When many of the biggest minds in women's basketball come together April 7 in Nashville, part of the focus will be on the smallest players in the game.
Youth development is the focus of the first of three panel discussions at the Women's Final Four Summit, where representatives from all levels of the sport -- USA Basketball, the WNBA, the NCAA, high school, Amateur Athletic Union and club -- will gather to discuss the future of women's basketball. Other panels that follow will discuss the business of basketball and the state of women's basketball. All three sessions also will be streamed live at www.ncaa.com/wffsummit.
Topics of discussion at the youth development panel will include how to protect and elevate the game by increasing participation, improving quality of play, enhancement of the overall experience for young players and unifying the youth community.
USA Basketball Women's National Team Director Carol Callan, a panelist for both the Youth Development and State of Women's Basketball sessions, calls it "a very exciting time for the game." The Nashville event will build on the momentum from the Women's Basketball White Paper Summit held in September 2013 at the NCAA national office in Indianapolis, where support for coach and athlete development, grass-roots engagement and expanded partnerships was resounding.
To Callan, having a highly skilled base of youth athletes replenishes and improves the USA National Team pipeline. Other goals include getting young people interested in playing the game for life and learning the lessons of sport on and off the court.
"The only way to move forward is to be inclusive and comprehensive in shifting through the challenges, ideas and strategies with everyone who has a genuine interest in women's basketball," Callan said, noting that continued discussion on the international stage is also welcomed. "Once an investment is made and there is a feeling of ownership, great things can happen."
USA Basketball, the national governing body of the sport and designated link to all basketball organizations, recently developed a youth division to promote, grow and elevate the game.
Youth Program Director Jay Demings reports that USA Basketball is establishing a basketball model for unified coaching accreditation with the values of coach and player development, continued participation, fun and safety as the foundation. To serve an entire country, it's important to consider the differences in how the game is taught, learned and played throughout different regions and at different levels of play, he said.
"We think that embracing this diversity encourages coaches to do the same, propelling them to acquire more knowledge and to take advantage of learning opportunities," he said. "We are in favor of a progressive, blended initiative that highlights multiple coaching techniques through in-person and online training, yet still adheres to a set of universal principles to ensure that our young people are learning safely, having fun and staying in the game."
Having served in many capacities on the youth travel-team basketball circuit, Demings acknowledges the many benefits and opportunities it affords. Challenges arise because there is no set standard or format, which can create confusion and take away from the overall experience. Demings cited the need for balance - not just for the relatively small summer basketball population, but for the 20 million players who make up the basketball community.
How to continue to reach young female players will be another topic of conversation at the Women's Final Four Summit.
Danielle Donehew, associate commissioner for women's basketball for the American Athletic Conference, notes that all stakeholders can make a difference. At the collegiate level, institutions and conferences must work to share best practices in engaging young players in local markets, she said.
"Our coaches are gifted teachers on the basketball court and in life, and our student-athletes have become role-models to countless young people," said Donehew, a former Georgia Tech standout who held various administrative roles at Tennessee. "Additionally, many of our most dedicated fans were once youth basketball players. We need to be sure to take the time to know our communities and consistently build bridges to the youth in our communities."