Monday, February 13, 2012

Gym rats will be leaders who make teams better/MIKE JACOBS COLUMN

From the Evansville Courier Press, February 12, 2012

Growing up in the New York area in the 1970s and '80s, I was raised on the legends of "gym rats" like Chris Mullin.

Mullin eventually finished his professional career in Indianapolis with the Pacers, but long before he was a complementary shooter for Reggie Miller he was a self-made superstar at Xaverian High School and, eventually, St. John's University.

Mullin played when on-the-court intangibles were still valued more than windmill dunks. He wasn't the most gifted athlete, but he had three special qualities that coaches dream of: he could shoot better than anybody on the floor; he could see the game a second before everybody else; and he was the hardest working gym rat you could find.

A gym rat is someone who is always in the gym working on his game. The gym can be a basketball court, the weight room or a soccer field. They always have a ball with them, and are always trying to turn weaknesses into strengths.

Mullin had the keys to both his high school and grammar school gyms, so no excuse that he couldn't work on his game every day. One story is that he went to his high school gym one evening to shoot around and the weather got so bad that he had to spend the whole night.

I always tell players that aspire to move onto a higher standard of play, that what separates players are less often their physical abilities but more often their work ethic, commitment and drive. While sitting around with some friends the other day, we talked about what would have to happen to develop that gym rat mentality.

Here are some recommendations in finding your inner gym rat:

Training versus practice: I was told once that 'practice' is what you do with your team and training is what you do on your own. All gym rats understand and appreciate the fact that they will make strides as players not just at practice with their teammates and coaches, but training on their own.

Some players are happy enough with only expending energy when they are asked to do so by their coach. When your player understands that he or she can grow even more by working outside of practice, they are developing a gym rat mentality.

Soccer Homework: The best coaches can get their players to buy into putting in time away from practice. Sending players home with homework in the same fashion as a teacher reinforcing their student's skills with repetitive exercises can help your players grow rapidly.

Evansville Soccer Club coaches Steve McCullough and Robert Bennett have a 'juggling cup' for their 9 and 10-year-old players. After having players juggle at the end of practice each week, the winner earns a "juggling cup' to take home for a week. Knowing that they will be evaluated weekly in front of their peers, as well as the thrill of winning the cup, encourages the players to train on their own.

Celebrate the gym rat: Players always associate with those that are held in high regard. Make sure that your players have good examples of those who over-achieve because of work ethic and desire.

Coaches and teachers should not only praise those who achieve the highest grades or score the most goals, but also those who improve by putting in the extra time. In most cases, the captain is the player that works hard at the process of getting better, and those qualities become infectious.

I grew up watching players like Mullin achieve success with his skills being his commitment and work ethic more so than being able to jump high or run fast, and it made me believe in the idea of trying to out-work, out-will, and out-want my opposition by minimizing my weaknesses and turning them into strengths.

On a recent recruiting trip, a youth coach said of a player — "He's not really skilled, but he works really hard." I replied that "working hard is the most important skill to have."

When your best players are also gym rats, that's when you know they are truly special.

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