Category: Human Interest- Olympics
The Champaign Flyers:
The adventure begins in earnest
Chapter 2: Practices
The First Practice--October 11, 1987
Jeff: What a day! After growing up watching professional basketball players such as Wilt Chamberlain (7'1") and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (7'2"), it is a humbling experience to realize that the average height of your new team is 5' 5", with the tallest player at 6'1" (Greg) and the shortest at 4'11" (Brian). The next obvious difference between professional players and our new team was age. In the professional leagues, players generally range from 22 to 35 years old. The youngest player on our new team was Brian, 13 years old, and the oldest player was Vonna, 50 years old.
Another important difference between Special Olympics and other athletic leagues is the lack of separation of the sexes. If an athlete wants to participate in Special Olympics, then he or she is not excluded. We were lucky enough to have Vonna and Becky on the Champaign Flyers. In fact, many of the ways in which people are categorized and separated in everyday life (e.g., age, sex, race, religion) tend to disappear in Special Olympics. Only one group matters in Special Olympics: those who try their best.
However, as soon as the equipment room was opened and the basketballs were thrown onto the court, the differences between my new team and other basketball teams were overshadowed by the similarities. A twenty foot shot was launched. SWISH! At another basket, a lay-up attempt was cleanly blocked. At another basket, a handsome young man wearing the finest in basketball footwear and warm-ups flashed by and attempted a moderately successful behind-the-back pass. From the far side of the court, a player wearing the initials DB on his t-shirt shouted "Jens Kujawa" as he imitated the hook shot of his favorite University of Illinois basketball player.
Given that this was the first practice of the new season, there was only one proper way to start. "OK, put down the balls and start running laps around the outside of the court!", we yelled. So began the season and my amazement at the creativity of our players.
Jeff: "Zachery, why aren't you running?"
Zach: "My shoe is untied."
After I had completed another lap, I found Zachery in the same spot.
Jeff: "Zachery, why aren't you running now?"
Zach "My other shoe is untied!"
During the course of the season, I was to discover that it took five minutes for a player to tie one low-top basketball shoe during the running drill, but that it took only two minutes to shower and get fully clothed after a game!
After calling everybody to the center of the court for stretching, I discovered that some of the players, such as Mike Kearney and Scott Murrell, were in excellent physical shape. However, many of the other players had obviously eaten too many desserts and had not exercised enough during the off-season. They were huffing and puffing like steam trains.
Skill Assessment Tests
Jeff: Because this was the first practice of the season, we had to administer the Skill Assessment Tests (SATs). These tests measure an athlete's competence in the basic skills of basketball (e.g., shooting, passing, dribbling, and rebounding). The results from these tests are sent to the state office so that teams can be divided into appropriate divisions.
To give you an idea of the range of skill levels found in Special Olympics, some of the players in the highest divisions could qualify to play for their high school teams and can gracefully dunk the ball. Players from the teams in the lowest division generally have great difficulty with even the basic skills of the game. The Champaign Flyers fit somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. For example, the players on Brendan's team played a competitive game against some of Brendan's out-of-shape college buddies (described in Chapter 4). My team could play a competitive game against the coaches when the coaches were not allowed to use their usual dribbling and shooting hand (i.e., the right-handed coaches had to play left-handed). Of course, the coaches still had the advantage of being patient and setting up better shots.
It was during the Skill Assessment Tests, however, that I first discovered the amazing abilities of the team members. The passing test requires a player to stand 2.4 meters away from a wall, pass a ball against the wall and catch it without letting the ball hit the floor. Because of the distance from the wall, the pass has to be made fairly hard, otherwise the ball will not rebound all the way back to the thrower without first hitting the ground. The player gets two 30- second trials to complete as many passes as possible. The best of the two scores is recorded. Most of the players performed this test moderately well, but were slow and deliberate in their performance.
During this season, the tallest and most muscular player on the Flyers was Greg Winfrey. Due to partial paralysis of his left side, he used only his huge right arm to play basketball. (When Greg was younger, Walt Smith had encouraged Greg to lift weights with him. This training really paid off!) During this first practice, I was busy administering a skills test when I suddenly heard, "WHACK, WHACK, WHACK," as if a cannon was being fired. I turned around and saw Greg rapidly throwing the ball with his right hand, catching it with only his right hand, and then immediately launching another blast. I was utterly amazed! (I am not embarrassed to say that after practice that day, I tried the passing test using only my right arm. I flunked!)
The hour-long practice passed quickly. Before officially ending practice, we called everybody to the center of the gym and welcomed them to the team. In her usual upbeat manner, Alice said, "We think that we have an exciting season ahead of us. We are glad to see so many people here tonight. Now that we are done with the SAT's, we can have a regular practice next time. Before you go, I have written a list of DO's and DONT's that will help the season go better for everybody. Let's go over it together."
Alice's list of Do's and Do Not's
1. DO eat right
DON'T snack or eat junk food
2. DO practice basketball in your free time
DON'T just lay around and watch TV in your free time
3. DO listen to your coaches and follow through on their advice
4. DO encourage your teammates and play as a member of the team
DON'T criticize your teammates
5. DO come to practices on time
DON'T be late
6. DO arrange your own transportation home from practices
DON'T expect rides home from coaches - we will not be giving rides.
The grey MTD bus goes by Douglass Center at about 6:15 p.m.
7. DO dress in sweat pants or shorts, comfortable tennis shoes, and a comfortable
t-shirt for practices
DON'T wear jeans to practices because they are hard to move around in
MOST IMPORTANT . . . DO HAVE FUN AT PRACTICES AND TRY YOUR BEST !!!!!!
WE'VE GOT AN EXCITING SEASON AHEAD OF US SO . . . DO GET FIRED UP !!!!!
So ended the first practice of the 1987-88 season for the Champaign Flyers.
Jeff: One of our hopes for this book is that it will help new Special Olympics coaches know what to expect from the athletes and from themselves. The following is a list of the misconceptions which I had concerning the athletes, my position as a coach, and the athlete-coach relationship during my first season as a coach. I became a much more effective coach once these misconceptions were out of my way.
1) I thought that the players would be less skillful at basketball than they actually were. Therefore, my first few practices were probably too easy. Throughout the year, each player displayed a variety of skills which I thought he or she did not possess.
2) I thought that the players would not take practices seriously. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the players did show up on time and did give me their full attention.
3) I underestimated the players maturity and intelligence. At first, I spoke down to them in a belittling tone of voice (i.e., Would you like to do this?). After a few practices, I was talking to them in my normal tone and manner (i.e., OK, you slow pokes, let's see some hustle out there on defense). It is best for a coach to think of the team as any other basketball team and then make adjustments only when necessary.
4) After watching the way in which Alice talked and related with the athletes, I realized that I was being too shy and impersonal. Once I began to think of the team members as my friends, my coaching ability improved tremendously.
5) From time to time, I would become too authoritarian (e.g., Everybody line up NOW and LISTEN!!!). Of course there are times when things get out of control and a little authority needs to shown. However, most of time everything is perfectly under control. It was John Rutledge who reminded me during my first year of coaching that Special Olympics is supposed to be a FUN activity for the athletes. Allow room for some joking around.
6) Initially, I was very disappointed if my team forgot the drills which we had practiced the week before. For example, some athletes forgot which line to go to during the Lay-up Drill. I was fast to learn that skills were remembered better if they were incorporated into a weekly routine. Therefore, the Lay-up Drill was the first drill we did every practice. Step-by-Step. From the basics to the more complex patterns.
7) Last, and most importantly, I realized that it takes time for relationships and trust to develop. For example, at the start of the second practice I was disappointed that the players did not greet me with the same enthusiasm with which they greeted Alice. However, I quickly remembered that Alice was in charge of other activities in which these athletes were involved and she had already proven her dedication to them. By coaching a team on a weekly basis, rather than just volunteering once a year for a basketball tournament or track and field meet, I had the opportunity to earn their friendship.
Brendan: Going into my second year of coaching and having seen my new team play the year before, I knew they were, for the most part, serious about playing basketball well. Before the season started, I had a lot of different ideas as to the tone I would set in practices. Should I be serious? How can I get them in shape without pushing them too hard? How much do they remember when I tell them things, anyway? Do they understand the game well enough? After giving it some thought, I realized that these questions could be answered based on experiences from the previous season. Sometimes during scrimmages, there were not enough players, so the coaches got a chance to play with the players. Any questions I may have had about how well these guys understood the game quickly vanished after I got on the court with them.
I remember playing on a team with Greg and Richard. I was guarding Marvin. Marvin, all arms and legs, was very tough to guard and equally tough to score against. He had a height advantage on me, and blocked several of my shots cleanly. As for Greg and Richard, I sensed they knew the game pretty well. When I tried a no-look bounce pass to Greg, I was pleased to see that he was EXPECTING such a pass. Finally, Richard ran a perfect give-and-go with me where he passed the ball to me and immediately cut to the hoop. I then delivered a pass to him for the score. These guys knew what they were doing.
Based on my experience in scrimmages with them, our practices were primarily serious. Mike and Keith were the only ones not as serious as the rest of the team, but they still participated and were always an important part of the team. Practices were work time. We played around before and afterwards, but during practices we worked very hard to improve our weaknesses. That is how the players wanted it, so that is how I coached them.
Alice: It became obvious after the first few practices that the athletes on Jeff's team needed more individual attention and help with learning the different skills. Furthermore, Jeff needed some help in giving the athletes that individual attention. Fortunately for the team, I met Jaime Koelbl and Joanne Matson during the first few practices. Jaime and Joanne both worked at the Opportunity House, where several of the athletes on the team lived, and were in charge of driving the athletes to practices. Because Jaime and Joanne stayed and watched during the practices, I asked if they would be interested in helping out. They enthusiastically agreed! Their knowledge of basketball plus their ability and experience in working with mentally challenged individuals made them invaluable additions to the program.
Jeff: During the first few practices, I did not know who Jaime and Joanne were and I was too busy following my practice schedule to take the time to introduce myself. (Through Special Olympics, I have learned that being too shy to speak to people is both silly and counter-productive. My experience has been that everybody associated with Special Olympics is certainly worth meeting. ) Thanks to Alice's alertness, the Flyers Blue team gained two excellent coaches. Last, the Flyers Blue team was lucky enough to have yet one more addition.
Alice: At this time we also added Max Crane to our group of coaches; a tall high school student with considerable basketball experience who had chosen to help coach. Although Max had no prior experience working with Special Olympics athletes, he fit in well with Jeff's team, and gave much more of his time to the team than was expected. The three assistant coaches, Jaime, Joanne, and Max, were a key to Jeff's success with the team. They allowed him to make the most of his practices and give the players the individual attention they needed.
Jeff: From November 4 through February 29, we held two practices a week. Each practice lasted one hour and followed the same routine: running, stretching, announcements, layups, assorted drills, and a final scrimmage. As the season progressed, less time was alloted for layups and more time was reserved for scrimmages. The following is a description of a typical practice.
I would enter the Douglass Center gym at 4:45 and would be greeted with an assortment of greetings, slaps of the hands, and requests to "Watch this shot, Jeff!" Next, I would hear about or ask about what had happened to everybody since the last practice. I learned a lot about each player's personality during these conversations. These interactions helped me to get to know the players as people, not just as basketball players.
"Work is OK."
"The Lakers are going to win it all this year."
"My sister is getting married."
"I'm going away for vacation."
"I'm going to play softball this summer."
"Hulk Hogan is the best wrestler."
"I'm going to see that Cher movie this weekend."
During this time when everybody was arriving and changing into their practice clothes, players were free to practice their shooting skills at any of the six baskets in the gym.
As a funny side note, I was a few minutes late to several practices because of a time conflict with one of my classes. Even though I had announced in advance when and why I would be late, I was always greeted with a hearty chorus of "You're late!" whenever this occurred. I was happy to see that the team had spirit.
At 5:00, practice would officially begin. Everybody had to put down the balls and run around the gym for two to five minutes. However, a few weeks into the season Brendan suggested that everybody should dribble a ball during these laps. I am convinced that this simple addition greatly improved the ball handling capabilities and coordination of all of the Flyers. If the players can still run hard and dribble after five minutes of continuous running, then they are ready for the fourth quarter of a game.
After running, we had the team form a circle around center court for team announcements and stretching. At the beginning of each month, Alice would hand out and explain that month's calendar of upcoming games and events. The players were told to hang up this calendar on their refrigerator so that they would have no excuse for forgetting a time or place. I think that actually having a calendar page on which other activities could be written (such as work schedules), rather than just a list of dates, helped the athletes (and coaches) organize their schedules. Of course, the calendars were filled with Alice's usual smiley faces, upbeat sayings, and her work telephone number. Each following week, the details of that week's events were discussed and reminders sent home.
To my knowledge, nobody missed an event because of misunderstanding a place or time. I doubt that other groups can boast of such a record. Alice, the athletes, and the parents (or house managers) deserve a lot of credit. Perhaps because of the difficulties arranging for transportation and coordinating diverse work schedules, a Special Olympics team is forced to be more organized than other groups. I was happy, and surprised, to see how much the team members depended on and helped each other. For example, players would help each other figure out the best bus route to take to a special event and would call each other on the days of a practice or game to make sure that the other person had not forgotten.
After the announcements, I would lead the exercises from the center of the circle; always slowly rotating my direction so that everyone could see and hear me. Starting with slow movements of the neck from side-to-side, the stretches proceeded through arm rotations, waist stretches, windmills, toe touches, hurdler stretches, ankle extensions, and finally sit ups and push ups. In order to strengthen the muscles involved in jumping, I later added exercises such as repeated leaps from a half-squat position. Because Greg could not balance well on his weak left side, certain adaptations had to be devised for exercises such as push ups. During the previous year, the problem had been solved by having Greg lean against a wall and then having him push his body weight away from the wall with his strong arm.
Most of the players took a great deal of pride in the exercises. Eddie Cole increased his number of sit ups from one at the beginning of the season to ten at the end of the season. He would proudly remind me at every practice, "I do my exercises every night before I go to bed." As the season progressed and players became more and more familiar with the stretching routine, I was surprised at the number of players who would request to lead the exercises. It may be that the structured exercise routine provided the type of risk-free leadership opportunity that was lacking in other aspects of the team members lives.
Upon completion of the exercises, my team would go to the East basket and Brendan's team would go the the West basket. At this point, we would begin the drills and scrimmages which are detailed in the next chapter. This portion of the practice lasted until five minutes before the hour.
Practices always ended in the same manner. Everyone would huddle around center court with hands placed in the middle of the circle. Before breaking, important announcements were repeated and last minute questions answered. "OK, great practice! Everybody really hustled out there today. Have a good weekend. Try to do some stretching and exercising on your own every day. We need to be in great shape if we want to play hard for all four quarters. Don't forget your calendars. OK, ready? On three! One, Two, Three, GO FLYERS!"
At 6:00 sharp, DB would grab his duffel bag and run to the bus stop at the corner to wait for the 6:15 bus. The other players were a bit more leisurely; staying to talk with the coaches and with each other. If they missed the bus, they knew that another would come along and that a ride could be found from a parent, from Steve or Rodney (the only two team members that drove and had their own cars), or from a coach if the weather was bad.
Mrs. Brinegar: One worrisome problem for me was the location of the basketball practice court which was in a high crime area. Charles too had some reservations about going to and from there on the bus (i.e., having to wait for a bus to come and or walk through the area to a more central thoroughfare). My concerns were somewhat lessened when I learned that Eddie Cole was going on the bus with him. Charles was relieved too. I wonder if this is how Charles and Eddie became friends. Now they phone each other frequently.
Alice: During my time as Program Specialist, I had the opportunity to work with a large number of volunteer coaches in the Special Olympics track and field, bowling, and basketball programs. I felt that each of the individuals I met contributed something unique and important to the programs in which they were involved. However, through my experience I was able to single out several qualities which I believe contribute to the making of a successful and effective Special Olympics coach. These qualities are COMMITMENT, LEADERSHIP, ENTHUSIASM, KNOWLEDGE, and ADAPTABILITY.
The first quality is COMMITMENT. Both the organizers of the program and the athletes count on their coaches to follow through with commitments to the team and to the program. This includes being able to rely on a coach to be at practices and games as well as feeling that the coach is committed to the athletes as team members and as individuals. The commitment of a coach must be as strong as if he or she was a paid professional because the success of any Special Olympics program depends on the reliability and dedication of its volunteer coaches.
The second important quality which coaches must develop is LEADERSHIP ability. This is especially important for coaches in the Special Olympics basketball program because each coach works with athletes as a group, running team exercises, drills, and scrimmages. The coach must be looked upon as a leader by the team and must earn the respect of the athletes as well as the other coaches. There will come times during the season, whether it be at a practice or during a game, when the team has problems working together or when individual athletes create obstacles for themselves or for the team. This is when a good coach will use his or her leadership skills to help the team to work together and to help the athletes grow as individuals.
The third important coaching quality is ENTHUSIASM. One of the main roles of a coach is to be a motivator. In order to be a good motivator, a coach must be enthusiastic. This enthusiasm rubs off on the athletes and motivates them to become excited about what they are doing and to try as hard as they can to do their best. If a coach acts bored, so will the players.
The fourth important coaching quality is KNOWLEDGE. Coaches should know the rules of their sport and know various ways to teach that sport. If a coach is new to a sport, it is possible for him or her to read through the many booklets and guides which Special Olympics provides and learn the different skills and drills which have been tried and tested on Special Olympics athletes. However, a coach who comes into the program with a good working knowledge of the sport which he or she is coaching is coming in with something extra. This knowledge of the sport, when combined with the other qualities described above, can make a coach an exceptional asset to the program.
The last quality which is essential for successfully coaching Special Olympics is ADAPTABILITY. It involves a willingness to accept the athletes, each with his or her own strengths and weaknesses, while still driving them to improve and reach their full potential. It involves patience in accepting that each athlete has limits and also flexibility in combining and developing the strengths of each athlete in order to form the best possible team. To do this, a coach must be willing to learn which ways of teaching and interaction work best with each athlete on the team.
For example, some Special Olympics athletes become easily frustrated with themselves and need a patient coach who will encourage and guide them. Other athletes have a hard time understanding certain concepts and need a coach to work with them, demonstrating and explaining skills in different ways until the athlete understands them. The coach must be confident and persistent enough not to give up when the athlete does not do well at first.
However if an athlete continues to be unable to master certain skills, the coach must carefully decide whether those skills are beyond the athlete's capability. If a coach pushes too hard with an athlete whose level of functioning prohibits him or her from mastering certain skills, that athlete can become frustrated and loose confidence and interest in the program. Of course, when coaches are new to a program, there is no way for them to know each athlete's capabilities ahead of time. It is through trial and error and the adaptive qualities of being patient and accepting, persistent and flexible that will allow a coach to work effectively with athletes in reaching their fullest potential.
Brendan and Jeff
Alice: When Brendan and Jeff began their first season of coaching, they were fortunate to have Walt and John (who knew the athletes well) coaching with them. They began their first season with a willingness to learn from John and Walt and with good ideas of their own. It did not take long to see that Brendan and Jeff came into their first season possessing all of the qualities which make successful and effective coaches.
They both showed enthusiasm and a strong commitment to the program and to the athletes which went much further than being prompt and reliable in coming to practices and games. It involved time which they spent outside of practices discussing drills which would help the players improve their skills and ways to combine the strengths of each athlete to form a more effective team. They also showed a genuine concern for the athletes as individuals. They demonstrated this concern by giving extra help to athletes who needed additional time and attention and by showing interest in the athletes' personal lives. Through this effort, they earned the respect and friendship of the athletes which would continue to grow during the next two years.
In addition, Jeff and Brendan both came into the program with an extremely good working knowledge of basketball and with the enthusiasm, creativity, and adaptability needed to find ways of teaching the different skills to the athletes. Over the two years in which we worked together, I enjoyed seeing both of them grow as leaders. As they became more comfortable with the athletes and in judging the players' capabilities, Brendan and Jeff became more confident in their leadership ability. It was with this confidence that they were able to push the athletes to improve and to try harder. I feel that much of the reason for both teams' success during the second season came from Jeff and Brendan's increased confidence and leadership as coaches--they knew each athlete's strengths and limitations, and most importantly knew which ways of coaching and interacting worked best for each athlete.
A good example of how Brendan used his coaching skills to adjust to a specific player can be seen in his interactions with Marvin. Marvin was bright and competitive but an athlete who was difficult to work with. He had been on the team for several years and had been kicked off the team several times. During my first season as head coach, John and Walt were forced to ask him to leave the team because of problems with his attitude. Because of his competitive nature, Marvin tended to become easily upset with himself when his performance was not as good as he thought it should be. When he became frustrated with himself or with his team, he showed this frustration either by hogging the ball and trying to score all the points by himself or by storming off the court and complaining--all in all showing poor sportsmanship. In addition, Marvin had a difficult time in dealing with authority figures, such as coaches. He did not like being told what to do and did not make any changes when coaches told him to show better sportsmanship. Marvin usually ended up pushing the coaches to the limit so that eventually he was given an ultimatum, "cool off or leave the team". When this happened he stormed off yelling "I quit".
Based on Marvin's past behavior, Brendan was careful to work with Marvin more as a guide, giving him suggestions and ideas to improve his play. He encouraged and praised, using positive instead of negative feedback to help Marvin work with the team. In addition, Brendan developed several special plays in which Marvin and one or two teammates made fast breaks during games. These special plays accomplished two important things. First, they gave some structure to Marvin's style of playing so that he gave the ball to teammates while still maintaining an integral role in the game. More importantly, they gave him a feeling of success so that he did not become as easily frustrated.
As the season progressed, Marvin came to respect Brendan. However, there were still many times when Marvin lost his cool and showed poor sportsmanship. Brendan demonstrated good judgment in taking Marvin out of games when he began to get "hot under the collar". He would calmly tell Marvin to cool off and that he would put him back in the game after calming down.
At one point, which Brendan considers a turning point in his and Marvin's relationship, Marvin became frustrated during a practice game and refused to shake hands with one of the players on the opposing team. Brendan told him that he would not tolerate that behavior, telling Marvin to leave the court until he could show good sportsmanship during games. At the next practice, Marvin approached Brendan and apologized. After that incident, Marvin seemed to concentrate more on being a good sport and listening to suggestions. I feel that Marvin's positive reaction to this incident was based on the strong relationship which Brendan had developed with him. His respect for Brendan allowed him to swallow his pride, think about what he had done, and apologize.
Brendan had taken some extra time, some extra thought, and a lot of patience and turned a difficult situation into a success. It was a success for Brendan because he earned the respect of not only Marvin, but also the other athletes on the team and the other coaches. It was a success for the team because the athletes showed definite improvement with Marvin working with them as an integral part of the team. Most of all it was a success for Marvin, whose hot temper had given him many failures and frustrations. He could now look upon this season as a success and hopefully take with him some of the things that he had learned.
Jeff: I will elaborate on Alice's five coaching qualities by discussing the general topic of motivation. More specifically, how does a coach motivate a group of individuals to come to practices and to work hard? Proper motivation can turn a mediocre season into a fantastic season.
First and foremost, I believe that a coach must convey the importance of the team to all involved. We quickly learned that if we as coaches were serious about the team, then the players would be serious about the team. We were careful not to violate any of the rules that we had set down for the players. We came prepared with ideas for practices, short-term goals for each player, and summaries of preceding games. I always ran all of the laps and did all of the calisthenics with the players.
The great thing about Special Olympics is that the participants begin a season with high expectations. I believe that this initial positive attitude can be attributed to the fact that most people enjoy belonging to a group or team. For most people, belonging to a group starts early and continues for life. Grade schools group children into classes that stay together during the early years, high schools offer clubs and sports programs, and large companies often try to promote a team atmosphere among its employees. The idea is that two people working together can accomplish more and have more fun than two people working separately.
Unfortunately, many people who qualify for Special Olympics programs often do not have these opportunities for group participation available to them, and thus have no opportunities to experience team leadership, sharing, and cooperation. Special Olympics programs, such as basketball, provide these needed opportunities. As the players endure the many drills and practices together, a certain comradery develops.
Along with being serious, we have also discovered that if the coaches are energetic, then the players will be equally energetic. The wonderful thing about a positive attitude and an energetic effort is that they are contagious. As mentioned earlier, much of the team's positive energy emanated from Alice and then spread to all who were involved. Many times I would come to practice feeling tired from a hectic day of classes, but would feel energized again after only five minutes of smiling, laughing, and exercising. The players were excited about basketball and it definitely showed during practices. This anticipation of a positive experience not only motivates the players to attend practices, it motivates the coaches as well. Let's face facts--Coaching is not easy. It takes concentration and effort. However, after a few weeks of high-energy, excitement-filled practices, becoming motivated to attend practices took no effort at all!
When I say above that we were serious about the team, I do not mean serious in the sense of strict or rigid. Rather, I mean serious in the sense that we considered the team to be important and that we were committed to coaching to the best of our abilities. In fact, the best way to describe our practices would be to say that we had "serious fun." Throughout the running, working, and sweating, the coaches constantly encouraged and teased the players, and vice versa. This interaction was possible because everybody on the team knew the difference between "having fun with" and "making fun of." I believe that a relaxed, yet disciplined, atmosphere greatly enhances the fun of any task. In the following example, I single out Mike Kearney and Rodney Martin because they perfected the art of teasing Brendan and me.
Jeff: "Mike Kearney, are you ready for some one-on-one?"
Mike: "You and Brendan are old Grandpa's!"
Jeff: "Yeah, well I taught Michael Jordan how to dunk."
Mike: "You couldn't dunk a five foot basket, you bum."
Jeff: "But I make all of my layups."
Mike: "So do I. Watch this."
Jeff: "Who are you laughing at Rodney?"
Rodney: "You, that's who."
Jeff: "Yeah, well if you make any more behind-the-back passes,
you'll be laughing as you warm the bench ."
Rodney: "Says who."
Jeff: "Says me, the Greatest Basketball Player ever!
Rodney: "Oh, get outta my way, you slowpoke!!"
Jeff: "Good shot. Next time keep your eyes open."
Marvin and Steve Cain made sure that Alice, Jaime, and Joanne were not exempt from teasing.
"Girls don't know nothin' about basketball."
"You don't even know how to shoot."
"Look at that, you didn't even hit the rim."
"Oh, that was just luck."
"Watch this. This is how to do it."
The rule of thumb that Brendan and I used during practices was to have fun during the warm-up period, then to expect more focused attention and effort from the team during the drills and scrimmages, and then to end the practice on a light note. In fact, a coach's toughest job is balancing the need to challenge athletes to do their best while simultaneously making sure that the training is enjoyable along the way. What's the point of winning games if the players hate the practices? I feel that most of the players on the team would have probably come to practices even if we had not scheduled games. The friendly social interactions and pride that accompanies self-improvement were probably reward enough.
A final point about motivation concerns individual differences. The previous season had allowed us to get to know each player very well. We learned that each player needed a different amount of praise, criticism, and discipline. For example, some players were so self-confident that they needed very little outside praise, whereas other players needed much more. For example, if DB scored 20 points in a game, he could care less if I was happy or not, because he was happy with himself. In contrast, Randy quickly glanced at me, searching for approval, after every move he made.
The same principles hold for giving criticism. I would say, "Don't worry about that pass, you'll do better the next time" to the less confident players on my team. However, Brendan could say, "That pass was terrible" to most of his players because they did not take it as a personal insult. In fact, it is my opinion that following an early season loss, most of Brendan's team wanted even more critical comments because they realized that harder practices meant more wins later in the season.
Last, I want to add some reality to the rosy picture that I have described so far. As with any group activity, there were times when players would be disruptive to practice, not show up on time, or act in a manner that could be potentially dangerous to another player. After all, Special Olympians are people who have bad days and quick tempers just like everybody else. Some of our players would only need a glaring stare before they would settle down, whereas other players had to sit down for a minute "cool-off" period before they could continue. Alice was the master at handling these situations. Brendan and I learned a great deal about handling the team's frustrations and tempers by watching Alice during our first season. Knowing how to walk the tightrope of praise and discipline can only come from experience and careful attention to each player's reaction to stressful or frustrating situations. Because all coaches will make mistakes regarding praise and discipline, it is crucial that the players know that the coaches like them and care for them regardless of their performance or behavior on the court.
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