5 lessons for young athletes (and their parents) from the NCAA Final Four basketball teams

Think about Caitlin Clark’s court vision for a moment. Sure, we love to watch her score, but the vision is what separates her from other players. She grabs a rebound, turns and fires a ball downcourt to an open Iowa teammate. She threads it down the lane to a different Iowa player for a layup. She directs it into the corner for an open 3-pointer.

Now picture Clark as a little girl on a soccer field, taking in the larger playing area and learning to locate where her open teammates are. When she got serious as a basketball player, she became a natural on the smaller court, and the movements of the ball around it, because she played soccer.

“I’ve coached a lot of kids – not only Caitlin,” Dickson Jensen, Clark’s former AAU basketball coach in Iowa, told USA TODAY Sports this winter. “The kids that have played soccer, it helps their footwork, it helps their vision, it helps the teamwork.

“They can’t play basketball really (too) much, till they’re almost 10 – third, fourth grade. They literally can’t throw it up to the hoop.”

Purdue’s Zach Edey, despite his immense height, had trouble with that specific skill when he became a basketball player as a sophomore in high school. Then, his coach in Toronto told him to think of the shooting action like throwing a baseball: Just let it naturally roll off his first two fingers.

“That translated really quickly,” Edey told the Indianapolis Star’s Gregg Doyel in 2021. “Soon as I started changing it, my shot was straighter, and with better rotation.”

Like your son or daughter, collegiate players are still impressionable athletes who have found – and are still finding – their way. Young athletes and their parents can learn a lot from watching them play, from following their stories and from seeing how their coaches handle and develop them.

Here are five more lessons young athletes can take from the NCAA basketball Final Four games and the narratives surrounding them in Cleveland and Phoenix this weekend.

1. You need to rely on everyone on your team, not just star players like Caitlin Clark and Paige Bueckers

Iowa and Connecticut both have stars who can overwhelm opponents, but the contributions of others may decide their Final Four game.

The teams are fast and precise on offense. There’s lots of movement and tempo that leads to a player with an open look. This is not necessarily the best player, but the best player available to take the shot.

“We’re really, really good when we have multiple people in double figures,” Clark said after Iowa’s 93-85 win at Maryland in early February.  “That’s when we’ve really been at our best. It’s never really been me scoring all of our points. We’ve been able to find some balance, and that’s what we’re gonna need moving forward if we want to be really successful.”

In the Maryland game, when Iowa’s rapid-fire passes and baskets often stunted the Terrapins’ swarming defense and raucous crowd, two of Clark’s teammates had 15 or more points. On their current 10-game winning streak, the Hawkeyes have had at least four players score in double figures in a game seven times.

Hannah Stuelke gets inside touches and Kate Martin, Sydney Affolter and Gabbie Marshall fire from the perimeter if they’re open.

Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, who has brought a team to the Final Four 23 times and won 11 national titles, has said the “formula for winning at UConn since the beginning of time” is similar. The Huskies like to have a strong guard (such as Bueckers or KK Arnold), an inside presence (such as Aaliyah Edwards) and a wing player who can play inside or outside (like Aubrey Griffin).

But the team has learned to play effectively without Griffin and other injured stars this season. Bueckers missed last season with an ACL injury and the Huskies went 31-6.

No elite men’s or women’s team at the college level relies exclusively on one player. Clark, the sport's all-time leading scorer, has scored 35% of Iowa’s points. Bueckers has 28% of UConn’s.

If you are a youth player or coach who is consistently feeding the ball to your best player on isolation plays, you are missing an opportunity.

When kids are young and roughly the same size, you can teach them to play positionless basketball in which everyone passes, cuts, boxes out and rebounds.

If your strongest offensive player is double-teamed, teach him or her to pass out of it to an open teammate. And count a possession successful if your team gets an open look at the basket, not whether or not you score. The scoring will come with those looks.

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2. Like Dawn Staley, as a coach, you are a leader who is closely watched

If you are a youth sports coach, South Carolina’s Dawn Staley is someone you can emulate. She is a caretaker of her players yet she holds their actions accountable.

Her leadership and understanding of her responsibility were on display when some of them, and those on LSU’s women’s team nearly brawled during last month’s SEC championship game.

“They did not handle it well. Our players didn’t. Their players didn’t, and it escalated,” Staley said, taking the question from a reporter when it was posed to South Carolina guard MiLaysia Fulwiley. “They were well within the rules of ejecting the players that left the bench. … You have to sit there and keep your composure.

“We talk about these things as a team and we try to express to them how not to react in those type of situations.  But real time is real time. … Our game is a really beautiful thing and, to be quite honest, this is a part of it now, so we have to fix it and we have to move on.”

Staley told the media LSU's Flau’jae Johnson came to her right after the game and apologized: "(She) said she’s not that type of player. And I really appreciate that. That’s something that somebody won’t ever hear if I didn’t say anything. And she's not. She's a really good person. Things just got escalated."

Staley, who has become a coaching icon with six trips to the Final Four and two national titles, was keenly aware of the number of eyes, especially those of her players, on her. That’s the effect you have on young people as a coach. You might be their first and only connection to a sport. If they love the sport, you might be the reason they play it or quit.

As a coach, what you say will be on display in front of kids, and often their parents, whether you are at the youth level, or you are Staley.

3. Like NC State's basketball teams, don't doubt yourself, even in the toughest of circumstances

The Wolfpack women’s team, which faces South Carolina on Friday, toppled No. 1-seeded Texas without having a player among the top 90 in the country in scoring.

“Everybody doubted us,” said leading scorer Aziaha James, who noted her team wasn’t ranked before the season.

“We had a little stretch in February,” head coach Wes Moore said. “We lost a couple of road games and I think everybody thought we were gonna fall apart.”

NC State’s men had already fallen apart. They'd lost 10 of 14 and were 17-14 entering the ACC tournament, where they rattled off five wins in five days. As an 11th seed in the NCAA tournament, they have won four more games, most of them against teams many considered superior.

Teams get underestimated like this all the time at the youth level. Kids often count themselves out in games against “better” teams. The Wolfpack men and women remind you why you shouldn’t.

“There’s just been a total switch in our commitment,” said DJ Burns Jr., NC State’s star forward. “Nobody’s being late to things. Nobody’s being a problem on the court. Everybody’s come together.”

Maybe you don’t have a player like the hulking Burns on your team, or five players who score in double figures like NC State’s women. But maybe you believe in yourselves, which can mean everything in youth sports. You don't even have to win.

I coached a Little League game several years ago against a team everyone in the league thought would beat us. While the opposing coach had his team at the field an hour early (for an 8 a.m. game) for batting practice, we skipped the extra hitting and opted for more rest.

We took a few light ground balls beforehand and wound up tying the other team, our confidence growing as the game unfolded and we remained competitive. When it was over, and the other coach dressed down his players for not winning. I spoke to ours about trusting our ability and how the work we had done in practice shone through.

As we have learned from NC State’s teams, intrinsic belief in yourself, especially as it builds over a period of time or number of innings, can be a powerful thing.

4. Like UConn's men, try to embrace the journey and savor the moment

Dan Hurley has felt sad during this year's NCAA tournament, despite going on a 35-3 run as an encore to last season’s national championship.

"I cried a lot today," Connecticut’s head coach said after a 77-52 dismantling of Illinois in the Elite Eight, which included a 30-0 scoring run. “Some of it is fatigue. You're tired.

"The thought of not getting Cam Spencer and Steph Castle to a Final Four was something that you felt a lot of pressure in the last two weeks. We're setting program records in a place where it's hard to do. … There's a lot of pressure to get this team to Phoenix, no doubt."

Hurley’s son, Andrew, a senior for Connecticut’s team, recently told The Washington Post his father has driven himself even harder to win this season than he did last season.

“I didn’t think it was possible,” Andrew said.

If you’ve been in youth sports, you know setting high expectations isn’t confined to Hurley’s level, or to just coaches. We set them for our kid's teams because we think they should win. And if they win, it’s more relief than joy.

As Hurley’s team faces Alabama in Saturday's Final Four, let’s remember the purpose of sports for most of us, and our kids, is the joy we get from them, not the agony we feel from it.

Last weekend, we saw ever-so-briefly what that joy can look like when Hurley and his son embraced.

Andrew is a walk-on who has played a total of 25 minutes this season. Perhaps for at least a moment, his father realized the time we have with our kids on a field or court, whether we coach them or just watch them, is fleeting. We can savor it whether we win or lose, and whether or not our kid is the star.

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5. Like Purdue's Zach Edey and Alabama's Mark Sears, if you don't get what you want in sports, keep trying

It took a long time for Edey to be the star. Now the 7-4 centerpiece of a Purdue team that faces NC State in the Final Four, Edey used to play limited minutes as a high school senior at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, where he had been recruited from Canada.

Purdue was one of three offers he received, according to 247Sports, even at his immense height. He started two games as a freshman at Purdue in 2020-21.

Mark Sears, the star guard for the Alabama team that faces Connecticut in the Final Four, started five games for Ohio his freshman year.

“I probably screwed up not offering him out of high school,” says Alabama coach Nate Oats, who later landed Sears as a transfer. “Not probably, we did screw up."

When kids play sports, coaches and parents often have fixed notions of who the “good” players are. These notions are often ill-conceived, as players develop and grow at their own rates.

From my experience, these players are different when kids reach high school. In the case of Edey and Sears, the pecking order changes in college, too.

“Did I think he was going to be this good?” Oats said. “Nobody did. Maybe his mom did.”

You can always get better. And when you’re young, unlike in the Final Four, there’s always another game to prove yourself.

Steve Borelli, aka Coach Steve, has been an editor and writer with USA TODAY since 1999. He spent 10 years coaching his two sons’ baseball and basketball teams. He and his wife, Colleen, are now sports parents for a high schooler and middle schooler. His column is posted weekly. For his past columns, click here.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Youth sports lessons from Final Four teams, Caitlin Clark and DJ Burns