Coach Isaac Fowler’s youth basketball development tips are outlined below. I met with Coach Isaac Fowler to gain some wisdom on player development and picked up some other nuggets along the way. Coach Fowler is an assistant coach at Fischer College and an AAU Coach with Evolution. So far this offseason I have met with three coaches including Coach Fowler to talk basketball. I’m a long ways from my goal of meeting with 37 other coaches, but I’m holding out hope that the summer will be an opportunity to make up for lost time.
Retaining Young Players
The first thing I asked Coach Fowler was how to balance getting players who are new to basketball to stay with it while giving essential feedback to improve. Coach Fowler has an excellent track record and personality for working with players that are new to the game, and his answers did not disappoint.
If the players love it, they’ll come back. To get them to love it, you have to understand that they are not going to be 100% invested in being a perfectly fundamental player right away. They mainly want to enjoy the game. These players need discipline combined with celebrations. Discipline means that it is ok to tell them that they are not working hard enough provided that you tell them why. Humans have a natural inclination to improve and kids are no different. Kids also have a giant misconception gap in terms of how hard they think they are trying and how hard they can actually try. Celebrations mean when an improvement happens a player or team needs to be enthusiastically recognized for overcoming a struggle or initial failure – especially when that struggle began in the “you’re not working hard enough” cycle. It’s tough love.
A more concrete example came in the form of a player that Coach Fowler was trying to teach an opposite hand lay-up to. He told her she was not trying hard enough. She argued that she was and just could not do it. Coach Fowler anticipated this reaction, but he told me it was really hard when she started to cry. Like any coach he’s crying on the inside with the frustrated player. In the midst of her physical and emotional struggle, he asked her if she had asked him for help, and she admitted that she had not. Coach Isaac was not going for a “gotcha!” moment out of this, but he wants his players to ask him questions and be a student of the game. Inevitably after the player asked for feedback, he gave it, and in short time this player was taking opposite hand lay-ups in game action.
In a culture today of giving everyone a trophy it’s easy to jump down the throat of someone who says “you aren’t trying hard enough.” Coach Fowler believes and has evidence that this direct challenge leads to growth for the player. Increasingly I am believing that the earlier and more often that we can be transparent with each other the better it is for everyone that has stock in the situation.
The Optimal Basketball Drills & Skills Session
After watching Coach Fowler teach at drills and skills for some time, I have developed tremendous respect for the intensity, focus, and long term skill development of the players involved. I wanted to know what the optimal number of players, stations, and minutes per station was for keeping players engaged while not compromising the skill development. Coach Fowler asked me how many players I would look for and I threw out the number 60. He gave me a basic lay out, but what I took away more than anything about the exact science of a “perfect drills and skills” was the three overarching philosophies he shared. First, do not let the kids get bored. When that happens you lose structure and the momentum of everyone in the group (not just the station) gets compromised. Second, focus on maximizing how many reps each player gets. At a young age, the physical movements are much more important than they become later on in a basketball career. Third, don’t worry too much about teaching at first. This connects to the two previous points, but it’s also worth pointing out that players can get better with on the fly instruction rather than calling the whole station to a halt.
Coach Fowler mentioned using as many as seven stations. They could be focused on conditioning, passing, finishing, shooting, defense, ball-handling, or rebounding to name a few. He elaborated on finishing as a way of thinking about reps. Spend two minutes teaching righty lay-ups, reverse lay-ups, Eurostep lay-ups, lefty lay-ups, and a floater for instance. If you have short explanations to demonstrate what is being done, this should not take more than 12 or 15 minutes at a station.
Team concepts can also be taught at drills and skills – specifically the five out principles. He said that the second portion of a two-hour drills and skills night could be dedicated to something like this (or just do it for an entire drills and skills night). He thought that a read and react offense is the best place to start with young players with the first action being the pass and cut. Along with this eventually comes players filling a spot. From there, you can get into dribble at, tail cutting (new term for me which basically means you follow the person you dribble at), and eventually backdoor cuts on the read-line (this might not come for a couple of years). The most important element in all for me would be to get kids to recognize the importance of spacing on offense.
Another element that I would want to incorporate eventually into drills and skills with middle school players is 3 on 0 offense. Coach Isaac mentioned a drill called rebound, outlet, early. Basically it’s a 3 on 0 fast break that emphasizes scoring quickly in transition. He preaches to his team that should spend 80% of the time playing defense against competition and that through pushing the ball in this fashion, they can accomplish that. I have also seen Coach Isaac teach 3 on 0 actions in the half-court. It takes the core concept of the read and react which is to basket cut after a pass and expands it to do other things after a pass is made. There is a pass screen away, a pass into a ball screen, a pass into a flare screen, and even a down screen into another down screen. The most important takeaway is that players are being taught to always be in purposeful motion off the ball.
Under the Radar Basketball Concepts
Coach Isaac told me the first place he tries to differentiates himself from other coaches is through encouraging his players after making mistakes. The example he gave was when a player makes the right read on a pass, but it results in a turnover for whatever reason anyway. In that situation yelling at the player is going to lead to them not making that pass in the future even though it’s the right play. Players – especially young players will listen to coaches even if it makes them worse. During game action if a player on the bench has a question for him, he will often ignore the action on the floor to address the question. Personally, I love being able to teach the game from the bench in this regard because younger players are never more urgent to grow their I.Q. than when the game is right in front of them.
Another element that Coach Isaac said he differentiates himself from other coaches is through the energy and effort he demands of his teams. He stressed that he does not care about the outcome of the game and illustrated his point by explaining a scrimmage that a fifth grade team in the program had against a seventh grade team in the program just recently. He warned the seventh grade team not to take the fifth grade team lightly and to take it to them. Despite his warning, the fifth grade group which he referred to as a wolfpack for their team-first attitudes and attack mentality, jumped ahead of them immediately. I was not there and did not feel the need to ask, but I imagine that the seventh graders were bigger and more talented. This is what happens though when energy and effort take over.
We jumped around a little in our topics, but there were three other miscellaneous basketball concepts that I found useful from our conversation. First was a full-court 1-1-3 zone defense. Coach Isaac stressed that it was a good defense to play against a team which has a quick guard as a catalyst. The three in the zone are all the way back inside the three-point arch while the two defensive guards are up in the full court lined up in a tandem. Once the ball comes in, they look to force it sideline and exchange on potential reverses.
He also told me about a drill he did the other day to teach communication and team-building. There were four players in each corner of the court. One of the players were blind-folded, one player was a leader, and one was a follower. The three of them had to communicate with each other in an effort to be the first to “find” coach.
Finishing with creativity does not have to be something that comes from a coach. Isaac has challenged players to come up with eight different ways of finishing at the basket. At times it gets silly, but it also is fun for players and when they are the creators it leads to the creativity being a little more sticky in the longer term in my opinion.