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Mike DiMauro: Youth sports are for teaching, not winning

Feb. 14—Leave it to your humble narrator to manage a snit amid what was the greatest basketball play he's ever witnessed.

Indeed, of all the gin joints in all the world ... there was my son making his first rec league basket a few weeks back now. A 15-foot jumper. Splash. All these years covering everybody else's kids and now I get to experience their same joy. Pretty terrific.

So why the snit?

The opposing team was playing zone defense at the time.

In middle school-aged, rec league basketball.

Yes, there are things I hate more. But it'll take me a while to think of any.

Straight up: The focus of youth/rec league sports must be on teaching fundamentals and not winning. Zone defenses for a bunch of kids who don't understand the principles of man-to-man defense yet betrays the entire point. We are supposed to be teaching them how to play, not staring at scoreboards.

Now I get the idea that many youth and rec league coaches are moms and dads who may not understand the principles themselves. And so while we should absolutely thank them for their time, we may need to teach them the fundamentals, too. My son was yawningly open when he made the greatest basket in sports history because the other team had no idea how to move around in the zone, let alone guard the ball.

You may dismiss this as nitpicky. But I'm watching participation levels in high school sports drop significantly, especially in small public schools. Example: Valley Regional's girls' basketball team made the state finals last year and didn't have enough kids for a varsity team this year. How does that happen? Easy. Numbers are decreasing in many sports, not just basketball.

Kids are leaving for schools of choice, prep schools or simply specializing in one sport, leaving coaches scrambling to fill rosters. The best way to promote the idea of multiple sport athletes is to properly teach the games at young ages. Basketball is not just shuffling your feet in a 2-3 zone and jacking up 3s. If they can appreciate the nuances, they may be inclined to keep playing.

It's on varsity coaches in their towns to — here's a word from educationspeak — collaborate with the coaches in the youth and rec programs so that 1) fundamentals are taught, and 2) they are taught properly. There is no zone defense until John Wooden's "ball, you, man" is understood and executed. I'm sure there are examples in other sports as well.

I'm not saying that's easy. Egos get in the way. But varsity coaches need to be excited and immersed in their youth and rec leagues. Varsity coaches should be at middle school games, rec games, Little League and Babe Ruth games, imparting their knowledge as necessary. The kids have never needed it more. And frankly, neither have high school coaches who need to start building relationships with the kids at younger ages.

It struck me that playing a zone defense in rec league isn't necessarily lazy. It's just easy. Easier to play and teach. Except kids need to be taught deeper and necessary fundamentals at young ages. And we need to find the right people to do so.

When I'm czar of the universe, nobody will be keeping score at youth/rec league games. We may have a clock, but no score. That way, when the ball is advanced up the court, the kids will be focused on moving without the ball, setting good screens and passing to their teammates, since there's no score being kept.

It won't happen, of course. But a guy can wish.

I have no illusions about Sonny growing up and suddenly becoming Oscar Robertson, particularly when his dad has the athletic ability (and demeanor) of Oscar The Grouch. And while I'd certainly like to thank the opposing coach for leaving him wide open a few weeks back, I'd rather we tried a lot harder to teach the kids a better way to play.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro