Sustainable Basketball Development Programs

“I don’t train for sprints; I train for marathons.” – Dilated Peoples

When a local newspaper interviewed me, the writer asked if I knew Kenny Natt, who was hired recently as the Head Coach of India’s National Team, according to the writer, and what I thought about him as a coach. I said only that I knew the name, but had no idea about him as a coach or what it would mean for a team that I have never seen play.

I do think, however, that this is a short-sighted approach taken by many federations to catch up quickly. They hire a name coach at the senior level and expect improved results. However, if the talent lags behind other countries, no coach is going to make a huge impression.

Many organizations use this approach. Nike, adidas, the NBA, non-profits, etc. sponsor events described as developing basketball in a region. However, events do not develop basketball or basketball players. Development is a long-term process. Focusing on the Senior Team is a short-term approach.

Fast Company’s July/August issue features an article about Matt Damon and his water charity titled “Can this man save this girl?” His partner, Gary White, says:

“‘Projects – everyone’s projects – were failing at a very high rate.’ Communities had broken wells or faucets that villagers were unable to repair, or the wells produced water more dangerous than that of the filthy rivers that flowed nearby…In the 80s and 90s, the approach was really supply-driven – ‘We are here to give you your water project,’ he says. Dig a well, put up a plaque, take a picture and scram. ‘People were designing projects for people, not with them.'”

White’s solution was to move past the charity and work with communities to find micro-loans to empower communities to fund and build their own wells which they would be tasked with maintaining.

Basketball programs work similarly. When an event ends, who is left to nurture the enthusiasm generated by the event? When Dwight Howard comes to India on an NBA-sponsored trip, he is not staying here to develop the game. His job is playing basketball for the Orlando Magic. He generates excitement for a day or a week, but what happens when he leaves?

Rather than running events for local communities, organizations need to work with them. In most developing countries, the largest impediment to basketball success is the infrastructure. In South Africa, there is a lack of courts and access to basketballs. How can a player develop his game if he has no access to basic equipment to practice (not to mention the rampant malnourishment)?

In India, writers, coaches and players have asked if players are better in the U.S. The question is laughable. However, it is unfair to have the same expectations. For all the faults with the U.S. system, a child has almost unlimited opportunities to play the game. Nearly every child has access to a basketball, and most children live within walking distance of a proper basket. There are YMCA leagues, recreation leagues, school teams, AAU, etc. Teams are limited to 12-15 players. Most high school teams have 4-6 baskets available during a practice for 12-15 players, and these teams practice year-round with games or practices 4-6 times per week.

In India, teams practice two-three times per week with two baskets for 30+ players. If the 10,000-hour rule is a hard and fast rule (it isn’t), players in India lack the time and repetitions to develop at the same rate as an American peer, and the occasional camp or clinic cannot change those numbers.

One reporter asked my goals for my trip to India and suggested that I was here to improve basketball. I quickly resisted that idea. I know my limitations. In a two-hour clinic with 60 players and two baskets, I am not developing anyone. My goal with the player clinics is hopefully to inspire players by showing them a different way to train and play. Essentially, the same goal that an NBA, Nike, adidas, etc. clinic has. To use Daniel Coyle’s terms, the clinics are an opportunity to ignite the passion.

The work, however, is done by the local coaches. Coyle cites three factors necessary for talent development: ignition, deep practice and master coaching. One-time clinics can serve as the ignition. However, how can these organizations sustain programs to provide the deep practice and master coaching? Ignition alone is not enough to develop the game or talented players.

To make a difference in the game from a competitive standpoint, the solution is to advance the coaching so players have access to master coaching and the coaches can ensure the deep practice. My real mission for the trip was to train 13 coaches. In a two-hour clinic, I cannot develop a player. However, if over a 20-hour clinic, I can give 13 coaches some tools to use when they coach on a daily basis, they may be able to develop a player’s skills over the next year to five years.

One-time events are like building the well, but leaving it to fall into disrepair. They generate enthusiasm, but the lasting effect is missing. The organization gets its pictures, plaque and good will, but what about the players and coaches left behind?

Rather than running events for the communities, we need to work with them. I try to assist guys like Isaac Kwapong and Harrison Omondi who are local coaches in Ghana and Kenya who make a difference on a daily basis. I try to work with them, supplying coaching materials for their coaches and hopefully visiting them in the near future to work with them. They do not run one-time events; they run programs and work with players daily as they try to develop the game, the next generation of coaches and the current talent.

To make a difference, organizations need to support the coaches like these who can make a difference on a more permanent basis rather than relying on the one-time event as a means to develop basketball. Ignition is one step; however, to sustain the enthusiasm and develop a talent base, players need deep practice and master coaches. Organizations interested in developing basketball and basketball players in developing regions need to move past the ignition stage – as interest has been ignited worldwide – and focus more on delivering opportunities for access to deep practice and master coaching over long periods of time.

As Dilated Peoples suggest, development is not a short-term sprint, but a long-term marathon.

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