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If you read my blog you know that I started with my original 12U players as 8 kids that I randomly drafted in a local Boys & Girls Club recreational league as a volunteer coach. I worked really hard with the kids and we eventually won the league championship this past winter. I know "rec ball" is nothing to brag about but as far as these kids were concerned, it was the NBA Finals.

After the season the parents of the team asked me if I would keep the kids together and form a travel team. Being that I coach for a living as a personal basketball trainer, I was thrilled to start coaching my own youth team program. I entered them in a 14U rec league for this past Spring. We lost all our games but it was a valuable experience for the kids. "Playing up" against 14 year olds really toughened up my kids. Our practices got harder and more frequent. The players have been steadily improving. I have the best group of parents and kids I could ask for. The parents are all super supportive and all my kids hang on my every word in practice.

As Summer came along my program started to grow. What started as a 12U team had grown into a 12U, 11U and 8U program due to word spreading around the community about our team. We entered another rec league. We absolutely dominate it. So I began scheduling scrimmages against local AAU clubs. My kids are no longer getting a challenge at the rec level.

Initially we got spanked by the AAU teams. My kids were not ready for the speed or physicality of the games. But they kept working at it and kept fighting. Slowly but surely we started to play better and better. Then we entered our first AAU tournament and the results were not pretty. In our first games, we looked shell shocked and intimidated. By the end of the weekend my kids evolved and we nearly beat one of the established AAU clubs. My kids are over achievers. But it isnt via some magical luck. They simply work their tails off. They are a bunch of kids that no AAU program would have touched 6 months ago but I've believed in them since day one. Each one of them brings a certain intangible to the table and has the potential to be great. 

We hold 4 two-hour practices per week and have been doing so since the winter and the kids were even asking for more practices so I started offering what I called "Pro Camp". It was for all the kids who have dreams of playing at "the next level". It's from 5:50am to 7:30am every morning. 6 days a week. To my shock over half my team started showing up. Lately the kids are practicing in the gym with me for a total of up to 17 hours per week! It's a pretty intense schedule for 10 & 12 year olds. 

But here in lies the hurdle I face today and the impetus for this blog post. 

My kids are ready for AAU ball. From a technical standpoint we have worked ourselves into having the talent to run with most anyone. From a schematic's standpoint, there isnt a offense or defense that my kids arent prepared to face. We have 6 defenses we run and close to 20 variations of our offensive system that they run at the call of my bark. The problem though is that we have lapses in effort that lead to massive momentum swings in games. For example, I'll explain last Friday's match....

We were going up against a championship winning NJB All-Net team from the area. Not top flight AAU quality but just a minor step below. All of the 12 year olds on their team were close to 6 feet tall or taller (some were probably 13 years old). My kids were definitely overmatched in the size department. But unlike during the last AAU style tournament we entered, we werent fazed by it. We went out and blitzed the other team and for the first 5 minutes of the game the other team never got the ball across half court. In fact, for the duration of the game their team never once got comfortable in their offense. And every time we ran our offensive plays, we got good looks at the hoop.

We were up 8-0 after 5 minutes (could have easily been 20+ point lead had we made our fast break layups and not had careless turnovers of our own). But nonetheless, we are up 8-0 and are dominating the other team on all fronts. Then out of nowhere it all gets lost in 30 seconds. On one play we dont close out hard on the perimeter for some reason and they get their first clean look. Wide open 3 pointer. Score now 8-3. On the ensuing inbounds my kids decide to all of a sudden jog on the press break and the inbounder has no one open, throws a errant pass, pass is stolen, layup plus a foul. 3 point play. Score now 8-6. All in less than 5 seconds. Now I see my kids start to get rattled. The next time down the court the other team catches our weakside defender jogging half-ass down the court. Layup. Score now 8-8. Our 5 minutes of domination are all for not. All wasted in about 30 seconds of horrendous play/effort.

And from their we start trading baskets. But every 5 minutes or so we have these odd lapses in effort and the other team pounces. A series of random 6-8 point runs by the other team due to careless mistakes by us and before we know it we are down by 20. Every basket they got was a result of a lazy turnover or blatant poor defensive effort. Not one of their baskets came from beating our press or against our half court defense when we actually put the effort in.

This is an issue we have been battling since we started playing AAU clubs. We are currently 0-12 against legitimate club teams. In only 4 of those 12 matches did I feel that we didnt belong on the court. In those 4 matches the other teams were just flat out more talented and better coached. But in the other 8 games, they have all been against teams we should beat or at least compete with. When we give it 100% and match the opposition's intensity, we can compete with almost anyone.

But when we let off the gas for even a brief moment, the results get ugly in a hurry. My "rec ballers" still dont understand how to keep up the intensity at this AAU level. Maybe they never will. Or maybe Im doing something wrong coaching them. Or maybe they will get it in time. All I know is that we have hit a wall and everything Ive tried has failed to get them over this hump. It's been 3 months of battling the same issue and we arent getting better in this regard. It's the only thing holding us back. 

As the days have gone by I've struggled to try and solve this issue. How will I get these kids to permanently "flip the switch" and keep it pinned until the final buzzer sounds? How do I build this teams swagger and fortitude so that they can develop a killer instinct and just step on the throats of the opposition that we are clearly better than? 

A win last Friday would have been the most impressive win in the teams history. And for the first 5 minutes of the game we saw how good we can and should be. It was spectacular. And it spoiled me. Now that I've finally seen all the work Ive put into these kids come to fruition (if only for a brief 5 minutes) I cant rest until we put together a complete game of that intensity.

I've called former coaches of mine, coaching colleagues, spoke to parents, and stewed on this for the better part of 48 hours. Ive taken notes on my thoughts and the advice given to me. I've gone over the notes several times and re-written them. I'll probably re-write it again before the next practice. Here are the notes Ive been jotting no particular order....welcome to the inner thoughts of a (neurotic) hyper-competitive basketball coach.....

  • Don't forget why I started doing this.
  • Keep things in perspective. We are doing the impossible. Taking 12 year old "rec ballers" and turning them into competitive AAU players is unheard of. Doing it in less than a year is considered crazy talk.
  • I need to do a better job of coaching players up. Showing my frustration in the form of impulsive anger or yelling will not net results. Everything must be calculated and premeditated.
  • During games I must do a better job with substitutions. I must manage my players stamina. Develop packages and a steady rotation.
  • Speak to the players about their potential. They are so close to being great. I can't lose them now.
  • When disciplining, be matter-of-fact. And when praising them, bring back the heavy enthusiasm.
  • Run more "soft" scrimmages. Call out the slackers. Punishment will be swift and harsh. Apply the pressure to perform so that the practices are tougher than the games.
  • Talk to the parents and let them know my agenda. Some tough practices and disciplines are ahead. Let them know that this is all calculated and part of a master plan.
  • This is a battle of psychological warfare. My wits & will versus the human nature of a bunch of 10 & 12 year olds.
  • I need to have the "patience to communicate". Patience. Patience. Patience. They are only kids. If I can weather this storm, I'll help them break through to the other side.
  • Have the kids watch some Michael Jordan inspirational videos. His Nike commercials are like mini motivational seminars.
  • The players must TALK more out on the court. It is a sign of intensity and enthusiasm. We go silent for long stretches for some reason. This is a major red flag.
  • Define "coachable" and ask the kids if they want to be coachable? (Coachable doesnt mean you are nice or respectful to the coach. It means you listen. And by listen I mean follow orders. And by follow orders I mean that when I say that you need to run a sprint and touch the baseline, you actually touch the baseline and dont have to be told again. Ever. Follow orders. My job is to teach, not to motivate.)
  • The player Ive been the hardest on, Aziz, is the player playing the best right now. He's heads and shoulders above the level of anyone else in my program. I've put Aziz through mental bootcamp. Ive pushed him harder than anyone ever has. Ive put the weight of the team on his back and while it's nearly cracked him, he never buckled. More importantly, he "bought in". And never once has he second guessed himself about that choice. He asked me to go hard on him and Ive pushed him harder than any athlete Ive ever worked with. Now he is seeing the fruits of his mental strength and loyalty to my program. He's battle hardened. Mentally tough. So that when he gets in a AAU game he's the one kid who isnt wilting under the pressure. He looks calm. He plays aggressive. He has the pedal to the metal at all times.
  • Not every kid has the mental strength Aziz does. I cannot put them all through the "Bobby Knight" treatment. How do I reach every kid individually to raise their level to match Aziz?
  • Practices must get tougher. So tough that someone quits voluntarily.
  • Whoever survives the next few weeks will then feel the joy of victory.
  • My kids have a ton of heart. We have no "cancers" on the team. But we have a lot of players that are "soft". Only Aziz and 2 others are mentally tough enough at this time to handle what is coming. The rest need the "Irvine washed out of them". Softness is as contagious as being a Cancer. Must find a remedy.
  • August is the last month we will ever be playing against rec teams. From then on out it is AAU tournament ball all the time. The clock is ticking. Get to work coach. 
One of my all-time favorite players. For all the kids out their whom are fans of Chris Paul and Shawn Kemp, they really need to take a look at the duo that started it all. Likely the greatest Alley-Oop combo in the history of basketball, Gary Payton & Shawn Kemp.
It seems like just yesterday we were just a rag-tag group of rec ballers at the Boys & Girls Club. Everything was about having fun and pizza parties. Well, not that our agenda has changed over the course of the last 8 months, but we do get there in a different way these days.

The roster is different. Only 4 of my original 8 players remain with the team. The roster has grown to support (3) teams now. And we no longer have our sights set on recreational league trophies. What was once a "rec" team has now blossomed into a full-on travel team. After months of practicing as much as 6 days per week (in some cases two-a-days) we found ourself entering our first AAU style tournament last week. The results on the scoreboard were not pretty. But that doesnt mean that it wasnt a successful endeavour. Nobody quit the team. Instead, the day after a tournament that required some players to play 8 games in a 48 hour span, we had players practicing at 6am in the gym doing intense plyometrics drills. As they say, "losing doesnt build character... it reveals it".

  • 10U vs Inglewood Team Dream - They are the #5 ranked team in the entire country. That was a very tough draw for our first ever tournament game.
  • 10U vs San Francisco Rebels - This is another top program in the country and believe it or not, we could have won this game. This was the 10U's best effort of the weekend and it shows what our potential is.
  • 10U vs Garden Grove Jr Hoops - Some of our kids were on their 4th game of the day by this point and the fatigue was showing. Normally, we should beat a team like this.
  • 10U vs San Diego Coastal Elite - Another team in which we should beat. But fatigue set in and we began to make uncharacteristic mistakes.

All-in-all, for this being our first tournament, I threw us in the "lion's den" to see where we are and where we want to go. Not all tournaments are as professional as this one, so on the administrative side, I wanted to make sure we had a good experience. But on the basketball side of things, this is a "A Level" tournament. It was the best-of-the-best and considering that we were missing Xavier & Tim, we did ok. Despite what the score says, in 3 out of the 4 games we played, I felt the 10U's belonged out on the court. We can play with these teams. We just need more work. Our 10U team is less than 3 months old. We were competing against teams that have been around for years.

  • 12U vs Anaheim Regulators - This is proof that we should never judge a team by its size. They were small but fast and aggressive. It caught us off guard but that is only natural considering the 12U's were new to tournament play as well.
  • 12U vs San Francisco Rebels - They are a top team in the nation and we just arent ready for them yet. But we will be one day.
  • 12U vs Pasadena Fury - Finally during this game, the 12's snapped out of it and started playing ball. Unfortunately we had already spotted the other team a bunch of points by that time. But the key was that we finally started fighting back.
  • 12U vs Los Angeles Elite - We spotted them 12 points and scored one basket in our own hoop. But then we stormed back and nearly won it at the end. Better play at the start and we dominate this team. Better coaching at the end and we take it to overtime and take our chances there.

I am very proud of all the kids this weekend, but Im most proud of the 12's. They showed tremendous growth over the weekend. I know I push them hard at times. I can get loud and animated, but I hope they know I love 'em to death... this is competitive sports. And despite all the yelling, I had a lot of fun coaching our kids. We've all come a long way in a VERY short period of time.

I know what our potential is and I wont stop trying until we reach it.

What We Learned
It's one thing to take the kids to the movies and get burgers to build team unity, but nothing galvanises and strengthens a unit like losing together. It's a odd phenomenon. But the players that can stick through these rough weekends together and come back fighting will be better for it. It takes "learning how to lose" before you can "learn how to win".

The bottom line, is that there were only 2 games out of the 8 that I felt we didn't belong on the court. The other 6 teams were all beatable. 

We need more experience at this level. I need to recruit some more players so that I have more substitutions to battle fatigue (especially in the 10U). We need to work on our individual skills (dribbling & passing) as well as get into better conditioning. All of this will come with time.

Lucky will be joining the 10U team shortly. He is tall and willing to work hard. I also have 2 other players that will be joining us soon as well. One is a great athlete and the other is a very hard worker. Both are raw but with coaching, they will be key additions to the team.

I have 2 tall players that I have been heavily recruiting to join our 12U squad. These additions will make a huge difference. Losing Ali to a knee injury today limited his playing time and didnt give me a lot of flexibility with substitutions with our forwards. I'm also hoping to add a couple kids named Hunter & Kyle. Im not going to say anything more other than that they "bring it".

Our Growth
I know that the games were not close by the score in most cases. And I could see that the kids were bummed out at losing so much. 8 losses in 3 days is not easy on anyone. Especially considering we won that many games in a row in the previous month. But this is the big boy leagues. This is where we are going as a program. And with enough practice and effort, it will be where we belong. 

We are a much stronger team right now than when we started on Friday. Remember, just 6 short months ago we only won 2 of our 8 games in the Boys & Girls Club League. Now we destroy those teams. Right now we are 0-8 in tournament play. Imagine where we will be in 6 months? You have to believe to achieve. Please tell all the kids to keep believing in themselves because lord knows, I havent given up on any of them.

And lastly, the kids werent the only ones that learned and grew from this experience. This was my first tournament of this nature since I was their age and my first tournament as a coach. There are quite a few things I will be doing differently as we prepare for the next one and coach in it as well.

Future Tournaments
Now considering that was a "A Level" tournament and it was the End-of-the-Season event. That was about as hard a tournament as we could have entered during the 2013 season. Every team in there has been preparing all year for that. 

The new season starts in September. Our next tournament will be played in either August or September and I will be entering us in a lower level tournament with other club teams as new as ours. We will begin the process of building our confidence up and gaining further experience against good competition as we gear up for the 2014 Anaheim event. Starting this Fall, we will no longer be playing in the Boys & Girls Club League. We are a real "club team" now. Which means it will be all tournaments, all the time. 

Here is a list of links to future tournaments in the area: 

Ive been told that SWOOSH does a good job of getting together lower level club teams so I think that their late August tournament is what I'll be shooting for (August 24th-25th).

Future Sponsor
I am very close to locking down a sponsor for our team that should cover our tournament costs. Almost all of the top programs either have a big-time sponsor or some rich parents forking out $400-600 per kid a month to compete at this level. 

I know I dont have any parents within our program with that sort of dough. But I do have kids that are willing to put in the sort of effort worthy of a big-time program. So in order to be a team that enters at least one tournament per month, I have to get some assistance for our program to cover entries, food, hotel, shoes, etc. 

I will keep everyone posted as this situation materializes.