Motivating Players to Develop Skills in the Off-Season

I asked Coach Paul Tanglis to reflect on the season that was and consider what he will change going forward. He told me that he liked North Andover’s offense and defense. Overall the biggest change that needs to take place is for players to develop. Some players on his team were left wide open on the perimeter because defenses did not respect their shot. Other players could shoot, but could not get a shot off because they were unable to create their own shot. In other words, Coach Tanglis wants players that are one-dimensional to become more versatile. There is no better time to do that than the off-season.

How to Get Players to Be More Versatile

As he mentioned to me, pick-up basketball is trending downward. It is probably unrealistic to expect a player to go out and put in an hour of work on their own. One thing that I have been hearing from coaches is that getting a number of made shots in a work out is easy to explain. Getting a tempo and the intensity of such a workout to be game-like is a huge challenge. We always hear the stories of players making a couple hundred shots, but if these shots are not game-like is it really all that beneficial?

Coach Tanglis said that if players cannot hold themselves accountable to putting the work in with structure, then perhaps they need to seek out a program that will hold them accountable. Even under this presumption, players will need to do something on their own.

Some programs only meet for one week over the summer. Others will meet weekly, but only do a workout once or twice during that week. Players that are serious about developing need to sustain their efforts almost daily through the fall season. Coach Tanglis told me that he thinks that basketball is the most skilled sport in high school athletics (hockey coaches may disagree). It is difficult. Players that are serious about becoming great need to prioritize how they are spending their time.

Intrinsic Motivation

I share Coach Tanglis’ sentiments. My number one wish for my team is for them to develop more skill in the off-season. And I use the word wish intentionally because it is something as high school coaches we ultimately have limited control over. Last summer I went to see the University of Virginia practice, and briefly shook hands with head coach Tony Bennett. He had every intention of walking away after meeting me, so I asked one question as he started to walk in the other direction. “Of all the players that have grown the most under you, what set them apart?” His answer: intrinsic motivation.

The greatest untapped source of improving a team is finding a way for as many players as possible to carry deep intrinsic motivation. Giving a player a workout to follow or hearing them tell you they are going to work on their game is the bear minimum. A player without intrinsic motivation is analogous to a sailboat without wind. You can put together a great plan and they can yes to death, but ultimately they will not move if they do not want to move. That is why it is essential for coaches to cast wide nets when evaluating young players. Players might be raw initially, but if they have an elite work ethic, competitiveness, and love for the game they can catch up to most of their peers.

 End of Year Reflection

Triton High School coach Ted Schruender agreed on the importance of getting players to be more versatile in the off-season. At the conclusion of his team’s season this past year he made players write a note to themselves on an index card. He asked for these things:

  • What did the team do well (3 things)
  • Three ideas that the team can improve upon
  • Individually, what are three things that you need to improve upon

He wants the players to review these items in June and have them self-reflect in terms of what they have done to improve. Some players have a sense of urgency in November with tryouts looming, but during the spring they are often indifferent. Spring sports are a good excuse for the players that do a spring sport, but other players choose to do nothing. For them basketball is too far into the future. Yet these months could make the difference between a player that can go left and right, or a player that can just go right.

What One Skilled Player Can Do for a Program

The difference between having a player with versatility and a player that is a one-trick pony is enormous to a high school team. As Coach Tanglis put it, how many teams are one or two injuries or a transfer away from having their season over? The reason that these one or two players are so valuable is because these are versatile players. Generally, they are the ones that put the work in. Imagine as a team adding one or two more players every off-season that have the ability to beat you in multiple ways. It literally changes the entire equation.

Extra Ideas

I have already posted one social distancing ideas for players to improve with the Steve Nash workout routine. A couple readers reached out to me after this post with their own ideas which were great as well. One coach at the college level has the players chase a goal of making 10,000 shots and they post it outside the door in her office. Another idea is to read about improvement. One of the greatest books that lit a fire under me from a work habit standpoint was Burn Your Goals by Joshua Medcalf and Jamie Gilbert. A player asked me during the COVID-19 Epidemic for reading material related to staying positive and I recommended this book in addition to Jon Gordon’s The Energy Bus.

What I told the player that reached out to me past actual books was that her drive just to ask for reading material is essential. All people consistently need feedback. If I just told her the names of books, it might have been enough but it might not have. For basketball players the ultimate feedback is performance in games during the season. That type of feedback is so far away from being received that it is inherently demotivating. We need to help them see what is directly in front of them and stay focused on that one thing.

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