Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The things you teach don't necessarily apply to everyone in every situation

A few years ago, Coach K wrote a book (with his daughter) titled "Beyond Basketball."

In a chapter about learning, he tells a story about Tommy Amaker, who he describes as "the first great point guard I ever had at Duke."

He had incredible instincts about the game, particularly on the defensive end. In his first two practices as a freshman, I remember teaching a defensive stance, specifically used when putting pressure on the opponent with the ball.

At the time, Coach K was in his nearly a decade into his head coaching career. He'd been taught -- and he'd taught his players the same -- that the proper way to guard the ball was with your palms up. But that's not how Amaker did it. Amaker was playing excellent defense, but he had his palms down.

Despite the terrific job he was doing on the ball, that Amaker didn't have his palms up bothered Coach K, so he stopped the drill, explained to Amaker that he should put his palms up.

What happened next surprised Coach K.

Amaker asked, "Why?"

"I was stumped," recalls Coach K, before explaining that "with your palms up, you have less of a chance of being called for a reaching foul."

Amaker assured his coach that he wouldn't reach. According to Coach K, "Tommy had better balance with his palms down. He instinctively did not reach where others may have had a tendency to do so. So why not let him do what was more natural to him."

[In 1987, as a senior, Amaker won national defensive player of the year honors.]

As a result, I examined with more scrutiny the way I taught other parts of the game. The lesson I learned was that, with great players, it pays to be flexible. There isn't just one way to do things. From that day at practice, I learned the things that you teach do not necessarily apply to everyone in every situation. And it was a lesson I'd learned from an eighteen-year-old freshman point guard.