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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Observations from Coaching Third- and Fourth-Grade Basketball

It's hard to gauge how good your team is in non-competitive leagues, where you practice only once a week. If your league assigns kids randomly without much of a sense of their skill-level or experience, there are bound to be mismatches. In our league, we try to play the best kids in the second and fourth quarters as a means of getting good players to play with and against each other. Still, not all teams or games are even.

Yesterday, the team I coach played a well-coached team, a team whose best player was more aggressive and probably more talented than any of the players on our roster. This team also had a different approach from ours, so it presented a good challenge to our players.

The opposing team's coach drills his players on the fundamentals for a half an hour and then runs plays for the other half. Our opponents had a nifty give and go off the high post that created some good shots for their players. Basically, the ballhandler (whether benefiting from an on-ball screen or not) passed the ball to a player at the foul line and then made a quick cut to the basket. The player at the foul line would throw a short bounce pass to the ballhandler, who would try to go in for a short shot or a layup. The execution at the beginning of the play was excellent, but unless that team's best player was the ballhandler and the recipient of the pass, they had trouble finishing the play. The pass from the high post sometimes hit the recipient in the feet, or, more likely, it was a decent pass but the recipient couldn't get off a good shot. Still, it was fun to watch.

Our approach to coaching is a bit different. Think Mr. Miyagi from Karate Kid. We run endless drills on dribbling, gives and gos, shooting off the blocks, rebounding, passing, pick and roll, all with a view that if we drill enough upon some prompting the kids will remember to implement some of the drills in a game, such as throwing a good bounce pass, following a shot, setting a screen. Our offense wasn't nearly as organized as our opponent's, but we outscored them in the contest because of a few factors. First, through our drills, the kids know how to finish their shots. It struck me that the danger of coaching a single play is that unless you have kids who are talented finishers, there's no substitute for a ten-minute drill on shooting from the blocks so that the kids get the feel of putting the ball up softly against the backboard. Second, there's no substitute for defense.

We tell the kids to slide their feet, to stay between the basket and their man, to keep their hands up and to deflect the ball, tie it up or steal it at any opportunity. We teach this because great defense creates opportunities on offense. And that's what happened yesterday. Two of our fourth graders played inspired defense on the other team's best players, so much so that those players got frustrated or shut down. The other kids followed suit -- deflections, steals, fast-break opportunities. In the end, it was our defense that helped us prevail.

It was a great game, and we outscored the other team by about five baskets (one of the grandfathers in attendance kept count). We felt like we were in a contest, but the difference was that while only one or two kids scored baskets for the other team, seven of our eleven kids scored. The difference was defense.

All that said, I learn a great deal from the guys I coach against. Yesterday's lesson was that my team should have the confidence to put in a play for our fourth graders. They can handle the ball, so if we put in a high-post offense like our opponents use, we might be able to score a basket or two off a cutter off the high post. With this crew, it might just work.

The kids continue to give a great effort, and that's all that you can ask from them. You want them to pay attention, play tough defense, and play smart on offense. I could tell from when they came off after a period that they had expended a lot of energy. For the kids who have played for a few years and love the game, they felt gratified. For the kids for whom this is their first season, they're still a bit bewildered. This generation doesn't watch much basketball on television, with the result that what we're teaching them is unfamiliar ground. For these kids, a pick might be something you use with a guitar, a screen is on your front door in the warmer weather months, and a jump stop might be a cousin to the Game Stop store. We try to be patient and encouraging, and so far the results are promising.

So, we're still practicing the fundamentals, and while there are normally about 25 drills I'd like to run, we typically run only about 10 in a practice. We don't scrimmage 5 on 5, because we don't get a full court (we get a "sideways" court in a middle school's gym), and even 3 on 3 doesn't always end up being productive. Because there can be mismatches, we go 3 on 1 or 3 on 2, so that we can stress ball movement and finding the open man. It's hard, but the kids seem to be getting to know each other better each week and, as a result, they are more familiar with one another. At the end of the day, if you get the kids to play hard, play good defense and rebound, good things will happen.


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