Step 1: Accept the Game as It Is
Only then can we talk about improving it.
by Clay Kallam
When I first started coaching girls’ basketball back in 1977, I was younger and more foolish than I am now, and I remember a conversation with a mom about how I treated the girls and the game. I confidently said, “I coach them just like they were boys.”
As I grew older, I modified my stance: “On the court, I coach them like boys; off the court, there’s a difference.”
Now, more years down the line than I like to think about, I coach my girls’ high school team very differently than I would a boys’ team, on and off the court. Of course, there are some constants — have fun, play hard all the time, play together — to name just a few, but those who would have girls and women approach the game the same way as boys and men are missing the crucial fact that there are fundamental differences between males and females in our culture. Now whether those differences are bred in the bone, or are a result of how we are raised is an important question, but not one that applies to the very practical, here-and-now state of women’s basketball. Coaches, players, fans and parents must play the hand as it’s dealt, and the first step to improving the status of women’s basketball is to grasp where the game is now – only then can we move forward.
Let’s start on the court, where it all has to begin. After all, if the game itself isn’t fun to watch, then it doesn’t matter about anything else. Political correctness is not going to support the college game, much less the WNBA, nor will better halftime shows or more loud and annoying promotions during timeouts.
First, forget the dunk. Even if a generation of women suddenly appeared who could dunk, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference in the perception of the sport. Anyone who knows anything about basketball knows that the dunk is merely an expression of physical ability, not of basketball skill. It is, however, a very high-percentage shot (more on that later), so it has some marginal value – but a horde of dunking females will not make any substantial difference in the future of the game.
That said, there is one aspect of the women’s basketball that can be improved, and one that would make the game much more fun to watch: Passing. The only real statistical difference between men and women is assist-to-turnover ratio, and the men, despite all the claims about lack of fundamentals, are much, much better in the most critical of all skills: Maintaining possession, and then turning that possession into a quality shot.
Teasing out the reasons for that discrepancy is a column in and of itself, so for now, just mark down upgrading passing and ball control as a simple and direct way to improve the quality of the game, which in turn will ensure its survival and hopefully, growth.
And though there are a lot of other aspects of the on-court play that are worth some discussion, I’ll move on to one other easy fix: Officials need to protect the shooter.
As it is, referees operate under the administrative reality that men and women are the same, and should be officiated the same. This wouldn’t be a problem except that there are physical differences between men and women, especially in upper body strength. What that means on the court is this: Contact near the rim that a male player can power through is not called a foul in either the men’s or women’s game, despite the fact that women do not have the same amount of upper body strength, nor do they stay in the air long enough, to convert after contact. (And men at the college and pro level can dunk, and usually contact cannot prevent the dunk.)
This means more missed layups in the female game, and a style that rewards physical defense more than offensive skill. Acknowledging this physical difference, and instructing officials to protect female shooters around the rim more than they do male shooters would make the game better.
There may be those who feel there are no substantial physical differences between men and women, and that basketball should be played, coached and officiated precisely the same for both (or all, if that’s your preference) genders. That, however, leads back to my 30+ years of coaching, and the hard-won practical lessons learned.
At the high school level, to focus on just one on-court play, girls miss many more layups — either in traffic or out — than boys. They are shoreter and don’t jump as high so the shot is released further away from the rim; they don’t stay in the air as long, so they have less time to adjust their bodies after they leave the ground; and they are less likely to be able to power through contact. So, as a high school girls’ coach, I treat defending layups much differently than I would if I were a boys’ coach. Basically, the strategy is to not foul, and make them make the shot.
The elite teams, of course, make those layups, but the bulk of games are not played against elite teams, so a strategy that would be doomed to failure on the boys’ side makes much more sense on the girls’ side.
Off the court, again for reasons that are not relevant to day-to-day coaching, girls are much more group-oriented than boys, and are less likely to rise above in-team drama than boys. Thus, a girls’ high school coach must be much more concerned with what’s happening off the court than a boys’ coach.
Some, I guess, would consider these two examples sexist, and others would consider the whole idea of this column sexist, but as a coach, player, parent or fan, basketball is not ideological – it is a practical pursuit, and positive results come from dealing with the game as it is, not as it might be, or maybe should be.
And to me, that’s step one for anyone seriously interested in upgrading girls’ and women’s basketball, because if the premises of any argument aren’t based in reality, then the whole exercise is simply a waste of breath. In short, there are differences between men and women, and unless those differences are taken into account, any plan to make women’s basketball better has about as much chance to succeed as a fullcourt buzzer-beater.
To read more of Clay Kallam, and about women’s basketball, go to Full Court Press.