Let’s get this out of the way right from the opening tip. Basketball is the greatest game in the world.
Consider that players must transition from offense to defense in an instant and understand not only the tactical strategies of both sides of the game, but must also possess the footwork, positioning, and athleticism to actually execute those strategies at a breakneck pace and with innumerable variables.
Basketball is the ultimate game of skill and confidence. Youth soccer players can bully their way through their competition to an extent using a kick and run strategy that requires only speed and aggression. In hoops, if you can’t dribble, you can’t move. If you can’t move your feet on D, and can’t compensate by playing angles well, you get roasted.
LFE has now been in the business of developing basketball players from grades K-12 for three years. It has been fascinating. Human development is fascinating. Though not many things with human development happen at prescribed times, there are milestones that are somewhat predictable. It shouldn’t be too surprising then that kids can generally make what we refer to as “The Leap” during typical development phases. “The Leap” in our definition is a period of rapid growth in a player’s development. It typically coincides with physical development milestones, but “The Leap” can only happen when a player makes a concerted effort to dedicate herself to working on her game.
The First “Leap” (Ages 8–10)
Around age 8 something incredible happens to kids. They become “real people.” If you’ve experienced this shift with your own children you know what I mean by “real people.” My daughter Joley is 8. She’s somewhat normal(a compliment I swear). We have conversations that make sense and don’t revolve entirely around boogers, poop, baby dolls, and “Sofia the First.” Not that there’s anything wrong with those conversations. Those conversations with my 6 year old are highly entertaining and tend to last about 45 minutes longer than any of us expect. It’s a blessing and a curse.
My 8 year old picks up on social cues now and has begun to understand that other people have interests. She’s realized that if she can tap into those interests, she can build relationships with them. It’s the reason why she came downstairs this morning and asked if Duke got any new players. She knows I love Duke basketball and she’s trying to connect with me. She asked if Grayson Allen is staying and she was noticeably perturbed by the fact that Luke Kennard declared for the draft. She tried happier subjects and asked about the Warriors. The didn’t play last night. She tried again and again asking about the Sixers and the Cavs. Her and I have bonded through sports and she works at letting me know she’s in. This heightened awareness also causes her to roll her eyes and groan with disgust every time her little sister opens her mouth. Isn’t parenting the best. Seriously.
This age is an amazing time of physical development also. Both fine and large motor skills are going through a rapid time of development, so it’s a good time for skill development in sporting endeavors. Sure there are some phenoms who have developed incredible skill before this first developmental leap. Take Jaliyah Manuel for example. She’s an 8 year old basketball phenom from Louisiana. Her workout videos are the stuff of legend in my house. If you’re like most people however, you want your child to have a normal life that allows her to explore a wide variety of interests. Those interests strengthen during this developmental leap, so you may find your daughter more motivated to work on her game. If she’s in, let her work.
Joley plays in the YMS Academy program and after one year of training, her skills made a tremendous leap. Even more impressive was the skill level of the girls who have been in the program for two years. Their tactical awareness, foot skills, and ability to see and cut down angles is truly impressive. Just two years earlier these girls were playing “bee swarm” soccer and the girls who were the best players were the fastests and most aggressive girls. Those girls would see the pile, lay everyone to waste, and dodge the bodies on their way to net to score again. Flash forward two years and they are playing games that look like soccer with positional awareness and it’s the girls who can combine speed, aggression, skill, and awareness who dominate. That first leap is truly amazing. My goal as a coach of 2nd and 3rd graders is to consistently bring them drills and skills that I don’t think they can do. Then we stand in amazement as they figure those drills out and execute them better than we’d ever imagined. And then we raise the bar again.
The Middle School LEAP
I’ve taught at the middle school level for a dozen years. If you were to put me in a room of 100 middle schoolers and ask me to point out the 6th graders, I would be able to do so with about 95% accuracy. There is something about 6th graders that is unique to that age. I’ve never been able to fully put my finger on it, but it exists. I’m sure of it. I see it every day. They run from lunch back to math class. An 8th grader would never run to math. Never. 6th graders play leap frog at school dances and separate themselves along gender lines. 8th graders don’t make the dance dynamic quite as easy to manage.
No offense to the elementary schooler in your life, but middle schoolers are far more complex. Hormones, self-esteem, and peer dynamics hold sway over just about every aspect of a middle schooler’s life. It’s not surprising then, that the middle school leap is complicated and unique to every individual.
The first key to the middle school leap is the physical development. An interesting thing happened this year when we gave our travel parents the option to keep their old uniforms or order new ones. Our current 7th graders, for the most part, did not need new unis. There uniforms from their 6th grade season still fit. However, every girl on our 8th grade team needed to order a new uniform!
After the growth spurts and muscle development, it’s a great time to fix bad habits and broken shots. The girls are finally strong enough to get the ball to the rim. The truth is, they’ve been strong enough, but in middle school it becomes obvious to them too. Fixing poor shooting mechanics is a great first step in making the leap. Somehow, shooting development is one of the most under-coached and under-practiced skills in youth basketball. There are a lot parts that make a great shot, and repeating poor mechanics only creates a habit of ineffective. “The 10,000 Hour Rule” as theorized by Malcolm Gladwell is a myth. If go out front and hoist two handed jumpers for 10,000 hours, I have only succeeded in mastering the skill of shooting poorly. In order to become a true sniper on the floor, the proper shot mechanics must be repeated.
One player who has made the leap in her middle school career is Lacey Taylor. Lacey entered her sixth grade season with a solid foundation and a lot of promise as a player, but struggled to put it all together largely because of her shooting. No two shots looked exactly alike and a big issue that she had was over-stepping on her shot. This little detail disrupted her base which is extremely important. Her momentum always sent her hurtling toward the basket and many of her shots tested the durability of the basket’s support system. Her shot also came out flat most of the time. A flat shot is a shot that has little chance of going in. Sports Science did a study and determined that one of the reasons why Steph Curry is the best shooter in the world is because he shoots the ball higher than anyone else.
Through reps and dedication, Lacey fixed her feet. The tape doesn’t lie. She also began getting great lift on her shot. Hard work pays off. Lacey’s jump shot was the difference in the William Penn vs. Charles Boehm semi-final as she buried back to back jumpers off an out of bounds play run to get her a jumper. It helped WP extend its lead before halftime, and the never looked back.
Fixing her jump shot also allowed other parts of Lacey’s game to be opened up. Because defenders have to get out on a jump shot that they now have to respect, Lacey was able find more and more driving lanes to penetrate into this season. As she did this her confidence with the ball increased and she was able to better utilize those good feet around the basket that we really liked in 6th grade. In the video she doesn’t finish the reverse layup, but you can clearly see the leap in her confidence as she attacks the baseline to score in the second clip rather going to the basket without confidence and with no scoring agenda as she does in the first clip.
The last clip shows Lacey’s evolution on the defensive end of the floor. In the first set of clips, we see Lacey closing out with poor technique and out of control. Rebounds get slapped out bounds. As the second set of clips begin, we see Lacey close out perfectly on Ava Sciolla and do a great job of keeping her in front. She then battles the taller Ava on the block, winning the battle with strength. The second highlight shows Lacey ripping a loose ball off the floor with great aggression, pivoting, retreat dribbling to get space and relaxing as she sets our offense with great poise.
Lacey’s hardwork was rewarded with an excellent 8th grade season at William Penn and further validated by her selection for Mid-Atlantic Magic’s 8th grade team. Her Magic team will travel throughout the spring playing national level competition. With her incredible work ethic and attitude, Lacey is going to continue to develop and will hit her freshman year of high school hoops more than ready to contribute.
Another player who made the leap on our middle school campus this year was Kiley Haws. Kiley is gritty, hard nosed player who defends the ball with a ton of tenacity. In her 6th grade season Kiley struggled at times and did not play with much confidence. She looked uncomfortable handling the responsibility of being the primary ball handler, she struggled away from the ball defensively, and she seemed to the shoot the ball expecting miss.
Flash forward to July of 2016, and Kiley had a great showing at camp. Her ball handling was noticeably tighter. She was shooting it with confidence, and the edge that she had always played with had been sharpened into a straight razor. Competition can fuel a player or frustrate a player. Kiley had clearly been fueled by some of the disappointments of the previous season where she did not play as well as she had hoped. Rather than wallow and feel sorry for herself, she got to work. It was truly amazing to see her whole demeanor change. As cliche’ as it may sound, Ki was playing with some serious swagger. She had something to prove.
Contrast her 6th grade tension with her 7th grade confidence.
As summer turned to fall and the travel and middle school season began, Kiley announced her arrival early in the season with a solid performance against Spring-Ford in the ICBA Kings of the Court Tournament and a 17 point outburst in her first career middle school game against Armstrong cemented what Coach Costanzo and I had been saying. This was a new Kiley Haws. Ki was in full attack mode turning defense into points and relentlessly attacking the boards, finishing in traffic. With that fresh dose of confidence, Ki turned in her best performances of the season in the games that mattered the most with an incredible 12 point second half as she put William Penn on her back in an epic comeback attempt against Pennwood just before Christmas break. In the championship game it was Kiley’s leadership and defensive prowess that stood out as she captained the William Penn ship through the treacherous waters of a highly competitive and intense pitcher’s duel to take the middle school crown. Her work on the defensive end helped WP slow down a quartet of dangerous Pennwood guards holding that talented offensive team to just 15 points for the game and a shutout when it mattered most, in the fourth quarter.
Perhaps the most shocking development in Kiley’s leap…Kiley started talking. That may seem like a strange thing to focus on, but in the two years I had worked with her prior to this season, I had only heard her speak a few times. Not only did Ki start speaking this year, she started yelling. It was awesome to watch her take charge with game and with her voice.
The maturation process is an incredible thing. One of the great joys of this coaching journey is seeing the girls you spend so much time with in the gym start to realize their potential for themselves. The key ingredient in both of the girls mentioned in our post is DRIVE. They both made a decision that they were going to improve. They took advantage of every opportunity and they did the hard work when no one was looking and when no one was pushing them. They did it with hard work.
Let it be said that we have a number of girls in our program that have made incredible improvements in their game. This post is not a knock on them. We have a ton a tape of Kiley and Lacey and they fit the criteria of what we recognize as “The Leap.” We hope in the years to come we have many many more subjects to recognize as girls who have undergone “The Leap.”
*******Big shout out to Coach Costanzo for putting together the film*****