As a young teacher and coach fresh out of college, I was fortunate to be hired to teach English and coach basketball at an incredible school.

The school was Carmel High School (now called Carmel Catholic) in Mundelein, Illinois in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. I spent the first 11 years of my teaching and coaching career there, and I couldn’t have asked for a better place to start than at Carmel.

I have long believed that the people make the place, and Carmel was a perfect example of that.

The students and athletes there were great kids who I enjoyed teaching and coaching so much. Most of them were smart, driven, and focused, but they were also good people who were nice, respectful, and a lot of fun to be with. I have stayed in touch with many of them through the magic of social media, and it is one of the great joys I get to experience having them still be in my life.

My fellow teachers and coaches were outstanding people, too. I learned a lot about teaching and coaching from many of them, and like the students and athletes, they were also a lot of fun to hang out with. We had a lot of good times at school and at the many establishments we frequented after games. Some of my favorite teaching, coaching, and fellowship memories come from my time at Carmel, and though we are far apart in terms of physical miles, many of them are still some of my closest friends.

I was extremely fortunate that the first head basketball coach I coached under was a man named Frank Belmont. Those of you who have followed me since my Coach with Character and Great Resources for Coaches days may remember that I have written about Frank a couple of times before, the last time when we devastatingly lost him to cancer at way too young of an age.

I couldn’t have asked for a better coaching mentor right out of the gate than Frank. I learned so much from him, and 40 years later, I still use a lot of what I learned from him in my coaching and teaching. He is truly one of the most impactful people I have ever had in my life.

For Frank, the players’ fundamental skills were as important as anything to our team’s performance. Every day we would work on various fundamentals through a variety of drills that Frank had either made up or had learned in his years as a player and coach.

He created a “Drill Book” that I still have and that I still use to this day. While I have added countless drills from other sources over the years, I still go back to many of the staples that I learned from Frank.

Focus on Fundamental Skills

After my fifth year at Carmel, Frank took a teaching and head basketball job at a public school in a nearby town, and I became the head coach at Carmel.

On a summer weekend in my third year as the head coach, we hosted a basketball coaches’ clinic in our gym. The other coaches on our staff and I spoke on various topics to teach some of the things we did in our coaching.

I also invited Frank to come back to teach a couple of sessions. He was so good and such a popular coach that I knew people would want to hear him speak and learn all they could from him.

Our goal was to help the youth, elementary, and junior high school coaches learn different techniques to help them coach their teams. We were also trying to get those coaches to start instilling some of the techniques, drills, skills, and strategies into their programs that we were using in ours.

Many of the coaches at the clinic were from “feeder schools” to Carmel, as well as to Frank’s school and other public schools in the area. We knew that if they would start infusing into their programs some of those things that we did in our programs, the players would be able to pick things up a lot quicker when they got to high school.

Throughout my career, I have heard high school coaches talk about the importance of lower-level coaches instilling the drills, techniques, and strategies in their programs, so the kids already know how to do them when they get to the high school.

I agree with this concept in many ways. Kids need to be shown and taught the skills necessary for their success early on in their careers, so they can develop into the players they want to become as they make their way up the ladder. They then need to work on those skills a lot and incorporate them into competitive drills against teammates and into their scrimmages to figure out how to use those skills in game settings.

It is the fundamental skill development and drill work combined with the competitive elements of scrimmages and games that help players attain the skills and then become proficient at executing those skills when it matters most—in their competitions.

However, all too often I have heard coaches at the higher levels tout this early-age skill development as being important so that “we don’t have to work on those things when they get up here.”

NO!! NO!! NO!!

It doesn’t work that way.

Just because a player has learned a skill in, 6th, 7th, or 8th grade, and shown some level of proficiency at executing that skill against other players in those grades, it doesn’t mean that s/he doesn’t have to continue to work on and master that skill.

As players make their way up the age and grade ladder, the athletes they compete against get bigger, faster, stronger, smarter, and more skilled. If players want to continue to have success, they must continue to work on those skills to refine them against the better competition they face.

Too many players, and unfortunately, too many coaches, feel that once players have developed a skill, they have that down, and they don’t need to work on it anymore. While it’s true that they may not have to work on it as much anymore, they still need to work on it on a consistent basis.

Even though coaches may not be able to devote as much practice time to those fundamental skills as the season goes on, the players still need to do so. Pre-practice and post-practice individual workout time is a great time for players to do that.

While players will often not devote time on their own to their fundamental work, it is critical that coaches stress the importance of them continuing to do so.

“This Is a Basketball”

It is also critical that coaches never assume that what kids learned in previous years will automatically translate into them knowing it and being able to execute it well this year.

We need to reteach, review, and then redrill those fundamental skills every year. And we need to do so starting at Square One.

At that clinic that we put on for the lower-level aged coaches, Frank made this point abundantly clear.

He was touting the importance of starting every year from square one. I will never forget him holding up a basketball in his gigantic right hand and saying, “Every year, we basically start day one by saying, ‘This is a basketball,’ and we move forward from there.”

He went on to explain that we teach everything as if this is the first time they are hearing it because, quite honestly, we don’t know for how many of them it is, or we don’t know how many of them forgot what we taught the previous years.

He then wrote the word “Assume” on a chalk board (pre-white board days!), pointed at it, and said, “Don’t assume anything about what they know or what they can do.”

I imagine most of you probably know where he was going with this.

He then said, “Because when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me,” pointing to each part of the word as he said it.

That was the first time I had ever heard that statement, and judging from the laughter in the audience, it was the first time many others had heard it, too.

I have never forgotten the moment, nor have I ever forgotten the message:

Don’t assume that because you have taught it and worked on it in the past that they know it and can perform it in the present or will be able to do so in the future.

You must work on those fundamental skills every week (and in some cases every day) in order to ensure that your players can perform them.

And you must constantly reinforce the importance of those fundamental skills with them if you want them to continue to be able to perform them.

I want to talk about the potential hazardous results of not handling this properly, how I am watching it affect the teams I coach at our middle school, and how it is affecting the teams at our high school who are struggling to have any level of success right now.

I also want to talk about comments I heard this week in support of this concept from former NFL quarterbacks Drew Bledsoe and Trent Dilfer about how many NFL coaches work (and unfortunately, don’t work) on fundamentals every day in their practices.

But as this post is already over 1,400 words, I am going to wait and talk about these concepts more in next week’s post or in next week’s video.

Until then, make sure you are not glossing over this most important element in your coaching and in your players’ playing—the continuous work on and development of their fundamental skills and techniques.