TOP PRIORITIES FOR A NEW YOUTH BASKETBALL COACH

Notice: This article was written by Steve Jordan, Coach's Notebook. Email the author at sjordan@alaskalife.net.

Are you new to the role of youth basketball coach? Congratulations! You are about to embark on a journey that will provide you with exciting memories that will last a lifetime.

Most new coaches are very eager to get started. That's good, but sometimes we start out on a trip without much of an idea of where we are going. That may end up good or bad, and may certainly generate some excitement if you don't plan ahead a little bit.

Fortunately the road to becoming a successful youth basketball coach is a well traveled one. If you're willing to do a little research, there is an abundance excellent websites (like this one!), forums, books, DVDs and clinics to fulfill your needs.

Because my basketball visa is has been fully stamped from seasons spent with youth teams of many age levels and abilities, I'll share some of the hard won lessons I've earned. These lessons were earned, incidentally, by making mistakes, some rather painful, so I hope to spare you from those particular experiences.

Let's assume your team has been selected, you have your game and practice schedules, and hopefully a few practices ahead of you before your season begins. Let's also assume that you are coaching inexperienced players. If you have been given players with advanced skills, the following may be somewhat applicable. In any case, if this article stirs up questions, you can always send them to me at sjordan@alaskalife.net.

Head Coach is a Management Position

As the team Chief Executive Officer, there are important steps to take before you ever blow a whistle. Your team consists of more people than who is listed on your roster. It also includes the parents!

  1. Above all things ... Establish communication channels with your parents. If you do not do a good job at this, your other good works will not matter. People will be unhappy whether your team is successful or not. Conversely, if you get the parents on board early, they will support you and make your job much more enjoyable and effective. Here's what they want to know:
    • When and where are the games?
    • When and where are the practices?
    • How can they reach you? Give them everything - home, work and cell phones, and email address(es) and respond quickly when they contact you.
    • What extra activities are there (like end of season party, pictures, things like that)?
    • What is your coaching philosophy (recreational, competitive, team goals)?
    • How will playing time be administrated?

  2. Organize your parents. Is one willing to step up and be a Team Parent? Co-Team Parent? If so, they can handle arrangements for all the non-basketball stuff. That is a huge help. If they volunteer, don't get in their way. Work with whatever they want to do as long as it within reason. If you try to approve every little thing, they will stop trying to help.

  3. Develop your season plan. When you walk on the floor for your first practice, you should already have a good idea of where you want your team to be at the end of the season. Your season plan is how you expect to get there and which skills you need to develop on that journey. Your plan may be overly ambitious, but that's OK. You can always modify it to meet your team's needs, but at least have a plan.

    A good start is to envision what kind of defense you'd like to have in place before your last game of the season. If you are going to run man to man defense all year, that's great, but take moment to jot down some of the components that you would like to be proficient doing. Will you trap? Will you employ full court pressure? How will you teach helpside defense?

    For offense, you might have a favorite system you want to run. How will you present it? Will you need to introduce it in small pieces or as a simple overall structure that can grow more complex as your players improve? Pick out the drills you think will help you and decide how well one will progress in to the next.

Like Managing a Business, Establish Your Priorities

The first thing you'll realize when you look at your list of objectives and compare it to your available practice time is that you have a huge time management problem. Its quite normal for a youth basketball team to have just one 60-90 minute practice per week. You'll also have one game per week, but as you will soon see, the game is not a venue conducive to teaching basketball skills. The game is useful for experiencing team strategies and teamwork, but not for working on individual or team skills. Take notes during the game. You'll see plenty that you need to work on in your next practice. So, to achieve your season goals, focus on your available practice time. Think of the games as a test to see how much you have improved and grown toward your goals.

Because there is so little time, you will not want to waste a single moment to poor organization, player inattention or idleness. Make sure your practices are very active, competitive, enthusiastic and fun. One of your main challenges will be to hold the playersí attention and interest and keep them focused on the practice plan. Donít waste any of your precious practice minutes on activities that do not directly apply to your games. You do not want players who excel at drills but falter in games. This brings us to our first key point:

Key Point #1: The players will tend to develop both a practice mentality and a game mentality. If you donít believe me, devote 20 minutes to a skill of concern, and then announce to the team that youíre going to scrimmage. Once the scrimmage starts, no one will perform (or even think of) the skill work you just finished. Its not that your time was wasted, its that you have only modified the practice mentality and not the game mentality. Drills need to be absolutely relevant to your game plan. Drills should also be performed with game intensity and with some type of competitive stress involved such as keeping score, a count, or timing the exercise.

Usually, there are five essential parts to a good practice: defensive and offensive individual skills, defensive and offensive team skills, and conditioning. If you choose drills that require a great deal of hustle and running, you can blend in conditioning with the team skills. However, I have found that inserting two or three 5 minute intervals of intense running makes a real difference (even if just working out once a week) compared to the teams we play. And, it helps burn off the sugar highs most kids have so you can actually talk to them while they're catching their breath.

So, considering our time management problem, we can incorporate most of our conditioning with the four main obligations every coach feels should be presented: defensive and offensive individual fundamental skills, and defensive and offensive team skills.

What I am going to do is list several skills within each of these areas and rank them as to their importance and relevance to an inexperienced team. I will also highlight some key points to help explain my thinking.

Fundamental Individual Skills - Defense

Key Point #2 All five players do defense at the same time. In comparison, on offense, only one player has the ball at any given moment. The logic is that if you can teach your players solid defensive fundamental skills, you can gain at least five times the simultaneous, positive impact from your players versus solitary skills like dribbling. Granted, offense is more technical and more fun, but good defense overwhelms young teams naturally hampered with inexperienced offensive skills. If you want your teams to be competitive, teach them defense.

Defensive Individual Skill List Priority Rating

Defensive Stance CRITICAL
This is the skill your players will be doing for more game minutes than any other skill. It makes sense that if they are good at this, they will be good at something for at least half of the game. A good stance prepares them to react and move, rebound, and pass once they recover the ball. Emphasize stance when you do your routine defensive slide drills every practice.

Defensive Slides HIGH
This maneuver is the best way to cut off drivers. In youth games you will always see defenders standing too tall and unable to keep up with dribblers who are naturally crouched down with a lower center of gravity. When you do your defensive slide drills, donít have them go more than two slides. The emphasis should be on quickness and distance. If they do the skill well, they can cut off anybody within two slides.

Position on Ball HIGH
Defenders must divert drivers from any straight line path to the basket. The age old advice of staying between your man and the basket is still quite sound.

Pass Denial MEDIUM
This skill becomes critical in advanced play, but in youth leagues players tend to follow their man all over the court and leave the key wide open. Its better to teach them to be aware of the ball as well as their own man and feel a responsibility for protecting the basket no matter who man has the ball. I prefer pressuring your man if he has the ball. Otherwise, back off, and keep a foot in the key as you follow him around.

Steals MEDIUM
In youth leagues, steals are common and a good source for scoring points. Its worth teaching players how to disrupt a dribbler without fouling, but donít base your defense on this skill. If you play a team with decent ball handlers, they will take advantage of overly aggressive play and positioning.

Rebounding LOW
Rebounding is the key to winning most games, I know. But we are talking about teaching young players how to play a basketball game using a small 60-90 minute window. If you think you can teach 4th graders rebounding skills, be my guest. They will not have the instincts to understand where the rebounds will likely go and will not have the mental discipline to not watch the shot and block out their man. You might get them to do it in a drill, but not in a game. This is not worth much precious practice time.

Shotblocking LOWEST
Face it, shot blocking is a last resort to salvage defensive breakdowns. Its an advanced, unneeded skill unless you have an extraordinarily tall player.

Fundamental Individual Skills - Offense

Key Point #3 Individual skills take much longer to improve than team skills. For example, if you want to teach better ball handling, fine, but don't expect the few minutes you devote in practice to have much impact in the game. Unless the kids are willing to practice dribbling everyday on their own time, you will see little, if any, effect in the games

Offensive Individual Skill List Priority Rating

Layups CRITICAL
Layup opportunities occur dozens of times in youth games, but often they create more anxiety than points on the board. Do layup drills every practice. Make them part of your team exercises. Donít use the standard, two-line, rebounder and shooter lines you see all the time unless you vary the attack angles so the kids drive in from the corners and straight down the middle, too. One great idea is to have each rebounder go to a post spot and get a pass from the shooter, then pass it back. This simple addition makes your players more familiar with post play and you can work on cuts and flares at the same time. Thatís gives you a lot more skill coverage than simple layups.

Triple Threat HIGH
This is an excellent for kids to develop early. Not only does it help them get balanced and ready to dribble, pass or shoot, it also provides a way for them to protect the ball. I cringe when I see players on their tip toes, holding the ball over their head trying to keep others from grabbing it.

Get Open HIGH
How many times have you seen the offensive bog down while the dribbler is being chased around? Boring. The actual problem is likely that the ball handler has no one to pass to. This is a simple skill to learn, even for young kids. They need to know where they want to catch the ball, go away, then win the race back to that spot. They have an inherent advantage because the defender should be maintaining a position between his man and the basket. So, if your receiver runs toward the basket, the defense will follow. Then itís a easy matter to step in front of the defender and win the race back to the wing. As soon as your point brings the ball over halfcourt, your receivers should start moving to get open.

Passing MEDIUM
This skill is important, but it shouldn't involve much of your practice time. You might introduce passing technique, then include it in your team activities and drills. Emphasize accuracy. Passes that are hard to catch are very disruptive to your team's flow, not to mention prone to turnover. The best idea is to keep your passes short and crisp, and make sure the passer has at least one escape route. For example, if the ball goes to your wing, the player in the point position should stay high for a reversal pass.

Dribbling LOW
What?? Low? Yes, low, and here's why. Kids dribble WAY too much. Itís a vicious circle. Whenever they dribble, they get into trouble. Whenever they get in trouble, they want to dribble. In fact, whenever they get the ball they want to dribble. And when they do, the defense focuses on them and soon relieves them of possession. Dribbling is slow, dangerous and highly over-rated. It keeps the ball in the hands of one player much too long. If you have a dominant player or two, they will dribble so much no one else ever touches the ball. Most young teams would play better if the coach would forbid them from dribbling altogether.

I suggest you introduce ballhandling techniques and run a short drill or two (like zig zags or relay races), and encourage the kids to practice on their own. If have multiple practices per week, then increase the attention given to ballhandling accordingly.

Pivots and Cuts LOW
These are important, basic skills. If you have practice every day, absolutely work on these things. They are not going to help your young team, though. Early this season we had a chance to practice in a shared gym situation right before our first game. I saw a coach spend 20 minutes of his hour making the kids hold an imaginary ball over their heads and pivot left and right. He did a good job teaching pivoting with a ball, but lost twenty minutes preparing his kids to play their game.

Free Throws LOWEST
I suggest you practice the free throw situation just so the kids know how to line up in the lanes at game time. You might establish which person will take the ball out of bounds if the shot is made and even set up a fast break from it. But, spending time in practice shooting 25 free throws will not add points to your scoreboard. This is another skill best learned on the player's personal time.

Basic Team Skills - Defense

Key Point #4 Play man to man all the time. I know zones can be very effective defensive weapons, but if you care about young player development, teach them to be good at man to man. Its more challenging, more personally accountable and it establishes the basic skills and instincts that the player can draw upon when old enough to play a zone defense.
Basic Defensive Team Skill List Priority Rating

Get Back Quickly CRITICAL
This sounds so trivial, but it is the most prevalent defensive fault I have seen. Teams who practice in a casual manner will invariably jog back on defense. If you pass the ball well you can score easily until they adjust. In your practices, make sure all your transitions are made as quickly as possible. Make it a habit.

Help Defense HIGH
Wean your players from the concept that they must stick to their man as if they were gum on his shoe. Pressure your man when he has the ball, otherwise, keep a foot in the key so you can help when your teammate loses a dribbler. Use ďpistolsĒ to keep track of your man and the ball at the same time. Keep your back to the baseline and sink as low as you need to see both at the same time. Once you do this, your players will always be near the rebound and someone will always be close enough to prevent an uncontested layup.

TIP: With younger players I refer to the key as the "house" and the arc as the "fence". Its our property and we must protect it from intruders.

Trapping MEDIUM
This is a very effective team skill. It should be used to create confusion and score some quick points. However, it should not be used as your primary defensive skill. Some well coached teams will turn your traps into severe liabilities, so you better be able to fall back and play solid defense around the basket.

Zones LOW
Even if zones are all you know, read up on man to man, talk to other coaches, review websites, buy a tape Ö learn man and avoid zones. Just because you win a game by playing zone doesnít mean you did the right thing.

Junk Defensive Schemes LOWEST

Defenses like triangle and two or the Box and 1 can be very effective, but they are esoteric tricks that are only effective against inexperienced or ill-prepared teams.

Basic Team Skills - Offense

Key Point #5: Be very careful about teaching plays. They take a long, long time to learn and will suck up your practice time like nothing else. Plays will only work as well as your playerís individual skills allow and only to the extent that your players can read and react to defensive adjustments. When you watch your game on tape you may realize that only 10% of your points came from a play that consumed 50% of your practice time. A better plan may be to give them a simple structure that provides adequate spacing and then gradually help them grow their offense with the basic 2 and 3 man skills they learn in practice.

So which team skills are important? Letís rank and see.

Basic Offensive Team Skill List Priority Rating

Advancing the ball up court CRITICAL
You must have a plan for moving the ball up court once you receive it, either after a basket is or after you gain possession on defense. Don't fall into the habit of casually dribbling the ball towards your basket. In young leagues, this behavior is inadvertantly encouraged because the defense must retreat to their end of the floor once they lose the ball. However, it is a lazy trait that is difficult to break players from once they reach more advanced play. If you allow the ball to move slowly, expect to have continuous difficulty starting any kind of offense as the defense will always have time to prepare for you. What you will see is whenever a player gets a steal or rebound, or tries to inbound the ball, he'll be surrounded by teammates calling his name. Its a paralyzing, useless habit.

For all my teams I want the rebounder to immediately make an outlet pass to the Free Throw Line Extended and for that receiver to quickly pass down court to the first open player he sees. Once that is a habit all kinds of good things happen. The defense may be sluggish getting down the floor, your players will be well spaced and probably not defended closely and your passers will easily see open teammates. As soon as one of your players starts dribbling the flow is gone. Teammates become hidden and pressure on the ball intensifies. Chances are the ball will be lost. As soon as he passes, the odds of retention rise dramatically.

Further, if you are in a pressing league, perfect your press breaker so your team will be allowed to play real basketball once they get to their end of the floor. Even if you are not in a pressing league, you can set the tone for your whole game by how the kids handle the basketball once they gain possession. Discourage the dribble; Praise the pass.

Two Man and Three Man Plays HIGH
Teach your kids to pass and cut. Make cutting after passing a requirement. Pass and move. This basic Give & Go interaction is enough to generate shots in youth leagues. You may need nothing else.

If your players can handle passing and cutting on the perimeter, have them do the same with a post player. Staging a player at the elbow (the end of the free throw line closest to the ball) is a great way for passers to get the ball back after making a cut to the basket.

The next skill level is to have the post player come out and set a screen for the ballhandler (wing is best, but it can work for the point position, too). Often a simple screen will create a clean drive path to the basket.

Next, teach the screeners how to obstruct the screened player as he tries to follow his man and then roll to the basket. The Pick & Roll play is the best in the game and is explained in detail in this website. Players as young as 5th and 6th grade can learn this play and use it effectively for the rest of their playing days.

Offensive Structure MEDIUM
Start with a simple 4 out 1 in pattern, or perhaps a 3 out 2 in pattern if you have a bigger team. Concepts the kids need are strong side vs weak side, maintain 10í-15í of spacing. I like to define 5 spots Ė low post, high post and point (all on the same lane line) and a wing and short corner on the same side. There are the identical five spots on the other side of the court, so ten in all. My players can be in any spot they want as long as one takes a post spot. The post follows the ball from side to side. That simple structure provides good spacing and plenty of freedom to give and go or pick and roll. I didnít rate this HIGH because if your team advances the ball quickly (by passing and not dribbling), getting open shots will not be a problem.

Screens MEDIUM
Screens are very useful for relieving stress on the ballhandler. If your opponent does not employ any kind of help defense, screens also provide an open path to the basket. Definitely spend time introducing this skill. Often, if one player understands it and does it, the others soon emulate him as the results are so beneficial.

BLOB (Baseline Out of Bounds) Play LOW
The Baseline Out of Bounds is a repeatable, static situation where an organized play can be set up consistently. Because the kids have time to get into place and there is a specific start point, BLOB plays can work. Typically young teams get the ball on their own baseline 3-5 times a game. If you have time, itís a good way to introduce plays. Just be sure to keep it super simple. Chances are three players will begin the play and two will just stand there, so be patient.

Stall Pattern LOW
This is a must for advanced teams when you need to preserve a lead for a few minutes, but contrary to the point of youth basketball where playing the game shouldnít be secondary to winning it. Itís a useful tool, but best used in a tournament setting where winning is paramount.

Set Plays LOWEST
Set plays are designed for certain situations where you want to get a shot for a particular player. They are another time hog that can only be used very few times in the game (perhaps even the season) and then may not produce anything for you. Further, all your time in practice should be devoted to benefiting all your players.

Tip Off Play LOWEST
As this only happens once a game, show the players how to lineup around the circle and use that time to confirm which way they are going and who they are guarding. Taking the time to learn a play will cost you several minutes of your practice. Assuming you get half of the tips and the play actually works half the time, and when it does you make half your shots Ö in our 12 game season that would add up to 3 points of value for the whole season. Without a tip off play, you will still get half the tips and maybe youíll score once or twice anyway. Its just not worth the investment.

Continuity Plays (Offensive Systems) LOWEST
Continuity plays are a very difficult to learn well. A good example is the Flex. Its a pattern that repeats over and over until the defense breaks down and allows an easy shot. For advanced teams that have excellent ballhandling and passing skills, it can be very effective. For young players, though, with weaker skills, such an offense is frustrating, boring and will create more turnovers than baskets. A coach may feel like it is necessary for the team to run a play to prove he taught them something, but in reality heís wasting most of his practice time.

Summary

Key Point #6: Team skills are your primary obligation as a youth coach.

Why is that?

One, itís all you have time to do.

Two, unless your kids can get through the game process, all the detail fundamentals will not pay off. They may have learned to dribble, pass, shoot and pivot better, but if they do not have a plan they can execute to get the ball upcourt and make an entry pass, those skill improvements will not be seen. Kids can handle losing, but they cannot handle being dominated. The parents will be very sensitive to that, too. But if the players can go out there and perform the game, things will be OK. Soon the kids will see learning better individual fundamentals as a way to be stronger players and be motivated to practice on their own. If the games are a disaster, though, they will lose interest in the sport. Team skills are the magic that will help them learn to love the game and come back for more.

The lesson I learned one year is that if you are playing in a league that allows full court pressing Ö learn a press breaker first. Nothing else matters near as much. If youíre not prepared to break a press, youíll be lucky to get the ball past half court. I wish young players would not be exposed to that kind of basketball, but it happens.

Good luck! I'd love to hear your comments, questions and suggestions. Write me at sjordan@alaskalife.net.