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Living The Dream: My Journey Through Italy and Beyond

Jon Yu contributes this blog article on his experience working with Alex Sarama at College Prep. Jon shares his main takeaways and how he used the CLA and Differential Learning during his time in Italy.
By admin
February 29, 2024

Blog contributed by Jon Yu

After graduating with my Bachelor’s of Education degree in September 2022, I did what my parents and many others expected me to do: get a job. I imagined myself following in the footsteps of my mentors, who taught and coached for the entirety of their careers while giving back to the communities they lived and worked in. 

Immersed in Basketball and Culture: Embracing the Constraints-Led Approach in Italy

Two weeks into my new teaching contract, I got a text from Alex Sarama telling me he had an opportunity for someone to go to Italy and work at his College Prep program. Alex was looking for someone completely committed to player development through an ecological dynamics lens. I had been using the CLA and experimenting with it while coaching my youth club teams, but there was so much more that I had wanted to learn. Sorry to my students, but I had to go!

So, off I went to a small-town in Northern Italy and embarked into the unknown. This was my chance to dive deeper into learning about ecological dynamics, the constraints-led approach and differential learning from someone who I had followed and respected deeply. Not only was the opportunity to learn and be immersed 24/7 in basketball a dream, but I also wanted the chance to experience a culture and history I had only learned about through dated textbooks in high school. I was committed to making the absolute most of my time in Italy.

Player Development in Action: Enhancing Shooting Adaptability and Decision-Making

In my role as a Player Development Coach, I helped lead morning player development sessions, while also working with players that were injured (shoutout to my guy Oskar Guziak for being hurt almost the entirety of my time there). The positive side of O.G having an ankle sprain was the opportunity to experiment with different forms of differential learning as he went through the recovery and rehab process.

During my player development sessions, I used different types of shooting games and challenges incorporating the CLA and DL to enhance shooting adaptability. Rather than working on shooting through mindless reps with no variability, decisions, or pressure, I used different types of constraints to provide players with contextual reps. These activities promoted adaptability within shooting by also re-creating the affordance landscapes players are more likely to encounter within the game.

Creating Positive Experiences: Fostering Joy and Growth for Our Players

The video above is an example of two activities I used in my player development sessions. The second example in the first video is one of my favorites as you can hear one of the players yell while his opponent gives a bit of friendly trash talk with a “C’mon Dane!” as they are lined up shoulder-to-shoulder. The competitive, yet joyful, nature is an environment that I strived to create while working with the Prep players.

At Prep, 20 players from 12 different countries all came to Italy to become better basketball players. A huge part of Prep’s mantra was to create a transformational environment, and I was committed to creating positive experiences and memories for them throughout their time with us. To move away from home as a teenager for basketball is not easy, and I didn’t want them to feel like the game was becoming a “grind”. This was a common objective that all the Prep coaches tried to keep in mind when designing programs and activities. 

Gaining Inspiration and Skills: Learning the Art of Coaching at Prep Academy

In addition to working with players on the court, I developed some new skills such as using Synergy for the first time and helping Alex cut clips for a presentation he gave to an NBA front office about the methodologies he used at Prep. I was able to get a front-row seat to a masterclass on the “what, “why,” and “how” of contemporary skill acquisition in basketball.

Back in my home of Vancouver, Canada, I have not met any coaches who have fully adopted the CLA. Seeing it being used with high-level players gave me a ton of inspiration and ideas to use back home with my AAU Club team in the spring and summer. Being able to coach at Prep also changed the trajectory of my career, providing me with an opportunity to progress onto a professional coaching role in Vietnam! I’ll be building on the ideas I learned at Prep through my new role as Player Development Coach for the Saigon Heat.

The Journey Continues: Coaching in a New World

Combining the use of the CLA with teaching/learning about defensive coverages and coverage solutions was one of the biggest takeaways from my time in Italy. Being able to design learning environments through small-sided games and manipulating task constraints to see players become alive problem-solvers is something that I gained a great appreciation for. It was a pleasure to work alongside Prep’s talented coaching staff of Alex, Jonas De Bruyne, Dani Gonzalo, Giacomo Cocchini and Adam Omiecinski. Coaching and teaching really is a science and seeing it done at a high level, day-in and day-out, for three months was an unbelievable learning experience.

My three months at Prep were some of the best of my life. All because I decided to take the risk of literally quitting my day job and leaving my loved ones behind to learn and grow as much as I could. I still find it surreal to say that basketball has now taken me to Italy and Hungary (with weekend trips sprinkled in to Switzerland, Paris, Milan, Florence, Pisa, and one of my favorite places in the world, Arona).

Lessons and Aspirations: The CLA and the Path Ahead in Coaching

Since coming home and reflecting on my experiences in Italy, my focus moving forward is to continue learning about and implementing the CLA within my coaching. I want to continue improving my ability to design those learning environments with thoughtfully manipulated constraints so that my players can be prepared for whatever they see within competition. I also want to try to share what I’ve learned with other teachers and coaches at all levels of basketball. At the end of the day, our goal is to create positive experiences while helping our athletes learn and improve at the game. This is the goal I have for helping grow the game in Vietnam.

Listen to Jon on the Transforming Basketball Podcast!

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