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Coaching Youth Basketball
So You Want To Be a Coach
Some people coach because they are gifted at understanding the game and teaching it -- they see coaching as a profession or calling. Others coach because their kids are on teams and they want to assure favorable treatment of their children. Some get involved because the league was in need of volunteers. They may even feel unqualified to coach, but they are organized, patient, and willing to help. If that is you, I want to give you some advice based on my experience coaching youth basketball over several years. Note that there are many Web sites and videos available to help you with the game. I will refer to one of them below that I found to be particularly good. However, I also want to focus on some of the softer skills, such as: organization, communication, and leadership. Regardless of why you got involved, hopefully this will be a gentle reminder that you are responsible for a whole team of your community's most valuable possessions, and not just your own kid(s).
Be a Good Example
If you cannot be a good example for the kids, you should not be a coach. Show up on time. Start when you say you are going to start, and finish when you say you will finish. Tell them what your expectations are, then stick to it. Be consistent with discipline and with encouragement. Don't yell at the referees, and don't mouth off to opposing coaches and players. Make your kids believe that they are above that. Many times the opposing team is trying to get in their heads and cause them to lose their cool. Especially with the younger kids, you have to teach them to keep their composure and focus on the game. The best way to show them that is by doing it yourself.
Winning Is Not Everything, But It Is Still Important
I just want to get this out there: if you are not playing to win, then why play? I have coached many kids whose parents obviously made them play -- either because they thought they needed exercise, or because they wanted them to make friends. Sometimes they end up loving the game, and other times they just take up space. They don't try hard at practice if they even show up, but they still expect to play. In a recreational league, you may even be required to let them play. When that happens, I play them what I'm required to play them, and I explain that if they want to play more, they need to work harder. All kids don't have equal ability, but everyone should try equally as hard. Some of them don't care if they lose, and I think that's a shame.
Winning is not everything, but it is still important. If your team comes up short, it is ok for you to express disappointment. It is healthy for them to feel the disappointment and to learn to deal with it. Don't buy them a trophy for coming in last. Encourage them to work harder for it and to try again next year. Tell them inspiring stories about some of the great athletes who were cut from a team but went on to succeed after applying themselves. If you never show disappointment when it is appropriate, your team may grow up to be satisfied with status quo or even sub par. Find the balance, keep everything in perspective, and just be transparent.
I email my parents regularly. I tell them right away when the schedule is available when the practices and games will be. Then I email them every weekend to remind them of the practices and games for the next week. I tell them what color uniform to wear, send directions to the games, and tell them what time to be there.
I tell the kids much of the same things at practice. I don't put all of the responsibility on them to communicate to their parents. I only tell them part of what I tell the parents in the email, then I tell the kids that I emailed the rest to their parents. Once you start a pattern of reminders, be sure to stick with it. If you suddenly don't send an email one week, they may not show if they've come to rely on your reminders. If you want the parents to appreciate you, then over-communicate. I can't tell you how many times parents have told me they appreciated that part of the season. It's another way to be a good example. Remember that one of these days these kids are going to enter the work force and possibly be leaders themselves. The more good examples of leadership they are exposed to, the more of those behaviors they will adopt themselves.
Focus on Ball Handling
I would be remiss if I didn't focus on the skills side of the game. At every age, ball handling should be a top priority. Many times, the kid who is the tallest in sixth grade never grows again. If you did not teach that kid how to handle the ball in the third grade, then they are at a major disadvantage -- particularly if they were a post player who now has to learn to play guard. It is important that the athletes spend a lot of time on their own (between practices) working on ball handling skills. No excuses. This is something they can work on alone if necessary, and it is easy to spot if they do or do not. Stress looking up when dribbling. They must be able to know where the ball is without looking at it, then they will see the floor better and be even more of a threat offensively.
There are so many good tips for working on this. The Steve Nash video identified below has some great individual skills in it. Steve is an authority on ball handling. I highly recommend that you watch this with your athletes, or watch it yourself and teach it to them. I've been known to give the kids homework -- particularly if there are things they need to work on. I've found that if I say "everyone please go outside and shoot each night that we don't have practice," most of them will not do it. But if I give them a chart, and I ask them to shoot 50 layups, 25 free throws, and dribble 100 times switching hands each night -- and I ask them to report to me how many shots they made -- they will do it, and I will be able to notice the improvement. So assign them ball handling drills, and be specific with them. A kid can work on passing skills with only a ball and a concrete wall, and it will do wonders for their hand-eye coordination.
Excellent Youth Basketball Individual and Team Skills
Don't focus on learning a bunch of plays. An in-bounds play is necessary. Beyond that focus on one good motion or flex play for use against a zone defense, and one for use against a man-to-man defense. The idea is to teach them to move without the ball, set screens, and find the open person. The more time you spend teaching them plays, the more mechanical they become. That time would be better spent teaching them to read the defense, communicate with gestures, and identify mismatches. The Steve Nash MVP-Basketball Fundamentals DVD is my absolute favorite for teaching some offensive fundamentals to middle school athletes.
Stop the Break
At a very young age, teach the kids to get back on defense and stop the fast break. This will prevent blowouts and make the games more competitive (and fun for the athletes). They should turn and run the floor as quickly as they can to establish position, then turn and jab at the ball to disrupt the offense. Whenever you can stop the fast break and force the other team to run their offense, you'll find that it is a great equalizer. There are a lot of teams that can run and gun, but many of them don't know what to do when you take that part of their game away. That's when you can tell the difference between a team that is well-coached and one that is not.
The more you can simulate a real game situation in practice, the better. In some leagues and some seasons, I didn't have enough athletes to play 5 on 5. You can either play 3 on 3, or add adults and siblings to the scrimmage. It's a great way for the kids to condition and get fit without realizing they are doing it. Call fouls, three second violations, travels -- anything they would call in a game. Don't let the first game be the first time they were introduced to some of these things.
When you wear out and need to take a little break, work on some half court offense. Have two girls on defense and three on offense. Teach the person with the ball to attack the basket until someone picks them up. When someone does, they should pass to the person who is open. If no one is open, then you know they are not staying spread out. This is also a good time to work on screens and help defense. Help defense is one of the most important things to learn -- especially when you have a girl who is the victim of a mismatch. On offense, teach them the "triple threat" position -- where the player is in position to pass, dribble, or shoot.
Pay Attention to the Game
Let someone else take care of the book. If you have rules about how much each kid must play, let someone else keep track of that. You pay attention to what needs to be fixed, and work on at it the next practice. You will also find in a game, that sometimes it is not what you do well that wins, but what the other team does not do well. Watch for mismatches and weaknesses on the other team, and adjust your game to exploit that.
Every season, I have had a parent or two that I knew really understood the game and would give me an unbiased opinion. If you have those, don't be afraid to ask what they saw from their vantage point. Be careful that you find the right person. Some will try to take over. A good way to test this out is to ask specific leading questions, rather than opening the door for a flood of opinions.
Recap, Celebrate and Try Again
Even if the season wasn't great, try again next year. You will hopefully get better every year. Even the bad things that happened throughout the season are lessons you can build on. Have a celebration at the end of the year. It will make a big difference in making the game fun for the kids, particularly after a tough season. At the celebration, recap the good things that you saw and the things they should work on. Point the players to a clinic, basketball camp, or other resources. If there are particular areas where the athletes still need to improve, point them out and encourage them to work on them before next season.
As for yourself, win or lose, you learned a lot. It would be a shame for all of that experience to go to waste. Keep with it. In areas where you need improvement, talk to other coaches or do your own homework. Watch as much basketball as you can -- particularly high school and college games. Take mental notes as you're watching at some of the good things you see. Then come back again next season ready to do better than the season before.