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USA Basketball Takes A Holistic Approach To Building A Team

  • Date:
    Jun 1, 2015

During the first few days of the 2015 USA Basketball Men’s U16 National Team training camp, the participants not only took part in two practices each day, they also sat through several mini-seminars on topics as varied as the meaning of representing your country, sports psychology and learning how to manage money wisely. 

USA Basketball schedules these seminars in order to help educate and build the whole person. USA Basketball is not just focused on winning gold medals -- although that is extremely important to the organization -- it wants athletes who attend training camps to become better people and multi-dimensional athletes.

“We care not only about the individual leaving this program a better player than he was when he came in, we also want all of them to leave with a few life lessons,” said B.J. Johnson, USA Basketball assistant men’s national team director. “We want to equip them with the tools to help them make the best decisions in life.

It’s the holistic approach; we want to help build the whole athlete and in doing so, we build a better team.”

The first of these sessions took place on Thursday evening prior to the first team meeting when the athletes met with a sports psychologist, who took the group through a series of team-building exercises, talked about how to handle and get better through adversity, how to elevate your teammates on and off the court in order to help maximize the team’s success, among other topics.

“The sports psychologist made us use our minds in different ways than just basketball,” said Charles O’Bannon Jr. (Bishop Gorman H.S./Las Vegas, Nev.). “He showed us that there is more to what we’re doing besides just basketball.”

On Friday morning U.S. Marine Corps Reservist Gunnery Sergeant David Bennett, who has deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan, gave a short presentation on the meaning of representing your country, something he takes very seriously. He not only spoke of troops with whom he closely worked who were gravely injured, but also of the local children he met and befriended while on patrol.

“It was pretty powerful stuff,” said Brandon Johns (East Lansing H.S./Lansing, Mich.). “It just had me thinking about how people put their lives on the line to represent our country. Basically just how they represent our country and how it’s an honor for them to do it.”

Johns became almost speechless when asked if stepping out on the court with U-S-A across his chest has more significance after listening to GySgt Bennett.

“I don’t even know how to explain it,” Johns answered. “I don’t even know … it’s unexplainable. Just to know that I’m out here playing for my country and somehow contributing to it. It’s pretty powerful.”

“He really made me open up my eyes and realize how good it is to be representing my country and what it means,” echoed Carte’Are Gordon (St. John Vianney H.S./St. Louis, Mo.). “He said people are laying out their lives over there and we get to represent our country through basketball, which is great.”

Another very impactful lesson was one taught by J. Massey, a former financial adviser who, through a string of bad luck, lost everything. He built himself back up from nothing and now tries to pass along his knowledge to young people in hopes that they will not make poor financial choices later in life.

“We learned how to invest better, what people do with their businesses and how to watch your money,” said Gordon. “It was good because if we don’t know any better, we can make bad decisions with our money. He told us about how this one NBA player just lost $20 million from not knowing how to invest right. So, it’s good to learn that stuff now, so in the future, if we’re making money, we’ll know how to use it and keep it.”

In addition to the seminars, USA head coach Don Showalter, who coaches at Iowa City High School (Iowa), meets prior to each practice session with the 2015-16 USA Junior National Team members at the camp. In these team meetings, Showalter not only discusses the Xs and Os of that particular practice session, he imparts bits of wisdom. He normally gives the athletes two items per session. One is dubbed ‘mind candy’ and the other is ‘winning thoughts.’

Saturday night’s mind candy was: The thing that drives all real success is passion and enthusiasm for what you do. While his winning thought was: Hard work is a crucial component to success.

After Showalter imparts these words of wisdom, he calls upon an athlete to explain what it means. He might ask two or three athletes to chime in with their opinion.

“It really helps bond us together,” said Jalen Hill (Corona Centennial H.S./Corona, Calif.). “When it bonds us together, it makes us play better because we know each other as a person off the court. When we know each other and have those bonds off the court, we play better on the court.

“I only knew two of these guys coming in, and now I know everybody by name,” added Hill. “It’s really nice to make some new friends. Even after we’re done, we can still be friends off the court.”

Not only does it help teammates bond, Showalter’s lessons have lasting effects beyond molding 12 individuals into a gold-medal winning team.  A fact that is not lost on O’Bannon.

“Coach Showalter’s thoughts of the day shows us what we need to do and helps us learn what we need to do to be successful later in life,” O’Bannon said. “Not just for now, but in our future as we grow up to be adults.”

Following each practice session, Showalter pulls everyone together in what some refer to as a circle of trust, and calls on various athletes to tell the group what was good or bad about that day’s practice. Sometime Showalter wants a kid to tell a teammate what he did well that day. Other times he asks an athlete to recall that day’s mind candy and relate how the athlete worked it into his practice. 

These might seem to an outsider looking in like needless exercises.

But, not to USA Basketball.

After all, USA Basketball has always tried to fill its teams with character, not characters.


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Correction: This article originally listed Robert Kiyosaki instead of J. Massey as the former financial adviser who spoke with the USA team. Kiyosaki is the creator of the game Cashflow, played by the athletes following Massey's seminar.

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