Well, my favorite time of the year is coming to a close this weekend with the 2014 NCAA Final Four and the crowning of a new NCAA champion.  As we finish feasting our eyes, racing our hearts and blowing our minds on the greatest, fan-friendly and fan-favored sports spectacle of the year – March Madness – I would like to start a conversation between all of us who play, coach and love this game about the best ways to train and develop young basketball players so that the high level athletic magic exemplified by March Madness continues for generations to come. For the past four years, through my Christian Laettner Basketball Academy, I have had the pleasure to train, coach and teach young, aspiring basketball players all over the United States and Canada. What I have noticed is that most of the players, parents and coaches want to see immediate results and have expectations that success and improvement on the court and in the game of basketball happen NOW! It’s easy to understand where the attitude comes from in our fast paced society wherever developing technology has conditioned us to expect that we should be able to access whatever we want almost as soon as we want it. And to be sure, in today’s world of big time college basketball, “One & Done” or “Two & Through” has become more the rule than the exception. If a talented young player is here in this year’s Final Four, it usually means he’s gone to the NBA by next year’s tourney, even if he was only a freshman or sophomore. So, why wouldn’t we all start thinking we should have today what we used to accept would take years to achieve?

But with my two cents worth I would like to suggest that parents, coaches and players have to step back and realize that athletic excellence cannot be achieved and developed with the speed and ease with which we ask Siri to give us the name and address of a great restaurant on our iPhone. I would like to encourage and emphasize the importance of patience, which is not a real popular value these days.

Players…be patient with yourselves and work hard every day. Parents…be patient and make sure the proper skills & fundamentals are practiced and developed in your children. Coaches…teach the fundamentals and be patient also for them to be learned. Anyone can Google my name or that of any other player that achieved any level of success in this game and learn, in a matter of seconds, all of our stats, impressive or not. But what Google won’t tell you, and what I cannot fully explain in my own words, is how utterly patient my father was as a coach for 30 years at Most Precious Blood (Elementary & Middle) School in the small town of Angola, NY where I grew up and was one of hundreds of kids that learned basketball fundamentals from my father. Likewise, as much as has been written about Coach K and his Hall of Fame career at Duke, words cannot capture or express how patient Coach K was and is as a coach. Sure, both my Dad and Coach K were demanding and held their players accountable, but at the same time they were each as patient as a saint! So, if we can agree on how important it is to be patient when developing young basketball players, let’s discuss WHAT exactly it is we should teach the young, developing player.

My basic, core philosophy on this is – “TEACH THE LITTLE THINGS, WAIT FOR BIG THINGS TO COME!”

The “little things” are the most basic fundamentals. Young basketball players need to become highly proficient in only 4 Main Categories for their game to improve. They are: Catching, Passing, Dribbling, Lay-ups. Let’s break that down for a moment to discuss, for instance, the basic skill of “Catching.” For a 6-year-old new to basketball, learning this basic fundamental skill includes learning to: Always catch and secure the ball with 2 hands. (I teach to go after every ball with two arms and the hands will follow); Don’t be afraid of the ball. A young player may have a natural tendency to be afraid of the ball, but a basketball player cannot afford to be afraid of the ball. Teach them to pursue the ball, chase after it, and want and desire that ball to be in your hands. (Think Kevin Love going after a rebound!) Coaches must create “Go get the ball” and “King of the Ball” type games in practice to emphasize this critical skill with the young players, preferably in a fun and entertaining format;

We then can break down each of the 4 Main Categories into specific development of that particular skill. You will note that the young player DOES NOT, and I repeat, DOES NOT need to get better at their 3-point shot. Nor do they need to try to “master” some complex basketball move they saw Kevin Durant or LeBron James perform on television. If they want to improve, they do, however, need to become great at “catching and passing.” (C & P) Teach and practice it – first, from a standstill position. Once the player becomes “highly proficient “(HP) at C &P from a standstill, they need to get HP at C & P while on the move. Once they have become HP at the “little thing” of C & P, they can move on to the “big thing” of putting it all together so that they can run up and down the court being highly proficient even while a defender is attempting to stop them from catching and passing, or attempting to prevent them from performing one of the other 4 Main Categories such as dribbling or doing a lay-up.

Make no mistake, basketball is the greatest sport there is because you have to be able to do all of these fundamental skills (catch, pass, dribble, lay-up) with high proficiency while someone else (a defender) is trying to stop you from doing all those things. Just imagine for a moment how much better and more exciting baseball would be if there was a defender trying to prevent the pitcher from throwing, or to prevent or distract the hitter from hitting, or to prevent the fielder from fielding! Likewise, tennis would be more exciting and challenging if there were a defender in front of the player trying to stop them or distract them while they were attempting to hit a serve or backhand! But seriously, there are so many fine motor skills required for the game of basketball that they must be taught patiently at a young age and in an organized and orderly progression. Catching, passing, dribbling and lay-ups, practiced first standing still, then all of these same skills while the player is on the move. Finally, practice these same skills with a defender. All of this makes for a very demanding, high level “ask” of the young basketball player. However, it can be done! And if I were asked what I would consider to be the 5th Main Category – I would say improve “athleticism and coordination.” For the young and developing basketball player, I find that the best ways to train athleticism & coordination are through full court relay races. The races consist of skipping the full length of the court, defensive slide the full length of the court and karaoke drills the full length of the court. These full court length agility drills will give the young player the core basic athleticism and coordination he needs.

And we can all agree, particularly when watching the magnificent athletes that we have seen perform throughout this March Madness season, that no young player can have too much athleticism or coordination.

So, have fun watching the Final Four, and good luck to all four teams… yes, even UK! And as you watch the Final Four games, recognize that every player you see out there on the court is highly proficient at the “little things” of catching, passing, dribbling and lay-ups – and see for yourself how “big” these 4 “little things” turn out to be when some of the best college basketball players put them all together against some amazing defenders.

As I said at the outset, I am interested in starting a conversation here, so I welcome and encourage feedback from all coaches across the country on whether they agree or disagree.

Thank you!

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