Winter break camp develops physical, mental skills

Coach Rodney Zimmerman uses his hand as a tool of discipline instead of using a whistle at Lucky Shoals Park’s Community Recreation Center in Norcross on Friday, December 27, 2019. The Gwinnett County program that teaches basketball skills, but goes beyond the physical. (Hyosub Shin /

Coach Rodney Zimmerman uses his hand as a tool of discipline instead of using a whistle at Lucky Shoals Park’s Community Recreation Center in Norcross on Friday, December 27, 2019. The Gwinnett County program that teaches basketball skills, but goes beyond the physical. (Hyosub Shin /

A winter break basketball camp at a Gwinnett County recreation center is giving kids more than something to do to beat the out-of-school doldrums.

Lead by former UCLA center Rodney Zimmerman, who also played for the NBA’s Detroit Pistons, the program provides leadership training while wearing shorts and sneakers.

The AJC attended a recent session where about a dozen boys and girls of various ages and skill levels abandoned their Christmas presents to condition their minds as well as their bodies.

Charles Dunbar said his 11-year-old son El practically eats, sleeps and breathes basketball.

“He watches the games on TV and is constantly dribbling a ball — wherever he can, which is often in the house,” Dunbar said.

The Dunbars aren’t new to the Lucky Shoals Recreation Center. El has been playing basketball there for about five years. As his skills progressed, he moved on to a traveling league and now will be playing in the Gwinnett County Public Schools feeder program.

“It gives elementary and middle school kids a chance to play as a team before they get to high school,” said Dunbar.

As a fifth-grader, this is El’s first year. He attends Camp Creek Elementary which feeds into Parkview High.

“This is a good way to gain life skills,” said Dunbar. “Everything he’s learning here, he can apply to all aspects of life. He’s learning to focus and stick with something to get better at it.”

That’s why El became such a dribbling fanatic. He knew that he wouldn’t get better at it by sitting on the couch playing video games. It was something he wanted to master, so he put in the work.

Christel Alaimo agreed with Dunbar. Her 9-year-old son Carston loves having a ball in his hand, but Zimmerman makes them use their brains while their bodies are moving.

“Carston is a math wizard and one of the drills Coach Zimmerman has them do is answer a math problem as they pass the ball. I tried that on him and he recited the answer before I could figure it out myself,” she said with a laugh. “I guess I better know the answer first next time.”

A native of the Netherlands, she appreciates Zimmerman’s style.

“I like that he doesn’t yell at the kids and that he gives respect and demands respect,” she said. “My son plays baseball and most recently flag football that are coached by dads who are sometimes very intense. I think they learn more when there’s less noise and more focus.”

Zimmerman doesn’t use a whistle and doesn’t raise his voice. When he needs the players to pay attention to him, he stands in the middle of the court and raises his hand. With his fingers, he counts down from five. By the time he gets to zero, all eyes should be on him and basketballs should be still.

Currently the athletic director at the Atlanta Jewish Academy, Zimmerman puts character development before athletic skills.

“The goal never is to grow NBA stars,” he said.

His company, Conditioned Minds, is an extension of what he focuses on in life and in his day job.

His Global Leadership Academy has graduated students who have mainly gone to college on academic scholarships. He said there’s football player at UGA and a track and field athlete who came through his program, but his focus is on building leaders.

“The greatest fear is fear of one’s own expectations,” he said adding that if young people are designed to seek higher than expected goals through hard work and fun, the worse they’ll end up with is reaching the goal. In the end, the students are taught how to strengthen their own journeys.

The kids grumbled a little through some of the tougher exercises like one where they had to remain crouched in a defensive position while they went through the alphabet backwards. If someone messed up they had to start over again. Even for young, spry kids, that bending can make for sore thigh muscles.

“You can step out if you want to,” said Zimmerman, no judgment in his voice.

One or two kids contemplated leaving, but stayed the course. After about ten or 15 do-overs, they finally got from Z to A.

“Take a five-minute break and drink lots of water,” said Zimmerman.

Although it wasn’t easy, the kids shook out the tired muscles and talked about their favorite NBA teams and basketball heroes. Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Stephen Curry were mentioned.

Several students said they were “talked into” coming to camp, but didn’t mind the hard work and liked that they were building skills.

Zimmerman’s daughter, Jada was among the participants, but she doesn’t see herself as the next Lisa Leslie of WNBA fame.

“I like volleyball better, but I’m more interested in a business career,” she said.

And that’s OK with dad.

“It’s easy to focus on what they like to build what they need in life,” said Zimmerman. “The primary focus of this training is not the actual sport skill set itself, but rather the mental ability to increase each individual’s stature, distance for potential success, elevation of how youth perceive their ability, and peak performance within physical activities.”

Learn more about Rodney Zimmerman’s youth development program:

Learn more about Gwinnett County Parks and Recreation camps:

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