The coaches love this new guy who’s tall, strong and fast — but he’s not very skilled. My technique is a lot better, and I also understand what’s going on better than he does. But the coaches keep giving him chance after chance. So what’s more important, his physical abilities or my skills? R.J., Santa Rosa
A great question — and to make it really clear what’s at issue, I’m going to rephrase your question. Instead of abilities vs. skills, let’s talk about potential vs. production.
“Potential,” as the saying goes, just means you haven’t done anything yet. But on the other hand, there’s also another old saying attributed to the great French general Na- poleon. Before a major battle, there was talk that the French might lose, and one of the young commanders said “But we have God on our side.”
“God,” said Napoleon, “is on the side of the big battalions.”
In the same way, the sports gods are on the side of talent. That talent, of course, has to be somewhat skilled, but the wide receiver who runs a legit 4.4 doesn’t really need to have a lot of double moves at the high school level – all he needs is a quarterback who can throw the ball a long way. And then if the speed guy learns how to run a couple patterns, and how to block a little, he’s going to be a lot more valuable than a much slower wide receiver who has every move in the book.
So coaches look at kids who are great athletes as potential stars; they look at kids who aren’t great athletes but are very skilled as complementary players. And coaches know all too well that you win games with stars, because a complementary player needs a star to take most of the attention.
Sadly, you can see where I’m going with this. If a 6-1 girl walks into my gym who runs well and has decent hand-eye coordination, I’m going to work with her as much as she wants to help her develop her skills. That 5-9 girl who understands everything that’s going on but isn’t really quick enough to defend on the perimeter is still going to get my attention, but I owe it to my program to see just how good the 6-1 girl can be.
And what that means is I’m going to give her chance after chance, just as your coach is going to give that tall, strong, fast athlete chance after chance. The return on the investment of coaching time and coaching energy into a potential star is exactly the same as paying rookies big signing bonuses — things may not work out as you hope, but the reward is well worth the risk.
One of the unfortunate aspects of sports is that it reinforces the old “life isn’t fair” complaint, but then again, since life re- ally isn’t fair (why wasn’t I born as handsome as Brad Pitt and as athletic as LeBron James?), we all need to maximize what gifts we have and live up to whatever our potential might be.
The tall strong fast kid may never figure out how to play and may never acquire the skills he needs to excel because just like everyone, he has inherent limitations he simply may not be able to overcome. In the end, your production could easily be more important than his potential — but at the high school level, potential generally has the upper hand because if the light goes on for a natural athlete, the whole team gets better in a hurry.
Clay Kallam is an assistant athletic director and girls varsity basketball coach at Bentley High in Lafayette. To submit a question for Behind the Clipboard, email Coach Kallam at email@example.com
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