By Andrew Jantke | 10 Principles for a Successful Youth Coach
Pictured: East Coast Challenge 2015 with South Australia High Performance program. Never take for granted the privilege to work with talented, committed, driven athletes.
What does success look like?
Is success holding trophies up?
Is it having happy players, with strong relationships with each other that love the game?
What does it look like?
Before I go through the 10 Principles for Successful Youth Coaches I want to define the word success in this context. I have coached teams that have won MANY games and I have also coached teams that have struggled to win. I have loved coaching every single team, can't think of one I did not, there are many individuals I coached, or coached with, I am proud of and consider friends to this day.
Holistically and collectively, perhaps no team I've been fortunate to coach so far will compete with the success we had with my u18s on and off the floor at Sturt in 2014/15. That is not about wins/losses (50-3 for the year) that year. There have been some great teams and success with teams that had the win/loss columns reversed. I think if you base success purely on wins/losses as a youth coach you are going to be dependent largely on the talent you are lucky enough to be given. The success of this team is in the degree to which the men in the team collectively met the 3 success criteria I highlight below. In that team we have 5 guys that played junior basketball for Australia, including 2 that went to the CoE, 5 division 1 NCAA College prospects (3 have already committed), 1 AFL top 50 draft pick, a player on an academic scholarship at Bond University, another at one of the top prep schools in the USA, another studying law here in Adelaide and even a guy travelling the world as a renowned male model. Since then each one of them I have asked all say playing that year was their best year of junior basketball. We all keep in touch and they are great quality men from what I can see. Driven, hardworking, good team men. They are resilient, all facing various challenges (be it tall poppy syndrome, overwhelming workloads, living in the public eye, leaving home etc), committed. That's success. Not the 50-3 record that year.
PICTURED: 2014/15 U18 Division 1 men at the Sturt Sabres . Fortunate to have a great coaching staff and team manager and some great men who pushed each other every single training and forged great friendships.
I say all this to explain I am not talking wins/losses when I talk about success.
Each coach will, and should, have their own definition of success. That is good because everyone is different. There are 3 criteria to success when coaching youth teams in my mind.
The extent to which your players have developed holistically (as basketballers and as people) from 1-10th man through the journey,
how much they love their basketball and how much this has been enhanced whilst playing under you
the extent to which their relationships with each other were enhanced through the journey.
None of this criteria is solely dependent on wins/losses, albeit winning can certainly help with some aspects.
Think about it. What is your definition of success as a coach?
In 2017 I coached an u18 State team that was not successful in wins and losses but the team was successful on the basis of this criteria. I am extremely proud of each and every player in this team and will always value them. Collectively they have a large degree of individual upside improvement to go, that I have rarely seen in a youth team before. Without going into too much detail the team achieved very highly in all the 3 criteria and are up there with the best I've coached.
I've seen many coaches, played for many, worked with many. Keep in mind I have been an Assistant Coach at National Championships more than maybe anyone actively coaching at this level in the country, I've assisted coaches at Premier League level (our 2nd tier, semi-professional state league), played high level district basketball for around 13 years (particularly from U10 Div 1 to the equivalent of Youth league Div 1 level). I have taken the best and worse from all of these coaches over the years, done some trial and error myself too. I've been coaching youth athletes at division 1 level for years and that is why I feel I can speak on these principles with a high level of expertise. I hope readers read, process these thoughts and consider how they relate to their own values and coaching philosophy.
Please understand these "principles" are not the be all and end all. You may have your own and that is fine.
So to my mind here are the 10 principles. Hope you get something out of them:
1: Expand the pie of team success
Ultimately team wins are the best way to expand the pie of success for everyone to enjoy a piece of. When you are winning as a team, providing a great fun experience whilst winning, more team members get to experience their own version of "success" (however they define it).
For example, one of the reasons I do what I do for kids that have played for me as far as their college recruitment goes is to make sure I am in a position to help them. In doing so they learn to understand their commitment to team success and team values WILL help them succeed as individuals, and this site etc was going to makes sure that is the case.
Elite players can be selfish at times, they invest so much into their own development and they do seek individual validation and rewards for their efforts. Players can try to suppress this, focus on the team but deep down they want to know "what is in it for me if I put the team first?". We all love to play in a team environment, helping others succeed, but for this to be truly special you need to connect the individual benefits of individual sacrifice at times for your team, to the team's success. Players need to recognise the enjoyment and satisfication that comes from being in this environment and how ultimately team success leads to a greater pie of success for everyone.
As a player or coach for that matter when helping a team and sacrificing yourself for the team it is a great feeling in a team sports environment, when the team succeeds. However, this feeling is enhanced because each individual knows that the success of the team will ultimately help them individually in many ways.
Expand the pie of success. Help players to understand that by playing as a team with great players, and accepting their role they will be more successful as an individual too. Develop a great training environment so that players 1 through to 10 can still play in competitive environments and develop. Make the training environment gamelike and gamebased so guys on the end of the bench can still compete and play in training situations, if they are not seeing much playing time.
Find out the goals and aspirations of each player and find angles opportunities for deserving players to achieve their goals. Develop each individual player towards their goal.
Connect with various pathways. Make it so that deserving players that play for you have expanded opportunities and pathways. Ensure you teach in line with the pathways in our sport to maximise the opportunities of your players.
Take a hollistic approach to success. There are many aspects to success, not just winning or losing a game. Find ways to value various successful outcomes.
Conclusion: Find each players definition of success and help them achieve that. Ensure each player understandsthat winning as a team increases individual opportunities for each individual. Build networks and relationships to try to make sure your athletes are known and don't sneak under radars.
PICTURED: Straight to the pool room. Some great memories, friendships both on staff and with the athletes, I have worked with over the past years. The pie of success is large with all these teams with individuals connecting their personal goals to the team's success.
2: It is 110% about the players. Glorify their efforts and achievements. Empower them within the team.
Everything you do, everything you think about needs to be about your athletes. They do the work, they play the games. It is a de-motivator playing for a coach that you feel is all about trying to use you for their own personal success, rewards or benefits through your work.
On this site for example I talk a lot about athlete's successes I've worked with, or helping to promote them and other prospects that play for me to United States College coaches. I also highlight the achievements of my teams and players I work with. This site is to provide visibility of the kids to US College coaches and I hope to help educate, motivate and inspire others in the game. When it comes to my actual coaching work, anyone that plays for me, works with me on their college recruitment, or coaches that work with me know I am all for our players.
When coaching in bigger games I occasionally will write something on my hand - "110%ATP" as a reminder. I assume you will figure out what that means. It is a little reminder that whether they play well, through good times or bad times it is about them.
This is not 100% about the players it is 110%. You need to go the extra mile for them. If your players feel that they are actually advantaged by playing for you because you can help them succeed then they will play even harder and do more work in their own time to self develop.
Being a youth coach is a privilege in itself. You get to meet and work with some awesome athletes, work with great people that also coach, and it is a gift to be able to do that, to try to influence in the right direction with their basketball and hopefully life in general. When you help others first and foremost occasionally in ways least expected it will come back to you.
The most motivating for me when it comes to coaching is seeing kids I coach play at higher levels and go on to become good men and they keep in touch. I've been able to see this overseas and all over Australia at a national, world championship, FIBA Oceania, Collegiate levels, the NBL, SEABL, Premier League etc. and I have to admit I have been known to get a bit emotional when this happens.
Finally, empower players. It is as much their team as it is yours. Trust them to run the team. Have them vote on values and frameworks for team behaviors and norms. Ask them questions about x's and o's and implement their ideas. Remind them that everything you do is about them and their team mates and you are open to ideas and suggestions on anything.
Example: The athletes in my 2014/15 U18 Sturt team (mentioned above) were mostly off national team radars. The college pathways and conversations, that were the precursor for this site etc. were about giving them that extra 10% commitment. They all went to work, working incredibly hard. I feel they put this work in partly because they could see we (the Coaching Director at my club at the time and I) were willing to make sure they did not sneak under international radars. They knew we were willing to go above an beyond to make sure their work would be recognised. For me. I am always trying to find a way to give the kids I coach that extra 10%. "110%ATP".
Conclusion; Make it 110% about your players, maximising their success and give them an advantage having played under you and they will put a massive effort into their own and their team mates development.
3: Take responsibility. Stay ahead of your the rest.
Take responsibility to keep your knowledge on all aspects of the game and coaching up to date. Not just x's and o's but athletic development, sports psychology, athlete wellbeing, pedagogies etc. Become a student of the game questioning and listening to those that can offer you insights.
Take responsibility for your team's failures. I have seen many coaches go from talking up individual guys, and the moment the team loses a big game they blame those same individual players. How fickle is that? Be an adult, be responsible, don't blame the kids. No youth player loses a game on purpose and playing basketball in big games you really put yourself out there to your team, parents - both yours and others, other observers in your club. Players that play for me in big games feel protected and insulated against this judgement. They know that when the team loses a big game I take the bulk of the shared responsibility and they feel liberated because of this.
For example; Every big game loss we've had has been my fault. This year I coached an amazing team and we actually lost state championships grand final. We had won the semis by around 40 pts, we were that good. However, cleverly, the opposition coach in the grand final realised that they could not beat us in a conventional way and something had to change. So for the Grand Final of State Champs they played a zone the whole game. End of the day I should have seen this coming, I should have known how clever the opposition coaches were going into this game, would change it up and I should have prepared for this. Pretty much all our training has been focused on competing in man on man situations so it was my fault. We lost when it counted and it was my fault. After losing that game I took full responsibility. I told that to the players, I told that to the parents, I told that to the club. Some of the players (14/15 yr olds) actually argued with me, showing their own great personal qualities, and claimed it was shared responsibility and we mostly agreed to disagree on that. It was my fault.
4 weeks later the boys played with an amazing level of confidence and passion for each other and us coaches. They dominated the Melbourne Classics, a tournament considered the best club level tournament in Australia. They just dominated. By taking the responsibility myself for the state champs loss the players knew that they were protected. They knew they had a wall of protection around them and they appreciated this fact and felt confident that they could just play basketball without stressing about the blame game by their coach or from other external factors (which I was willing to absorb for them).
Conclusion: Take responsibility for your mistakes. We all make them. If you give poor guidance, take responsibility, learn from it and correct. If you swear take responsibility, that behaviour is not appropriate, learn from it and correct it. If you make poor subs take responsibility, learn from it and improve. Humans are fundamentally flawed, accept it and learn from it.
When you take responsibility externally your players will invariably follow and take a greater level personal responsibility too. This will feel protected and confident in the fishbowl kind of sport that basketball is.
Pictured: Sturt Sabres U16 Div 1 boys. Maybe the most dominant Classics by a boys team from South Australia in modern times. A few weeks after a brutal state championships loss, which was the Head Coaches' fault.
4: For your own sake and credibility, don't hold a grudge
A 15 year old kid playing for a coach demonstrates some poor behaviors in that coaches eye. The kid does not perform. I've seen coaches that relentlessly hold a grudge for years to come against that player. The coach will attempt to bad mouth the kid almost like a grudge. Kids are kids. They are growing up, they won't be perfect. We are adults, act that way.
In some cases these coaches will spend years with the grudge whilst the kid ends up overachieving in future years. Who ends up looking poorly? The coach. Kids are kids, they change, they develop they mature don't use the fact that you could not win with them as a a kid as an excuse to bad mouth them as they move into manhood. This ends up being a reflection on you, your credibility, your capability to assess talent, your values. Not the kid.
Conclusion: Don't hold a grudge against kids. Don't bag them to others forever and a day just because they did not perform for you. Kids change as they grow up. All that will happen in some cases is they will get better and better, grow up and become more mature, very successful adults. It is you the coach will look like the fool if you hold a grudge against a kid.
5: Know why you coach. Focus on values.
For each team I coach we work together to develop our team's values. We speak about values often, reward and recognise individuals that uphold our team's values. The manifistation of values are normally behaviours and not measurable outcomes. When you focus on values you can't lose. Win, lose or draw each individual controls their behaviours and habits so a focus on values means you always succeed.
I've written a blog on how we work out team values perviously so check that out if you want to: https://www.highperformancehoopsnetwork.com/single-post/2016/07/11/Establishing-your-team-vision-mission-KPIs-and-values
Also know why you coach. This is how you setup your self perception and self-reward system, the virtual self pat on the back if you will. For me basketball is a tool and nothing more. It does not matter whether coaching a national championship semi-final, winning a Melbourne Classic Championship, working with a bunch of kids from low-socio economic background in the Northern Suburbs, traveling the world to support a kid I've coached play in a world championship it is all just a tool. What is it a tool for you might ask? Basketball is a reflection of life but a rather extreme one. The challenges, striving to be the best individually and as a team, the adversity, the highs and lows in a team based environment, the fact that I think hard work in practice more so than most sports can reap success in competition. So the tool of basketball exists for self development and to have an impact on others around you by developing them. Finally it is a great tool to build strong working relationships and friendships based around common goals and shared experience and challenges. That is me. It may not be you.
The life values you develop from the game, and focus on the most, are going to be different to each individual for me I develop the following through the game:
Resilience. Drive and persistence. Commitment to your goal. Work ethic.
Conclusion: When you focus on values rather than JUST the win loss column basketball becomes a tool for your own and other's development.
PICTURED: Each team Coach I coach develops their own Vision, Mission, Values and KPIs. Players are primarily responsible for these.
6: Have a crystal ball
I played junior basketball from U10 Division 1 right through to men's and in very successful junior teams, went on to coach juniors for over 20 years, including around a dozen Aussie national champs, so feel I can ID Aussie youth talent with a certain level of expertise and experience. The thing I realised after picking up on players that I thought would be good and hearing the arguments against that time and time again, then seeing those kids achieve what I thought they would you begin to back yourself. This is my best piece of advice when assessing talent. Listen to those you trust but you MUST make your OWN decision. As a top Aussie coaching college basketball tells me; Trust your own eyes!!!
Look at the physical traits and skillsets players need in the contemporary game. Also recognise that at higher levels globally successful Aussies are not successful purely on physical traits. There is more to the success of Delly or Ingles than their bodytype or athleticsm for example. Find out those intangibles and how to identify them in the youth you work with.
From a talent ID perspective, there are 2 things I look for in talking to a player the most. Before I mention these 2 things, keep in mind the vast majority of the athletes I get to work with at Sturt and in our High Performance programs are not too physically limited. Sure, some are undersized for example and have to do extra work but ultimately I get to work with kids who mostly could all make it to at least division 1 college basketball from a physical standpoint.
Whilst I want to see all the standard talent ID cliches in prospects. Huge work ethic, toughness, high iq, good team values etc. There are 2 unique, non basketball things I like to see in my conversations with kids in predicting potential. One is they are Wowsers! This means that any opportunity any experience they get they get excited about. They value it more than others, always appreciative and thankful of what opportunities they get. They look at opportunities and successes say "wow, I can't believe I get to do this" and "I am going to put in whatever work it takes to get to do it again". And two. When they have a setback they are generally angry, distressed and want to work harder, better to prove they can overcome the setback. Resilience where kids suffer failure and don't feel bad about it is not always good thing. In our quest to build resilient kids more and more are becoming oblivious to failure. I always tell a kid getting cut to let themselves feel a bit of pain and use it. Talking to these kids when cut from a team you can see how passionate they are for example their eyes well up, they clench their fists, there is a genuine anger. The next thing is they bounce back. They don't lose confidence or self belief, they just take control over their controllables and work harder, better and get stronger.
Conclusion: Identify patterns and consistencies in the traits and character of elite prospects you have worked with. Scout talent at National Championships and watch Aussie kids you have seen progress through the ranks playing pro or college sports to see how their skillsets and capabilities adapt to the next level. Talk to other experienced coaches to identify the precursors and benchmarks that the traits of elite prospects had from a young age.
7: Watch your mouth. What you say is important.
As a coach I guess our oncourt basketball talents can help a bit with demos, our experiences when we played can help us relate to athletes but ultimately we are in the business of speaking. That skill is the most important one you have as a coach. Talking is what we do. If we need to have a talent that is one of the main ones that we need, it does not matter if a coach can't shoot the 3 ball, or do a 360 dunk. What we say to athletes and others means something, it can have a BIG impact. Recognise this and watch what you say.
I've seen coaches on rare occasion simply berate athletes dropping swear words. This does not help you succeed in the longer term. It does not make sense to me in any way the mindset that so many coaches have of cutting down athletes. There is a genuine belief in a few in the coaching vocation that having athletes too confident, egotistical will be their downfall so we need to keep cutting them down. This just does not make sense if you are genuinely trying to produce elite talent, they are going to need elite self belief.
We all make mistakes in what we say. What we say can be misinterpreted by players. I can still remember trying to interpret and dissect everything my coaches said to me as a junior player on my good and bad performances. Allow players to ask questions, they need to feel comfortable to challenge what you say because that can help them have clarity over what you mean. When you say the wrong thing don't be afraid to apologise. We all make mistakes including coaches and as long we learn from the mistakes in what we say and are genuinely sorry when we make a mistake then that just helps build the working relationship with your athletes.
Example: I once had an elite coach tell me to stop building up an athlete too much because his head was getting too big. A few years later as he was moving into adulthood, playing for Australia and high level division 1 college basketball I decided to fill him in on this conversation a few years earlier. I really wanted to see what his thoughts were on me "building him up" so much on his journey. He burst out laughing when I told him of the assertion and simply said "I would not be where I am, would not believe in myself if you did not believe in my like you did. I never understood why cutting me down was supposed to make me a better player" - I agreed.
Conclusion: As a coach what you say matters, how you say it matters and when you say it matters. Don't cut down players for the sake of it. If you make a mistake apologise for it, but don't make the same mistake again. Allow players to challenge you and give you feedback in what you say and how you say it. Everyone can interpret what you say slightly differently.
8: Sell the dream, then harness the player's own dreams and aspirations. Bring the parents along too
I often tell people when we have a football vs basketball conversation in relation to kids changing sports that it is a battle I very rarely lose. Kids playing for me invariably make basketball their number 1 sport whilst they are playing for me and I'm involved. Some may change but their priorities but that is normally after I'm out of the picture.
Kids set goals in my teams, they believe they can achieve them. They know that if they do the right thing by their team mates and themselves, are good people, with amazing work ethic and maintain good team values I am in their corner all the way. This empowers them. I feel it is critical to make sure the goal setting process is credible. Therefore I bring other people along, parents number 1 are in the room when we do goal setting and I normally send, where relevant, with the player's permission, the goals to Coaching Directors, School Coaches etc. The kids own their goals they are the final decision makers but I feel that they need their parents onbaord too so in those meetings parents need to be active participants too.
I'll send them Youtube clips of college games, NBA games or whatever their goals are. We we will talk college hoops or the NBA a lot and have very serious conversations about them getting to this level if that is their goal and dream.
Example: Many years ago a concerned parent came to me and said my young son (U16s) has so many dreams that I don't think he can reach. My feedback to that parent was to support him. Let him dream, encourage him what it will take day to day to realise those dreams. It is his life, his story if he fails then deal with that when it happens.
Conclusion: Basketball is competing with other sports. How can we expect talented kids to stick to our sport, be committed to their own development, if we do not help inspire them to chase their dreams and understand the basketball pathways available to them.
PICTURED: TCU Commit Lat Mayen. Quite a few people have helped Lat along the way. For us, our conversations often involve hatching plans and ideas around how he will get to the next level, what qualities he needs to develop, how much work he is doing etc. Back in the day conversations would revolve around which High Major program he was dreaming of going to, and why, and where he might be in 5 years etc. We were talking about his dreams and having serious conversations about that well before others thought it would be a reality.
9: Build relationships and hold people to account
Whilst a lot of this might seem contradictory because above I have said that coaches should take responsibility for losses. Note, I did say in big games. I DO hold players to account I'm not afraid to ask the tough questions of them and they know and recognise they are accountable in their performance to myself, other assistant coaches, their team mates and ultimately themselves and their family.
If it is a big game loss normally the final game of a season or tournament then I will mitigate their responsibility as much as possible. Their performances through the process of our season, their development and improvement I pursue them on assertively and aggressively, so they are putting in the work and effort inline with their goals.
Again, in my roles at Sturt and Basketball SA I am able to lean on my assistants to gather stats and performance metrics to objectively hold players to account against objectives and KPIs.
Post game and pretraining on Sunday practice we will sit down with guys and ask them questions on their performance. We have no qualms in giving them our honest opinions and the impact this will have on their opportunities going forward. We discuss plans to improve and look forward.
I think the players that play in teams I coach know that myself and my assistants are 110%ATP. We ultimately measure ourselves by their development and enjoyment.
In my teams we often discuss emotional bank accounts. This is a concept developed by Dr Steven Covey. If you want to hold a team member to account, giving them tough feedback, this can be a withdrawal in the bank account of your relationship with each other. You need to have enough deposits, enough equity in your relationship to hold guys to account. They need to trust that you are in it for them and value what you do for them for this feedback to be truly meaningful.
Players know that not being good team men, working hard, being coachable are withdrawals in our emotional bank account with each other. Too many withdrawals ,and no cash in the bank and the relationship can cease to exist. When they work hard, do the right thing by their team our friendship is going to be strong.
VIDEO: Explaining the concept of emotional bank accounts, originally developed by Stephen F Covey.
10: Surround yourself with good people, then delegate and trust them
PICTURED: U18 SA Metro coaches in 2015. A great group of men and coaches.
I have had phenomenal - AND I MEAN PHENOMENAL - Assistant Coaches, Team Managers, Physios etc etc.