Coaching Youth Basketball

Basketball on the Edge – What are You Willing to Sacrifice? – Vintage Edition


Let’s say you are the parent of an outstanding youth basketball player, male or female. Let’s say that you are trying to determine their potential in the game. What will ultimately determine whether they succeed or fail in their quest to become an elite high school, college, or pro player? Talent obviously plays a role. Each of our genetic profiles is different. Some of us max out in high school, others in college, and then you have those athletes that reach the professional key to reaching those levels and elite athletes grind it out day after day to give themselves a great shot at success.

There is one additional factor that is often overlooked, the player’s willingness to sacrifice. A player that is not willing to sacrifice something, or more likely many somethings, is unlikely to make it big in the game of basketball, or any sport. Great athletes sacrifice on a daily basis. They are committed to their craft and are willing to set aside pleasure or comfort while others are not. This willingness to sacrifice for the sake of one’s improvement as a player is what helps to separate “players” from those that merely play the game.

As a long time basketball coach and skills trainer I have seen all types of players with varying levels of talent and genetics. Let’s not be naïve and suggest that any one factor determines whether or not a player reaches his or her potential. There are many factors that go into whether a player achieves their goals, but the willingness to sacrifice is crucial.

Is a player willing to go to the gym and gets shots up during a hot summer afternoon when their friends are at the pool? Is a player willing to get up before school and work on their ballhandling in the basement? Is a player ready to up games when their friends are hanging out at parties? Is a player willing to eat right, stay away from drugs and alcohol, and condition their body to be an outstanding player? If they are willing to do these things it’s a great sign that they might be on the path to success.

When we watch college or professional basketball on tv or in person we tend to gloss over the hours and hours of practice time that these players have put in. The vast majority of that time has come when the cameras were off and nobody else was there. They were willing to push themselves beyond where they thought they could go. I preach to all the players I work with about the need to get out of their comfort zone. Being great requires being uncomfortable. If a player is unwilling to push through those barriers and sacrifice their comfort they won’t develop the skill set necessary to reach their potential.

Players willing to sacrifice get in one more rep, sprint the floor one more time, take one more shot, train just a little longer than those players who don’t. These players give up time with their family and friends to pursue their dream of being great. Most players aren’t willing to make that sacrifice. On the night of my senior prom I was playing pick-up basketball at a local college gym. Would most players have made that sacrifice? I don’t think so. Great players make their game a priority and are willing to forgo experiences that most people would not. They know that this kind of sacrifice is what sets them apart and makes them a success. For most players this kind of sacrifice is uncomfortable, maybe even strange. Why miss out on a fun event like the prom? Great players make this sacrifice willingly because their success depends on it.

Most players tend to choose the easiest path. They put in the required time and not much beyond that. When things get tough they are ok to walk away. The harder you work, the harder it is to walk away. As parents we often try to make our child’s path easier, after all that is part of our job isn’t it? In some cases yes, but in others we need to step back and let our kids struggle. Don’t intervene when their playing time is lost or they have a bad game. Let them figure out what types of sacrifices they have to make to rectify their predicament. Great players embrace the struggle and sacrifice. They don’t look for excuses or for someone else to bail them out. Instead, they put their head down and get back to work.

“The true vision of a champion is someone bent over, drenched in sweat, at the point of exhaustion, when no one else is watching.”

“Winning means you’re willing to go longer, work harder, and give more than anyone else.”

“It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”

Are you willing to make the sacrifice to be great?

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Basketball on the Edge – Beware of Empty Stats by Adam Finkelstein

Empty Stats

Growing up, my Dad always talked to me about playing a good “floor” game. What he meant was that I could impact the game in more ways than just scoring. A great performance isn’t always measured in point totals. This article points out the need for players and parents to keep in mind that coaches and scouts are looking for players who can impact winning and not just put up empty stats.

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Basketball on the Edge -How Do You React To Losing – Vintage Edition


When your young player loses a game what happens next? How do you handle the situation? How should you handle the situation? The key is to remember why your child is playing the game. Your goal as a parent should be to help them foster a love of the game, to encourage your young player to develop a growth mindset, and to help them develop their basketball skills. If you only define their success by wins and losses, both you and your child will be very unhappy.

The first thing you should do is allow a cooling off period immediately following the game. Kids react differently to losing and you know your child best, but all young players need time after a game to process what happened. As a parent you probably need that time too! You should avoid talking about specific situations in the game unless your child brings it up. What your young player always needs is your unconditional love and support. That doesn’t change whether they win or lose.

I always ask my kids four questions after a game. Did you have fun? Did you play hard? Did you listen to your coach? Were you a great teammate? Most times I get a standard yes to all three and then I tell them, “I love watching you play!” Occasionally they will want to talk about something that happened in the game and we’ll go ahead and talk about it. Otherwise, I give them their space and let them work through the game on the car ride home.

Eventually, you may want to have a discussion with your young player about the game. Here are some guidelines for having that discussion.

Frame the discussion around a growth mindset and the opportunity to learn. A loss is not the end of the world, help your child use it as a springboard to improve. Don’t belittle your young player or scream at them. They won’t react favorably to these tactics and using them repeatedly will often drive them away from the sport. They started playing because the game was fun, don’t take that away from them. They need your love and support regardless of whether they win or lose a game!

Don’t blame other players, the referees, or the coach for the loss. There is no worse lesson you can teach your young player than to make excuses. By making excuses or blaming others you are setting up your child to always point the finger at someone else and not take responsibility. It is only by taking responsibility for what happened that we as parents can set the table for improvement. Losing happens to everyone, even the very best players in the world. Use the loss to help your young player understand the game better and use it as motivation to improve. How do you do that? You can ask these questions during your discussion of the game.

“What did you learn from the game?”

“What was something you did really well during the game?”

“What was something that you can improve on during practice before the next game”?

“What was your favorite part of the game or the best play?”

Try to relate the loss to a real life lesson from your own life. An example might be how you learned from a mistake you made and it led to even greater success in the long run.

Be very specific in your praise. Kids don’t attach much meaning to the generic “Good Game!” comment. That often goes in one ear and out the other. Instead point out how they did a great job helping on defense or went 4 for 4 from the free throw line. That specific praise is most likely to be heard and appreciated.

You can also praise them for continuing to battle despite their team being behind or because they encouraged the rest of the team to step up their play or not give up even though they were losing. These are characteristics you want to encourage in your young player. Look for chances to teach these kinds life lessons through basketball.

The other thing to talk to your young player about is that they have the ability to improve and play better the next game. That is the growth mindset. Their effort should never waver. That ability to work hard gets them through challenges like a tough loss or learning a new skill. Mistakes are part of getting better! Encourage them to think about how they played in this game and what they need to do in the next game.

Finally, if there is a specific mistake or decision you want to point out from the game, continue to frame it in such a way that encourages your young player to grow and learn. Explain what went wrong in the game and how with hard work in training they can make it right.
If you follow these simple guidelines for handling a loss you will be helping your young player foster a love of the game, you will encourage their growth mindset, and you will motivate them to improve their basketball skills. That process is what winning is all about.

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Basketball on the Edge – The Professionalization of Youth Sports by John O’Sullivan


Please take the time to read this article by John O’Sullivan that explains the dangers to kids when we “professionalize” youth sports.

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Basketball on the Edge – Do Our Kids Play Too Many Games? – Vintage Edition


Youth basketball today has shifted its focus from player development and skill building towards a model that emphasizes 5 on 5 full court games from a very early age. Young players spend relatively little time training or getting involved in unstructured short squad “pick-up” play compared to players of past generations. Today, kids as young as second grade start playing on travel and AAU teams. Typically these teams may practice once a week and then play 4 or 5 games in a weekend. The overemphasis on playing and winning 5 on 5 full court games leads to many problems regarding the development of young players.

This is the complete opposite of the ideal player development balance. Young players should be training and practicing far more often than they play in a 5 on 5 game. Instead, they spend about one hour at practice a week and then play several hours of 5 on 5 games. That ratio should be reversed. Young players should be practicing more both with their team and on their own including playing more short squad pick-up games that give them the opportunity to get more touches of the ball and play against players of different ages. Not only should they be practicing basketball more than playing it, they should also be involved in other sports. Until they hit puberty, specialization in basketball shouldn’t even be considered.

Here are some problems that result from the overemphasis on full court 5 on 5 games for young players.

1. Fundamental skill development is sacrificed.

Young players first need to develop the skills necessary to be successful in a 5 on 5 game before they are thrown out on the court to compete. Youth coaches are so often focused on winning that players are typecast into positions and never train to become complete players. The “tall” kid who never grows after 6th grade and has only stood on the block for his entire basketball career needs an opportunity to become an all around player. The ratio of games to practices is about 6 to 1 right now. That should be reversed to properly develop our young players.

Here is a quote from Kobe Bryant talking about how growing up in Europe helped him develop his basketball skill set. “I was lucky to grow up in Italy at a time when basketball in America was getting messed up with AAU shuffling players through on strength and athleticism. I missed all that, and instead I was taught extreme fundamentals: footwork, footwork, footwork, how to create space, how to handle the ball, how to protect the ball, how to shoot the ball.” Obviously Kobe is strong and athletic too, but he developed great fundamentals at a young age. That is hard to do if all a young player does is play 5 on 5.

Kids simply don’t get enough touches in a 5 on 5 game to improve dramatically. During the course of the game a player who is not the primary ballhandler may have the ball for less than a minute. How much better can you get in that short period of time? Not much. More short squad 2 on 2 or 3 on 3 games give players more touches under game conditions. Kids don’t play enough pick-up basketball anymore so sometimes we as parents and coaches need to provide time for that type of unstructured play in our practices.

2. Too many games lead to overuse injuries and burnout.

There is mounting evidence that specializing in one sport at a young age can lead to injury and burnout. Learning proper fundamentals and how to train can reduce the frequency and severity of injuries. The opportunity to learn is reduced when players are only playing 5 on 5 games.

“There are lots of forces here, and not a lot of hard statistics on it,’’ said Dr. Mininder Kocher, associate director of the division of sports medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Kids 12 and under, both boys and girls, are still in their growth stages. Their growth plates are still open. Their bone and soft tissue biomechanics are different than a 14- or 16-year-old. They’re also still developing neuromuscularly — balance, coordination.’’
Beyond the potential physical fallout of early specialization is the psychological and emotional toll on young athletes who feel pressured to perform at high levels, says Brooke de Lench, an advocate for youth sports reform.
“Parents are more intense, pushing kids more at an early age, than they were 15 years ago,” says de Lench. That’s when the Concord mother established the MomsTeam Institute, a watchdog resource for parents of “sports-active” children.


Allow, and in fact encourage, your young player to play multiple sports to develop their overall athleticism. Your child will be healthier and happier with their sport(s) in the long run.

3. Players don’t develop leadership and people skills.

Parents and coaches organize everything for kids in today’s world. Kids need more opportunities to pick teams, make their own rules, and then enforce those rules with each other. Some young players become leaders in these situations and get everyone on the same page. Kids learn to navigate and negotiate with other players. Was that a foul or not? You have to stand up for yourself or one of your opponents may try to take advantage of you. These skills don’t develop when adults set and enforce the rules. In sports and life you have to be able to make decisions, have confidence, and deal with lots of different people. Pick-up basketball helps young players incorporate those skills into their game and more importantly their life.

4. Playing with older players makes you better.

This is huge for me personally. I spent a ton of time growing up playing against older kids in my neighborhood. As I got to be 13 or 14 I went to the park and played against high school players, college kids, and adults. Those older kids and adults might not have been the best basketball players, but they were bigger, faster, and stronger than me. They didn’t want some kid scoring on them or stopping them on defense. I learned a lot of little subtleties of the game in those environments: how to protect the ball, how to use my entire body to defend, how to get my shot off quicker, how to play through contact and many more. As I got older, I never called fouls in pick-up games. I wanted to push myself to score despite the contact that would have other players calling “ball”.

Young players today mostly play against kids their own age. They never have to make the adjustments to playing with older kids and adults that I had to make. Find ways to help your young player get into pick-up games of any kind with older players. The experience they gain will be invaluable in their development as a complete player.

5. Nobody plays for hours at a time anymore.

Young players today play in a regulation 5 on 5 game and maybe play half to two thirds of the game. The game lasts about an hour or so and then they wait for their next game. I loved to play for hours at a time. My friends and I would play 1 on 1 to a hundred. I’d be the first guy at the park and the last to leave. I played when I was fresh and I played when I was exhausted. In an organized 5 on 5 game coaches control how many minutes kids play and as I said earlier nobody gets enough touches. The best way to improve is to have a ball in your hand. A one hour 5 on 5 game simply doesn’t provide enough opportunities to touch the ball and get better.

5 on 5 games can play a role in the growth of a young basketball player, especially if they have a good coach that is focused skill development rather than winning. However, practice/training time and short sided pick-up games should be emphasized over 5 on 5 play for those young players that have yet to reach puberty. How do we know who is going to be tall, fast, or strong at age 8 or 9? The answer is, we don’t. Therefore, as youth basketball parents and coaches it is our responsibility to flip the script and deemphasize playing and winning 5 on 5 games in favor of more skill development training and short squad pick-up games.

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Addicted to Getting Better - On and Off the Court