Running a Large Camp or Clinic

Before I left for India, I worked out a college player during the lunch break of the college’s youth camp. Watching the camp was frustrating, as it was apparent that the camp director/assistant coach did not want to be there and had no experience working with young children; the players working as the assistants did not know how to coach; and the head coach never even appeared at the camp. Parents send their children to college camps because they feel that they will be exposed to better coaching (or to be inspired by meeting college players), and most camps fall short because of the difference between coaching college players and children.

My frustration also stemmed from knowing that my inquiries with a few colleges were rebuffed. A college basketball analyst suggested that I work some college camps this summer to make more contacts. I tried, but ultimately could not do it. I cannot work a poorly run camp for other people. Instead, I emailed several programs who seemed to have lost their coach who was in charge of camps, and offered my services to help plan and direct a camp. None was interested.

My inquiry may show my conceit. However, I coach up and down the spectrum of ages, and I have for 15 years. Many college coaches jump straight from college playing to college coaching, and only coach younger players at camps if that is part of their job description.

I am not an expert at running camps or working with large groups. I prefer smaller groups where I can manage the intensity, feedback and activities better. However, I know how to engage a large audience in meaningful activities that are both fun and centered on skill development.

Rather than work college camps, I was hired to run clinics in India. In three weeks, I conducted roughly 25 clinics. None had less than 15 players. The biggest had 92 players. There was never more than two baskets available, and only in a few clinics were pennies available to divide teams. This is not my expertise.

However, constraints often lead to creativity. In one clinic, when forced indoors by pouring rain, we developed AdiTag which is a great, fun game for young players. We played with 30+ children playing at one time; nobody was standing in line.

In the camp that I witnessed, there were three coaches, six baskets, less than 30 players and more balls than players. However, I often saw lines of 6-10 children. The coaches frequently used only one basket which led to more children standing in line than playing. What’s more fun, standing in line or playing tag? Which develops better skills, one repetition every couple minutes or ten minutes of constant activity?

Below is video of the clinic that I conducted with 92 girls with 20 basketballs. The organization that brought me to India surveyed players after the clinics. According to the surveys, the girls loved the clinic, even with the disastrous coach:player ratio, lack of baskets, lack of balls, lack of pennies, etc. Part of that is a testament to the players, and also an illustration of the problems with developing basketball here, as this is the norm (lots of numbers, few baskets) rather than the exception. After the clinic, girls approached me and asked me to stay and be their coach.

In my way of thinking, the clinic was a disaster. The court was so loud, and so many other children constantly ran through the area, that I lost my voice. I had to teach almost entirely through demonstrations because players had a hard time hearing me. We could not do a lot of things because of the numbers. There was little time for individual teaching and feedback.

However, it worked because I focused on a couple things and progressed from drill to drill. The drills were fun and engaged a large number of players at one time. From an ignition standpoint – to use Daniel Coyle’s term – the clinic was a big success, as the girls want more. They want to play more, get coached more, etc.

Camps in the States lack many of these constraints. However, some of the same issues arise. What is the purpose of the camp? Is the purpose to ignite interest in the sport or inspire players to work harder? Is the camp designed to offer opportunities for deep practice? Is the camp an opportunity to receive master coaching?

When camps attempt to do all three, they fail. If the goal is designed for deep practice, the time should be spent on one specific concentration, not a very general, superficial instruction on a variety of skills. The numbers should be small to allow for plenty of feedback. If the goal is master coaching, the coaches should not be college players or first-year assistants. If the goal is ignition, the camp should be fun, and the college players should be encouraged to engage with the campers at all times rather than texting on the sideline or eating lunch away from the campers or treating the campers like lesser beings. Camps should be up front with their objectives, and parents should be more judicious with their choices. What is the parent’s objective for her daughter? Inspiration, repetitions, master coaching, exposure?

No camp can be all things for all people. We need a better understanding of coaching, learning and talent development to maximize these opportunities and sift through the glossy advertising to make better choices.

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