Basketball coach and co-ordinator of the IMG Academy basketball program in Bradenton, Florida, USA, Dan Barto was in India recently, assessing the young talent during the Junior Nationals at the Fr. Agnel School in Vashi, Navi Mumbai. Barto is currently coaching eight Indian student-basketball players who are in the U.S. as part of a scholarship programme of IMG-Reliance, a joint venture between IMG Worldwide and the Reliance Industries.
Four boys (Satnam Singh Bhamara, Sanjeev Kumar, Dinesh Kumar Mishra and Ashiv Jain) and four girls (Barkha Sonkar, Kavita Akula, Pooja Ambastha and Soumya Babbar), who are training in Florida, were selected by the IMG Academy basketball program coaching staff.
The purpose of Barto's visit to India was to assess basketball talent in the Under-14 age group in the country. He took time out to speak to Sportstar.
Question: Your observation about the Indian players at the IMG Academy? How do you compare them with the other trainees?
Answer: In their age group, their overall ability to absorb coaching lessons, their discipline and love for the game is at the same level as the others. They are as competitive as other students in our academy, probably ahead of some of the players from local schools we had played against. We are making tremendous progress on the physical aspect. You can already see the changes in their bodies — they are beginning to add mass to their upper body. They are able to decelerate better, as opposed to just being able to sprint at full speed all the time. They are going to be four of probably our best six players in the team.
You have players coming from outside?
We have had group of kids coming in from other countries, but not more than three. This is the first time that we have had four players from same background and nationality, same age level. We've had may be two kids from England on the older team and two on the younger team, but this is the first time that we will be assessing four kids from same background and nationality and how they differ in their experience.
How much do you think India has to catch up to reach the next level of basketball?
All eight Indian kids (at the academy) understand how to play. They are very coachable. The biggest adjustment they have to make is with regard to their physicality and resting their body after heavy workouts. We spend just as much time in the weights room as on court. For some of these kids that has been a big change and it just makes their bodies very sore, makes them ache in different ways and it takes them a little longer to recover. By January 2011, it will all start to even out.
What do you mean by physicality of boys and girls?
The biggest thing I noticed is that the cardio-vascular strength is very strong in all the kids, especially their conditioning and their ability to run in straight lines. As for their lower body strength, lower body power and lower body endurance, the range of motion is there, but the power in the muscles isn't just there when doing techniques like squaring heavy weights or single leg stability exercises. It results in a lot of bending and flopping and loss of balance. Those are the muscles that allow you to decelerate and slow down. And this is probably the biggest area where they need to catch up in terms of real strength and conditioning.
Can you say the same thing about the skill level in India?
I think, as for the skill level, the differences are in some of the fine motor skill techniques, especially shooting. The reason is that shooting is directly correlated to lower body strength and lower body stability. The coaches understand that is only going to improve considering the strides we have made with the eight Indian kids, especially the guards, their consistency level. Being able to explain to them and show how their legs help in their shooting ability, I mean they have drastically changed their consistency level. When you change consistency level in practice, you can easily see a result in the games.
You say the lower body strength is very poor among Indians. What can be done to improve it from grass-roots level?
I think that is one of the reasons I'm here. To take a look at 30 boys and 35 girls, that is 65 kids. I'm then going to be able to put my eye on the types of programmes that would help towards this end. Then do things that we are doing now and work with the Basketball Federation of India to get some videos produced, educate the sports science people working with the national teams.
What is the absorption level of the Indian kids? Is it as good as kids training there?
The absorption level is extremely high though not better than certain age groups in the U.S. The absorption level of the Indians at the academy – four in the boys section and four in the girls – is extremely high when compared to kids from other countries. We have two from Germany, one from Australia. We have a nice variety at the developmental stage and the groups over there live in the gym.
The group I worked with at Fr. Agnel's, the absorption level was high, but they could not physically perform some of the tasks. Their bodies were just not strong enough to consistently perform some of the activities. That is where I noticed the gap and want to come up with solutions as soon as possible. They are trying to do some of the technical things but all energy and techniques start from the lower part of the body. Their lower body is weak and that is going to affect nearly 90% of the techniques you use in basketball.
Role models are necessary for any sport to catch on. When can we expect an Indian in the NBA or at a top club who would become a role model for the youngsters in the country to emulate?
If you look at the history of American basketball, when you go all the way back to when it first began, it was Dr. James Naismith, John Wood and Adolph Rupp. People do not remember many of the players from the time when basketball really became popular, the first 40 years of the sport's development. But the coaches were remembered, whether it was in the NBA or at the college level.
One of the next steps is for some of the younger coaches here to really make that their goal — to help in the development of basketball and make it popular. Or some of the older coaches to really want to leave their legacy behind, using media acceleration tools like the internet or the BFI and IMG-Reliance to really get their face and name to every 12-18 year-old who wants to be involved in the game. After that the players get developed and are able to compete internally and internationally.
India will be able to take on that next role, just like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and all those guys did in the mid 1980's. That probably is going to be the second phase, where the individual players really start influencing the kids. But before that happens, the coaches have to play their roles.