When I was growing up in the early nineties, I never heard about personal trainers, AAU Basketball, exposure camps or any of the other programs which dominate youth basketball today. Instead, I practiced in my front yard, played in an 8-game spring league, played at the park and attended a couple camps, ostensibly to play more games against different competition.
However, with the proliferation of AAU Tournaments, players no longer need summer camps to find organized games. In fact, the last thing most youth and high school players need is more organized, structured games. Instead, players need more exposure to the means of a bygone era; mainly, individual training and informal play.
In order for a player to improve, he/she must get out of his/her comfort zone and risk making a mistake; mistakes are a part of the natural learning process and growth and improvement cannot happen without a player first making some mistakes. Unfortunately, in today’s system, most basketball is structured and organized and players fear trying something new in these environments.
When I was young, I saw something on television or at the park and went to my front yard and practiced it. I remember watching Michigan State’s Steve Smith go left and hit a game winning jump shot in an NCAA Tournament game against Wisconsin Green Bay. That night, I asked my dad why a coach would set-up a game winning play to have his right-handed player go left (I was in 5th or 6th grade). He said a lot of players liked to shoot going to their weak hand because it is easier to square their body to the basket. The next day, I spent hours in my front yard learning to shoot going to the left; I re-enacted Smith’s shot a thousand times in my front yard. Then, I took the skill to the playground and finally to the spring league; I remember playing in the La Sierra Summer League when I was in 8th grade and my opponents yelling at each other to force me right. That was my learning progression: I was exposed to something new, I practiced in my driveway, I tried it against my friends at recess and ultimately in an informal summer league and then with my school team.
Without these informal environments, players lack an opportunity to develop. Every practice and game takes place in front of someone important, whether their coach, a college coach, a scout, an AAU coach, etc. and players fear trying new skills or moves, so players largely remain the same once they reach high school.
The one time players really train these days is with an individual trainer. The individual trainer has replaced the front yard for most players. And, the individual trainer is a far greater resource than a summer camp.
The average summer camp in my area runs around $350 for a 9-3 day camp or $700 for a five-day resident camp. At the average day camp, there is a 10:1 camper to coach ratio and many coaches are inexperienced. As a resident camp, the ratio is the same and most coaches are college players with no coaching experience. These camps attract players because of the NBA player’s name attached to it or the university where it is located, but the “director” is very seldom there or involved. These camps attempt some token instruction, but are mainly there for games. The instruction is led by poor instructors (inexperienced) who have a short amount of time to keep players busy and a poor ratio of coaches to campers. Most directors care only that players are busy and injury-free; very few, if any, actually concern themselves with whether players improve or not.
For the price of a day camp, a player could get 10 individual workouts with a trainer like myself. Unlike the typical coaches, I am experienced. I also do not have to rush through “stations,” nor do I have to worry about anyone else. I guarantee a player learns more and develops better skills I ten sessions with me (and most trainers) than at a summer camp.
Choosing a personal trainer is a difficult process because most rely on some sort of name recognition as a player or coach; I frequently hear trainers claiming responsibility for the skills of the same player-it seems like Baron Davis has eight trainers! Everyone who ever had a ball on a court at the same time as a famous player claims to have “trained” them and use this as evidence of their skills.
Beyond sifting through the marketing schemes of trainers (where, much like at a gym the most profitable trainers are the best salesmen, not necessarily the best trainers), there are different types of basketball trainers. There are four basic types of basketball trainer: (1) Shooting Coach; (2) Skills Trainer/Position Coach; (3) Performance Trainer; (4) Conditioning Coach. Very few coaches do all things effectively and most who try, fail.
A Shooting Coach is easy; he/she is only concerned with teaching shooting and helping players improve their shooting mechanics. Judging the effectiveness of a shooting coach is easy because a player either shoots better or he doesn’t; his percentage improves or not.
A Skills Trainer/Position Coach works on all the basic individual skills: shooting, ball handling, post moves, footwork, etc. This coach is a little more difficult to assess because things like ball handling improvement or quickness in the post are hard to quantify.
A Performance Trainer typically specializes in either speed training or plyometrics. Again, because results are easily measurable, their effectiveness is easy to measure.
A Conditioning Coach basically uses basketball drills to keep players in shape during the off-season. They do not teach, per se, but explain a drill and motivate. These trainers are hard to evaluate because they are basically striving to maintain, not improve skills and fitness. They are often judged by how tired a player is at the end of the workout.
Most trainers fall into the Conditioning Coach category; one local trainer brags about how tired players are at the end of his workouts. However, his methodology is flawed, he has no progression, he does not measure improvement, he trains athletes of different ages and abilities the same way and athletes risk injuries. It is also easiest to be a Conditioning Coach; buy Mark Grabow’s book, The On-Court 100, memorize a dozen drills and use them in a workout with 6 to 10 players.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of players need a Shooting Coach, Skills Trainer and/or Performance Trainer and these are more difficult to find. Conditioning Coaches are great for professional players because they need to stay in shape during the summer; however, youth players need to improve and develop. They need a logical progression of skills and instruction. They need to learn shooting technique before shooting when fatigued. They need to improve quickness and strength in a periodized program, not haphazardly.
A good Shooting Coach, Skills Trainer and/or Performance Coach is more like a golf pro or a pitching coach than a generic personal trainer. These coaches should be experts in their field, understand teaching methodology and, most importantly, be able to answer “Why?” with a legitimate answer. If you find a really good Shooting Coach, Skills Trainer and/or Performance Trainer, your game will improve; these coaches/trainers are far more useful than attending a summer basketball camp.
McCormick, CSCS, M.S.S. trains players in Sacramento and recently published Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development.