The Old Coach has always been a meat and potatoes kind of guy. A porterhouse steak hot off the grill and home fries is a gourmet meal to my taste. Spending $50 on chateaubriand with béarnaise sauce and leak and potato galette with pistachio crust may be nice for splurging on a special occasion, but I’m just as happy to have a burger with fries. The same is true when it comes to sports. That’s why I’m a big proponent of “back to basics.”
It seems to me that too often nowadays we get caught up in fancy-schmancy stuff and forget about the basics. Every time I watch a football, basketball or baseball game on TV, I am amazed at the great athleticism of modern-day athletes: a wide receiver making an over-the shoulder one-handed catch; a high-flying basketball player catching a lob pass from half court and slamming it home; an outfielder reaching over the wall and taking away a home run.
Yet, I am equally perplexed when the same athlete drops a slant pass that hits him in the chest, a basketball player who doesn’t have a clue about defensive play, or a baseball player who can’t lay down a bunt. Is it poor coaching? Should we blame it on media hype? Are players more concerned about making the 11 p.m. sports highlights than about carrying out their responsibility to their team? Are our star athletes making so much money that they have become uncoachable?
The answer might be all of the above.
It is a mystery to me how any football player can make it to the NFL without having mastered the rudimentary techniques that are required of his position. How many times have we seen talented running backs who have the ability to run over tacklers and the speed to outrun defensive backs fumble the ball because they never learned to tuck the ball away properly? How often have we seen NBA stars let a rebound get away because they didn’t grab it with two hands? Can we count the number of times that baseball players fail to get a bunt down in fair territory against the shift or to protect the plate with two strikes? All skills that should be automatic.
As we all should know by now, mastery of any skill comes through repetition. We long ago discarded the saying “practice makes perfect” with the more accurate “perfect practice makes perfect.” Repeatedly practicing a wrong technique brings about the same result in games. If a running back isn’t corrected in practice for carrying the pigskin out away from his body because he made a spectacular move in a game, he will assume that it is OK to do that. A coach’s job is to teach the player the right way to carry the ball on every carry. If you don’t pay attention to little details, they become big problems.
I sometimes wonder why some NBA basketball teams even have coaches, since star players seem to carry more weight. When the Los Angeles Lakers go into their timeout huddle at a critical juncture of the game, it’s King James who calls the shots. All one has to do is observe where the players’ focus is while the coach is giving his talk to see who is in charge. It appears to me that those particular coaches have never emphasized the most important basic: Pay attention to what the coach is saying. When that kind of disrespect and inattentiveness occurs, you can be sure that other fundamentals will fall by the wayside.
Do baseball managers and coaches really think that laying down two bunts during batting practice is enough? The remaining swings are frequently spent seeing how far the hitter can hit the ball into the bleachers. Shouldn’t players be working on weaknesses rather than just focusing on one aspect of play? It seems ludicrous to me that so many right-handed players can’t advance a runner from second to third by hitting the ball to the right side because they are trying to pull the ball. Perhaps more time needs to be spent in batting practice perfecting that skill.
I was fortunate when I was first learning to play sports in that I had coaches who understood the importance of basic fundamentals. Here is what I was taught more than 60 years ago and still is valid today, regardless of the sport:
1. Alignment. Know where to position yourself in relation to other players. Always line up correctly so that you can save yourself valuable steps or gain an advantage by your position in relation to your opponent.
2. Proper stance. No matter what sport, getting into a proper stance puts your body in the best anatomical position to be able to react to the situation. Athletes need to be able to be balanced and have the ability to quickly move in any direction.
3. First step. The first step is the most important step. It gets you heading in the correct direction. In every sport, speed is the key to getting where you need to go to make the play. A wasted step may be the one that keeps you from carrying out your responsibility. Practicing first steps is something that every coach should build into their practices every day.
4. Angles. Success, in just about every sport, requires an understanding of angles. Running to a designated spot to catch a fly ball, finishing a three-on-one fast break or running a pass pattern all depend on the athlete taking the proper angle to get to the desired point in the most efficient manner.
When I was coaching football and track and field, prior to each season, I would write down every skill that I was requiring my athletes to learn in order to succeed, whether it was a lineman performing a trap block or a receiver running a slant route, or in track, a sprinter coming out of the blocks or a shot putter learning to glide across the circle. I would write down exactly the points of emphasis and why that was important for the athlete to learn.
Then I would make a list of the drills that would focus on that particular skill. I would even jot down easily memorable phrases the athletes could fall back on as reminders. Practices were designed to repeat those drills, usually in the same order as the importance of the skill, using the same terminology and coaching points. In this way, athletes knew what to expect and what was important.
Somewhere, along the way, either in high school, college or once they become pros, athletes get so caught up in making the spectacular play that they fail to prepare to make the routine plays. They get too focused on the chateaubriand when they really need a good quarter pounder with cheese.