We’ve all coached at least one… the player that simply refuses to pass the ball to their teammates. The player that seems to take a shot on every offensive trip down the court. Having this type of player on your team can turn a seemingly happy season into a downright nightmare if it’s not addressed early and properly.
Youth basketball should be enjoyable for everyone on the team. Not just the couple of players that are more advanced than their teammates (not that being a good player is a requirement of being a selfish player.)
How much fun are the less developed players going to have if all they do is watch their teammate shoot shot after shot each time they’re on offense?
Discussing this topic begs the question…
“What’s the best way to teach a selfish player how to be an effective member of a team?”
We’ll get to this answer… but first, let’s start with the basics…
What Makes Someone a ‘Selfish’ Player?
The biggest mix-up I see is people automatically labelling a player that scores a large amount of points a selfish player. This is not always true.
A player can easily score a majority of their team’s points all while playing unselfishly.
Let me give a quick example…
Earlier this year I coached a player that was far, far better than the kids he was playing against. If he wanted to step onto the court and score 40 points he could. Every single game.
While a little selfish to begin with, he quickly learned to start making the right basketball play. The only thing is, he would make the right play by passing to a teammate, they would miss the shot, and he would rebound the ball and score. He would end up with 20+ and the majority of our team’s points each game.
Is there anything wrong with that? I don’t think there is. He’s simply a product of hard work and being fortunate enough to be more physically developed than his peers.
Being a player that’s worked hard on their game to improve and, therefore, gained the ability and knowledge to score more points does not automatically make a player selfish.
So then what does make a player ‘selfish’ exactly? Let’s break it down…
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘selfish’ as “having or showing concern only for yourself and not for the needs or feelings of other people.”
To translate that to basketball terms, let’s say a selfish basketball player is “a player that is only concerned with their own game and statistics and not the needs or feelings of their teammates and the team as a whole.”
Having a player like this on your team can quickly lead to many negatives like tension amongst teammates, angry parents, lack of ball movement, and selfishness from other players on the team, just to name a few.
So how do we get rid of selfishness? In order to influence a change to this behaviour, we first must understand ‘why’ a player is being selfish. Because only by understanding the ‘why’ behind the selfish play can we begin to determine the solution.
Why are Some Players Selfish?
Players can be selfish for many reasons, but there are a few that stick out the most in my mind…
1. Society has conditioned them to be selfish by putting too much focus on winning
Here are 3 different places kids learn the importance of winning from society at an unfortunately young age.
a. Their coach
How often before a game does a coach put the emphasis on winning to a group of 8-year-olds with statements like… “if we box out and secure the rebounds we can win the game!” or “they’ll beat us if we don’t run hard on defense.”
How about when the players listen to the coach go on a rant after a disappointing loss?
b. Their Parents
They’ve learnt how important winning is to their parents from all the ‘this is what you should have done’ conversations that unfortunately take place on the car ride home.
Kids witness the importance of winning when parents over-celebrate a basketball win with cheers and clapping and compare it to the depressive attitudes parents exhibit after a close loss.
c. Their Idols
Ask any basketball kid who their idols are and, more often than not, you’re going to hear the name of an NBA player. These professionals are out there on the court playing win-at-all-costs basketball.
Players watch them get angry after a loss, ecstatic after a win, and this undeniably rubs off on them. They get the impression that ‘this is how I should feel’ as well.
Now I’m not saying that we should forbid our players from watching professional sports or that coaches should never talk about winning to their team, but I am saying that it gives youth coaches more reason to make it clear that our games are not solely focused on the outcome but are also focused on development and progress.
2. They don’t trust their teammates
A lot of players are selfish on the basketball court simply because they are better players than others on their team and they want to win (this may have something to do with point #1.)
Maybe they’ve put in more hours of practice working on their game. Maybe they’ve been fortunate enough to physically develop earlier than their peers.
Whatever the reason is, competitive players will often come across as selfish because they take more of the scoring burden on themselves in order to improve the teams’ chances of winning the game.
The player isn’t necessarily a ‘selfish player’ since when they play at a higher level with more skilled teammates they have no problem sharing the basketball.
3. They’re searching for approval
How often do you see the youth basketball player immediately spin around after scoring a goal to see the reaction of their parents or coach?
The parents may be seen emphatically clapping with wide smiles on their faces and the coach throwing a fist in the air. Kids love this feeling of approval and there’s nothing wrong with a coach or the kid’s parents being happy about them scoring.
The only problem with this, however, is that the player doesn’t receive the same feedback when they make a great pass or grabs a nice rebound.
Therefore, you can be sure that most youth players are going to take every shot within their range in hopes of eliciting the positive reaction from the parents and coach.
The WRONG Way to Teach Unselfishness
When I ask coaches what’s the best way to teach a player to be unselfish, the overwhelming answer usually is some variation of ‘bench them’ or ‘stick them on the pine until they learn to pass.’
I like to think that the issue is much more complicated than ‘just bench him.’ Is doing so really the best way to teach a 10-year-old how to play unselfishly? I doubt it.
Don’t get me wrong, the bench can be used as a great teaching tool and we’ll discuss how to use it effectively later on in this article. I’ve used it as one plenty of times in the past, but there are definitely better options to try first.
Just quickly, here are a few of the ways some associations and teams try and develop unselfishness that I’m not a big fan of…
1. Scream at them to pass the basketball – Is yelling at a child ever the best way to teach them something? I hope I don’t need to elaborate any more on this.
2. Restrict their points – Some leagues are forced to do this because some coaches will focus on winning at the expense of developing their team. What I don’t like about this concept is players being restricted for being too good. Should a player really be penalised for working on their game and developing better skills than their teammates or opponents?
The RIGHT Way to Teach Unselfishness
Here are 4 steps to take to prevent/stop selfishness by your team or individual players.
1. Try and Prevent it From the Start of the Season
Unsurprisingly, the first step to teaching unselfishness is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. We all know the old saying… ‘Prevention is better than a cure.’
A coach should do this in two ways which I’ll elaborate on…
a. Always encourage your team to ‘make the right play’
The ‘right play’ meaning the best basketball decision based on the situation. If someone is open, pass them the basketball. If you’re open and within shooting range, shoot the basketball. Try to keep it simple.
I should mention that at youth basketball level, I teach that making the right play doesn’t take into account each players’ individual abilities. Because let’s face it… if it did, a star youth player can often have a better chance of scoring going 1 on 4 than their teammate who’s new to basketball has of scoring an open layup.
A coach must emphasise ‘making the right play’ from day one. You can’t bring it up at random intervals throughout the season and assume the players will adhere to it. It must be constantly talked about. It must be one of your core team values.
This philosophy will ensure that it’s not only your star players controlling the basketball and taking all the shots.
b. Don’t make winning a big deal
Another step for preventing selfishness is resist talking about winning too much with your team.
When a star player listens to a coach speak about how badly they want to win they know that the best way to make that happen is for them to hog the basketball and take the game on themselves.
2. Have a Quick Word with the Player During the Game
If the prevention methods don’t work it’s time to directly tell the player to share the basketball more with their teammates.
This isn’t an ‘official meeting’ or anything like that. It’s simply a quick word during or after the game letting the player know that you want them to pass more often and play more of a team basketball game.
You can have this conversation by calling the player over during another players’ free-throws, while they’re on the bench, during a timeout, after the game etc.
When having these quick conversation coaches must give the feedback in a positive way. I recommend using the ‘criticism sandwich’ model. This is simply putting the negative (that you want them to pass more) in between two positives.
You can check out this video of the criticism sandwich.
The feedback you give might be something like… “Hey Johnny, you’re doing an awesome job of getting past your defender but you have to keep a look out for open players on the three-point line when the defense helps. But keep attacking the ring. You’re doing a great!”
3. Talk to the Player in Private Before or After a Game
If the player doesn’t take much notice of your quick word with them (they often won’t during the pressure of the game) then it’s time you make the conversation a little more serious by talking to them in private.
This conversation should be had before or after a game or practice.
Take them to the side before or after practice or a game. Simply say “Hey Johnny, can I have a quick word with you please?”
You must again use the criticism sandwich, but the player will know it’s a bit more official now since you’re having the meeting with them in private.
The conversation could go something like this… “You’re a really good player but this is a team sport and you need to share the ball more with your teammates. I love coaching you and having you on this team but if you don’t start becoming more of a team player then I’m going to have to bring you off the court more often.”
It’s imperative that you don’t have this conversation with them in front of their teammates. Doing so will only embarrass them and make them resent you.
4. They’ve Left You No Choice… Bench Them
If you’ve talked privately with the player and you’ve been consistently emphasising making the right play and they still aren’t passing the basketball then you have no choice but to bench them.
Making sure you’ve completed the first 4 steps is important and a far better option than immediately sitting a player on the bench and hoping they learn their lesson like so many coaches do.
One of the hardest problems is that if the selfish player is one of the best players on your team (they often are) then after your quick word they’re going to think *”The coach won’t actually put me on the bench. Then we’ll lose!”* This is where you must prove that you’re a coach who puts a higher importance on development and player enjoyment than winning by sitting them regardless of how it affects the scoreboard.
To put it simply: You must be willing to sit a selfish player.
Too many coaches say they’ll bench them but when it comes time to do it they refuse because they’re more concerned about winning the basketball game.
Gregg Popovich has a great quote in regards to selfish players…
“A selfish player sits… No matter what the level of talent. And it works. You’ve got to be willing to sit a guy, and he’s got to know you’re willing to do it. Or your held hostage, and it doesn’t work” – Gregg Popovich
I also love these quotes from Dean Smith and Bill Russell…
“You should always sub a player out when you see them not going full speed or they’re playing selfish basketball.” – Dean Smith
“Create unselfishness as the most important team attribute.” – Bill Russell
5. Meet With Their Parents
Now that you’ve begun benching the player you can be sure the parents of the child are going to notice the difference in playing time.
Instead of sitting back and waiting for them to bring it up, I advise coaches to be proactive and ask the parents if they wouldn’t mind sitting down and having a chat with you about their son or daughter.
This shows them that you’re not trying to avoid the problem but are instead willing to work with them and their child to help work out the solution.
Explain to them why their child has been receiving less playing time and that it will continue until they learn to share the basketball with their teammates. You’re a coach that puts the development and enjoyment of the entire team above all else.
If communicated properly (which isn’t always easy), this conversation will hopefully encourage the parents to talk to their child about the situation and will let them know the reasons behind the drop in playing time.
6. Praise Players that Do ‘Make the Right Play’
It’s incredibly important that you reinforce the unselfishness you’re teaching your players by praising those that make the right play regardless of the outcome.
The most important 4 words of the above sentence are ‘regardless of the outcome.’
You must focus on the process instead of results. If a player makes an unselfish pass that leads to a missed shot, don’t get upset about the missed shot, congratulate and encourage the players for making the right basketball play.
Praising unselfishness play will breed more unselfish play. Remember that.
As you can see, teaching unselfishness to a player or an entire team is not some super complicated formula.
Here are the steps again to ingrain them in your memory…
1. Prevent it from the start of the season
2. Quick word with the player during the game
3. Talk to the player privately
4. Use the bench
5. Meet with their parents
6. Praise players that ‘make the right play’
A once selfish player can definitely make the transition to an unselfish player with the right guidance and direction.
Most importantly it relies on the coach putting the development of the team over winning a game of youth basketball. Coaches must be willing to sit a selfish player on the bench. If they aren’t, none of the other steps will ever work.
Encouraging unselfishness on your team will result in a much more fun game for everyone involved.