The Darkness (and light) of Japanese Junior Basketball

I love basketball. And I’m proud to say that this love of Naismith’s game has been passed onto my son. He’s currently 8, and participates in the Japanese mini-version of the game, “mini-basket” (バスケ – “baske” – the Japanese abbreviated word for ‘basketball’). It’s a well-run sport, and children participate in clubs based on their elementary schools.

Over the weekend, the grade 5s/6s of his club competed in the regional finals (Chikushi, in Kyushu)… my family went along to lend support to the seniors of his club (a bunch of really nice boys).
Games on Saturday/Sunday, the entire experience made me realise two things:
1) Basketball coaching in Japan is still largely dwelling in the dark ages…
2) My son’s club is so very, very lucky to have the coach they have.

The first realisation made me seethe. Coaching should be about empowerment. Yet I saw coaching (from several teams, both for boys/girls) that did the complete opposite. Coaches screaming, coaches physically manhandling, coaches behaving in ways that had their young charges in tears. I saw players playing for fear of their coach, rather than with a love of the game.
I witnessed one coach encourage her players to play the game in a way that bordered on dirty, in an effort to bridge a talent/size gap. Sure, I get that the game often ends up that way, and it’s definitely not a “non-contact sport”, but these are 11/12 year old children. Is that the way they should be taught the game? This wasn’t a last-minute instruction, this was something that had been systematically coached. Hooking elbows. Grabbing shorts/shirts. Lifting elbows into the opponent. Very disappointing.

I also saw a coach berate his female players during a time-out to the point where two of them took the court in tears. This, with about 2 minutes to go with his team down 3 points. How the hell do you expect kids to do their best under those conditions?

In the final for the boys, our opposing team’s coach screamed continually. Throughout the game, he would regularly call a player over to the sideline to yell at them – this while the game continued. Inevitably, that kid would miss a defensive assignment (because he was standing at the sideline being yelled at), and would be the recipient of even more ire.
After the 3rd quarter, *coach* stormed onto the floor and physically loomed over the small child, glaring at him intensely.
Parents from our team muttered how scary that coach was… but no-one says anything. It just goes on, and on… and on.
These people aren’t always like this. I have seen (a prior tournament) one guy who absolutely tore strips off his own team, be extremely approachable and friendly when working with the smaller children (mini-baske is available to students from Grade 1 through to Grade 6).

Which leads me to my second realisation. My son’s team has a coach who is known as “the guy” in local mini-baske. And he’s calm. Always, the only time he raises his voice is to be heard above the din, not to threaten/scare/intimidate. He empowers, entrusts, enables and enthuses. He coaches. He teaches. We’re lucky to have him.
He’s also a very busy man, and when he’s not available coaching duties are taken over by one of the parents – who if anything is even calmer. Again, we’re lucky.
I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to have my son play on a team with a coach who believed that the way to extoll excellence from a player is to have them play with fear of how the coach is going to react.
My son has a love of the game, and this is being encouraged. As a parent I’m ecstatic. As a fan of basketball, it’s a relief to see that there are guys like this out there, for sadly, the asshats who’d rather have a kid cry than see them make a layup seem to outnumber the actual teachers of the game. Maybe it’s just that they stand out all the more. I hope so.

The thing I don’t get, is how many coaches simply do not have the temperament to actually coach. For these (I hesitate to grant them the epithet) coaches* (once granted to them, it deserves an asterisk), it seems to have become more about *them* than the players they have.
Yet our guy is supposedly someone that should be emulated… and it’s amazing that no-one sees how far short they fall.