EJ Bates is father and coach to the top-ranked 15-year-old basketball player in the world. Still, he is not immune to the traditional challenges that come with being a youth sports coach.
Every morning, thousands of youth sports coaches wake up facing similar predicaments.
In a world filled with constant demands and responsibilities, balancing a full-time work schedule on top of being a full-time parent is a big enough struggle for most adults worldwide. That includes the daily, somewhat monotonous tasks that can get overlooked in the madness; meal preparation, laundry, mowing the lawn, paying bills, appointments, errands, and whatever is left of a social life.
Throw in coaching responsibilities multiple times a week? There isn't a minute left to spare.
The daily sequence of events that coaches face differs from sport to sport and season to season, but the story is the same; dedicating part of your life to coaching your son or daughter in youth sports is a huge commitment that takes consistent time, effort, and patience. Not all adults are equipped with the ability to coach, and depending on the age group and type of sport, it can be next-to-impossible to mesh together different personalities.
Coaching a youth team to compete at a high-level and consistently win? That's a whole different story.
As the Director and Head Coach of BATES Fundamentals, established in 2008, Elgin Bates faces these same dilemmas every day. Just like all coaches, ‘EJ’, as he typically goes by, juggles most of the previously-listed life demands while coaching hoops.
However, there’s a wrinkle that objectively defines Bates’ coaching situation as unique;
His son, Emoni, is the best 15-year-old basketball player in the world.
Simply put, Emoni is a generational talent. The 6-foot-10 budding high school sophomore is widely regarded as the best basketball prospect in the world regardless of graduating class, an opinion that is backed up by watching any of his video clips from this spring. His ‘game’ makes you think of Kevin Durant, and his fire and passion scream Russell Westbrook. Simply put, if your name is on the front AND back of your jersey in the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League, something is going very right.
Emoni is an incredible talent on the court. After being exposed to EJ’s coaching strategy and structure, it’s easy to see why Emoni is constantly improving on his God-given ability. Sure, fathering and coaching the top-ranked hooper in the world is an experience individually unique to EJ, but his day-to-day philosophy and routine are about as relatable as it gets.
“I’m old school,” Bates confessed.
The schedule is different every weekend in grassroots basketball. The season, which typically goes from March through July, includes constant travel across the United States. Some events are two days, some are longer. Bates and his squad just endured one of the more grueling trips of the summer.
“We just got back from six days in Vegas,” an exhausted Bates admitted as the conversation opened. “That’s a long time in Vegas when it’s 111 degrees."
With their final tournament of the season now complete, Bates was asked to break down a typical week as the BATES Fundamentals’ sideline general. How does he prepare? What are his biggest challenges? How does he handle the target on your back that comes with being the father to a prized prospect?
Bates began to detail his most important factors to coaching efficiency, and what followed was an in-depth insight into a variety of different of coaching focal points from one of the brightest minds in youth basketball.
EJ Bates (left) & son Emoni (right)
If BATES Fundamentals plays on a Friday, preparation starts immediately on Monday. For most grassroots teams coming off a three-day event, Monday is a rest day. On Bates’ squad, it would be wise not to confuse a ‘rest day’ with a day off.
“Prior to an event, we always try to see who our opponents are,” Bates said. “On Monday, we always try to get footage on teams and try to capitalize on that during the course of the game.”
Scouting and watching footage is a highly-valuable commodity for Bates’ players, and it has recently become a point-of-emphasis for his 15-year-olds.
“The transition from 8th and 9th grade,” Bates said of when they started to dive into film. “Just being able to dissect your opponent and what they do well, and what their weaknesses are. You can get six or eight points off a weakness.”
Paying attention to detail is in Bates’ blood, and he’s taken it upon himself to instill the same mindset in his players.
“At the end of the day, (being prepared) is huge,” Bates said. “That could be the difference in the outcome of the game. If you're able to capitalize and take advantage of them, that's a must.”
Tuesday and Wednesday include more of the same as far as scouting preparation, and Bates’ players do a variety of different exercises to stay loose.
“Physically and mentally, we are trying to get our bodies ready (during the week),” Bates said. “We try to do some yoga sessions, different cardio exercises. The most important aspect is that your mind is loose, the body is loose, but you’re focused at the same time.”
Before coaching is a possibility at this level, each member of the coaching staff needs to ensure that they can get the necessary time off work. Most tournaments run Friday through Sunday, so traveling with the team requires at least one day of paid time-off for each coach. Different sports tell a similar story as far as travel goes, and it becomes a bigger issue as the tournaments get bigger. The kids get older and the competitiveness-level rises, and that means a massive amount of travel, just like the Bates’ recent trip to Vegas.
Luckily for Bates, this is where he has a leg up on the competition. He runs BATES Fundamentals year-round, operating as the lead skill and development trainer for hundreds of local youth in Ypsilanti, Michigan. This means basketball is his life.
“(Scheduling around work) is not bad for me, because it's all rolled into one,” Bates said. “With my skills and development training, all of my parents know my schedule, so I'm able to work around my schedule.”
“Being able to set your own schedule - there’s nothing like it.”
Bates doesn’t have to stress about it himself, but he certainly sees the travel issues for his assistant coaches Elijah Rozier & Antonio Kynard, and the parents of his 15-and-under squad.
“I know it's a struggle, one of my assistant directors struggles with it,” Bates said. “He's smart about it, he schedules his time. They have to be on their game with scheduling, they know what time they need to use, and they're still in a good position when they come back from events, and usually have time left over.”
Bates appreciates the unselfishness from his coaches and is always down to assist parents.
“You have rookie parents that certainly don't understand the travel schedule,” Bates said. “We work with the parents, that's our job, we're here to help the kids. If we have to look after someone, that's not a problem.”
Regardless of the sport, juggling work and youth sports is a constant battle.
“It’s definitely a sacrifice that everyone deals with,” Bates concluded.
A multi-hour plane ride on Friday is usually followed by a night game, usually tipping after 6:00 PM local time. Rest is still the focus for the players, and once the plane lands, the team turns on ‘game-mode.’ The 10-man squad takes their last review of their scouting notes, then takes the floor against another 15-and-under Nike team that is stacked with future Division I Talent.
“For the most part, we try not to worry too much about what the opposition does,” Bates said, noting that games get played very quickly. “We try and focus on what we do. That’s the most important part of every session. As long as we stick to our game plan, we are pretty tough to match, especially if you are prepared for them making certain adjustments.”
BATES played four sessions this spring on the Nike EYBL circuit, racking up a 15-5 record and a berth to bracket play at the illustrious Peach Jam in mid-July. At that event, Emoni averaged 32.3 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 4.0 assists while shooting 54.5 percent from the floor. Genesis Kemp, Javaughn Hannah, and Orlando Lovejoy each enjoyed standout tournaments, and while the stats suggest that the attention should be on Emoni - and it certainly is - he wishes that some of the focus would be shared. This is music to his father's ears.
“One thing about Emoni, he'll always make it about someone else,” Bates said. “He wants (the media) to highlight someone else, he loves playing for his teammates.”
You get some guys that believe in those energy drinks, you get that one quick jolt, then it wears off … I call it ‘heart attack.’
EJ Bates, BATES Fundamentals
Regardless of where the media puts its focus, Bates knows that it’s his job to keep his team locked in. A typical Nike EYBL session consists of 4-5 games over three days, so keeping his team healthy, rested, and well-fed is of the utmost concern for Bates and his staff. After their first game ends, one thing is on their mind.
“Food, brother!” Bates said. “After Friday night games, we eat immediately.”
Bates’ focus is always on having his team well-nourished throughout a tournament.
“I make sure they have their snacks if they have two games in a day,” Bates said. “In between games, we make sure we replenish with the proper nourishment. You NEED to eat and replenish your bodies. You see some of these guys break down.”
Friday night games are usually followed by a Saturday morning contest. Bates usually rents a house or gets a hotel block, which means his squad has formed a close-knit bond off the court. The bus parks, the kids eat, and the relaxation begins.
“We get back, whether to the hotel or renting a house, we shower, I get the laundry done and our guys just relax,” Bates said, highlighting video games and TV as the go-to outlets to ‘turn off.’
“I make sure they are in bed on time,” Bates said. “Our guys understand the importance of qualify rest, I make sure of that. Being a 15-year-old, it's adequate to get eight hours, so that’s what we shoot for.
Bates’ duties continue immediately upon waking up.
“First thing in the morning, I'm up making breakfast,” Bates said. “Pancakes, eggs, sausage. I make sure they eat well prior to their morning game.”
As far as hydration goes, Bates is about as old-school as it gets. Kids can’t be coached if they aren’t on the court, and he’s stubborn about what his players put in their bodies.
“I'm not a fan of pop, gatorade, none of that,” Bates said. “I'm a big water guy. Look at how much of your body is made up of water. You see guys cramping up, that's just too much sugar intake.”
The more the sports drink industry develops, the more Bates stays the same.
“You get some guys that believe in those energy drinks, you get that one quick jolt, then it wears off … I call it ‘heart attack.’” Bates said. “You'll go to my cooler, you'll see grape juice, bottled water, apples, oranges, a lot of fruit. Always natural.”
According to Bates, the importance of knowing your limit as an athlete is extremely important. This happens to be somewhat of a struggle currently for his son, who was born with a tireless work ethic and a drive to get better. Bates has made it a focus to hone that energy and not let his son overwork himself.
“(Work ethic) has always been there for (Emoni),” Bates said. “He has always been a student of the game, but also a hard-worker that wanted to carry that load. He wants as much responsibility as he can handle.”
“It's great to have, but at times as a parent, they’re working too hard,” Bates said. “You have to figure out ways to be more efficient and work smart to conserve some of that energy. At this age, he loves all challenges. It's hard for him to grasp that, but it's coming. You hope it comes sooner than later, but he's starting to catch on to what I mean about efficiency.”
Bates is a former pro and has played basketball nearly his entire life. When asked about what he’s improved on as a coach after reflecting on the season, Bates turned his focus to, well, focus.
“The thing I turned on is just to be more conscious and be more aware of the nuances of the game,” Bates said. “At some point in the course of the game, you're going to have a one on one matchup. Now its time to focus and reflect back on your studying. What does this guy do well? Can he shoot off the dribble? Can he shoot out of both hands? Those are things that I need to be conscious of and steer my players to their weaknesses. That's a direct reflection of my coaching. I can help control if they’re ready or not.”
With Emoni on their roster, it was a certainty that they’d have a target on their back and would be getting every opponent’s best shot. Not every youth team faces this type of pressure, and while preparing his team for sellout crowds and non-stop media wasn’t necessarily expected, Bates quickly put it in perspective.
“We embrace it all, just due to the fact that we know it comes with the territory,’ Bates said. “It hasn't been too bad though. I tell every kid, whenever they step on the floor, be prepared for everyone's best shot. No one steps on the court to lose.”
For some of the opposition, the focus is on beating Emoni, and not BATES Fundamentals.
“So many people want to say they beat Emoni,” Bates said. “And that's okay, but the thing I don't like about that, is you beat BATES Fundamentals. You beat the team, you didn't beat Emoni. That's the only thing I don't like about some of the headlines and some of the stuff I read and see. Don't single out a player from my team. We are a team.”
Bates continued to paint a picture of a rampant problem across youth sports, not just basketball. Too much publicity can definitely cause a rift in the wrong situations.
“Sometimes media guys have to be mindful of the fact that you are separating a guy from his teammates,” Bates said. “Some kids can't identify and understand why he gets all of the attention. Luckily I don't have that situation because my kids get it. But for other programs, you may tear kids down by certain headlines and storylines.”
Coaching youth sports comes with a specific subset of challenges, and the biggest struggles rarely have to do with actually teaching the sport. Connecting with kids between the ages of 8 and 16 is not an easy task, and Bates concurred.
“The hardest part is they are 15-year-old kids,” Bates said bluntly. “For some reason, kids are 'trying' beings. They always want to try you and re-invent the wheel. It doesn't change.”
Bates was once 15 himself and often uses that as a reminder when he is dealing with his players. He takes a moment, assesses the situation, and tries to put himself in their shoes.
“It helps me because I'm able to reflect back to when I was their age," Bates said. "Sometimes I find myself heated, then sometimes I find myself laughing inside. I know what it was like to be a kid.”
On the court, gaining his players’ long-term trust is always the top priority.
“Getting them to buy in (is the toughest part),” Bates said. “And understanding that we have all gone through this before, so you need to trust it. The hardest part for them is being able to trust it. You definitely see things differently on the sideline than on the court. As long as we get better every day, that’s what matters. We will have moments where we don't agree with each other, but as long as we move forward, I'm good. I want the best for all of them.”
Bates spoke about the advice he gives his son, and even though the spotlight makes Emoni’s situation a bit different, his words should resonate with all youth athletes.
“You're going to make mistakes in life,” Bates said. “You may be a high-profile athlete and have a focus on you, but every person makes mistakes. If you do something as a kid that's kind of stupid or silly, name one kid who hasn't. Be a kid and enjoy life, that's part of being a good coach - finding that balance.”
Balance is key, and definitely a necessity when your schedule is as packed as the Bates’ family. The longtime coach understands that if you have too much going on upstairs, there is no way you can be an effective coach for a sustainable period of time. Different activities and hobbies need to be worked in, and Bates has his go-to.
“I like to go fishing,” Bates said with a clear uptick in his tone. “Turn off my phone. If I could, throw it in the trash. That's one of my favorite past times. Being on the water, being able to relax. Just take my mind off of everything. It’s good to turn off. Enjoy the ambiance of being able to be outside in a relaxed state of mind.”
As far as his son and his teammates, Bates advises them to do one thing; enjoy their youth.
“I try telling all my kids - Emoni as well - be a kid,” Bates said. “When you're an adult, you'll be wishing you were a kid again. Enjoy your teenage years.”
Lastly, Bates made it abundantly clear that none of he and Emoni’s success would be possible without his wife, Edith Bates. When asked what made him a good coach, EJ first focused on his better half.
“Like I always tell everyone, she's the rock,” Bates said. “She wears many hats. She loves to do it in the background. She's everything to us. She keeps both of us balanced. She's the shoulder to lean on, the shoulder to cry on.”
Operating as the parents of the top-ranked prospect in the country comes with many stressors, but Bates said Edith is able to block everything out. He stressed the value of having an outlet to lean on in tough times.
“The ‘every day’ stresses of the world, we can always vent to her, she's the outlet,” Bates said. “No judgment zone with her, we can come to her and pour it all out. She always puts things in perspective and allows us to become better at what we do. I tip my hat to 'mom'. Without her, we wouldn’t be where we are right now.”
With three years left in high school, Bates’ job as ‘coach’ is just beginning, both on and off the court. Bates says he takes time to reflect after each season and understands that his training and coaching needs to adapt with his players as they improve through the high school season. Bates hands over head-coaching duties to Lincoln head coach Jesse Davis during the winter. Davis is a very close friend of the Bates Family, and having him under Davis’ tutelage was a big reason why EJ and Edith chose Lincoln for Emoni’s high school career.
Emoni led Lincoln to a MHSAA state championship as a 9th-grader this past high school season, and he’ll be looking to lead the Railsplitters to repeat as a sophomore.
With the summer concluding for BATES Fundamentals, EJ will head back to having a packed training schedule. The rigors that come with coaching and directing a youth sports program can be put aside for a couple of months. EJ recapped the unique spring and summer that he and his team just endured, and it made him certain of one thing as a youth sports coach.
“I have the best job in the world.”