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Friday, July 19, 2019

“Peak by Friday” Coaching: Sacrificing Players’ Futures on the Altar of This Week’s Win

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Photo Credit: Original Artwork Courtesy istockphoto.com©

By Clay Kallam

When Shyra Ely finished her college career at Tennessee, she was a very suspect prospect. Sure, she was the first pick in the second round of the 2005 draft, but such notables as Kendra Wecker and Dionnah Jackson were chosen ahead of her.  Why, despite her collegiate achievements?

What was missing?

At 6-1, Ely had been a post player her whole career, and as a left-handed post player, she took full advantage of most defenders’ mysterious inability to realize that left-handers go left. (This is true at all levels, for about 90 percent of defenders. I recently saw Alana Beard go left to the basket against Sacramento—hadn’t anyone noticed that’s basically what she does?) Unfortunately, Ely’s athleticism and sinister behavior were enough for her to succeed in college—but once she got to the WNBA, she found more defenders firmly planted on her left hand, much taller defenders blocking her shots in the paint, and no one treating her perimeter game with anything but disdain.

Not surprisingly, Ely failed to set the WNBA on fire. She struggled to score, and given her size, she wasn’t a factor on the boards or on defense.

But Ely figured it out. Now, in 2009, she can go right as well as left, and more important, she can make three-pointers. All of a sudden, Ely is a very tough cover. She is very good to her strong hand, but those who overplay are now punished—and unwary post defenders who sag off will watch a three settle into the net.

Shyra Ely Dribbling LeftPhoto Caption: The Chicago Sky’s Shyra Ely, a lefty, has always been strong when dribbling to the left, a skill that served her well in high school college but that came up short when she first hit the WNBA as an undersized post.
Shyra Ely Dribbling RightPhoto Caption: Unlike many players, whose early coaches fail to help them develop a fully rounded game, leaving them later to quietly disappear from site, Ely took advantage of time in Europe to round out her game on her own. Her skill set now includes a right-handed dribble, which she uses to punish defenders who overplay her to the left, as well as a perimeter shot, making her a respected professional player. Still, she shouldn’t have had to get there on her own.
Photo Credit: Photos Courtesy Chicago Sky©

When Jasmine Dixon finished her high school career at Long Beach Poly, she was a fearsome 5-11 power forward. She was way too strong for anyone her size, and much too quick for anyone taller.

But high school is not college, and summer basketball isn’t either. Dixon, despite being a McDonald’s All-American, didn’t make it through USA Basketball tryouts and quickly transferred after a frustrating freshman season at Rutgers. She discovered that 5-11 players don’t thrive in the paint at the BCS level, and that her lack of perimeter skills (shooting, ball-handling, defense) meant she couldn’t play the three.

It may be that Dixon will figure it out during her red-shirt year at UCLA, just as Ely did in Europe. But both of them, like the girl who’s 5-7 in sixth grade and plays the post but doesn’t grow and has to learn to be a guard in high school, were poorly served by their coaches and advisors.

Yes, Pat Summitt has an obligation to win at Tennessee, but she also has an obligation to Ely to help her further her career. Dixon’s coaches during the summer and in high school naturally want to win, but they also need to consider how their actions impact Dixon’s future. And those rec league coaches who take the “tall” girl and consign her to learning post moves and never let her handle the ball are, in most cases, severely hampering the player’s chances to shine in high school.

And, of course Dixon and Ely, like the numerous taller-than-the-other-girls sixth-grade posts, want to win, just as their coaches do. They will happily go to their strengths, over and over again, and enjoy the praise and benefits of success.

But that’s why there are coaches. Coaches who are supposed to be as concerned with the development of the players in their charge as with winning games must step in—and in fact, the two go hand in hand. If Ely had been encouraged to use her right hand and shoot threes from the moment she arrived in Knoxville, how much more effective would she have been for the Volunteers when she was a senior? And if Dixon had used her athletic skills and learned to handle the ball as well as she could, how much better would Poly have been when she was a senior?

And how much more fun would each of them had as a player? And how much better prepared would they have been for the next step in their careers?

Brian McCormick, a trenchant critic of the status quo in women’s basketball and amateur sports, calls it “Peak by Friday” coaching. The only thing that matters to these coaches, and these programs, is what a young woman can do for them in the next game. As for her and her future? Well, that’s up to her, and the coaches hope they figure it out without letting any of this skill development stuff interfere with immediate success.

But it shouldn’t be up to the player to improve on their own. Coaches shouldn’t be all about winning this Friday. If athletics has any value, any place in our educational systems, it should be that it helps young people learn and grow, both inside their specialty and outside it. Pat Summitt, a brilliant coach who does many, many things very well, does deserve criticism in my view for not preparing her players for a pro career. They are pretty much the same players when they leave Knoxville as when they arrive—though obviously, stronger, smarter and more experienced. But they don’t enhance their games, for the most part, and the player Summitt recruits is very similar to the player Summitt graduates (another thing she does exceptionally well).

Summitt, of course, is far from alone at the collegiate level. There are very few coaches who consciously develop talent, but considering the fact that a young woman can make a million dollars playing professionally over the course of her career (with most of that money coming from Europe), it is more than disappointing that coaches don’t focus on helping the young women they are supposed to teach develop the skills they’ll need to get the most of their careers.

High school and club coaches lack Summitt’s talent, resources and skill, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have any responsibility to help their players. They need to balance the needs of the player with the needs of the program, and the answer isn’t always to sacrifice the player’s future on the altar of winning a couple more games in some midseason or July tournament.

Families and young players can’t be expected to understand the ramifications of decisions made by coaches—but coaches understand, and they need to take more responsibility for the development of players, and take less interest in their winning percentage. If they don’t, they’re cheating the young women who are entrusting them with their careers, and they are cheating themselves of the opportunity to give something back to the players they claim to care so much about.




Originally published Sat, August 29, 2009

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Week: February 7, 2012
1 Baylor (31) 24-0 1 1 1 775
2 Notre Dame 23-1 2 2 2 743
3 Connecticut 21-2 3 4 3 710
4 Stanford 20-1 4 5 4 685
5 Duke 19-3 6 8 5 650
6 Miami (FL) 20-3 7 7 6 604
7 Kentucky 21-3 5 15 7 584
8 Maryland 20-3 10 10 8 534
9 Wisconsin-Green Bay 20-0 9 24 9 530
10 Ohio State 21-2 11 NR-RV
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11 Tennessee 17-6 8 3 11 476
12 Delaware 20-1 13 NR 12 434
13 Georgetown 18-5 15 11 14 379
14 Texas A&M 16-5 16 6 15 378
15 Nebraska 19-3 18 NR 13 309
16 Rutgers 17-4 14 12 17 372
17 Louisville 17-6 12 9 20 276
18 Gonzaga 21-3 19 NR-RV
19 234
19 Purdue 19-5 17 21 16 222
20 Georgia 18-6 20 12 21 202
21 Penn State 18-5 21 14 18 176
22 DePaul 17-7 23 18 NR-RV
23 Georgia Tech 16-6 22 NR-RV
22 104
24 South Carolina 18-5 NR-RV
NR 24 46
25 Vanderbilt 18-5 NR-RV
NR 45
Dropped Out: No. 24 North Carolina, No. 25 Kansas.
First-place votes: Total first-place votes received (if any) are indicated in parentheses following school name.
Others receiving votes: St. Bonaventure (22-2) 34; North Carolina (17-6) 19; California (17-6) 18; Florida Gulf Coast (21-2) 16; Middle Tennessee (19-5) 15; Texas-El Paso (20-2) 8; Texas Tech (16-6) 5; Brigham Young (21-4) 4; Fresno State (19-4) 4; St. John's (15-8) 4; Princeton (15-4) 3; Oklahoma (15-7) 2; West Virginia (17-6) 2; Kansas State (15-7) 1.
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Credit: Courtesy Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA). The weekly Division I Top 25 Coaches' Poll, sponsored by USA Today and ESPN, is based on voting by a Board of Coaches made up of 31 head coaches at Division I institutions all of whom are WBCA members.