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December 9, 2009 > Youth athletes get back to basics

Youth athletes get back to basics

By David J. Nicolas
Photos By William Mancebo

Ryan Cooper, a special education teacher and head varsity coach of Del Mar High School, seemed perfect to lead an elite basketball club.

While attending Piedmont High School, Cooper was selected Sophomore and Junior of the Year. In his senior year, he led the Dons to their second straight title as the Most Valuable Player. His accolades followed him into college where he was a three-time All Conference player at Notre Dame de Namur University.

But he knew that coming back to the high school hardwood in San Jose, as a coach, was different from the hours of practice and stress of playing college basketball. Times were different. Cooper noticed a lack of dedication and commitment to the game, a missing attitude in his days as a player. He decided to meet with local coaches at a Coaches Huddle.

"As coaches, we get distracted with winning," Cooper said. "High school players develop in a culture of winning while other life aspects don't get taught. The Huddle asks coaches to refocus what the kids need to learn as human beings."

The final Coaches Huddle of this year was on Monday, Nov. 30, in San Jose. The FCA tries to motivate athletes and coaches to engage in sports beyond a championship mentality. Clay Elliot, director of the Bay Area division of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, organized the Huddle. The FCA challenges athletes to bring character, culture and courage to any sports they play.

This Huddle's panel included chaplains Jeff Iorg (San Francisco Giants), Adam Ybarra (Oakland Raiders) and Jon Talbart (San Jose Earthquakes). Twenty-five coaches, including Cooper, were in attendance.

"If you're in a good program, your goal is to win games and go to the playoffs. Sometimes I forget how much fun high school is for these kids. It's not all about the basketball," Cooper said.

By encouraging varsity athletes to play with honor and poise, according to Elliot, the FCA hopes that the athletes instill similar attitudes within peers in the classroom. The organization also aims to keep athletes clean of drugs and alcohol. Coaches who participate in the FCA often has their team pledge to be drug-free, a goal more attainable than many players' Division I college dreams.

The chances of a high school athlete competing on the college level are slim. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) estimates that 3.1 percent, or less than one in 35 high school senior boys, will play basketball in a NCAA institution; three in 100 girls will make it to NCAA play; in football, one in 17 have a chance to play; meanwhile, three in 50 of high school players go on to play baseball in the NCAA.

Cooper learned to combine his competitive college background with a new approach to coaching at Del Mar.

"I don't challenge a kid to lock down on defense or score 15 points every night," he said. "We have a goal for no absences or tardies every week. Maybe if I preach character enough, players will own up to their mistakes."

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