Ask the Coach - Questions and Answers - 1999


The number of visitors to the Coach's Notebook has increased steadily since July, 1999 when it went live on the internet. Several readers have submitted questions and it seems like a good idea to share those questions with everyone. The names of those who ask the questions now on file won't be listed because permission has not been obtained. How is a question submitted? Easy. Send and email to or  just post the question in the Coach's Guestbook. A personal email response will be sent and the question and answer will be posted on this page shortly afterwards unless it has been asked before. The Coach's Notebook reserves the right to not list all submitted questions. You are also invited to post your questions on the ChalkTalk discussion board and get input from several coaches.

The questions immediately below were posted 1/03/00

I have great ball-handling skills, but I keep getting into trouble against teams that play tough man-to-man defense. How can I improve and reduce my turnovers?

You just need to pass to escape the pressure. Sounds like you were double teamed a lot. I tell my kids to give it up before the trap even happens. The ball will come back. If we see an opponent that dribbles a lot, we'll go right after him every time. Even a great dribbler will have turnovers against two smart defenders. But an average dribbler will do fine by avoiding conflict with an early pass. If two try to play against you, someone on your team is open. In the long run, you'll be frustrated trying to solve pressure problems with dribbling. So pass. Its more fun to make the defense chase the ball anyway, kind of like dogs chasing a stick. Use your great ball-handling skills in one on one situations if the defense gets too close.

My problem now is that 3 of our 7 players want to OVER-DO a team drill-going 100% instead of 1/2 speed stealing balls when trying to teach offensive sets/plays. How do I motivate/teach that to slow down to learn is a good thing?

Players will often seek to gain advantage during drills - that's just good >competitive nature. The answer is to restrict the drill with special rules. For instance, you might tell your defenders that their hands must be behind their backs at all times forcing them to play defense using quick feet and good body position. Offensively, you might tell your players to wait two seconds (count to before they do anything which gives the rest of the play time to develop.

Don't detract from the effort. Increase the challenge through various handicaps. The closer you focus the drill on a specific behavior, the better. Another idea along that line is when you practice rebounding. Set up a half-court scrimmage, but the only possible way to score a point is to grab a rebound. The only purpose making a basket serves is to put your team back on defense where it is possible to get points again.

Last night we lost a game due to our bad passing. What can I do to motivate them to be better passers? Should we run suicides for making bad passes?

I don't think punishment will help bad passes - they probably feel bad enough about losing to be motivated to improve.

Were the passes bad because:

  1. They were passing when trapped? If so, the defense knew where your limited pass options were. Pass before trapped.
  2. Were pass receivers standing still? They should be breaking toward the ball.
  3. Do you use a safety trailing the ball? That's a safer route to reverse the ball to the other side of the floor.
  4. Were the passes long? Risk increases with the length of the pass.
  5. What kind of passes were being stolen? Bounce passes are tougher to steal than passes lobbed over defenders.

How do I teach the kids to rotate from one man to another depending on other team's offensive movement?

I'll assume you are not running a run and jump m2m, and the switching problems happen when the players are screened or beaten off the dribble. For switching, you might try a simple rule like always switch when the ball is near the key and never switch when the ball is further away than the free throw line. (You determine appropriate boundaries). That will cut down on confusion. The idea is that the further from the basket, the more recovery time the defender has. Also, have the players on the weak side away from the ball sag. Our rule of thumb is, one pass away, put a body part in the passing lane; two passes away, have a body part in the key. The players in the key will be able to help with dribble penetrations. An important point ... the beaten defender must hustle back and pick up the helper's defender. Many times they forget.

Use 3 on 3 play to practice switching concepts. Use the shell drill to practice the sagging idea. Its good to have the kids feel responsible for more than their own man. The danger is when they leave their own man to initiate a double team. They should only help for planned traps or to stop the ball when penetration occurs.

The questions immediately below were posted 11/25/99

When screened, my players just say "Help!" and the opponent just drives by them. What should I tell them?

The easiest advice I have is for the screener's defender to communicate to his/her teammate being screened so there is some warning. By the time a defender says help, its probably too late. If the screener's defender calls out, "pick right, go through" the screened players has warning and a plan.

Some teams have simple rules, like if the pick is high (above the free throw line, for instance) never switch because there is time for recovery; and always switch when the pick is low. That's a good idea, too.

Work on communication. Its the basis of good teamwork in any endeavor.

Sometimes when our player is supposed to set the screen the defender isn't there. Where should the screen be set in that case?

The intended beneficiary of the screen must do his part. If he is on the weak side and his man is not near him, I would think he needs the ball, not a screen. If his defender is near him, he needs to guide the defender into the screen. Problems I see with my guys are:

  1. Team is too intent on running pattern and not seeing open players
  2. Player to receive screen runs away before screen is set
  3. Player receiving screen cuts too wide around screen and allows defender room to go through.

I want my screener to establish a position, not chase a defender around. I want the player receiving the screen to be patient, wait, then guide his defender into the screen. When I watch teams run plays, I see players going through motions. They set phantom screens that do nothing or that are disregarded. Obviously, few openings are created. However, when the screens details are consistently applied, the defense gets worn down and openings get better and better.

When you talk about your win-loss record, is it the coaches record being referred to or is it the team in question?

In my opinion, coaching records are way over-rated. The kids win or lose the game. A great group will make the coach look great. The following year, with a different group or in a different league, the same coach may not have near as many wins. The coach is the constant, the kids are the variable. Some successful coaches are really successful recruiters. Some great, but unknown, coaches may be instilling fundamental skills into players that go on to make lesser coaches look great.

And, lets be careful about claiming credit for changing kids' lives. The kids do that, too. We share a brief time with them and try to share as much as we can in that moment. If they're ready and listening, maybe you can add something to their personal "playbook". But its up to the kids to have the courage to make a change.

Can 3rd graders learn a couple of plays, and execute them in a game?

I am coaching a 3rd grade Y-ball boys team this winter in a 3rd/4th grade league. I believe they will be playing on 10' hoops with a youth ball. I was hoping to teach them a couple of simple plays, maybe teach them all the give-and-go, and a pick and roll. In your experience, can 3rd graders learn a couple of plays, and execute them in a game - of course not every time down, but once in a while?

ANSWER: I do believe 3rd graders can run a simple play. The key is to cover the fundamentals first. Teach them the give and go, pick and roll and the back door cut. That means allotting time for dribbling and passing drills. Also, teach them to drive past screens to get shots. (You can do that simply by running the basic two line layup drill, and add elements. Have the players in the rebound line grab the rebound, pass back to the shooting line then set a screen near the free throw line. The player in the shooting line drives at the screen then diverts either way to shoot just past the screen).

When you build your play, concentrate on spacing. Tell them how important it is to stay 10-15" apart. If they find themselves congested, "balance out" (revert to original spacing).

Choose an easy pattern like the high - low play on the site. In that set, the big guy starts low and comes up to set picks for the ballhandler. Then the kids look for those fundmental situations you taught them. The reset of the movement is really for establishing balance again.

With younger kids, the plays that won't work are ones with a lot of passing. The players aren't strong enough to avoid lob passes or pass very far. So, adjust your spacing accordingly.

Don't get frustrated teaching pick and roll, ect. I am still teaching them to 9th and 10th graders. The plays are easy to learn but difficult to perfect. Kids just need a coach like you to start them early. We have far too many kids with playground talent and WEAK fundamentals.

Regarding "blitz traps" and their effectiveness, have you had any experience with them?

My definition of blitz traps is when playing tight man to man defense, the player guarding the ball handler forces that player to reverse their direction or pivot (reverse pivot). To blitz trap a second defender would attack from the blind side either the wing or guard. If they actually turn their back to the defense it works better but some kids at this level have pretty good ball handling skills. They either go between their legs or behind their back. That makes this "Blitz trap ineffective.

ANSWER: Ball handlers in our area are pretty good, too, so when you really spread the floor and try to exert some pressure, you must accept a fair amount of risk. The key is when to trigger the trap. Here are a few comments that help mitigate the risk...

  1. If the ball handler turns his back (a definite no-no) spring the trap
  2. If the ball handler can be guided to the sideline, don't trap until you have the advantage of the out of bounds line.
  3. Often we elect to not try to trap at all until the ballhandler stops dribbling, then trap.
  4. When the ballhandler beats the first defender (head and shoulders go past) then the next two guys on the press need to help out. The closer must leave his man/position and stop the dribbler; the other covers the pass lane. The original defender needs to sprint back and take over that vacated spot.
  5. As always, don't give the ballhandler an escape pass - protect the passing lanes. Its the non-availability of a pass that panics the dribbler.
  6. If people are beating your press with a dribble, you're in trouble. It should be to your advantage when the ball hits the floor. You might need to work hard on defensive footwork to quicken those feet. team lose".

Do you have drills for zone defense and offense for my team of 6-9 year olds?

ANSWER: Rather than come up with zone drills, I am going to give you a different suggestion. Teach your kids man to man fundamentals. The reason I say that is because they will benefit more at that age by learning man to man. If I were coaching an older team that was small, I would teach them zone, but we would also do man to man. Properly taught, it is the most effective defense. What you teach them will help them for the rest of their basketball careers.

I have some man to man fundamentals on my site. But, here are some highlights...

  1. Always stay between your man and the basket
  2. If your man has not dribbled yet, stay a step away.
  3. Once the opponent dribbles, play as tight as possible
  4. If your man is one pass away, play in the passing lane. That means, don't let your man be open for a pass. This is very important.
  5. If your man is two passes away from the ball, stay near the key to help if the ballhandler gets loose and drives.
  6. If their big player posts up near the basket, have the defender play in front of the big player. The idea is to prevent the pass in. All you need to do is give the appearance of the big player not being open.
  7. Every player must box out for rebounds. Small people can be successful at rebounding if they block out.

Do you have ideas for selecting players for a 6th grade AAU team?

ANSWER: My sixth grade tryouts have always been a situation where I am trying to fill a few open spots rather than compose an entire team. However, your situation is very similar to our high school freshmen tryouts where dozens of kids are reviewed for the C team. Beyond the comments in "Selecting Players", here are some suggestions that I hope are appropriate.

  1. Look for ambidexterity, dribbling and shooting close to the basket. If you have some one-handed kids, it will take them a full season of hard work to learn to use their weak hand effectively. Can you afford that? Proficiency will be exposed in layup drills and dribbling drills, but look at their preferences under pressure, like in 3 on 3 play. Another indicator is in passing tendencies - do they always pass to their strong side. I tell the kids in elementary school that they have a choice to make now. Pay the price of learning to use both hands now or forget about playing competitive basketball in high school.
  2. When asking the kids to do drills in the tryouts, I explain and demonstrate the drill and tell them exactly what I am looking for. For example, on left handed lay ups, I tell them that I care about form and execution more than whether the shot goes in. Then I look for who follows direction and is willing to change behaviors. Some kids will ignore everything I said to make sure they made the shot. Kids that are willing to change even when they look bad temporarily are the kids you can work with.
  3. I try to pay attention to the potential team chemistry. The key is to get the best kids that get along well together. If some candidate is talented but disliked, that will be a tough problem to resolve during the season. Some groups of 3 or 4 will seem to really get good results because they have similar styles and will be able to predict each other's moves.
  4. Have all the kids demonstrate low post moves in a 1:1 environment. Have them use a drop steps and power dribbles to get their shots. If you have kids schooled in these basic moves they have probably been well-coached.
  5. Who is willing to box out for rebounds? I give high marks to kids that like to bang under the boards.

I don't use 5:5 during tryouts, but I do like 3:3. Each kid has plenty of opportunity to contribute in the 3:3 game. You might have 6 teams and set up games at 2 or three baskets. Play to 5 baskets then have the winner rotate to the nest game. Weaknesses such as improper defensive footwork show up pretty quickly.

Drills should cover the basic fundamentals. Most kids like to dribble, but its amazing how many cannot pass well due to poor technique. Decide if you have the time to teach passing to an otherwise promising prospect.

Work the kids hard with sprints or full court layup drills. Some kids will simply quit as soon as they get tired. If they start to protest, that's a clue of what you can expect later on.

My team doesn't have a good dribbler. How do we beat a team with a good press?

ANSWER: You won't beat a great press with a good dribbler. But you'll have a good chance with some decent passers. Primary advice - stay calm, avoid traps, go to open areas, advance the ball by passing, not dribbling. Remember, they're taking on the greater risk by spreading their defense all over the floor. I've seen a lot of good advice in the coaching boards and various websites. I have a simple press breaker diagrammed under the topic "Press Breakers".

Do you have any suggestions for keeping our 6th grade girls interested and motivated?

ANSWER: Here are some tips that help me when I coach kids in that age range.

  1. Don't talk too much. I try to use 1-2 minutes at a time (or less). best time to talk is when they are winded, like after a conditioning drill. If you lose eye contact, stop talking.
  2. Ask kids to demonstrate skills. It readily shows what they know and their peers will have a keen interest.
  3. Hold a scrimmage at the end of practice. Some coaches don't like this, but if you use the scrimmage to work on what you just practiced, it is useful.
  4. Make drills into contests. How fast can they run? Time them. How many shots can be made in a row? Have them count out loud as they do team layups. Check out the "long-short" shooting drill in the pre-game section.
  5. Keep the drills short - 10 minutes max. Then move to something new even if it works the same skill.
  6. When the players get tired and sloppy, stop. Either rest or quit practice.
  7. Solicit feedback all the time. Are you having fun? Does that help? Does that feel better?
  8. Quiz them. What is the "baseline"? How many fouls until you get a bonus? Things like that you feel are appropriate.
  9. If you can find a volunteer, videotape them in practice, then invite them over to the house to watch their shooting form, etc.
  10. Award silly prizes for extra hustle or accomplishments in practice.

Would you define the 5 positions on the court and their responsibilities?

ANSWER: Typically, a basketball team is broken into 5 positions for the purpose of defining who does what in a play. There is a lot of interpretation about the roles, but that's the fun of being coach - you decide who does what and there is no need to get too hung up on numbers.

Usually you can define the positions by the player's size. The 1 is the point guard and 5 is the center. Of course, size isn't important but that is usually how it goes. The normal roles:

  1. point guard - brings the ball upcourt, especially against a press. Sets up the offense. Starts plays from the top of the key. Usually a ball distributor more than a shooter. On a press, usually is the first defender on the ball.
  2. shooting guard - generally sets up for outside shots, often receives the first pass from the point guard. Helps bring up the ball. On a press, usually is an early defender on the ball.
  3. Small forward or big guard. Also called a swingman. Often sets screens. On a press, plays middle of the floor.
  4. Big forward - Many teams have this player pass the ball into play. Plays post positions on offense.
  5. Center - Your biggest player. Plays post position of offense and always near the basket on defense. On set plays, you look to get this player the ball inside.

These are all generalities. Sometimes it helps to assign the numbers so the players can identify themselves when they look at a play diagram.

What are some good full court drills that incorporate passing and defense skills. Like a full court 2 on 3.

ANSWER: For full court conditioning and practice of ballhandling, passing and defensive skills, I like the following:

  1. Full court 3 man weave, but the shooter must sprint back to the start point and defend against the two players he just worked with.
  2. 3 man weave. There is a fourth line, too. That line sends a man all the way  downcourt while the 3 man weave is in progress. He and the shooter return for defense.
  3. Alternatives include 4 man weave or a fourth and fifth line that run down in the outside lanes then back for defense.

I coach 5th and 6th graders. What's a good way to teach them which foot to jump off for layups?

ANSWER: About layups, you always jump off the leg opposite the shooting hand. So, if you're shooting with your right hand, jump off your left foot. Another way to think of it is to jump off the leg closest to the basket and shoot with hand furthest from the basket.

Shooting layups well with either hand is a very important skill. It is not easy to learn, but if you work on it every practice, by the end of the season some players will be doing it naturally. That's when you can pat yourself on the back. Tell them that if they do not learn to shoot layups with both hands now, they will have a very hard time making a junior high team and definitely have a hard time making a high school team.

One drill to do is have them line up single file and drive to the basket without a ball. Then they pretend to shoot and concentrate on jumping off the proper foot. The ball tends to complicate things. After many repetitions, introduce the ball to the drill and see what happens. Make it fun by showing them how high they got off the floor with each attempt.

My son suggests imagining a string tied from your elbow to your knee. When the right hand goes up, so does the right knee as you jump off the left foot.

Many kids have a hard time balancing the ball in their weak hand, and therefore its impossible for them to shoot. To help that, they will need to get a partner and practice taking one step and a shot (no dribble) and bank the layup in. The partner helps with rebounds and trades position when the shooter tires. In time, they will develop the strength and coordination they need.

The boys I have coached at that level have learned to shoot either way within one season, but it took some of them all season. The point is, after that, they own that shot for life.