I frequently have conversations with parents of young basketball players regarding youth basketball today and how the system could be improved.
One of the biggest problems that I see constantly in any youth basketball environment is the focus on winning rather than skill development. It is easy to win games in youth basketball if that is all a coach wants to do. Run a zone that packs the paint and gives up nothing but outside shots, or better yet run a half court trapping defense of any kind where the defensive players swarm the ball handler with double teams. Young offensive basketball players don’t have the skill, strength, or experience to be able to effectively attack those types of defenses. You can be sure there will be a ton of turnovers and layups at the other end. The problem is most zones and traps at a young age are played with terrible defensive habits that won’t translate to higher levels of basketball. Players lunge out of position to go for steals, multiple players swarm the ball leaving openings that youth players can’t attack, players stand flat-footed with their hands up in a zone, etc. These tactics work great until suddenly they don’t. Opponents get bigger, stronger, and more skilled at higher levels and suddenly they can easily beat defenders who have learned these bad habits when they are young.
When you only judge the success or failure of a season or a coach on wins and losses you are missing out on what is really important in youth basketball, skill development and having fun. If kids don’t develop their skills they won’t be able to play at a higher level. They simply won’t be good enough or the game won’t be fun anymore because they are less skilled and as a result less successful. Remember, it’s fun to be good!
What skills should young players be working on?
Ballhandling is critical and not just for the team’s point guard or best player. EVERY player on the team should have a ball in their hand for the majority of the team’s practice time. That includes the team’s 5’6” “big man” who may max out at 5’11”. If that kid is planted on the block and never touches the ball in practice or gets to handle the ball in a game how will he ever develop the skills necessary to compete at a higher level? Until kids hit puberty and start to mature, how do we know who is going to be tall or short, fast or slow, strong or weak? The answer is, we don’t. Youth coaches should be developing the all-around skills of EVERY player regardless of their current size or ability. Give everybody a chance to handle the ball throughout every practice of the season. That is how young players develop the skills they need to be successful at higher levels.
Passing and catching are underrated. They should be incorporated as much as possible into any youth basketball practice. Kids who develop “good hands” as young players will be able to do more out on the court as a result. Watch any youth basketball game and see how many passes go sailing out of bounds or hit a player’s hands and bounce off. Practicing passing drills might not brand a coach as a brilliant basketball technician, but players will be more skilled as a result.
Focus on footwork. Young players should practice jump stops, pivots, defensive slides, close-outs, drop steps etc. in every practice. That is how I begin every youth practice I have ever run, with simple footwork and dribbling drills. Nothing fancy or “creative”. Simple is very effective if you target a specific skill. The footwork is the key to all efficient movement on the basketball court.
What about shooting? Keep the basket low when possible (as described here). Until players develop the strength and coordination necessary to master the fundamentals of shooting, usually between the ages of 12 & 14, more time should be spent working on ballhandling, passing/catching, and footwork. Shooting is important, but kids will always shoot the ball when they practice on their own. Youth basketball coaches should limit the amount of shooting practice they do in favor of more of the skills described above.
Play more half-court basketball with less than 5 players on a side. 4 on 4, 3 on 3, 2 on 2, or 1 on 1 gives each player more chances with the ball where they can work on their skills. Less time is spent running up and down the court and more time is spent with the ball in each player’s hand. Most action in basketball involves no more than three players at a time anyway.
Finally, what about fun? Should that be part of what makes for a successful season? Absolutely. If young players aren’t having fun, why would they want to continue playing? They will go find something else to do that they enjoy more. If a young player doesn’t love the game, they’ll never practice hard enough to be great (or even good). Skill building is confidence building. It’s fun to be good! Young kids aren’t ready to play 100 games of one sport over the course of a calendar year. Resist the temptation to have kids specialize too early. Let them play multiple sports, at least until they hit puberty. You will be helping to develop a better all-around athlete. Make the game of basketball fun for the players, don’t make it all about winning.
The goal of any youth basketball team or program should be to develop the skills of their players and have fun in the process. If you are basing your team’s success only on winning or losing you are not focusing on the right things. Emphasize skill development and fun to create the kind of environment that produces players that can take their game successfully to higher levels of basketball.