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Coaching Youth Basketball

By Dr. James Gels, from the Coach’s Clipboard Basketball Playbook... lots of great basketball stuff. Come on - join us!
Coaches... be sure to see the complete list of coaching articles in the Playbook index.

Let's start with this timeless message to youth coaches from Coach Stan Van Gundy.

Coaching Kids and Working with Parents

I have gotten lots of questions from coaches and parents about coaching youth basketball, and advice for coaching youngsters, let's say 1st through 6th grades... elementary school children.

You are probably a parent coach, a teacher-coach, a former player, or just someone who likes kids and wants to help coach and work with a bunch of kids. You may be organizing a recreational league or a church league, or are developing a program at your elementary school.

Some of the kids may have played some, and some have never played before. Some are there because they already love the game, and some are there because of their friends. Some were urged by their parents to give it a try.

Their parents will likely have varying perspectives. A few will think you should win every game at whatever cost, and will be yelling advice from the sidelines. Some will be thankful and happy that their child is on your team. Some will be a little fearful that you may yell at their child, or that their child may not be a good player and will embarrass him/herself.

Coaching Youth basketball

So what advice do I give you?

First, make it fun for the kids. Do not yell negative things at them as this embarrasses them in front of their friends, and is actually counter-productive creating more stress and more mistakes. It makes you look like a bully, and you may completely turn the player away from ever wanting to play again.

You can yell, but it should always be positive comments. If a player messes up, don't embarrass him/her in front of his/her friends. For example, if someone is having trouble with a certain skill or drill, rather than pointing the finger at him, blow the whistle and say, "Some of you are having trouble doing... blah, blah, blah... let me show you how to do this." So maintain a positive attitude, even if you are losing by 30 points.

Teach good sportsmanship by your example... no yelling at the refs, no demeaning the other team, other players, etc. Teach them to play hard, but do not allow "dirty" play or trash talking. Teach them to respect their opponents and the officials. Wins and losses are not important at this age. Teach them that you don't have to win a trophy to be a winner.

Also, let the kids know that it is OK to make mistakes, that you expect them to make mistakes. Basketball is not a perfect game. All players make mistakes, even Michael Jordan. Coaches make mistakes, and we all know that the refs make mistakes! You just have to keep playing hard and learn from those errors. "A good garden may have a few weeds."

If you have an actual team (not a large clinic-type group), teach them about teamwork and their responsibilities to the team... coming to practice, encouraging each other, helping each other, etc.

At the first practice, provide a handout for the players and their parents. This handout could contain some of the following items:

  • Your phone number, or how they can contact and communicate with you.
  • Your game and practice schedules.
  • Your goals for the team.
  • A roster of all the players (if you know it).
  • Let them know about any costs.
  • Your policy regarding playing time. I have actually seen parents in the stands timing each player's playing time with a stopwatch! I believe that you should let all the kids play at this age... winning is not the prime consideration at this age. Having said that, I also think that it is unfair to the kids that come to all the practices for a player who frequently misses practices to get as much playing time in games. Explain your policy on excused and unexcused absences.
  • You could mention how parents could help (some like to be involved), such as keeping stats, working the scoreboard, driving to games, providing treats, helping with uniforms, post-game pizza parties, and maybe even assisting in practice.
  • You could briefly discuss the common problem these days of unacceptable parent behavior at games... yelling advice to their own child, yelling at the refs and other team's players, and "coaching" from the stands.

When dealing with parents, be honest and open and show them that you really care about helping their child... get them on your side. Make yourself available to talk with them after a game. Be diplomatic about any "coaching" advice they have to offer. Rather than getting into an argument with them, just politely thank them for their interest... you obviously don't need to follow their advice, but you also don't have to be snotty about it either!

Remember that most parents are good people who care about their kids and just want what's best for them, just like all of us do. Do not simply choose to ignore parents. You may be able to get away with this if you are coaching at the college level, but it is still churlish, inconsiderate behavior. When coaching youth basketball, even at the high school level, parents can help make or break you... believe it!

If you have a son/daughter on the team... be fair. Do not give your own child more playing time than the others. Treat your child like any other player on the team... do not over-criticize and expect more from him/her. And don't provide him/her any special treatment either.

When you are at the court, he/she is like any other player on the team. Away from the court, he/she is your special child and needs your love and support, not criticism... save any criticism or advice for when you are actually in the gym... kids don't even want to hear about it in the car on the way home. My daughter sure didn't!

Coach's Clipboard Youth Basketball Group (Team) Membership
Coaches... sign up your entire team! - both Individual and Group memberships are available.

Youth team

OK... now down to playing basketball! Let's put together a team.

First, you probably have limited practice time at this age. So don't try to accomplish too much, and keep things simple. Practices for younger children should probably be no longer that 60 to 90 minutes because of their short attention span. So what are you going to teach them? What are your priorities? Others may disagree with me, but here are some of my thoughts.

Teach the fundamentals

At every practice, do ten minutes of ball-handling and dribbling drills. Do simple passing drills. Teach footwork (pivoting, triple threat position, doing lay-ups, how to shuffle and slide on defense, etc).

Correct shooting form will be difficult to teach at very young ages, since it will just be an effort to get the ball up to the hoop! But start working on correct form when the kids are strong enough... maybe 6th-7th grade. Teach man to man defense and how to box out and rebound.

Team Offense

With a limited number of practices, find out who can dribble and handle the ball... they are your point guards and wings. Put them in a simple "3-out, 2-in" set (a point guard, left and right wings, and two post players), or bring one of the posts up to the free throw line... hence a 1-3-1 set.

Or use a 4-out, 1-in set. I like Rick Torbett's "Read and React Offense" for teaching kids how to play... just teach the first two or three "layers".

Teach them the numbering quickly... 1 is the point, 2 is the right wing and 4 the right post, and 3 the left wing and 5 the left post (the even numbers are on the right side and the odd numbers on the left). The only reason to put them into a set is to try to maintain some spacing on the floor... so all five don't end up in the right corner!

But tell them that they must not stand still in their position, but cut and move. Don't teach any plays except maybe a simple out-of-bounds play. They will not execute plays at this age anyway. Let them just "play".

I have a "first shot mentality" with kids this age... in other words, the player with the first open shot within his/her shooting range, should take the shot. This has several advantages. If they do too much passing at this age, they will eventually throw the ball away or commit a turnover, and you don't get a shot. So shoot early, and crash the offensive boards for second and third chances. It's a little like ice hockey at this age... the team with the most "shots on goal" usually wins.

"First shot mentality" also takes the pressure off the kids (some kids are afraid to shoot, afraid to miss). If you teach the kids that you expect them to shoot when they are open, and that you don't expect them to make all their shots (even Michael Jordan only makes half of 'em) they will play more relaxed and better.

Let them know that you don't expect them to make every shot... but that you do expect them to shoot when they are open, and everybody rebounds (maybe one guard back). Teach them that part of being a good "team" player is taking good shots. So nothing fancy on offense... just a simple set, spacing, cutting, an early shot and crash the boards for more shots. If they are quick, fast break for easy lay-ups too.

Youth games

Team Defense

I believe all young kids should first learn to play man-to-man defense before learning zones. With the really young kids, just teach on-ball defense. With 6th graders, start teaching "on-ball", "deny" and "helpside" concepts (read "Basic Defense").

Now having said this, you could probably win most of your games by using a 2-1-2 (or 2-3) zone defense because at this age most baskets will be made inside the paint. If you pack the paint with your defense, you will shut them down... there is little outside scoring at this age. Our town's recreational league does not permit zone defenses at the younger ages. Double-teaming is not allowed, except in the paint.

The kids will become better defensive players if they learn to move their feet and learn to play good man defense. Even playing man-to-man you can clog the paint. Just tell the kids that the paint is the "blood and guts" area that they must defend... that's where most scores will occur. So whenever there is an offensive player in the paint, a warning bell should ring in their heads that this player is a threat to score if he/she gets the ball... so deny this pass.

When an offensive player dribble penetrates, other defenders should collapse on him/her and "help". Also, when a player dribbles around the right corner (they always do), don't let him/her penetrate along the baseline... stop it there and trap.

Full-court press

First, full court pressing probably should not be permitted with younger kids. But if you are permitted to full court press, use former Oregon State legend Ralph Miller's "pressure defense". I have used this with middle school kids and it works great, and is very easy to understand and teach.

You will get steals and turnovers in the backcourt that you can quickly convert into easy lay-ups. It is simply a full-court man-to-man defense, so it flows easily into your half-court man-to-man defense. Simply, you pressure the ball handler, and the other players try to deny a pass to their man. Oftentimes the young inexperienced guards will throw the ball away, or make some other turnover, but just applying a little gentle pressure.

Don't let them dribble the ball uncontested up the floor... apply a little harassment. Don't teach a lot of trapping and gambling... just everyone plays good man-to-man pressure. Now, this is important... if they see the ball advancing quickly up the court (a good dribbler, or a good pass), then everybody sprints back as fast as they can to the paint (the old "blood and guts" area) and tries to stop them from getting the lay-up.

Then, after stopping the lay-up, everyone can fan out and pick up his/her man. So when you are beat on the press, you must sprint back. Tell them that if they don't sprint back, you will assume that they are tired and will sit them down for a rest! By playing full-court defense, they will tire easier and actually want rest, and this is good for getting all your players in the game.


Try to figure out who your best players are. When you substitute, always have two good players out there... someone who can dribble and get the ball down the floor, and someone who can rebound and play tough defense "in the paint". I often have my assistant make most of the substitutions.

You are too busy trying to "coach" the game to keep track of everyone's playing time... your assistant can be a big help here. Discuss with your assistant before the game who your starters will be, and your general substitution pattern (who plays what positions, etc), and then let him do it... you can always over-ride him in a given game situation.

With young players, let everyone on the team have a chance to start at least one game during the season. I tell the kids, "its not who starts... it's who can finish the game". My players don't seem to care who starts because they know that they are all going to get to play. Believe it or not, I have even had some say, "Coach, let Jessica start this game, because I started the last one"... kids can be so neat!

Running a youth clinic

You and some other coaches/parents are organizing a general instructional clinic(s) for elementary aged children... no actual set teams. What drills/skills are you going to teach? How can we make it fun?

Again, with youngsters, do about 90 minutes. You can have both girls and boys doing this clinic. In the clinic setting, you should teach individual player skills... save team concepts, offensive sets, plays, zones, etc for their team coaches. You need to teach them correct fundamentals and still make it fun for them.

Youth basketball clinic

Spend about 10-15 minutes on stationary ball-handling and dribbling drills.

Get them all in one big circle, spread out, with the instructor in the center of the circle. Each player has a ball. The instructor goes through the ball-handling drills and dribbling drills and the players follow his example, doing the same drill the instructor is doing.

Since I am getting older and am not as skilled as I was years ago, I have one of our excellent high school players do the ball-handling and dribbling demonstrations... they are heroes to the kids! Have a couple coaches walk around the circle helping kids who are having difficulty.

Then, spend five minutes on sideline dribbling drills.

A quick trip to the drinking fountain... then full-court dribble moves drill.

Play a couple quick games of dribble tag.

Do 5-10 minutes of two-man passing drills... the chest pass, bounce pass and overhead pass. Demonstrate correct technique... step into the pass, hands on both sides of the ball, snap the pass finishing with the thumbs pointing down.

Work on lay-ups, demonstrating correct footwork. Split them into two groups (equal talent) with a group on each basket. Each group makes two lines (shooters and rebounders) along the sidelines. Start with right-handed lay-ups.

When you say "go" each group starts doing lay-ups, with the shooters going to the end of the rebounding line and the rebounders going to the end of the shooting line. Every time a lay-up is made, that group yells the count (the number they have made). First team to 10 wins... the losers have to do five push-ups and the winners get to count for them.

You can have similar competitions shooting short shots in the paint area. Here's a variation the kids love... they are all on the same team. Have a shooting line starting in the center of the free throw line area, and a rebounding line near the basket. The rebounder will pass it to the first person in the shooting line, who steps in to about the hash marks (depends on the age) and shoots.

The kids yell out their number of baskets each time one is made. You give them a time limit and a goal of how many shots they must make in that time period (adjust this based on their skill level and so every player gets to shoot at least twice).

If you have a big group, you may want to run this on each end of the floor. Make it challenging for them. If they fail to make the goal in the allotted time, they all have to do five push-ups. Now here's the part they love... if they succeed in "beating the clock", then the coaches all have to do five push-ups! They love counting for you when you are doing your push-ups.

Youth practice

Use your imagination... you can create other little games for them.

Spend the last 15-20 minutes scrimmaging... man-to-man defense, no full-court pressing. Divide the talent equally and don't have the same kids on the same team each week... mix them up. When you have both girls and boys, I have found that it is best to split them up and have the girls scrimmage on one end (use the side baskets) and the boys on the other. When playing together, some boys will never pass to the girls and the girls get upset and frustrated. So if you have enough players, let the girls have their own game.

At the end of practice, get them all in the huddle and tell them how well they are doing, and advise them to do dribbling and ball-handling every day at home for ten minutes. Then everybody puts there hands together and yells your school mascot name-- like "Rayders!!!"

Basketball coaching articles that may help

(but don't try to do too much too soon!):

Good luck! Have fun and don't forget the pizza!

Helpful DVDs:

Many coaching DVDs at the Coach's Clipboard Basketball DVD Store!

Coaching Youth Basketball
Many more basketball DVDs at the Coach's Clipboard Basketball DVD Store! This page lists and categorizes a number of DVDs dedicated to youth basketball and player development. These educational videos focus on the basic fundamental. Categories included are: Cutting and Passing, Defense, Dribbling, Drills, Guard Play, Offense, Post Play, and Shooting.

  Copyright © 2001 - 2019, James A. Gels, all rights reserved.

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