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How to coach youth basketball

Wednesday night the Spurs' starting five were: Matt Bonner, Aron Baynes, Kyle Anderson, Cory Joseph, and Danny Green. Only two of those players were drafted in the first round - Cory Joseph, the 29th pick in 2011, and Kyle Anderson, the last pick in 2014. By scoring 9 points last night, Anderson raised his points per game to 1.6. The Spurs won by 14 points. Coaching matters. And it matters just as much when you are coaching your children's teams

Coaching your child's team doesn't have to be a headache.
Coaching your child's team doesn't have to be a headache.
Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

I coached college basketball for 8 years at Claremont McKenna College in California. When I left college coaching to focus on my legal career, I didn't want to stop cold turkey.  Luckily, my son Pablo had just turned 11, and his city league team needed a coach.  I was able to coach Pablo for the next two years, and he ultimately became an all-conference player at Santa Monica High, and then played JC and college ball.  Pablo continues to play today, as do I.

The ultimate goal of coaching young kids is to teach them enough about the game that they will be able to play wherever they go - whether it be for school teams, intramurals at college, city leagues, or just Saturdaymorning pick-up games.  If youth league coaches are really lucky, like I have been with Pablo, they can eventually win city league championships playing on the same team with their sons.  When Pablo was 20, he pushed the ball up court after a rebound, kicked it me on the wing, and my three-pointer went down at the buzzer - we won the championship by a point.  Pablo and I will always have that memory.

With all that in mind, these are a few of my thoughts on coaching young players.

1.       Be organized. The scourge of all coaching at every level is limited practice time.  This is doubly true with youth teams.  As a result, you must maximize the time you have with your team - which means being organized.  Spend time before practice mapping out a practice schedule.  Write down that schedule, detailed to the minute.  Be free to deviate slightly if you haven't accomplished what you wanted, but stick to the basic outline. 

Always arrive early - before practice is a great time to interface with your players.  Start practice with something fun that gets the heart pumping.    Especially with younger kids, move from one thing to another to keep their minds engaged.  Most importantly, before starting something, explain it simply but well.  Practice drills often involve rotating the players:  Have a system - we generally went offense to defense, defense off. Which means an individual player or group will play offense first, then defense, then rest.  But minimize the "rest" part - keep them moving.  Remember:  you have limited practice time.  Don't rush, but be efficient with that time.

2.       Get an assistant coach, or be one. If you have an assistant coach, or are one, split the coaching duties during practice so the two coaches are not watching the same thing.  The simplest way to do it is to have one coach be in charge of offense, while the other coaches the defense.  And switch it up so the players hear from different voices.  If you have enough space for practice, you can also have one coach work with one group on shooting, while the other coach works on ball-handling and passing - and then trade groups. 

In games, the assistant coach should be totally in charge of at least one thing.  In college, I had my assistant handle player substitutions for the first 35 minutes of the game.  It gave him authority, and freed me to focus on the rest of the game.  If you are the assistant coach, do not watch the ball during the game.  Your job is to see whether players are boxing out or hitting the offensive board, determine who is tired, and watch which players are running back on defense - or not.  You can't do that if you are ball watching all the time. 

3.       Spacing. After I stopped coaching Pablo when he went to high school, I transitioned to coaching super-daughter Alissa as she played youth soccer.  She ultimately became a very good high school player. 

Not knowing much about soccer, I was the assistant coach.  I discovered that I was pretty good at it for two reasons. 

First, I could really run a practice.  Eight years of coaching college basketball meant I had been involved in coaching about a gazillion practice drills.  As a result, I was able to conquer point one above - organizing and running a practice. 

Second, basketball and soccer are similar in the importance of spacing.  Kids' sports break down into a giant amoeba moving around the court (or field) when all the players congregate on the ball.  Watch a good basketball team play, at any level, and you will see that there at least two players, sometimes three, on the weak side of the floor.  That forces the defense away from the ball, and allows the offense to change sides of the floor with the ball. 

4.  Move the ball from side to side. In a related note, all the studies we did at Claremont showed that our offensive efficiency soared when the ball changed sides at least twice before shooting - and that is only possible if the floor is spaced properly.  The Spurs must believe the same, which is why the ball often goes from one side to the other, and then back again.  One way to do this, especially with younger players, is to designate players to run up one side of the floor or the other.  Even in college, our fast break would assign our shooting guard the right side, and the small forward the left. 

Even if you need to tape Xs on the floor (during practice), make sure to have your players spread out - and then make sure the ball goes from side to side.  That also gets everyone involved - all players want to touch the ball, which is why they instinctively gravitate towards it.  If you can teach your players they are more likely to get to touch the ball by being on the opposite side of the floor, you will have done well.

5..      Do NOT full court press all the time. Coaches love to have their junior teams full court press.  Especially against weak opponents, it leads to a bunch of steals, and easy lay-ups.  It also doesn't teach your players very much about actually playing basketball.  They never need to learn a half-court offense, since they steal the ball and get a lay-up - or give up a lay-up at the other end once they play better teams.  As a result, the players don't learn to play half-court defense either - defending the pick and roll, etc.  Remember that the goal of youth basketball is to teach the players how to play the entire game, not just how to trap and get steals.  

While you can win games with full court presses, and it is something to spend part of a practice teaching, in my opinion doing it all the time is counter-productive to the goal of youth basketball.  And good teams will chew it up.

One of the highlights of my coaching career was coaching Pablo's 12-year old all-star team against a powerhouse travelling team from Westchester.  The Westchester had several future Division 1 and NBA players on it, and had crushed all the other teams with their full court press, averaging about 100 points per game.  After we consistently broke their press for lay-ups, they called it off.  While they had averaged almost 100 points per game before that, we held them to 50.  My guys knew how to play basketball.

6.       Don't teach them plays, teach them how to play. Before one of my city league games, I arrived early and observed a young coach working with his team of 14 year olds.  They were running 5 on 0 in-bounds plays from the side court.  He had four different side-bound plays, and they ran them over and over again.  In my eight years of coaching, we had one play for taking the ball out on the side court.  It worked just fine.  That young coach should have spent the valuable time working with his players on shooting, passing, setting screens, helping on defense, and contesting shots without fouling.  Those skills will last forever - his four side-bound plays will be forgotten.

This is not to say that you should have zero plays, except with the very young players.  You should have one simple play out-of-bounds under the basket, and perhaps one or two out of the half-court set.  Learning how to execute a play is part of the skill set players will need growing up.  Just don't waste too much precious practice time learning plays at the expense of learning how to play.

7.       Play man-to-man defense, not zone. For the same reasons as in the previous section, play man-to-man if your league allows it.  Players who learn to play man-to-man can easily later learn to play in a zone.  The converse is not true.

Also, playing man-to-man allows the chance to teach your players both to cover their own man, and to get into help position when their man doesn't have the ball.  An expression I found helpful to teach younger players off the ball the concept of helping on defense:  "Get ready to help". 

Surprisingly, I found players more receptive to playing good team defense in a man-to-man alignment than in a zone, where they are taught to defend an area, not the other team.  And since the goal is to stop the other team from scoring, whoever actually puts the ball in the basket, players must learn team concepts on defense as early and as often as possible.

8.       Coach - don't referee. Every moment you spend arguing with the referees is a moment you are not coaching.  You are also teaching your young players that losses can be blamed on others.  In youth basketball, the referees are often doing it as a way to stay connected to the game - let them enjoy doing that. 

One simple way is have good interactions with the referees is easy:  Learn their names.  Nothing is less effective in communicating with an official than calling him "Ref".  And using their name helps remind you that "Jim" or "Steve" is an actual person, not just a referee.  Watch Pop on the sidelines - 90% of the time, he is having a conversation with the officials, because he knows them.

9..  Have fun. By your own example, teach your young players that basketball is fun.  Put another way, avoid being one those coaches who suck all the fun out of the game.  If you are deadly serious while coaching, your young players will find it difficult to have fun.  Conversely, if you have fun while coaching, your players will too.   Coach like you like doing it.

Let everybody play, and let everybody start a game every once in a while.  Above all, stay positive - it is only a game.  At least it is until it also becomes a business, but that can wait.