The Hoopocratic Oath

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Junior basketball coaches are charged with quite a responsibility. As they help mold young players, they are shaping young people.

In order to become bona fide doctors of medicine, suitably qualified medical professionals must swear the Hippocratic Oath of “primum non nocere,” – that in their roles as care givers, they will strive to first do no harm. They pledge that the individuals in their care will be no worse off after treatment.

I’m wondering if a similar pledge could apply to basketball coaches – let’s call this the Hoopocratic Oath. Hear me out.

Now I know that basketball isn’t a matter of life and death (although some might say that b’ball is far more important than that). But it is important to those who play it, especially junior ballers.

And the sport has exploded in recent years. All across Melbourne, and indeed the country, you’ll find multicourt stadia filled on weekends with the sound of leather slapping the floor, whistles shrieking, coaches bellowing.

Given the steep rise in playing numbers, there is also a continuing demand for mentors; someone has to teach the young hoopsters the basics such as correct shooting form, plays such as the old give-and-go and screen-and-roll, and of course to do the subbing and allocate court time.

It’s a task that requires a considerable time commitment, and no small amount of effort. Certainly, those selfless individuals who take on these responsibilities deserve the sports’ thanks.

With basketball’s rise, however, so too have ascended professional opportunities for coaches. Even outside of the elite echelons, it’s possible to make a career from coaching basketball, one way or another. Secondary schools, semi-professional leagues such as the NBL1 or state leagues, or working directly for associations all provide opportunities.

Therein exists some tension. Coaches may see their roles as that which advances their own careers – winning for instance, or having a certain number of players graduate to elite programs. Ensuring that all those in their charge enjoy and benefit from the coaching experience may not figure prominently in their overall plans.

These types of coaches become more conspicuous at representative level. A giveaway might be the use of vernacular such as “put heat on the rim” and “stick it” rather than “drive” and “shoot”. They often know their win-loss record, and will be ruthless to preserve or better it.

Meanwhile, half their squad might barely break a sweat, and can spend games looking glum.

The Hoopocratic Oath, therefore, is about ensuring that all junior coaches understand they are leading youngsters in a game, and must therefore strive to keep the “fun” in “fundamentals”.

With this in mind, the oath would have to address appropriate coaches’ talk to players.

I’ve seen coaches of junior teams call timeouts, angrily point at players, and then quickly start designing complex plays.

Surely at junior level the conversation needs to start with a positive – recognition of what worked well in the first instance. There should be acknowledgement of effort – filling the lanes on a break, blocking out, helping out on D – and not simply a rant accompanied by a clipboard-focused communication.

Out-of-game talk is also vitally important. I heard a troubling story recently from a young Australian whose US college scholarship was rescinded (which happens more often that might widely be known) after three years.

“I think the team would be better off without you on it,” was how the coach broke the devastating news to the young man.

There is a better way to discuss such matters, especially at universities that pride themselves on developing “the whole person”. (Or is this college hoops’ fiendish plan for preparing young people for a ruthless and heartless world?)

When it comes to training, the Hoopocratic Oath would put a line through the “three Ls” – lines, laps and lectures.

There are alternatives to forcing young players to line up to do drills (and spending more time waiting than participating), run laps of the court as punishment for a misdemeanour or infraction, or compelling them to listen to a long coach’s peroration.

How about having them participate in game action, and learn while doing? Or, for novice players, setting aside time for drills that either don’t require a ball, or where every player has their own?

Where coaches spot something technically awry, some helpful guidance could be proffered. Yet I have seen kids come back from elite camps and squads with worse skills than before they left, which make you wonder what was taught.

It goes without saying that coaches, even young athletic ones, should refrain from participating directly in game-action drills, and certainly from dominating when numbers demand their inclusion.

For games, coaches – if not clubs – might consider having reduced numbers in uniform. Is it really necessary for junior teams to have five to seven players on the bench?

And what could be learned from all this, you might ask?

Hopefully, that at its best basketball is truly the beautiful game – a team pursuit whose elements, almost uniquely among team sports, can be practised alone.

These days at the elite level – NBA and international hoops – basketball is dominated by three-point shooting and dunks, with diminished emphasis on the mid-range game, and on ball and player movement.

For junior players, however, the three-point arc is located a formidable distance from the basket. Given so few junior hoopsters would be capable of making one-third of even completely unmolested attempts from beyond the arc , surely it makes more sense to encourage the search for the deuce?

Perhaps inspired by the likes of rare talents such as Stephen Curry and Damien Lillard, junior basketball is dominated by scoring-oriented and dribble-dominant guards. It’s rare these days to encounter a game played among participants with a pass-first mindset.

Perhaps as part of the Hoopocratic Oath, it’s the coach’s role to remind players they are playing a team sport, and to discuss now-exotic concepts such as ball movement, moving without the ball, making the extra pass, giving the ball off early (a la Josh Giddey), making the pass before an assist (the so-called “ice-hockey assist”), competing for rebounds …

We know that not every player on every team will reach elite status, or even progress beyond the level at which they’re currently playing. That’s why it’s important to try to make each outing fun and rewarding.

Is this all a bit idealistic and unrealistic? Perhaps.

However, it could be worth keeping in mind the advice offered by basketball’s founder, Dr James Naismith: “Be strong in body, clean in mind, lofty in ideals.”