Sunday, February 22, 2009

More on Coaching Third and Fourth Grade Basketball

Our season is almost over, and it's been a good one. The kids are having fun, they are improving every week, and they have gotten plenty of chances to show their abilities. Here are some more observations, for parents and coaches:

1. Try to assess every kid and figure out how to pull the best out of them. Every kid is different. Some are good listeners, some aren't, but take the time to pull them aside individually to talk with them. Be positive, lay out challenges, pat them on the back, and send them on their way. The conversations need to be short (kids at this age don't respond well to lectures), you need to be encouraging, and I promise you you'll see results. Also, take time to chat up the parents about what their kids are doing well and what they need to focus on.

I have one player who is a good dribbler but not a confident shooter. Up until yesterday, he had difficulty finishing layups. He would throw the ball high up off the backboard, above the rim, and he missed more shots than he should have. So, at our last practice, we re-emphasized our "shooting off the backboard" drill. We have two lines, and simultaneously we encourage kids to take a short shot off the backboard. We ran this drill for about 5 minutes. The result: this weekend, this kid had his best game. He created opportunities for himself off the dribble and converted numerous layups -- off the backboard. The smile on his face was all we needed to see. He was the best player on the floor, and he's probably the third- or fourth-best player on our team.

We have another player who has energy but isn't good at paying attention. All during the season, we've run pick-and-roll drills, but more often than not we have to remind the kids to set screens in the game. Two weeks ago, we played an aggressive team, and, of his own accord, this player set screen after screen, mostly using proper technique, and he opened up some huge lanes for his teammates. It was fun to watch him display his increased knowledge of the game. He's far from our best player, but he plays with a smile on his face and works hard out there.

2. Drill, drill and drill. We run all sorts of drills in practice, and I've written about them before. These drills emphasize moving one's feet on defense, rebounding, throwing crisp passes that have a purpose, dribbling and screening. We emphasize these drills for at least 2/3 of our practice (as, at this age, scrimmages result in players going out of control or with our defense taking over), and we can see the results after several months. Players are dribbling with their heads up, setting screens, sliding well on defense, keeping their hands up and converting baskets better. They are only 9 and 10 years old, so naturally they have their good weeks and bad weeks on an individual basis, but they play much better together now than they did earlier in the season.

3. Teach good defense. I know that everyone likes to score, but emphasizing defense is very important. First, our defense has created numerous opportunities on offense. Our kids move their feet pretty well, they keep their hands up, they deflect the ball and they create opportunities to score in transition. We have some fast kids, and it's easier to score on transition than when the other team's defense gets set. We played a team a couple of weeks ago that had a good offensive player, a nice, happy kid who can dribble with both hands and score. We defended him well (he scored a few baskets), but he played no defense. We had heard that his parents were upset that he didn't make the travel team, but my co-coach and I, based on what we saw, didn't think he should have. He didn't guard anyone, and he didn't help his team out at all on the defensive end.

Believe it or not, our kids like to play defense. They want to steal the ball every time and create opportunities, and that skill will help them improve as players when they advance through our league. And, no, we don't yell at them or fire them up unnecessarily. We just tell them that if they defend well good things will happen, and they've been able to see the results for themselves.

4. Try as much as possible to give every kid a chance. It's hard to do, but after 1/3 of the season each kid on our team had scored, and by now each kid has scored at least 2 baskets during the season. We have separated our team into 2 units of 5 kids -- the younger kids play the first and third quarters together, and the older kids play the second and fourth quarters together. We don't have assigned positions; we try to have different kids bring up the ball. What's been interesting is that the younger kids play better together than the older kids -- they screen and pass much better than the fourth graders. The fourth graders are more talented and have most of our scorers, but they tend to go one-on-one more (not all of them, but a few of them). Still, most kids get opportunities to take shots; some are much better than others at converting their opportunities. Put differently, unless you knew my co-coach and me well, you wouldn't be able to tell from watching our team who are kids are.

That said, we played a team whose coaches are two fathers who run plays for their sons and no one else. One father in our community had a kid on that team, and he was very frustrated by this selfishness. His son is a gifted athlete who stars in another sport, and this boy is a good player (his siblings play on travel teams). Yet, on this team, the dads only ran plays for their sons. This boy quit the team because all he was told to do -- and apparently pretty directly -- was to set screens for the coaches' sons. I would have loved to have this boy on our team, as I would have liked to have the tallest kid on that team. All those coaches told that kid to do was to set screens for their sons (he had permission to shoot off rebounds). That was a shame, too, because that boy has the ability to score 5 baskets per game, and, on our team, somehow I think he would have had the chance. Make no mistake -- that team is a good team -- but the coaches have not created good experiences for everyone on it.

If you're a coach, be fair. Your kid might be the best, but the others won't have fun if it's all about your kid. Make sure that the ball gets spread around. In the process, your kid will learn about passing, screening and making his teammates better. If your kid isn't that good, be fair, too. Don't set up the team around him or give him a better position than better players. The other kids will see through that too, and that bias might affect how well your team does and whether your players enjoy their season. And you're not doing your kid a service by giving him more opportunities than his ability and performance warrants.

5. Coach Your Kids to Play Hard and Do Their Best. Yes, I'll say it, you want your kids to work hard and do the best they can. You want them to play better than their opponents, to steal the ball, get the rebound and the loose ball, set the screen, make the pass and enjoy themselves all the while. There's no shame in getting the best out of your players, because if they are going to devote a few hours a week to your coaching they might as well make the most of it. Be organized in practice, have clear messages, and then encourage them to do their best. If that means you outscore your opponents regularly, so be it, but it also will mean that they improve and that they are enjoying themselves in the process. We've had a fun season because we've drilled well, practiced with enthusiasm, put the fundamentals to work in games and played well as a team. The kids are competitive enough, and they appreciate the opportunity to do well in a structure environment.

Just remember that they're kids, basketball is a kids' game, their spending time with you is a hobby, and that it's supposed to be fun. And when you can couple fun with teaching, coaching and improved performance, you've had a good year.

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