4 Youth Basketball Coaching Concepts That Translate to Classroom Teaching


Posted: Thursday, April 18th, 2013

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I’ve coached basketball to kids of every age from 4 to 18, and I’ve found that sports not only teach life lessons to the kid wearing the jersey, but also the coach sitting on the bench (or standing, yelling and stomping his feet). Learning to coach basketball is a lesson in leadership, not just V-dribbles and jump stops. Here are four basketball coaching concepts that go much further than the hardwood.

1. Focus on fundamentals: Build skills, build them some more, and keep building them.

Many youth coaches make the mistake of teaching complicated strategic concepts while their players lack the physical skills to put these concepts into use. Good coaches teach the fundamentals—dribbling, passing, shooting and footwork—and practice them at every practice. In the long run, the kids become more skilled players, and they can enjoy the sport for years. Complicated concepts can possibly help an underskilled team win a couple extra games during a short youth season and satisfy the shortsighted coach, but the players’ growth will be stunted. As they say, “It’s not the X’s and O’s; it’s the Jims and Joes.”

Teachers, schools, school districts, even parents, they all are guilty of the same shortsightedness as the victory-crazed coach. In the interest of finite accomplishments—a good score on a paper, in a class, on a standardized test—the skills are often neglected. Anything worth learning should be a process, and it’s more important for kids to learn how to do things, rather than what to do. As a co-worker and SAT tutor says, “If a kid gets a perfect SAT score, does that mean he’s smart? No, he’s just really good at taking that test.”

2. Build confidence. Allow kids to make mistakes.

I was talking with a fellow youth coach, and I asked him what “type of stuff” he liked to coach, selfishly wanting to get into a discussion of flex offense, trapping zone defenses, magical inbound plays—something that would entertain the basketball junkie in me. “I just try to build confidence,” he said. “Half the game is confidence.” Good answer. In sports, players need to have a “short memory,” meaning that if they make a mistake, they’d better “forget” it quickly so they can focus on the next play. In basketball, if a player misses a shot, for example, he shouldn’t be afraid to shoot again.

I wonder how many teachers have the same attitude. The key isn’t just that this guy wanted his players to be confident; it’s that he focused his effort actively building their confidence. Teaching requires more than the knowledge of a subject; it requires people skills. What many people don’t realize is that the more confident a person is, the more receptive he is to help. If a kid is great at math but bad at writing, build his confidence with math, and he’ll be more willing to accept that his writing skills need work.

3. Listen. Don’t just talk.

This is two coaching points in one. First, many coaches regularly talk too much during their practices. Kids can only absorb a few key points, and it’s best to spend practice time, you know, practicing. Making clear, concise points is a priceless coaching skill. Just ask a player. Second, many coaches think coaches should talk and players should listen, and never the other way around. Many big-time coaches have a “system” and force the players to buy in like little soldiers, but this style isn’t healthy for youth basketball.

When I was in grade school, I often thought about how terrible my teacher was at listening, that the teacher hardly even knew the students. I often felt that school was a test in patience, a contest to see who could stare at the teacher and listen for the longest amount of time. A healthy learning experience is more like a conversation than listening to a speech. People learn by talking. Coaxing students to participate can seem like pulling teeth, sure, but teachers should never give up on this effort.

4. Don’t get mad about a player’s mistake unless it’s been practiced repeatedly.

Basketball coaches are notorious for their angry outbursts. In other news, the sky is blue. Angry coaches will always be part of basketball, but youth coaches should show control and patience; we can all agree on that. A good rule is that a coach can expect his players to get something right only when it’s been practiced a hundred times. Too many coaches give an instruction during a long talk (See #3) and expect players to implement it immediately. Good coaches decide what skills are worth the time and effort and spend lots of both during practice. Then, if a player still doesn’t get it, a simple shout, sprint or set of push-ups might serve as proper motivation.

Teachers shouldn’t ever mention something once in class and then put it on a test. Anything worth learning should be a process (Sound familiar?), and teachers should help their students understand something, practice, practice, practice, then test it. Mentioning something once does not qualify as instruction.

5. When the defender overplays, make a hard back-cut or V-cut.

Okay, fine, I’ll stop talking about basketball.

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