Commentary: My coaching 'season on the brink'

The Yellow Lightning just completed a season in the Westminster Girls Basketball Association. They finished 0-0 while having a lot of fun and learning a little bit about playing (and coaching) basketball. From left: "Coach" Bob Blubaugh, Maggie Morley, Libby Andrews, Addyson Ruth, McKenna Lanza, and Colleen Blubaugh.
The Yellow Lightning just completed a season in the Westminster Girls Basketball Association. They finished 0-0 while having a lot of fun and learning a little bit about playing (and coaching) basketball. From left: "Coach" Bob Blubaugh, Maggie Morley, Libby Andrews, Addyson Ruth, McKenna Lanza, and Colleen Blubaugh. (Submitted photo, Carroll County Times)

You think Pitino is ever in the middle of a tense game when one of his players looks at him and says, "I'm hungry?"

You think Boeheim is ever talking to his team during a timeout when one of his players grabbed him affectionately and pulled him over backward?

You think Coach K ever had to console one of his players because a teammate stole the ball before said player could get a shot off? (OK, maybe J.J. Redick.)

After more than two decades of talking to coaches, questioning coaches, and occasionally criticizing coaches for a living, I decided to give coaching a shot.

OK, so most of what I know about coaching I learned from reading "A Season on the Brink" about Bobby Knight. At least that taught me how NOT to interact with players.

Three things concerned me most. I wasn't sure how I'd deal with playing time, I wasn't sure how I'd deal with angry parents, and I wasn't sure how I'd be able to help the kids get better throughout the year.

Some three decades removed from the last basketball practice I went through, I didn't want to go in unprepared. So I went to the library and took out a book on coaching hoops. And an instructional video.

Our first practice was supposed to last for an hour, so I scripted out everything I wanted us to accomplish in short segments. Warm-ups. Introductions. Definitions. Dribbling drills. Passing drills. Rebounding drills. All using a method known as IDEA: "Identify, Demonstrate, Explain, Attend to." Maybe with a little Knight thrown in.

I was ready. And then the kids had me laughing from the first time I sat them down to learn their names.

They were interested in basketball. But they were also interested in chasing each other around. And telling me what happened in school the past week. Their favorite parts of the first practice were dashing off to the water fountain for a drink and choosing a team name. Yellow Lightning was quickly agreed upon.

The next practice I decided to install our offensive playbook. That is, to teach them to run one play. Over and over. Two players setting screens, two players cutting, and the point guard finding someone wide open for a layup. I felt pretty good heading into our first game.

Unfortunately, our first game wasn't until three weeks later. And when I asked them if they were ready to run our play, they looked at me like I'd just asked about the Pythagorean Theorem. Oh, well.

The other coach couldn't have been nicer, but, like me, he was a rookie and we weren't too sure about the league rules. The kids were making steals and fast-breaking until finally some of the parents told us, "Um, they don't allow that at this age." Oh well. We learned. And we had fun.

My three concerns turned out to be totally unfounded.

Playing time was no issue at all. When I showed up for that first practice we had exactly four players. Thankfully, a fifth player joined the team in time for the first game. She never got to go through one of my practices, but, strangely enough, it didn't seem to be a problem.

The parents were great. One of the moms bought matching socks for everyone. Another brought postgame cupcakes. They got their kids to the gym on time, they were always encouraging to both the players and the coach, and they were usually smiling or laughing or putting their hands over their faces when I looked over during games.

As for the players getting better, they did. Not because of coaching, but because if you let 6- and 7-year-olds do anything once a week for three months you're bound to notice improvement. I loved it. High-fives were plentiful. I quickly got very invested and wanted to see that look in their eyes that said, "Hey, did you see what I just did?"

Because we had no substitutes my girls did get winded. "Are we almost done?" became a staple I heard nearly as often as "I'm hungry." The injuries were plentiful, too. From getting hit on the head with the ball, to banged-up knees to various scrapes, I felt like we needed a trainer on staff. And someone to tie shoes.

They really listened pretty well. When we huddled up, I generally just tried to tell them one thing to work on. Once, I was kneeling and giving my spiel when one of the girls came up behind and gave me a hug/choke around the neck that caused me to topple over. Hard to take your coach seriously when he's lying on the court staring up at you.

There were very few tears, although I did have to console my daughter the day she was dribbling in for a layup and one of her teammates ran over and stole the ball from her. The only disagreements were about who got to inbound the ball, which was clearly their favorite part.

Our team never lost. We never won either. They don't start keeping score until second grade. The kids seemed to have a general understanding of whether they were winning or losing each game, but I honestly didn't. I was too busy trying to keep our alphabetical point guard rotation straight.

I'm not sure I'll ever do it again - watching a former college player and high school coach instructing my older daughter all season quickly made me realize my incompetence - but I couldn't have enjoyed myself more, getting to know the kids and watching them have fun and improve.

It was a little emotional at the awards ceremony, knowing my "Season on the Brink" was ending.

I printed out certificates for the girls, highlighting what aspect of the game I thought they had done best. I handed them out, shook hands, told each girl how much I'd enjoyed the season, and felt pretty good about myself.

Then, the one who received the "Best Rebounder" certificate asked her mom, "What does 'Rebounder' mean?"

I guess I should have spent more time on that in practice.

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