Coaching basketball for youth has many benefits. It also has a set of unique challenges. When dealing with children, training has to strike a balance between fun and instilling the traits needed to develop a strong athlete.
Player development is crucial because children can be affected long-term by experiences. Positive experiences can build a lasting love for the game, and negative ones may make a child abandon something they once loved. The first step a basketball coach, who will be training child players, should take is developing a clear understanding of their role as a coach and how to best approach training.
This guide is designed to help you map out or refine your coaching strategy. The tips we provide should lay a good foundation that will give each child you coach the best experience the game can offer them, while laying a solid foundation in core skills and sportsmanship that can serve them long-term.
1) Basketball Is A Game And Should Be Fun!
The easiest mistake to make as a youth coach is to put your primary focus on form, technique, winning or anything but enjoyment. In youth sports, it is most important the children enjoy themselves. After all, basketball is a game and games are meant to be fun, especially for children. If the children are enjoying the game, you have won the biggest part of the battle.
In that spirit, try to set aside your ego and ask the parents and players for feedback. Listen to their input on what they enjoyed most about the season. Ask what they would like in the future, ways the process can be more enjoyable, and other things that will enrich the training experience. The information will help you weed out what is working or hindering your team’s progress.
You do not have to tailor your coaching to their answers. However, it will give you the pulse of how your team is progressing and how they perceive their experience with you as a coach. Properly assimilating the information will make you a more successful sought after coach, with a higher player and parent satisfaction.
2) The Basics Are Essential
Caching is likely your passion. You may be brimming with ideas for basketball drills or advanced tactics, and are more than ready to see them in action. However, children need a solid foundation, and that means heavy focus on the basics. It is not just beginning players who need foundational training. Even youth players considered “advanced” need to be constantly engaging in basketball training that hammers in the basics of the game.
Children are almost always going to have a laundry list of bad habits. For example, even the best shooters may have awful form. The advantage is that children are very trainable, and you can really mold their game. That said, certain aspects of training should be revisited repeatedly so proper execution becomes second nature.
- Shooting Form – Demonstrating proper shooting form to your players is best done with them closer to the net, where shots are easiest. Remind them not to shoot from the hip as is common in children who have not built up strength. Rather reinforce shooting with knees bent, elbows in.
- How To Handle The Ball – Remind your players not to palm the ball, but to hold it on the pads of their fingertips using momentum to release it. Also, teach them to keep their eyes up. Developing ball handling drills is a good way to naturally enforce necessary skills.
- Passing – Child players should pass with two hands, and the shooting pocket is the best receipt. You should also focus heavily on chest passing or bounce passing. Older children, with enough strength, can also learn over the head passes.
- Defensive Stance – You will have to pick apart every aspect of a child’s defensive stance. Are their backs strait, knees bent, arms wide? Children have a tendency to hunch their backs and stand strait up. Ensuring you correct them with consistency will help them automatically take proper stance as they age.
- Boxing Out – In the thrill of the game, children will take off running to the rim toward the ball. You have to stop them and teach them to be disciplined enough to box out first, then get the ball.
- Triple Threat Position – The triple threat position is especially useful for children because you can do almost anything needed offensively from it. In fact, incorporate basketball drills that have them doing everything from it. Shooting, passing, dribbling. It is an excellent opportunity to teach pivoting too. Knees bent, ball to the hip! Make it a chant to help them have fun and remember.
- Setting A Screen – Teach your kids to keep their knees bent and to stay set. Help them understand how to properly cover themselves and work as a team.
The basics may not be thrilling to teach, over and over again, but with children, it is needed. You want your team to be foundationally strong as it will affect everything else you teach them. Try to make the basketball drills you do to reinforce these skills fun so they can still enjoy practice.
3) Children Should Play, Not Focus On Plays
If you aim to train a room full of players whose heads are not in the game, but are focused on how they should run spots and listen to you give instructions, then teaching them plays is a great idea. However, when coaching children, it is really putting the cart before the horse. That does not mean never have them run a play. One extreme is no better than the other.
Learning the methodology behind plays is an essential part of basketball training. Plays are valuable – to people who actually know how to play basketball. Children do not have the experience actually playing the game to use plays in the way they are intended.
Remember, as a coach you are a teacher. If you put your desire to see a play executed in front of the teaching process itself, it will be the children that suffers long-term. Focus on the fundamentals they need to function on the court. Have them practice them until they do them as second nature.
They need to know how to keep the floor balanced. Make sure they understand the need, and how to create space. Teach them to dribble hand-off’s, screen and pop or rolls, and how to down screen or backdoor when they are being denied. Help them understand the value of the tactics used and when to use them. Great players are those who can think quickly and make rapid choices for themselves, not just take orders.
Little things, like how to call for a ball, spacing, pass and basket cuts, it’s all relevant. When they can grasp those things, they will be able to use a play to properly produce the edge intended. Accomplish that, and you are successfully coaching.
4) Basketball Drills Are A Double-Edged Sword
It may seem like we are trying to rip all the fun and pre-existing strategy out of your coaching experience, but honestly, we aren’t. Drills are useful, use them. However, the goal should be for your players to build their functional skills, not excel at executing drills.
There are many drills you can have your team run, but the best-intentioned drill may not translate directly into something they can use in a real game. So the caution is this, pick your drills carefully. Whatever drills you use should easily and directly translate into skills your players can use in the game. Fancy drills are rarely the most useful.
5) Positions Are Overrated
Children should have flexibility in their positions. Try to do away with your preconceived ideas about what type of player is better in certain positions. The younger your players, the more irrelevant that mindset becomes. Let the larger kids shoot and handle the ball. They may be big now, but in a year the smaller children, who you didn’t push to play on the block, could tower over them.
As a coach, you don’t have a crystal ball to tell you how a child will develop as they age, so prepare them to excel in every area. Tight position placement is not realistic for an eleven-year-old. Everyone should train equally in every skill. As a coach, you must prepare them for where they will be in the future, so cast a wide net.
6) Play Man To Man, Despite Its Weaknesses
You’re a coach, and you want to win. Zone defense is obviously the easiest way to do that when you have a team of children. However, there is a running theme when coaching children, and that is the development of skills that are not only useful now, but in the long-term.
With that in consideration, play man-to-man defense. Yes, your score is going to suffer. However, you won’t ruin your players with bad habits like remaining in one area and just standing there waiting for the action to come to them. You have to make a choice. Did you sign up to coach and develop strong players, or win every fourth-grade basketball game possible?
The payoff long-term will be greater if your players understand how to play help side defense and communicate through the possession. They will be stronger players on the high school and college level because you made the choice to let them practice denying while on pass away at the expense of few points during a game. And your rep? It will be the coach who’s players have the real game and has sent more skilled players into high school, college level basketball, and beyond.
7) They Are Children, Don’t Burn The Candle On Both Ends
It can be tempting to throw the book at your players. Grueling basketball workouts, tournaments every weekend, and restrictions on other sports are common mistakes. Despite popular belief, there is an end to the energy children have, and they can get burnt out. Youth can get into a cycle where the game becomes their life. There is a constant push for them to improve.
Try to find a balance with your basketball training for the team that allows them to have time to engage in a healthy rounded life. A regimen that is 365 days a year, every free moment they have, with no mercy, is not necessary at such a young age. Allow them to explore, and develop as people.
There may be a sport they will like more, and that’s ok. Or maybe their hunger for the game will grow. Give them the space to make those choices. Do more than just be permissive. Encourage them.
Coaching youth basketball puts you in a unique position to lay the foundation for everything a player can become. Your time with your players has an immense impact on how they adapt within the game as they age. You may have one of the hardest coaching jobs, because you are training them not just for the here and now, but for the unforeseeable future.
You must navigate the fact that month to month they are developing physically, and embrace a more rounded coaching style. As they change, gain strength, size, and knowledge, you have to revamp your approach, so they remain challenged and progress. Since every player is physically developing at a different pace, the dynamics of your team, what each child can bring, and how they can be utilized is always changing. It really will keep you on your toes.
However, the payoff is incredible. It is the reason so many choose to be youth coaches. The process is always evolving and a chance for you to grow as a coach alongside your players. We hope this guide has given you ideas, helped you evaluate your coaching strategy, and inspired you to bring something new to your basketball training.