COVID-19 Closeup: Pat Sullivan
Subject: Pat Sullivan, St. Francis teacher, Brock men’s basketball assistant coach and Niagara Tigers travel team coach and co-founder.
What would you be doing right now with coaching/administrating Niagara Tigers travel basketball if the pandemic hadn’t hit? I would be training with kids about 16 hours a week. We would have been to a few events and evaluated what our players and teams needed to improve upon and be hard at work on those areas. Certainly a lot of planning with regard to training and the logistics of travel. At this point, we would be heading into some of our final events and gearing up for the Canadian National Invitational event in mid-July. We would be constantly evaluating what we are seeing from individuals and teams in game situations and tailoring our training to address concerns and improve upon strengths.
What are you doing now with Niagara Tigers basketball now? Since May, we have been holding weekly ‘Tiger Talks’ on Google Meet which have been a combination of guest speakers and some teaching using virtual coaching boards and video. We have asked the kids to put together clips of some of their favourite players and what they can learn from them. I think the kids have really enjoyed it. We have had some great people on such as T.J. McConnell of the Indiana Pacers, Leo Rautins, Greg Francis of Canada Basketball, professional player Simi Shittu, coach Manigat of the Brock Badgers, and, most recently, coach Charles Kissi of the Raptors 905. The kids have learned a lot from each of these individuals as they shared their experiences with regard to player development and achieving goals in basketball and in life. We also created a Google classroom where we post various workouts and instructional videos the kids can utilize. Our kids have also posted some of their own workouts to try and push each other to be better.
As coaches, we get together on google meet to discuss best practices and discuss where we want to go in terms of different basketball concepts. We are monitoring new developments and hopeful that we might be able to provide some safe training for our kids and teams in July following guidelines from our health agencies and basketball Canada.
What is the biggest obstacle to basketball training during the pandemic? Obviously the opportunity to be live on the court with the players and coaches. Nothing can ever replace the ability to work with a player and/or team in a live interactive environment but we have said from the beginning we will respect and follow the guidelines set out for us by Niagara Health and our government. I am very proud of how our kids have handled the setback and we have encouraged them as always to make the best of a bad circumstance.
What do you miss the most about the pre-pandemic world of travel basketball? Practice/training has always been the most enjoyable part of being a coach for me. I love being in the gym and helping kids become better players and people. Watching kids work together to accomplish individual and team goals inspires me to give everything I have to support them. Working with our great coaches collectively is also something I really miss.
I miss motivating kids and challenging them to be better players and more resilient individuals and sharing a lot of laughs along the way. I also miss watching our players perform against top-flight competition and demonstrate some of the things we have been working on. We were very excited about the potential of our teams this year and I really feel for all of them. I miss the constant challenge of finding the best way to help kids improve and improve myself in the process.
What do you miss the least about the pre-pandemic world of travel basketball? Organizing, collecting fees, booking hotels, figuring out schedules and driving long distances. I hate driving!! My favourite part is when all the kids fall asleep in the first hour and you are left talking to yourself for the next seven. I also don’t miss waking up in the middle of the night figuring out a way to help our kids handle pressure more effectively or understanding spacing on offence. My mind doesn’t shut off when I am deep in the middle of a basketball season.
What is the biggest thing wrong with travel basketball in Ontario? An over-emphasis on winning, particularly at young ages at the price of development. Zones and traps are highly effective at young ages but often take away from teaching kids what will be more important in the long run which is understanding defensive fundamentals and developing individual skills. Most of the ‘best’ teams employ a number of different presses and traps which take advantage of the lack of strength and experience of the majority of kids. When your team is already at a disadvantage in terms of size and athleticism, it becomes really difficult not to take the same approach.
Is there an easy way to fix the problem? There is never an easy way to fix problems in youth sport. There is too much passion involved. Parents love their kids and want them to succeed in everything they do. Parents are highly protective and generally overprotective and have a hard time being objective. That creates a tremendous amount of intensity coupled with a competitive environment. Solutions start with strong leadership from organizations and coaches who are consistent and demanding with regard to expectations and establishing priorities. A lot of coaches see their value as coaches only tied to winning and fail to coach with a developmental mindset. This may lead to short-term success but rarely allows coaches to have the type of significant impact they can have on kids in terms of character development and long term growth and improvement.
Is there a hard way to fix the problem? You could make zones illegal at the youngest ages but also not spend too much time enforcing it. Just make it a rule and for those who choose to ignore it, so be it. If not, it will become a sea of discord as coaches debate what is and what isn’t a zone. I have some faith that the majority of coaches know that this is important and would follow the rule and you just have to live with those that need to win at all costs. It won’t solve the issue but maybe it is a step in the right direction. You would hope that eventually, coaches that don’t buy in would feel alienated as teams might refuse to invite them to tournaments or exhibition games.
What would be one suggestion to make travel basketball in Ontario better? Encourage individuals right out of college/university to be coaches at youth levels instead of creating another ‘training’ business. This would improve the level of play and develop a greater emphasis on giving back to the kids and the game. I am not against people being compensated for their talents over time but establish yourself and invest your time in the game and people first. There is so much to learn about teaching this game effectively that can only be learned through experiencing it. We are losing a ton of potentially great coaches who instead are motivated by the opportunity to make money from the game through youth sport immediately.
Has the pandemic changed how you will approach your coaching in the future? I have recognized how as coaches we might utilize technology more effectively in terms of watching video over conferencing platforms. We now have the skills to get together without having to all be at one place at the same time. I have probably watched more than 50 clinics during the quarantine so I will certainly utilize some of the new ideas I have picked up which could be as simple as a shooting tip or as complicated as developing leadership qualities. But in general, I will still really focus on being a positive influence in a young person’s life through basketball.
What is the first thing you are going to do when life returns to normal? Travel. I love to travel with my family. The pandemic started for us with cancelling a March Break trip to the Bahamas. This marked the first time we had not been away since our kids were born. It took us a while to get over that one but it was the right call. For an Irish guy, I tan pretty well and I can be really lazy when I have the opportunity.
What daily activity do you miss the most? I would have to say coaching but I really miss the freedom of choice more than one particular thing. I have been able to exercise which I would miss but outside of that, I don’t have a huge social agenda. Basketball and my family.
What guilty pleasure do you miss the most? Friday night restaurant outings with the family. Fighting with my kids to eat their food that I paid for, get off their phones, and talk to us. We have been getting takeout weekly but it’s not the same except for the fighting about eating food, the phones, and the talking to us part.
What is your favourite outfit to wear around the house if you are working from home? Hoodie and shorts or track pants if it’s chilly. No brainer!!
What do you do to replace the time spent involved in coaching? Lounging in the backyard on all the expensive furniture my wife has bought online during this pandemic. I must admit that the slower pace has been great for me in terms of not always being on the go and just hanging with my kids and my wife watching shows, playing games, and listening to music. School has been crazy busy just trying to communicate with kids from a guidance perspective without the ability to call them down to your office as normal. Tasks are much more time consuming and challenging. Chasing my dog, Murphy, who has my shoes has also consumed a lot of my free time. Preparing for the Brock basketball season with Willy and the coaching staff has also been a labour of love.
Are you most likely to be a hunk, chunk, drunk or sasquatch when the pandemic ends? Hopefully at least a hunk with my wife. Doing my best to avoid the chunk. Not much of a drinker and sasquatch has passed me by for sure.
What is the worst habit you have picked up during the pandemic? Getting up really early and starting my workday and checking my school email right into the evening.
What is the best habit you have picked up during the pandemic? Same… I have been able to cram a lot of work and activity into each day.
What is something good about yourself you have discovered during the pandemic? I think that I confirmed that I am willing to sacrifice things for the good of others. I always felt that I was built this way but this has provided a real test. Our true character is always revealed through adversity.
What is something bad about yourself you have discovered during the pandemic? I am working on becoming a better listener. Instead of waiting for my turn to talk, I am consciously trying to listen attentively to others. My family says I have a lot of work to do.