Youth Basketball: How Do We Teach Players to Protect the Basketball?
“The game of basketball is over coached and under taught; too few coaches are minding the gym at the entry level of the game as the instruction of fundamentals has slipped badly. There has been a premium put on athleticism over skill development which is reflected at the youth level and the high school level. Kids play games. They don’t work at the game.” – Hall of Fame Coach Pete Newell
It’s one thing to talk about not turning the ball over with your team, but how do you teach it? You certainly cannot coach every single pass or dribble. Nothing is more frustrating than seeing coaches trying to micro-manage a basketball game from the sideline. It is frustrating for the players, parents, and coaches. Basketball is a game of mistakes. If you want your players to protect the basketball, then you should use a method of teaching more similar to the actual game. This is very important when coaching young basketball players.
For example, if you want to teach the bounce pass to a youth basketball team then you should introduce it first and have your players partner up for a few minutes; less than two minutes as they learn the basics. The teaching should not stop there. Immediately after this brief introduction, there should be another segment of bounce passing on the move in a layup line for example or full court partner passing. This will enforce the skill in a more game-like manner. The third and final stage should involve some competition in what is commonly called a “games approach” to teaching fundamentals.
There are many books that discuss this approach to teaching and learning in more detail, but we have included many of these drills in this book. Additionally, we have broken down the basic stages of this teaching progression with a focus on protecting the basketball. There are many situations that occur more than others in a basketball game, and coaches should prepare for those things in practice.
Turnovers are mistakes that most often occur in the following 3 situations:
Starting or stopping the dribble
Passing from a live dribble
Passing or catching
Coaches should use a “games approach” to teaching fundamental starts and stops in youth basketball. Most mistakes with the basketball occur when a player starts their dribble or ends their dribble. How many times have you seen an incorrect jump stop or stride stop lead to a travel? After a referee whistle, I have seen plenty of irate coaches demonstrate a correct jump stop on the sideline due to a turnover to know this is a problem. We should spend time in practice teaching players how to start and stop with the basketball. I guarantee if you remove those types of turnovers; your team will win more games.
What are we aiming for? I learned this somewhere along the way, and remember the late, great Don Meyer calling it “sureness” with the basketball. He was much smarter than me, and I had to think of it in terms I could understand, so I called it “ball toughness.” Either way, it means the same thing. It means being tough with the basketball under pressure. As a coach, you must teach your players that pressure is only as bad as they make it out to be, and as a coach, we can teach players to be calm and confident in the moment.
I promise if you use these drills, your team will have less turnovers.
I use small group drills with two or three athletes so they get frequent repetitions and they cannot hide while they are on the court; they will have to perform or their mistakes will be obvious to everybody as there are fewer people to help cover for their mistakes. We have drills involving two or three athletes which we use every practice, every other practice or only the occasional practice. Once the athletes become familiar with the drill, we focus on what we want to get out of the drill and repeat that drill throughout the season.
Remember, as John Wooden said, “One drill done 100 times well is far better than 100 drills done once.”
Coaches have to decide what they think is important and what they want their athletes to learn in order to be successful on the court. Once coaches decide what they want to teach their athletes, they have to decide how they will teach this material or concepts so their athletes are prepared to perform well under game pressure. In order to teach these chosen concepts, the athletes will need clear explanations with drills giving them frequent repetition so they can master the performance of these concepts.
In addition to the drills described here, we also have taken our offensive and defensive systems and broken them into smaller drills with two or three athletes which we will repeat throughout the season as mini-refresher courses when we believe we are struggling with some part of a particular system. Drills you create yourself will often be your best drills because they will emphasize what you want to teach your athletes.
Now, let’s talk about what you can control from a coaching standpoint. You can certainly control what you do in practice. I’m going to show you some drills to make learning to not turn the ball over fun for your players, but also I want you to consider your offense.
Who would ever choose an offense that is built for turnovers? This seems like a silly question, but I see it all the time at the youth level. We must constantly try to “adapt and not adopt” when we consider what offense to use with our team. Considerations should include our talent, skill, age, and level.
What does this have to do with your team?
Here is a problem we must consider: if better passes lead to better shots then should a less skilled team settle for less passes? We know that the passing skill of our team determines the quality of shot we are able to get on a consistent basis. Better passing equals better shots. However, if you do not have equal passing skills across your team, or you only have a few good players, then it is tough to install an offense that relies on multiple passes and good decision making by all of your players. I do not think it is a weakness to use players to their strengths while working to develop their skills in practice. If you are trying to win the game, then put your best foot forward as your less skilled players demonstrate their progress in practice. After they are successful in practice, then place them in a game for them to build confidence. Of course, all of this is dependent on your situation. We have all been in a position where things do not go as planned, and we have to make adjustments.
For example, if you’re coaching a youth league team, and you are trying to install an offense that has multiple passes built-in with multiple screening actions or multiple reversals of the basketball, while it may be fundamental basketball if executed properly, it still may be difficult for your team because the more passes your team makes in an offense the more your players have to have the passing and catching skills.
Basically, the more passes your team makes, the more fundamental you have to be with the basketball on each catch.
This problem is even more pronounced if you’re playing a high-pressure, athletic team and you have built into your offensive scheme three and four passes. It does not matter if your offense is based on motion principles or set plays. This will put more pressure on your passing and catching skills than if you’re playing against a zone team.
We will get into offenses built for scoring against pressure defenses another day, but I want to emphasize this question regardless of your offensive philosophy: do you have multiple entries and multiple formations built-in to your offense?
If you do not, then that is something you should take time to consider because nothing is easier for an opponent to take advantage of than a team that enters the ball with the pass to the right wing every time down the court.
Teaching progression from easy to hard for youth basketball players
Identify, Stationary, Moving, Games
Review your drills to make sure they fit in with your offense and are based on the skill level of your team
How do most turnovers occur? Starts and stops, passing and catching
Offenses should have multiple options built into them to give players reads during the game