball specific and overall program philosophy standpoint.

In my third year of coaching middle and high school girls, I scanned basketball Twitter looking for innovative ways to engage my players at practice.  I discovered a video Alex Sarama had posted on Twitter. Kids were using balloons as a warm up, batting them up and down with each other, dribbling balls as they batted the balloons higher in the air. Alex’s stuff was different, so I gave it a try.  After I implemented some of the many small-sided games (SSGs) that he posts, I immediately watched the engagement of my varsity players increase. And I was sold.  Though I didn’t know it then, I was only just beginning to understand the value Basketball Immersion, Alex Sarama and Chris Oliver were sharing.

I invited Alex to host a clinic in Denver. I did this in partnership with Basketball Immersion and Pro Skills Basketball, an AAU program for which I had coached. After a positive experience, I eventually accepted a position as an assistant coach at College Prep Italy, where I write to you having just finished my first few months being immersed in this non-traditional approach to coaching basketball.

Fans of basketball in the United States and across the world are familiar with the many stereotypes about American basketball. The foreign players from the recent, popular Netflix documentary The Redeem Team depicts American players as extremely athletically talented but lacking the shooting and decision-making abilities of their European (and South American) counterparts. They are also thought to struggle to play a team brand of basketball and as lacking team cohesion. Spend time at any AAU tournament and you can see there are elements of truth to this stereotype of the American youth basketball system.

I wanted to understand the roots of this stereotype. What is it about the coaching I experienced as a player and the instruction I currently give as a high school varsity coach that could have been or could be better? What were the underlying factors of coaching in the US that contribute to the perceived relative lack of skill development? And where were there gaps in my own approach?

What I will outline in this post are three major missed opportunities in the American youth basketball system. Firstly, a misunderstanding of “fundamentals” that causes coaches to remove key context from players’ environments. Secondly, a belief that coaches must constantly prioritize motivational coaching over tactical coaching. And thirdly, an over-reliance on repetition AFTER repetition, which compromises all the positives that arise from practicing with variability. 

Part 1: The myth of fundamentals and “on-air” skill development

After my first month in Italy, I texted my high school coach, who is one of the most influential people in my life. 

youth basketball system

This exchange encapsulates the common misconception that we have of coaching in Europe. It is the idea that foreign players are more skilled because they spend more time doing slow, tedious drills on “fundamentals”.  I believed this myself.  But it could not be farther from the truth!

What are basketball “fundamentals”?  Many coaches state that they are a player’s ability to perform specific necessary actions within a game. This could be a skill like pivoting or shooting. Yet many US coaches believe the only way to teach game fundamentals is to practice them without defenders. Teaching players to make context-driven decisions without the context is like teaching a kid to swim without being in water.

I was guilty of this last season. A player would fail to perform a task that is dependent on the game environment (like failing to make a bounce pass), and I would take out the biggest context variable–the defense! After my time at College Prep, I realize this is quite boneheaded and is something I am now committed to changing. 

The staff at College Prep embrace using a Constraints-Led Approach. Walk into a practice and you might see players warming up by playing an American-Football style game where they must move without the ball around the defense to get open, and pass the ball up the court to get to the “end zone” without dribbling. You can see how an athlete’s pivoting would improve more effectively when they must make decisions about where and how to pivot on the move versus pivoting exactly in one way because the coach told them to do so.

Part 2: Coaching as facilitation

Search for basketball practice drills on YouTube and you will find handfuls of “trainers” teaching a player how to do a stutter step into a between-the-legs dribble or how to master their 10-step floater package that you can buy for a cheap price of $29.99. These videos get millions of views. The trainers often have NBA players as clients. However, research in the field of motor science shows that these ways of coaching are in large part ineffective. In games, the coach is not the boss. The player is. It is the player who must act based on the variances (affordances) in their environment.

The notion that the coach needs to serve as some sort of “master” is widespread in American youth basketball system. I even allude to it in the text message thread in the section above. Google “motivational coaching” and you will find thousands of YouTube clips hours of coaches asking players if they have “that dog in them” or how deep they can dig.  Watch an NBA game and you hear sound clips of coaches in a lecture-style imploring their players to “dig in!” or something along the lines. 

Coaching is portrayed as hopping on a soapbox and speaking in strong words about desire. Or that coaching is calling a player who has been struggling to step up and believe in themselves. The recently released movie Hustle also dramatizes this type of motivational approach.

There was very little of this in my time working with College Prep. Instead, timeouts generally consisted of players speaking amongst themselves. This was followed by the coach giving one area of focus and then drawing up an ATO (after-time out play). Check out this ATO by one of my colleagues Jonas de Bruyne in one of our EYBL games.  Learning the ATO process was challenging and engaging. This is a huge skillset that many coaches in Europe have that I have yet to master. See the video below for more example of the time-out language used at College Prep.

To be clear, this “American” or “motivational” type of coaching is at times necessary and powerful. A coach is responsible for knowing the emotional pulse of their team: are they relaxed, distraught, or in need of a jolt? But coaches must not overuse this type of coaching or think it is the only way.

When coaching at the varsity high school level, I found my own ATOs unsuccessful, so I resorted to motivational timeouts. It was my comfort zone. I was lucky to get to take on this challenge in a more growth-mindset oriented approach while at College Prep, using conceptual triggers from the Basketball Decision Training (BDT) Offense to draw up plays, get feedback and get better. 

Part 3: Variability

One of the best and simplest lessons in my time coaching with the staff at College Prep has been understanding the power of embracing variability.

Tracing back both to my days as a player and to my time as a coach, I have always been a staunch believer in the power of practice. I loved reading Outliers, even though I was aware of the criticism of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule (the concept of which is heavily refuted by Basketball Immersion for many reasons). Regardless, I have always believed in the possibility of practice to close the gap between you and those who are better than you. The key thing however is that it is the type of practice which is most important…

This is because repetitive practice is actually not necessarily useful for development. As a player in college trying to crack the rotation my senior year, I spent hours in the gym shooting mid-range jumpers on our shooting machine. I got really good at shooting on the shooting machine from (you guessed it) the elbows. I could consistently hit elbow jumpers at an 85% clip. But it never translated to the game—probably because I was practicing in a blocked and constant manner.  This is an ineffective form of practice that leads to players getting good at the drill but not prepared for the real game. A real game includes variables such as fatigue, the location of defenders, and the size of defenders (aka individual, environment and task constraints).

At College Prep, Alex and the staff do a tremendous job of varying the conditions of practice. Take for example shooting, whereby players shoot in different ways (almost) every time they practice. For example, they practice shooting off their left leg, right leg and out of different stances. They are constantly changing the range, location and pass type. Sometimes they may shoot with a youth-sized ball then with a regular size ball. They will practice shooting right at the beginning of practice and right after the most intense 5-on-5 portion. Again, players constantly shoot from different locations, ranges and against defenders arriving from different locations.

The reason for all of this is that these small perturbations (variations to the motor system) push the body to self-organize according to the relevant individual, task and environmental constraints at play. When the body is challenged or constrained (i.e. which sometimes pushes players away from an attractor and movement solution they have consistently been doing), they must adapt using new solutions. This encourages the player’s exploration of the perceptual-motor landscape and pushes players to attune their attention to their own bodies and develop their own unique coordination solutions. Ultimately, this leads to a more flexible motor skill set, and creates better shooters. 

But variability can be more simple, too. When doing 1-on-1 small sided games, frequently switching partnerships allows players to have different affordances. The affordances provided by a 5ft 10 defender are very different to an opponent who is 6ft 10. Maybe the layup solution that was benefiting them against a smaller defender becomes obsolete when faced with a bigger defender. These variations are what ultimately lead to skill development.

Remember your why when it comes to your youth basketball system

When reflecting upon my first time in Italy, I feel obliged to revisit the people for whom we do this. Our players.

A beautiful part of my time in Italy was getting to meet young players from all over the world, from Gibraltar to New Zealand. Players who put aside their normal lives to focus on bettering themselves in the game of basketball.

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As coaches, we must remember we are indebted to our players. We have an obligation to give them the best possible experience. It is easier to coach in the exact same ways we were taught. It is safer to not try anything new. People might question and doubt the use of techniques they have never seen. 

But when it comes to serving our players, we must be bold. I’m thankful after these ten weeks to have learned how I plan to be bold with my players in the coming days, weeks, months, and years in implementing a better youth basketball system. Enjoyed reading this blog? Be sure to follow Kareem Kalil on Twitter as well as becoming a member of the Basketball Immersion community and purchasing the Alex Sarama All Access Practice.

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