Elite athletes must train their minds as well as their bodies. Not only must they be able to perform complex skills and amazing feats of athleticism, they must be able to think critically about how they train, prepare and compete in their sport. Expert basketball players need to think at game speed – making decisions as they read and react on the court – and reflect afterwards so that they can make meaningful changes.
When youth struggle with adversity, one of the most productive tactics that a mentor can employ is to debrief what happened, explaining why and how to do better the next time. Adolescents may seem rash, especially under the intense pressure of competition, but teachers, coaches and parents can help them acquire the self-evaluation skills required for continued success. Like fundamentals, part-method drills and sets, debriefing should be part of the daily practice routine.
Model the Way: If coaches want players to self-evaluate honestly, they should do the same. There are always ways to improve. Initially, a coach may want to record preliminary thoughts using a Speech-to-Text app. Leave room on the practice plan to jot down comments and notes about how to execute each segment better.
Later, convert the thoughts into concrete actions or write down the most pertinent information in a coaching journal. Coaches should always meet as a group after practice to review what occur and decide on what concrete changes to make in the future. Assess yourself in front of the team, take responsibility and promise to do better.
Make Time: If something is important to a coach, they need to regularly make time for it and follow up. For example, while players are hydrating and stretching, a coach could ask them to think about what they have just done. The initial response will be superficial (“It was OK.”) or generic (“I learned a lot.) so it’s important to press for specific examples. Coaches assure guided discovery by asking questions, relating an anecdote or reciting a quote will prime the players’ minds.
Degrief, then Debrief: Players must process their emotions before they can logically understand what happened. Coaches must give time for players to calm down or reassure them to relieve their anxiety before beginning the debriefing process. Asking a teenaged athlete “Why did you do that?” is simplistic and unproductive. They don’t know why they made that error and the question with further upset them. Coaching breathing techniques, self-talk and visualize dissipates emotions so the debriefing can begin.
Consider Different Learning Styles: We naturally gravitate towards words but that may not be the best way to communicate with all players. Saying something such as “you’re bending your knees inwards when you squat” could be hard for some players to understand. Ask if you can position them in the right way, use another player as a demonstration or video practice to demonstrate what is happening.
Focus on the Next Play: Understand that basketball is a game of mistakes and success entails letting go of just happened and concentrating on what is happening now. Players and teams who make the fewest mistakes and those who move on from the errors that they do commit will be successful. If something goes wrong, don’t pay attention to it until after the session when it is time to debrief.
If a pass to a teammate goes out of bounds, it doesn’t matter who is to blame. Pointing the finger or sulking will only inflame the situation and bring the team’s energy down. During a pause, get together with the teammate, encourage them and plan how to connect next time. Afterwards, it is appropriate to think about the pass and whether more practice on that pass is needed or whether communication could be ameliorated in the future.
Stay Positive: Don’t be discouraged; a missed shot or poor performance in a game should not lead to negative thoughts. Objectively think about what happened (Was there a mechanical issue in your shot? Perhaps you made a turnover in a scrimmage because you were worried about learning a new play?) and ways to move forward.
The worst thing to do is not to try. In practice, it’s natural to make mistakes, such as losing the ball when you push yourself to dribble quickly, and you may even look foolish. Samuel Beckett once said: “Ever Tried. Ever Failed. No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.” The shot will not instantly change but the follow through may gradually evolve.
Set Daily Goals: Success is a Process so be patient. Think about how each practice unfolded and set a small goal for the next session. Ponder some small steps that you could take to reach the objective. Afterwards, evaluate how you did and whether you can move on to another goal or should try to refine your performance. Choosing the right path and travelling a little bit everyday will help you achieve the outcomes that you are looking for.
A player who needs to shoot the ball move could begin by deciding to practice more jumpshots before and after practice. Then they could resolve to shoot when open during scrimmages. Later they could take more three-point shots. Success criteria would not be the number of shots made but maintain good form, making good decisions and being consistent.
Be Specific: Debriefing is more than saying “My Bad” when something goes awry (coaches know who’s bad it is). Keep the big picture in mind but consider the small details that must be achieved first. A player who wants to “give energy” may find that this aim is too vague. They could focus on talking, positive physical contact, taking a charge and bringing teammates together on the floor for huddles in order to provide the energy they are seeking. Specific goals are also easier to evaluate.
Be Unconditionally Supportive: Parents are critical to the development of a student-athlete, devoting hours to getting them to the venue and watching games and practices, providing equipment and reinforcing lessons from the coaching staff. Parents should keep in mind that most young players participate for fun, physical fitness and socialization. In the car or at home following a practice, parents should focus on these questions and not issues of individual or team performance. Parents can help the most by reminding athletes that others care for them and encouraging them to keep trying.
Avoid Bias: Due to their influence, parents, family members and friends can impact how a young player thinks. Suggesting that the player has no weaknesses or casting dispersion upon the coach or teammates will not assist improvement. Although it is difficult, it is better to be frank and honest. Questions like “what do you think about…”, “what’s going well…” or “what could be better…” may help athletes organize their debriefing. Helping the youth compare themselves to a teammate or role model may also inspire critical thinking about the game.
As a last option, ask the coach (or suggest that the player ask for themselves) about what could be done to progress. Pick a time when things are calm, such as after a practice or during office hours and discuss the situation with an open mind. Then, put the development plan that everyone agreed upon into action.