Fundamentals are for losers
It’s the universal gripe about pro sports, basketball in particular — how so many players seem to be so clueless about the fundamental skills of their sport. Quarterbacks who can’t look off defensive backs, guards who can’t hit the open man, fielders who don’t get in front the ball, etc. Actually, a lot of the complaining isn’t that specific. “A lack of fundamentals” is meant to encompass a general sense of malaise and distaste for sports at the highest level because they’re full of preening individuals who do everything wrong yet get paid so much.
I would guess a lot of the people who complain about fundamentals, outside of hockey fans in Minnesota and basketball fans in Indiana, don’t even know what fundamentals they find lacking, or even if they’re seeing good fundamental play and don’t know it. (And don’t get me started on the number of fans who find Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs boring despite, or because, they play great fundamental basketball.)
However, the nagging feeling about a lack of fundamentals is not all an illusion or the gripe of the fan ticked he’s stacking auto parts while some lucky member of the gene pool is making millions. From the lowest levels of youth sports on up, coaches are willing to ignore teaching certain players fundamentals, as long as whatever they’re doing works.
Yeah, a shocking revelation. But that message got reinforced to me, anyway, during a recent training session for coaches in my 6-year-old son’s baseball league.
The coaches, from Dwyane Wade High School, did an excellent job presenting fundamentals of baseball and how to teach them to young children. I’m especially appreciative to learn the term “squishing the bug,” a way to explain to little kids how to move your back foot while you swing a bat. But, hey, you say, none of the best major-league hitters squish the bug! Yeah, well, you can explain to someone older about picking up the back foot at the point of contact and squishing the bug only afterward, but it’s the easiest way to explain to a 6-year-old that you shouldn’t keep your back foot planted firmly on the ground.
But this does get me to the idea of when fundamentals are reinforced — and when they’re not.
One of the assistant coaches discussed numerous instances coaching his son’s travel teams (approximately ages 10 to 13, it sounded like) when he just gave up on teaching fundamentals to certain kids. If someone could hit home runs, he didn’t care how they did it. If someone could strike people out, he didn’t care how they did it. He said exactly, “I’ll leave it for the next coach.” He said that happens all the time, even at the high school level, where if something is working but flawed, they’ll leave it for a college or minor-league coach to fix.
That makes logical sense. A coach’s job at the higher levels (and maybe even the travel level, depending on the organization) is predicated on winning, and you’re not going to adjust what someone is doing well because it won’t work at the next level. Why stop winning for the sake of that? As a coach, particularly before the high school level, you have only a year, maybe two, with a kid. Often, that’s not enough time to fix a problem. Sure, you’ll try to do it if a kid is doing something wrong and it’s not working. But if it is, bombs away. That explains, in a nutshell, why so many players flame out at a certain level — if you’ve had a bad habit that works, it’s hard to undo it if you’re at a place where the competition is too talented to let it keep working. (If you see professionals with bad habits, then they were clearly physically gifted or otherwise strong enough as a player to overcome the bad habit.)
It was a strange message to send, given these coaches pounded into us kiddie coaches that it’s so important for us to teach fundamentals because that’s going to make their lives easier when the players get to the high school level. Actually, given the amount of complaints they had about present players who had no clue about fundamentals, I believe the “their lives” the coaches were speaking of were their own.