Youth basketball coaching and youth basketball coach education has been a passion of mine since launching Basketball Immersion in 2014. I have been blessed to be able to connect and share the game with amazing coaches from every level around the world. The mission has always been to stimulate coaches’ thinking regarding best practices and to help develop better coaches and players.
Most of it is to be able to stimulate thinking about is there a better way? Is there something that someone may have never heard about or never thought about in a certain way? And that’s really been what I’m grateful for with Basketball Immersion is the opportunity to be able to do that and be able to stimulate coaches thinking from the NBA on down to the youth basketball level. A lot of the things that I share are not about what to coach, but how to coach and to stimulate coaches thinking in that way.
This blog is a part of a new initiative from myself and Alex Sarama. We will be presenting ideas on improving youth basketball using education based and evidence based ideas. This is part of an on-going series available on YouTube, and in the membership area, called Youth Basketball Coaching Immersion.
Here is the first video of our youth basketball series that demonstrates concepts like desirable difficulties, serial practice, blocked practice, random practice, mixing, retrieval, retention, learning cues, figuring it out and more. In the video all these concepts are explained and given a context in the learning process. The footage is meant to be raw in that the learner is learning and not perfect… so perfection is not shown.
Many youth basketball coaches have engaged with our content, from which several common themes have emerged.
The fastest way to start an argument in youth basketball is to ask if zone defense should be allowed or not. While I covered this topic in another blog post, the bigger question to consider as coaches is are we going to complain about the rules or are we going to help our players with solutions?
A solutions-based approach shifts the focus. At the end of the day, youth basketball coaches want to win. It’s easy to scheme and run systems at the youth level to win games. And if you have an early-developer on your team, it gets even easier. But consider this: if a coach teaches and develops ball skills so they’re players can handle the pressure, zone defense no longer matters.
Coaches love to remind players to “control the controllable.” The zone defense argument isn’t likely to end anytime soon. As youth basketball coaches, are we going to spend our time saying “hey, we need to change this” or are we going to control the controllable and focus on finding solutions to set our players up for long-term success? Learn more about my solution based approach to coaching zone offense.
Evidence-Based and Education-Based Coaching
Basketball Immersion has also strived to present best practice ideas supported by evidence. While it’s different all around the world, for many youth basketball organization’s, coaches are volunteers. Not surprisingly, this can lead to a lack of evidence and education-based coaching, as volunteers revert to “what’s always been done”, mimicking the way they were coached, or trying to copy the latest online trainer.
Thankfully, many organizations and countries have created certification procedures. “Certified” may not always mean “qualified”, but at least there’s a process to help coaches in those organizations. Are there coaches that overcome not having certification? Absolutely. There are literally thousands of youth coaches that do an incredible job by just showing up and creating opportunities. So the danger is that we lose those people. If we create barriers to volunteerism, we lose volunteer coaches that are essential for mass participation.
At the end of the day, youth sports come back to wanting to increase participation and helping kids love the game. Creating a safe environment is the first step to accomplishing that. While there are evil people coaching who abuse young people in unfathomable ways, the majority of youth coaches are inherently doing their best. I know many youth basketball coaches who aren’t the greatest technical and tactical coaches, but whom I would consider outstanding youth basketball coaches because they create an environment for fun, safe and useful exploration of basketball skills and concepts within a practice. If you create the right learning environment playing basketball teaches players as much as the drills and technical tactical instructions we provide.
How can those coaches do even better? To me a coach who doesn’t consider the fact that their number one thing is athlete satisfaction in practice and in games is doing a disservice to those player’s experiences playing sport. Youth basketball players are not mini adults, and they should be coached and challenged by providing them age appropriate experiences.
What I Wish I Would Have Known
Almost all of this, solutions-based coaching, evidence-based approach, best practices, comes back to teaching. For me teaching is really all about classroom management: our ability as a coach to manage the environment. The goal is to help players play as much basketball in basketball practice as possible. Either they are engaged in individual development by having a ball in their hands as much as possible, or they are engaged in offense vs. defense small-sided or constraints based games to shape learning. The best way to learn is by doing. As coaches, are we maximizing active learning time and time-on-task for our players?
How do we keep our players on task? Practice is about the players. Practice is not a coaching clinic. We keep them active by minimizing instruction time and management time. We engage them in really fun, useful things.
After coaching thousands of young players around the world at youth camps, it’s evident that, for most young people, fun is improvement, shared experiences and competition. Fun doesn’t just mean frivolous games. When I talk about improvement, I am talking about a player feeling that they are improving, and having other’s notice they’ve improved. So coaches need to be able to keep athletes engaged and on-task, and then understand the value of noticing and acknowledging their progress. Youth basketball players think it is fun to improve. Create an environment for them to improve within practice, and do your best to inspire them to led themselves to improve when they are not in practice. Player led development has to be a focus for a player to get as good as they dream about being.
The best coaches at all levels create safety, specifically psychological safety, for their players. That doesn’t mean they don’t challenge their players. That doesn’t mean not pushing them to get better. That doesn’t mean not coaching them. It means creating an environment where mistakes are allowed, mistakes are encouraged, and mistakes are corrected. Failure needs to be normalized. We all make mistakes. We all fail. This is a normal part of the learning process.
Winning and losing also needs to be normalized. We need to teach players how to lose, as much as how to win. I am an advocate of competition at young ages. Competing is healthy if it is put within the context of improvement, and shared experiences. Playing with other players, and sharing the experience of competing towards a goal is a positive bio-psycho social-spiritual model that will provide a blueprint for future collaborations and connections for life. In practice and games discussing winning and losing as a normal part of the learning cycle is important to helping players understand that we all win and lose everyday in the things we do in our life.
Players often would be better served if we gave them the freedom to simply figure things out. As coaches, are we presenting our players with absolute solutions or providing them the framework to explore all the possibilities? This is not to say we shouldn’t coach and provide answers. Our answers can help give a framework, but there are usually other solutions within that answer. Coaching, and playing, is best defined by the possibilities. Do you really care how what type of lay-up your player shoots as long as it goes in? How can they get to that outcome? There’s three or four different solutions for that outcome, or just one? Now, should we start from teaching one outcome and one solution? Often, yes, but then from there, we’ve got to create an environment where youth basketball players can develop beyond that one absolute.
At the end of the day, the beautiful dynamic of coaching is that it’s both an art and a science. As coaches, it’s our responsibility to learn not just the technical and tactical aspects, but also the relational and psychological aspects so that our youth players learn to love the process of developing and competing.
Interested in stimulating your understanding of all these concepts and more? The next step is to become a member of our community…