Coaching Student-Athletes with Learning Differences

Joe MKingsbury’s Athletic Director and JV Basketball Coach, Mr. Stephon Hampton, and Mr. Joe Moten, Boys Varsity Basketball Coach, were interviewed following their successful seasons. Winning the 2015 League championships was a remarkable achievement given the fact that Kingsbury lacks a gymnasium. The teams practice on the outdoor basketball court and run drills and do weight training inside the building. Our student-athletes compete in a league consisting of teams from schools that serve students with learning differences, as well as charter schools and private schools without an LD focus.Stephon H

Q. What key factor do you believe contributed to your team making it to and winning the championship?

Stephon Hampton (SH): Our players’ level of intensity made the difference. Last year, we lost the championship game so that was on our minds. This year, we started off slowly, when Capital City took an early lead in the first quarter. I used our first time-out to settle the team down. I told them to maintain their intensity and we’d be okay.

Joe Moten (JM): I’d have to say it was the fact that our players bought into our goals all the way, all season long. We bonded as a team and that didn’t happen in previous seasons. Players learned to trust in their teammates; they got the message that you can’t do it alone.

Q: What is your philosophy as a basketball coach?

SH: My main message is always “Be men first, players second.” Sports are a preparation for everything they’re going to do in life. Never argue with your coach or your teammates, because you’ll never be successful if you argue with your co-workers or your boss. Be quiet when the coach is talking because that’s what you will have to do when you have a supervisor or boss one day. Be on time for practice just like you will have to be on time for your job. Be prepared and ready to learn, in the classroom as well as on the court; this is important in sports and in life. My players know they need to well academically and behavior-wise to play for Kingsbury. Be on the court, ready and stretching by the start of practice. I know the players had bought into this when I was late one day to practice. They were dressed and already warmed up. At the very minute, I knew they were going to be champions.

JM: I make certain our players learn that they are a family first and an individual second. I also emphasize the importance of hard work and dedication. We break every huddle with these words: 1, 2, 3, Family. 4, 5, 6, Hard Work and Dedication. Also, as a coach, I have to model the right behavior. I’m an intense coach and I strive to keep the players excited and to bolster their confidence.

Q: What attributes do you consider important in coaching players with learning differences?

SH: I don’t give them a lot of information at once. I break it down for them. We might practice one specific drill or one play the whole day until they master it. For upcoming games, I’ll position players and tell them where they need to be when certain players come into the game. I might use only two defenses for an entire game, depending on the team we’re playing. For basketball, I’ll use pictures to demonstrate various plays, as opposed to words. In flag football, everyone has a position that is assigned a color. The quarterback learns the plays using the color cards: green, yellow, red, etc.

JM: I don’t ask my players to memorize plays. They use a “read and react” offense and a man-to-man defense. I keep it basic and let them play off of their natural abilities.

Q: What advice do you give your players when they are in the heat of a close game?

BBall TeamSH: I remind them to calm down and remember that they’ve been in this situation before. I tell them to stick to their assignments; not to get distracted.

JM: I give my players the same instructions, whether we’re winning, losing or in a tie: Listen to me. During the championship game, I reminded them that this was their moment. If they listened to me and followed my instructions, it would all work out. At the end of every game, I tell them to leave it on the court. If they’ve suffered a loss, they need to leave it on the court.

Q: What do you enjoy most about coaching?

SH: It’s just the best feeling to see players execute what they’d practiced and what they’d been instructed to do, regardless of whether they score. It’s very satisfying when I put the plays together, they listen and they do it right. My entire team was comprised of 9th graders this year and it was great to see how supportive they are of one another.

JM: The attributes you need to succeed in sports are the same ones you need to succeed in life: hard work, dedication and discipline. I’m always encouraging my players that those attributes will carry over into your everyday life. It’s very rewarding to see that come to fruition when our students go on to college, to graduate and some go on to graduate school.

Q: How do you handle your frustrations during a game?

SH: I sometimes get frustrated, but I don’t panic. If a player does the opposite of what he’s supposed to do, sometimes you just have to laugh.

JM: I know that I have to keep calm and model staying focused. I try not to get frustrated; if I do, I don’t let my frustration show.

Q: What do you do when the referees make unfair calls?

SH: I always tell my players that it’s the coach’s job to talk to the ref if they’re making unfair calls. It’s their job to play basketball. They know to never yell at the ref. My teams have never received a technical foul. The team captain is the only player who can talk to the ref, for clarification, but not to argue. The captain’s job is to keep the team focused and to be “the voice” of the players when talking to the coach. I handle any disputes or discussion of unfair calls with the referees.

JM: I tell my players that it’s my job to worry about the refs. They don’t have to take on that responsibility. They need to play basketball, listen to me and follow my instructions. I’ll handle the refs.

Q: Do you have suggestions for the parents of children with learning differences regarding their child’s participation?

SH: I encourage parents to let their children try sports.Athletics and playing as part of a team provides children, who have learning differences, with another way to express themselves. Sports can help with coordination, with self-confidence, with mobility issues, with making friends, with academic focus and has a host of other benefits. Enroll your child in a sports camp; encourage them to take PE seriously; engage in athletic activities with your child at home and on the weekends.

JM: When it comes to sports, I don’t believe parents should treat a child who has learning differences any differently than a child who doesn’t. Children with LD are constantly being told they “can’t” so it’s not unusual for them to lack confidence. Parents need to remember that LD impacts HOW the child “receives” information; it doesn’t have to impact WHETHER they receive information. Also, it’s not unusual for children with LD to have mobility and coordination challenges. If school offers a sports program, sign your child up. Be encouraging! Make sure their coach is someone who will meet them where they are, in terms of ability, and get them to where they need to be.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

SH: I’d have to say that the hardest part of coaching is those times when you simply aren’t able to play every team member. I try to play everyone who has come to practice, as a reward. I also make a special effort to put them in the game if their parent is at the game. I do let everyone know, whether you get to play or not, you are contributing to the team. You can cheer from the bench and encourage your teammates.

JM: I started Kingsbury’s athletic program in 2002 because we had students who were athletic, but couldn’t or didn’t play on local teams. They had a love of sports and no way to practice, compete or learn to play as a team. It’s been rewarding to watch students, of all levels of athletic ability, learn to play a sport and enjoy the rewards of teamwork.

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