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Coaching Youth Basketball: Keep It Fun for Younger Players

Use games to teach dribbling, shooting, passing, and improve gross motor skills

Young basketball players running up courtTeaching basketball to younger kids (e.g. from kindergarten to 8th grade) can be a rewarding but challenging experience for any coach. Teaching coaches how to coach such youngsters is likewise a challenge, but the key is keep it fun, and keep them moving!

Remember: they are just kids

The very first thing I always suggest to coaches of younger kids is to be very careful trying to apply what you see in your local high school gyms, and what you may see on TV watching college and professional coaches.

Remember that high school, college or pro coaches are coaching 15- to 30- or 35-year-old players, many of whom, especially at the higher-level professionals, have had literally thousands of hours of basketball experience (not to mention the dramatically higher levels of skill and ability grown men and women possess).

So, exercise caution when you compare or contrast anything you might try with younger kids with what you see at these higher levels.

Dumbing down doesn't work

I often compare the challenge youth coaches face to that of a professor used to teaching 20-year-olds in a college-level math class trying to teach math to a bunch of 10-year-old 4th graders. I warn youth basketball coaches who have had some high school or college basketball experience that they may not be able to dumb down, so to speak, the sorts of things that they learned at higher levels to teach their younger players. Unfortunately, I have learned over the years that you simply can't use the way the adults play the game as a model for children.

Remember your audience

So what should you be doing with younger kids when they show up for your basketball practice?

Well, there are a number of things you have to consider, but the most critical is the "raw material" you are dealing with, i.e. what are the key aspects of a 6-year old kid, an 8-year old kid, or a 10-year old kid?

When considering children in sports, there are different types of kids. Some will be there because they really want to play basketball and like the social aspect of team sports, but you may also have some less-than-enthusiastic children, whose parents may have primarily signed them up for a bit of activity and some babysitting, and may just want to stand in the corner and wait for practice to end so he or she can go home and watch TV. There will, of course, be some kids are fall in between, so you have to be very selective about what you do with these kids during the hour you are typically with them.

Every player should have a ball

For the youngest kids (5- to 8-year-olds), a coach's number one duty is to make sure the kids are as active at practice as possible!

The best way to ensure that the kids are active is to make sure every kid has a basketball (a practice I borrowed from youth soccer many years ago). A shortage of basketballs is a fundamental mistake I see many youth programs make.

If a player is standing around with nothing to do, he will be looking to do something to keep occupied, and it might not be something you want him doing! So, be sure to have a ball for every child. That alone really helps keep children active, having fun and learning new skills.

Teach fundamentals

The are four key things a youth basketball coach should try to teach at every practice:

Dribbling: The first thing I do with younger kids is teach them how to dribble, because, from a gross motor skill standpoint, it is the easiest basketball skill to teach. Why? Because basketballs bounce (hopefully back up into a child's hand), because children love to play with balls, and because even the youngest kids can learn to dribble. If they keep their hand close enough to the ground, they should have relatively little trouble making sure it comes back and hits their hands.

Dribbling essentially is bouncing a ball under controlled conditions while kids are moving. Running around with a bouncing ball is inherently great fun!

To give kids plenty of chances to dribble a ball, I recommend playing a game of "dribble tag." Kids understand what tag is, and they understand what dribbling is, and all you are doing is combining two things into one very fun game. Someone with the ball is "it" and chases around all the other players in a defined area until he/she tags another player, at which point that player becomes "it."

Not only is playing dribble a good way to get the kids moving, which children certainly need and love to do, but it's also a good way to teach them how to dribble with their heads up and to change direction, which are important fundamental basketball skills.

Don't expect young children just starting out to be able to dribble with their heads up, but if you can get them engaged, get a ball into their hands, and get them chasing around the gym with their buddies, it's a very good and fun way to teach them a basketball skill.

Shooting: The next thing I do with the younger kids is engage them in some shooting games. There are many games you can choose, such as the classic knockout game "Horse," where they are trying to shoot in competition against their friends.

The challenge is that shooting at the younger ages is difficult because younger kids are just not yet strong or coordinated enough to use proper shooting form. I recommend teaching younger players to shoot with two hands on the ball, trying to keep the ball in front of them, and facing the basket.

Remember, as I pointed out in my article on the basics of equipment, and size and set up of the court, the kids need to be shooting on baskets that are lower then 10 feet high to avoid having them just heaving up the ball. They need to be taught first to shoot closer in to the basket, and get good at making shots from close range, before moving out to greater distances. And NO three pointers please at these younger ages! If you do all of this, then you've done a pretty good job for this level.

I have seen thousands of kids shoot in my many years in youth basketball; and I have never seen anybody at this age with anywhere near proper shooting form, and no one is going to be able to teach them the skill at an early age. Kids are just are not big or strong or coordinated enough, so my advice to coaches: don't worry about it.

But you can start your players on their way by facing the basket and using two hands at whatever height is comfortable for them, and learning to be able to propel the ball upward without just heaving it.

Passing: The third thing to teach is passing, which along with dribbling and shooting is the other major offensive skill. Passing is a little more difficult to teach because younger kids tend to be naturally selfish, and, of course, passing involves teamwork and sharing.

No matter how often you are yelling instructions to your players to "pass, pass, pass," I think they understand what passing is, but they just may not want to do it because they realize that, if they pass the ball, they no longer have the ball to dribble or shoot. So that can create a resistance to pass. This is why I leave passing to number three, as dribbling and shooting are inherently more fun and engaging, and it's easier to make fun dribbling and shooting games to teach kids skills.

Sometimes what I try to do is to make passing more of a game. For example, you could award a point or two for each successful pass during a scrimmage, in addition to the points earned for making baskets. I've actually seen some coaches who award more points for passing than they do for shooting or making a basket. The kids then have the incentive to pass to try to earn the most points. The more successful passes made to their teammates, the greater their chance of winning. If you can get kids to play games like this when they are young, it will help them grow their passing skills and see the value of teamwork.

In teaching passing form at this age, always instruct your players to keep two hands on the ball, and try to have both feet on the ground and knees bent when they pass. The reason is they'll have the most stability this way. One-handed passes are going to be more like heaves, and I view these strictly as a no-no.

I also would not get too caught up in a whole lot of technique at this age because, again, you are talking about children who are literally 4 feet tall (or less) and weigh between 40 and 60 pounds. So they do not yet have the strength or coordination for more advanced form, and you just want to get them to like the game and enjoy it, and learn a few new skills. Hopefully they'll come back next season a little bigger and stronger.

Gross motor skills: Coaches often neglect using fun games and drills with younger kids that also build their gross motor skills. These skills, which include running, jumping, catching and movement in different directions, are the foundation for many sport-specific skills in basketball. I am a big believer in a concept called LTAD, which stands for Long Term Athlete Development. I won't get into all of its intricacies, but LTAD is a holistic approach to developing athletes practiced around the world, and is applicable to all sports.

To promote LTAD at the younger ages, coaches should encourage children to play multiple sports, including basketball. Kids who play multiple sports generally have better developed gross motor skills than sport-specific skills, which is the point, as you are trying to develop the whole budding child athlete.

As a youth basketball coach, a game like dribble tag will help develop gross motor skills because it involves children in running forwards, backwards, and sideways, and getting up quickly after they fall down (which they will), all the while using their hands with the ball, which also helps develop hand-eye skills.

These are all basic athletic skills that are far more important for this age group than learning specific basketball skills. In addition to dribble tag, you can run relay races with dribbling. You can also run relay races with passing. With these types of games, the kids are learning to better coordinate their body movement and maneuver in tighter spaces, while they are also learning some basketball skills.

This is why I am a very big advocate for coaches to come in and work with children to become better coordinated kids. A better coordinated child will be able to play basketball better down the road, or any other sport for that matter. When you seek to develop the whole child, you are doing them a great service as a youth coach!

Created July 19, 2010