Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development

By Ryan McNeill

Brian McCormick’s latest book, “Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development,” proves that good things do come in small packages. Despite this book only being 85 pages in length it is full of a wealth of valuable information for basketball coaches. This book covers topics such asthe problem of early specialization, the disappearance of unstructured play and concludes with a proposal for elite player development called the Five Stage Basketball Model.

When the American National team were embarrassed at the 2004 Olympics journalists who have covered basketball at the professional level began complaining about the death of basketball. Despite all their complaints, writers failed to provide coaches, players or fans with any solutions to this problem. Brian noticed the problem with basketball in America back in 2001 well before journalists started pulling a Chicken Little and complaining about the sky falling and instead of sitting back and doing nothing about this problem, Brian wrote a letter to Basketball Times and set out to make recommendations to fix the problems with youth basketball programs in America.

“Cross Over” starts off with Brian McCormick discussing the current basketball system that is in place in America. He then proceeds to pick apart all of the problems facing basketball in North America such as the coaches “overemphasize competitive characteristics and ignores development and recreational characteristics” and “the hyper-competitive atmosphere hampers elite player development from player’s initial participation with an organized team or league.”

As someone who coaches elementary school students I am sorry to say that the problems Brian brings up in his book happen regularly. Last season I remember playing an exhibition game and the opposing coach ripped into a high school girl reffing the game until she broke down and cried. When did elementary hoops become so important that a coach should feel the need to yell at someone until they cry? I talked with this same coach later in the season and he told me that his kids would now just be playing for fun because his starting centre went down with an injury. Why wouldn’t a coach of a grade 7/8 team be playing the season for fun regardless of injuries? I completely agreed with Coach McCormick that placing an importance on winning and losing at such a young age and a “hyper-competitive environment” is damaging to children’s athletic development.

Later in the opening chapter Coach McCormick drops another gem when he writes that “the irony of the United States youth basketball player is so many players and parent exist in an atmosphere with one eye firmly fixed on the future, yet nobody appropriately plans or organizes long term athlete development. Playing basketball is no longer an end; it is merely a vehicle to a college scholarship. The ‘ship, in many circles, is the impetus, not a reward for the talented player. No longer is the journey the destination; now one must reach a tangible destination.”

No longer is just playing basketball with your friends the goal, now the goal as early as elementary school is getting a scholarship or setting yourself up to make a living playing a sport. Because of this, Coach McCormick has found that players learn bad techniques, are sustaining more serious injuries and a new term called “Peak by Friday” is entering into youth sports. This term was initially coined by Dr. Istvan Balyi and is a mentality “that ignores important preparation and development stages which lead to better performance and overall ability as the athlete grows.” Coach McCormick talks about this in his book and states that, “coaches do not have time to insure players move correctly, learn to run and jump with proper form or dynamic warm-up activities because they have too much to do to prepare for the next game.”

As an elementary school physical education teacher I have seen this start to show itself in my gym classes. Last year we had 45 minute teaching blocks which provided ample time to allow children to change, stretch and then go through a couple of guided activities. Now with 30 minutes periods everything has been condensed and rushed. Instead of slowly going through stretches now I find myself rushing through this part of my class so that I can get through all of the necessary activities.

John Di Frances wrote in “Reclaiming the Ethical High Ground” that a 4th century Roman general wrote in his records that, “when because of negligence and laziness, parade ground drills were abandoned, the customary armour began to feel heavy since the soldier rarely, if ever, wore it. Therefore, they first asked the emperor to set aside the breastplate and mail and then the helmets. So our soldiers fought without any protection for the heart and head and were often beat by archers. Although they were many disasters, which led to the loss of great cities, no one tried to restore the armour to the infantry. They took their armour off and when they armour came off so too came their integrity.”

If we as coaches continue to rush through practices and ignore teaching the fundamentals then it’s our students and players that will suffer. We need to get away from teaching how to beat full court traps and instead spend that time work on passing and dribbling drills. We need to spend less time teaching complicated offensive sets and instead teach basics like pick and rolls. While our players may look good heading into “battle” with complicated sets they will ultimately lose because they are sorely unprepared because they haven’t spent enough time working on the basics like dribbling, passing and shooting.

As an elementary school basketball coach I really enjoyed reading chapter two because it talks about the problems with early specialization. Parents will often ask me if I think they child should play multiple sports or focus on one and this chapter is now something I will reference every time a parent brings this topic up. Coach McCormick does a great job of debunking the notion that children should start specializing at one sport at an early age when he writes that playing multiple sports or engaging in multiple activities increases an athlete’s multilateral development, playing multiple sports creates a natural periodization for athletes, playing multiple sports helps prevent overuse injuries such as tendinitis and plantar fasciitis as well as the fact that playing multiple sports is fun. Besides what Coach McCormick has to say, parents need only look at the NBA’s top stars to see the benefits of playing multiple sports while growing up. LeBron James is considered one of the top basketball players in the NBA right now and he was known as being a talented football player in high school, Allen Iverson who was a nationally ranked quarterback in high school and Tim Duncan was an elite swimmer until he hit his growth spurt.

Another chapter that stood out was the one on unstructured play and how that aspect is missing from children’s lives. In this chapter he talked about coaching an under 9 AAU team and how he and his assistant coaches made sure to incorporate games into practices rather than worrying about spending too much time on drills. He talked about the importance of allowing children this young to explore a basketball through dribbling games without worrying how to beat a full court press through a series of complicated drills. As a coach for a grade 7/8 team I have to admit that in previous years I have spent the majority of my practice time working on defensive footwork, running offensive plays and teaching my kids how to beat a press. Reading this chapter has inspired me to spend a lot less time doing that in my practices and instead work on incorporating more games into my practices.

Another part of the chapter that stuck out was when Coach McCormick talked about his time as a coach in Sweden. He wrote that, “when I lived in Sweden as an exchange student and played for the local club, I coached an u-14 boys team. I started with 8-10 players and slowly but surely, more and more players attended. At the peak, we had 26 players for a practice. I never told anyone to leave; it was an inconvenience, but if they were willing to talk through the snow to get to practice, I was going to teach them something and make it a fun experience.”

I have had numerous discussions with my principal and co-workers about the idea of forming a basketball club rather than a team that only allows 10-12 students play on the team. Eventually their argument always comes back to the fact that for a competitive team to emerge you need to be able to work with a smaller group of players in practice and only give playing time to certain players. The consistently argue that for a competitive team to develop you can’t play 20 players in game situations. My new argument will be this – why should winning matter before high school? From my elementary school maybe the top two or three players will play high school ball so why not allow every student in my school to play a couple of years of basketball while they are in elementary school? Plus, there are three rep basketball teams in my area so the “elite” players have a setting where they can try to play competitive ball if they and their parents want that.

After exposing all the faults with amateur athletics in America, Brian McCormick then does a masterful job of offering a wide range of possible solutions to all the problems that are ruining basketball in America. His solutions revolved a program called “The Five Stage” model that is rooted in Bailey’s Late Specialization model, New Zealand’s Long Term Development model and Basketball Canada’s Development Model. Through analysing these three models he was able to create his model which has four stages – The Foundation Stage, The Fundamental Stage, The Training Stage and The Competitive Stage.

The Foundation stage is geared towards children who are between the ages of 8 and 10 and it “introduces basketball through fun, active training and develops general movement skills essential to success.” It’s at this stage that children learn the basics of speed, co-ordination, proper movement patterns and fundamentals of movements. At this level the top priority is that fun and games are used to develop skills and athleticism.

The second stage is called the Fundamental Stage and is aimed at children who are between 10 and 12. In this stage children, “continue general motor skill development; learn fundamental basketball-skills and progress to full court 5 v 5 games.”

The Training Stage involves children between the ages of 13 and 15 and allows children the chance to “refine basketball-specific skills, develop strength and fitness and expand tactical awareness in the 5 v 5 game.”

The final stage, “The Competition Stage,” is for children that are playing varsity basketball (generally 16 to 18) and it “builds the competitive fire, optimizes basketball skills, specializes position skills and builds the team first mentality.” In his book Coach McCormick talks about movement skills, tactical skills, technical skills and drills that coaches can use in practices for players in each of these stages.

This is a book that challenged me to take a strong, hard look at my coaching philosophy and the way that I look at player development. You may not agree with everything Coach McCormick talks about in this book but it will definitely get you thinking about your team and how you plan your practices. If you are a basketball coach at any level this book is a must read.

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