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Saturday, January 25, 2014

Coaching 7th and 8th Grade Basketball

This is my second year coaching this age group.  It's tough enough when you have only one practice a week (which inclement weather can interrupt), and it's even tougher with this age group for a few reasons.  First, the average kid is figuring out who he is and doesn't always want to listen.  Second, the size difference between a 7th grader and an 8th grader can be pronounced (read: try working an offense with high screens when the other team can have a 6'2" kid hang out in the lane).  Third, some kids should not be playing -- their parents sign them up for something to do, but they have little interest in playing and zero interest in listening.  They'll just do what they do, which means not defend, hoist the ball at every opportunity and, ultimately, be a questionable teammate at best, particularly because many do not watch the games the way their parents did years ago.  The reasons for that are simple -- plenty of other options, being over scheduled or, plain and simple, first-person shooter video games.

So, what do you do against this backdrop.  First, you have to be realistic with your size and talent.  It could be that you just cannot win because you don't get enough of either.  Regardless of what talent you get, I suggest dividing practice into thirds.

The first twenty minutes should focus on fundamentals, such as shooting off the low blocks (two diagonal lines moving toward each wing from the low block, two basketballs, with kids trying to bank the ball off the backboard and in -- this creates muscle memory for when they get the ball down low) and then a shooting drill where you have two horizontal lines moving toward the wings from the elbow with one side running to the center of the lane and the other throwing a chest pass to them -- this is a good catch-and-shoot drill).  After this, I recommend a "jab step" drill where one kid guards the other closely and the ball handler is in the "triple threat" position trying to get a step on him and then power past him (he can jump stop and pump fake, among other things, to try to score).  I try to match up kids by ability so that we don't have the least talented going against the best player.  After that, I might try a rebounding drill, where one line starts on the baseline behind the basket and the other starts near the foul line.  The line behind the baseline has the ball, and the player there throws a pass to the kid at the foul line, who is supposed to miss, and then the passer and he try to grapple for the rebound).  Those four drills can take twenty minutes.

The second twenty minutes focuses on offensive principles, such as passing and cutting (and reminding the kids, believe it or not, that when they move without the ball they are supposed to keep their hands up to present a target), gives and gos, picks and rolls, a dribble drive play, a drill to remind kids to look to openings on the weak side because when the point guard goes to his right, so goes the defense, which means the weak side can be wide open.  I won't go into details here -- if you're coaching these kids that means you have coached for years and know what works for you -- but one of the key things I've learned is that you need to coach the kids to create space on offense, especially if your league permits zone defenses (which I think is silly at this level and under this construct because the kids should be taught how to defend, period) and because some kids are so big.  We also emphasize the use of bounce passes in traffic, because almost every chest pass will get stolen in traffic.  (Actually, the first day of practice I run two drills -- I have each kid try to dribble between two defenders and then have each kid try to throw a chest pass by a defender to a teammate -- both fail from the get go, the kids laugh heartily, but they get the point).  We also remind them not to dribble the ball into the corner and not to pick up their dribbles -- by this time, the veterans get that.

The third twenty minutes we might go into the basics of an offensive set -- such as a 1-4 stack, work bounce passes into the post, back-door cuts from the wing, having a post player back pick for a wing player, but it is a lot harder to work on this than you think, and even if you have a set play or two, it might work once before the other team will figure it out and, perhaps, even jump the passing lanes to deny the play.  So, it seems to make sense to have the kids keep moving, cutting, passing, picking high and creating space.  As with other sports -- lacrosse and soccer -- you can't score if the ball isn't near the goal, so we also emphasize for the kids to get the ball toward the basket and shoot.  Some kids can be reluctant, but you have to remind those who think they're not as talented that if they get within a certain number of feet, say within ten (some its further out) that they need to shoot it.

Before you say, "well, what about defense?", I would add that hopefully the kids have the "gotta/wanna/haveit" to try to deflect the ball, stay low, slide, stay between their man and the basket and all that good stuff.  Early in the season you might want to try a defensive slide drill (we did this when the kids were younger) and have them slide and slap the floor in order to remind themselves that when they stay low enough, they move better.  By this age, though, you probably won't need to do all that much except -- and this is key -- remind them about switching and then providing help defense (especially in the lane, and especially when the other team's point guard blows by your defender and has an open lane to the basket).

Generally speaking, it's best to appeal to their sense of teamwork.  I gave them four basic principles to think about at the beginning of the season, as follows:

1.  Be a supportive teammate -- be encouraging, cheer, communicate with each other.
2.  Share the basketball and create space -- don't just stand around -- make something happen.
3.  Work as hard as the kid on the team who plays the hardest -- honor the good efforts of others.
4.  Have fun.

If the kids do that, they'll have a good experience, and winning will be a by-product of fundamentals and those principles.

That said, you will run into all sorts of opposing coaches.   There will be those who will try to play their best players extra quarters when lesser players are absent (even if the league rules prevent it), those who will yell out annoying things to counter your instructions to your team (I actually had a coach respond to every bit of my instructions to my team by yelling to his, "that's okay, they can do that all they want, but we'll still beat 'em"), and those who get on the referees too much.  The problem with rec leagues -- which are supposed to be fun -- is that you can get frustrated if you try to play by all the rules (including a no double-teaming rule).  The reason is that the refs officiate at the middle school and high school level, where things that might be outlawed in your league are permitted, so it's not totally within their nature to make the calls to enforce your league's rules.  Some coaches will take advantage of that and coach deliberately to violate the rules, but it's more likely that the kids will gamble and defense and double-team because they do so in the school yard.  My view is to ask a question of the refs as to what they're calling and then leave it alone, out of a view that basketball is hard to officiate and that they're probably blowing it equally for both teams (although sometimes it doesn't seem that way, usually when you're losing -- :).  At any rate, always remember that it's the rec league, that you won't win every game, and that it's frustrating, especially when you're losing to a goofball coach.   That said, again, remember -- it's the rec league.  It's not your job, and it's not the kids' ticket to anything other than organized exercise and fun.

So, I hope that this is helpful.  I know that kids talk about their teams in school and that sometimes kids get on one another for their play, especially if they want to pick on the tall, gangly kid for not being better, the pudgy kid for not being able to move quickly or the short kid for not being able to mix it up.  But remember this -- everyone can make a contribution -- by defending his man, by providing help defense, by screening, by deflecting the ball, by tying it up.  True, you need scorers, but at this level if you defend well and take the ball away, you can create opportunities on offense before the other team's defense gets set, when usually it's easier to score (as one Civil War cavalry general said about the secret to his success, "I get there first with the most men.").

At the end of the day, you hope that your league's administration creates equal teams with the chance for each kid to make a contribution and for all kids to get a good run in.  If you want more than that, and if your kid is a top player and your family has the time, seek out travel ball and more competitive situations.  But the key to a good rec league is not fierce competition that has dads at each other's throats, but one that mixes both the opportunity for teamwork and exercise with a change to develop an appreciation for a great game, a chance for good teamwork and a chance to build skills.

If you only have an hour a week of practice, there's only so much you can do.  As many coaches will tell you, once the game starts, there isn't much that you can do.  What you can do, though, is watch closely enough and then pick out things to work on in the next practice.  And then it's fun to watch the kids eyes light up when they "get it" and play better together as the weeks progress.  That's what the rec league should be all about.

Have fun!


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