Five Things I Learned at the Jr. NBA Youth Leadership Conference

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Last month more than 300 grassroots youth and pro team basketball organizers from around the country came together at the Sheraton Grand in Chicago to discuss the state of youth basketball, ways to grow their organizations, and how to use basketball programs to positively impact kids’ lives. The second annual Jr. NBA Youth Basketball Leadership Conference was a celebration of youth basketball, with awards and grants for winners of the program of the year and coach of the year. At its heart, the conference provided a clear-eyed analysis of how to improve the experience for organizers, coaches, parents and participants.

Speakers like NBA legends Grant Hill and Jermaine O’Neal, WNBA legend Jennifer Azzi, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and Dallas Mavericks’ assistant coach Kaleb Canales were among those sharing their experiences and insights. While at LeagueApps I work closely with the Jr. NBA as part of our technology and youth strategy partnership, I spent my time at the conference as an objective audience member curious to hear from the speakers and immerse myself in the event. I’ve shared my main takeaways from the conference below:

 

  • “Be where your feet are.” – Stephanie White, Women’s Basketball Coach at Vanderbilt University

Among the many insights for coaches that came from the “Collective Impact: Giving Back to the Game” general session was this salient message about being present and being of aware of your influence. White spoke about how we often lose sight of where our kids are in their journey, and how we can do a lot more good “when we are all there.”

White was joined on stage by Canales, who was the first Mexican-American head coach in the NBA when he was promoted to interim head coach for the Portland Trail Blazers late in the 2012 season, and Michael Strautmanis, the chief engagement officer of the Obama Foundation. Strautmanis reinforced the message about being present and understanding your importance as a coach and leader when he suggested “remember the why.” He implored the audience to remember why you became a coach, why you are reinforcing a certain drill, and to build the why into the structure of what you are doing.

Coming full circle with the theme of the session, Canales tied together the power of being present with the importance of remembering the why with a message of empowerment, stating that “believing in your kids is the most important and impactful thing you can do.”

 

  • “Culture is so important.” – Billy Welcome, All in Athletics

Billy Welcome has built a basketball powerhouse in Illinois. His Chicago-based organization, All In Athletics, is a member of the Jr. NBA Flagship Network, and has become a beacon of elite youth basketball. Welcome spoke about the importance of culture in engaging girls’ basketball players amid a challenging downward trend in girls’ participation. Girls’ basketball is a vital part of All In Athletics’ business, and the culture of the organization has helped it attract former players to come back and coach his girls’ teams.

Betty Low, the director of community impact for the Sacramento Kings, reinforced this point by identifying how important the team collective is to girls. Low suggested that it may be helpful for organizations to use the power of social media for good by sharing images of girls and their teams. “The more you highlight the good, the more you will get it,” said Low. Tying together Welcome and Low’s points, positivity on social media can actually become a fabric of the culture girls’ basketball organizations create.

Engaging girls and growing participation will continue to be a focus of the Jr. NBA, in part because of the incredible life lessons that playing basketball can teach youth. Mandy Carter-Zegarowski underscored this point when she spoke passionately about how coaches can preach that basketball can be a vehicle for other things girls want to do in their lives. Given the passion of the people involved in the panel and the focus of the Jr. NBA, it seems like only a matter of time before girls’ basketball participation trends upward once again.

 

  • “Driverless cars are already on the streets in major cities of America. How will technology change how youth sports are organized?”  – Jeremy Goldberg, LeagueApps

 

With thought-provoking questions and a compelling look at how technology and innovation can drive the future of youth sports organizations, LeagueApps President Jeremy Goldberg made the case that organizations not thinking towards the future may be left behind.

More than half of the emails (53%) that were sent via the LeagueApps platform in April were automated, a number that has steadily grown. Processes like payment collection, game and schedule reminders by push notification, and even waiver collections are being automated and streamlined by technology as we speak. But it is not just the way that technology impacts youth sports now that is important. The way sports are organized is continually changing, and organizations will need to keep up.

On LeagueApps, 61% of program registrations are coming on mobile, a number that will continue to grow. Is your website mobile optimized? Are you still taking registrations or collecting waivers on paper? As Goldberg made clear during his presentation, organizations that have the right answers to these questions are the ones that will not only survive, but thrive.

  • “Be a relentless experimenter.” – Doug Bernstein, House of Highlights

In 2014 there was an arms race between networks like ESPN and Fox Sports to win the studio highlight show battle. The two behemoths spend hundreds of millions of dollars to fight for viewers across their tentpole shows and platforms. A new state of the art studio for SportsCenter cost $125 million to build. But who won the battle for eyeballs when it came to sports highlights? A 20-year old in his dorm room named Omar Raja.

Doug Bernstein, the vice president of social media at Bleacher Report who led the acquisition of, and now serves as the GM of Raja’s House of Highlights account, recounted this story to underscore the power of social media to build an audience. House of Highlights has the third-most video views of any account on Instagram, and under Bernstein’s direction, Bleacher Report and House of Highlights have become the standard-bearers for sports brands garnering engagement on social media. “Every day that we weren’t testing and learning was a failure,” says Bernstein. That relentless experimentation helped B/R and House of Highlights hit upon posts and messages that resonated with their audience, and ultimately helped it grow.

Another sage piece of advice from Bernstein for those looking to utilize social media to grow their reach is to start with a singular focus on one platform. If you want to reach younger audiences, go to Instagram, whereas if you want to reach parents, stick with Facebook, he suggested. Most important is to stay authentic to your voice and principles. “Don’t be all things to everybody,” Bernstein cautioned.

  • “Teach values and principles.” – Grant Hill

The first session of the conference brought some serious starpower with NBA legend Grant Hill, former WNBA legend Jennifer Azzi, and former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan taking the stage. They spoke about the importance of fun in the youth game and unsupervised play, both of which have taken a backseat to unrelenting competitiveness and structure. But most of all they all stressed the importance of the values and principles that youth players should be learning as a result of playing the game.

Duncan spoke of the importance of coaches teaching the necessary lessons of hard work, sportsmanship, and selflessness, which he tries to do as his son’s 8th grade coach. Azzi followed up by underscoring the importance of playing multiple sports as long as a child can, which has been shown to reduce injury and burnout compared to structured year-round training in one sport.

When asked what his top suggestion for improving grassroots basketball would be, Hill said he would “demand that every organization implement a life skills program.” Prescient as always, the Jr. NBA is actually already doing this with great results as part of the Jr. NBA World Championship, the first-ever global 14U tournament that is underway.

BONUS: “Fall back on the Golden Rule and more often than not you’ll be ok.” – Matt Kanne, Open Gym Premier

During the “Scaling Your Program: Developing a Business Model for Growth” discussion, Matt Kanne, Antonio Perez (Memphis Grizzlies), Sky Hyacinthe (Elevate Basketball), and Omar Faulkner (Georgetown University) made the compelling case that growth is about relationships, culture and focus, as much as anything else.

Perez, who attributed the Grizzlies’ growing influence in the youth space to having  “a singular focus” on youth, affirmed Kanne’s Golden Rule ethos. Treating people as you would like to be treated is a great way to build long-lasting relationships, and as Perez noted, “relationships return results.”

Attendees of the Jr. NBA Youth Leadership Conference were treated to insights like these and many more, not to mention benefitting from the sense of community and networking opportunities that come with being surrounded by organizers with similar goals and challenges. For those who couldn’t make the conference, please consider doing so next year! And for youth basketball organizers that are looking for this great content and other perks that the Jr. NBA has to offer, you can register to join the Jr. NBA now.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

LeagueApps

This piece was written by a member of the LeagueApps Editorial Team. LeagueApps works with the highest calibre of independent journalists and industry experts in the country.
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