I have spent the past 20 years running basketball camps where our players play only half-court games with less than five players on a team. I am a firm believer that young players, specifically those in elementary school, are able to learn the game and improve much more quickly when they play half-court games with less than 5 players on a team. If you played basketball as a kid and there weren’t enough players you made due with what you had and played 3 on 3 in the driveway or the playground. Young players today don’t get enough exposure to these kinds of games. They are often playing organized basketball beginning at age 6 or 7, most of which is played 5 on 5 full-court with ten foot baskets. I am a believer in keeping the basket heights below ten feet as young players learn the game and develop the strength necessary to shoot properly at a ten foot basket.
What are the benefits of 3 on 3? The most obvious benefit is more opportunities to have the ball. In a 5 on 5 game ten players must share one ball. That ratio is cut down in 3 on 3 allowing for more touches for each player. The best players tend to have the ball the most during 5 on 5 and the least skilled players rarely get to handle the ball. In 3 on 3 everyone has to touch the ball to create spacing and passing angles. It is more likely that all 3 players will be involved in the action. There is a much more even distribution of touches among the players. Kids have more fun because they get the ball more often.
Another benefit is the elimination of time spent running up and down the court. This is often a time when turnovers and mass confusion occurs as kids can often outrun their ability to dribble and pass. By keeping the game in the half-court more basketball skills are utilized and the pace of the game is slowed down allowing for a more effective learning environment.
There is less congestion on the court. There is more room to pass and cut. There is more room to drive to the basket. It is easier for kids to know who their man is and develop the ability to help their teammate on defense. Spacing is improved and there is more freedom of movement.
There is no zone defense. Nothing is worse for player development than a youth league team playing a zone. The defense just stands around and the offense is often forced to take bad shots because their skill sets don’t allow them to attack a zone defense properly. A wide open 15 footer is not a good shot for most 9 year olds.
Soccer has recognized the benefits of short squad play for a long time through futsol, and the younger the age group, the less kids are on the field. Football 7 on 7 leagues have become more popular and led to more highly skilled quarterbacks and receivers. Basketball has neglected short squad play at an organized level for a long time. Encourage your young player to get out and play 4 on 4 or 3 on 3. Look for a local league or tournament for them to play in. Short squad basketball is a great way for kids to get more reps with the ball, improve their skills, and have fun.
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.
Click below for a link to a free pdf of a great book called “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle. This is the best book I have ever read about how to improve a player’s skills. It is has tremendous insights about how and why talent develops. It is an amazing read. As a parent of a young basketball player I think you will find this book incredibly valuable.
As a parent of a young basketball player what should you be looking for in a youth basketball practice? There are youth basketball coaches with all different styles, abilities and knowledge of the game out there coaching kids. The good ones have certain characteristics and run their practices in such a way to help every player on the team improve their skills.
The first thing that should be happening is that every player should have a ball in their hands for the majority of the practice. The coach should be using drills that enable every player to be working with the ball. That means a lot of dribbling and shooting drills where each player is moving through the drill with his or her own ball, not waiting for the ball to be passed to them or standing around waiting for their turn with the ball. The drills should be simple to understand so that time is not lost explaining a complicated drill. Repetition builds skills and skill building is confidence building. Good coaches have a practice routine that incorporates many of the same drills every practice to reinforce key skills like a crossover dribble or a layup with the weak hand and then challenges players with drills just outside their players comfort zones.
Players should be encouraged to make mistakes. There is research out there as described by Daniel Coyle in his book The Talent Code that says the most beneficial type of practice occurs when the player tries to do something that is just a little too hard for them. The coach should be affirming that struggle. For example, when the player shoots a layup on the left side with their left hand, but misses the coach should acknowledge that the player was pushing themselves to learn something new even though they might have easily been able to make the shot with their right hand. This is great advice for parents too. Recognize your young player’s effort as much as their accomplishment. If parents and coaches praise the effort of a young player the child will connect their hard work with success. Sometimes praising an accomplishment will result in complacency. Young players have to be willing to look or be bad at a skill in order to get better at it. Coaches should be praising kids who are trying new skills during practice.
On the other side, a good youth basketball coach shouldn’t have 30 different “plays”. First of all if the team is only working on plays, that is a lot of standing around listening to the coach talk and explain what must happen to make the play successful. There are usually 5 kids on the floor during this time and the rest of the team is just standing and watching (and maybe listening depending on how long the explanation takes). Secondly, the younger the players the less likely it is they will remember the plays under pressure in a game situation no matter how many times they go over them. Time working on plays is time that could be spent improving the skill level of every player on the team. An organized team should have a couple of out of bounds plays, and maybe 2 or 3 offensive plays that they can execute. Any more than that is a waste a valuable practice time. A more skilled team will win more games too.
A youth basketball coach should be teaching and playing man to man defense. Many youth leagues ban zone defenses, but even in those that don’t, a good coach should be teaching man defense. As players get older and zones become a part of the game, those zones (at least the good ones) are based on man to man principles. Youth league zones usually involve 5 players standing in place with their hands in the air. That does not teach young players how to play. I understand why some coaches play a zone. It gives up mostly outside shots and keeps the ball out of the lane. Most youth basketball players aren’t great shooters from 17 feet. A zone may help the team win more games, but is that really the point of youth basketball? Or is developing the skill level of the players more important? Remember, skill building is confidence building.
Look for some of these things the next time you attend one of your young player’s practices and make sure the programs and teams your child is a part of have good coaching. Your young player will be better for it.
If you are a coach looking for some great drills to use in your practices or a parent looking to help your child get better check out our Make the Team Plan on www.headstartedge.pro