Should Youth Coaches Eliminate Shooting Drills From Practice?

By Joe Haefner

I know what you’re thinking, “Eliminate shooting drills from practice? Joe must have fell off his rocker again.” But please hear me out, because this could help the development of your youth team tremendously.

Do I think you should eliminate ALL shooting drills? Absolutely not.

Should you eliminate most? Yes! As a youth coach working with 5th graders and below (10 & 11 year olds and younger), you should NOT be spending 10 to 30 minutes on shooting every day.

Well, you’re probably thinking now… well why?!?

  1. You need to develop ball skills first in order to be successful.

    If you can’t dribble, beat the press, or take care of the ball long enough to even take a shot, what good does shooting and everything else do you? Nothing is worse than trying to run offense and all you do is turn it over. You are better off shooting a 20 foot runner, that way at least you have a small chance of making a basket or even more likely one of your players getting an offensive rebound near the basket and put it back up for an easy make. If you turn it over, you have zero chance to make a basket and the other team probably gets an easy one in transition.

  2. They pick up ball skills faster than they would pick up shooting at this age.

    If you watch players at games, practices, and camps, very few 3rd graders could shoot the ball as well as a 10th grader. However, if you watch them dribble the basketball, you will see a much higher percentage that can dribble the ball as proficiently as the older kids compared to shooting.

    That’s because younger players can improve their ball handling at a much faster pace than they can improve their shooting.

    As Bob Bigelow says, you should introduce the skills by gravity. Which means the skills that work with gravity would be the easiest and the ones that work against gravity would be the hardest. Since dribbling is completely with gravity and shooting is completely against gravity, it only makes sense that dribbling would be easier for younger kids to learn and progress.

    Now, let’s say you worked on ball skills when the kids were in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade. By the time the players reach 6th grade, they’ll be very good ball handlers. Now, you can adjust your practice priorities. You won’t have to spend as much time on ball handling and you could now allocate more time to shooting, because the players are strong enough and coordinated enough to take the instruction needed to be a good shooter. They will also improve their shooting at a much faster pace.

Well, why is shooting harder to teach to younger players and what can you do?

When it comes to younger players 5th grade and below, they usually lack the coordination and strength to consistently shoot the ball properly at a goal.

My advice would be to include some strength and coordination exercises at the beginning of every practice. Great drills for total body strength and upper-to-lower body coordination include:

Crawling is great for strength and creating coordination between your upper and lower body. You can do bear crawls, crab crawls, and inchworms. You can do them forwards, backwards, side to side, and in a circle.

Lunges and squats are great for lower body strength, mobility, and coordination. No barbell is needed.

After you get the basics of lunging and squatting, you can add pushes to improve lower-to-upper body coordination which is required to become a good shooter.

For the pushing aspect, you can simply use a basketball.

Squat with Push – You squat down, have the ball at your chest, stand up and push the ball over your head.

Squat with Out of Sync Push – You squat down and push the ball above your head, stand up and bring the ball to your chest.

Coach, if I cut out most of my shooting drills then how am I going to score points!?

Well, right now your team is probably shooting around 10% to 20%. If you work on shooting with the younger kids every practice for 20 minutes, you might improve their shooting percentage by 2%. To score more points, you’d be much better off spending 2 minutes every practice emphasizing to your players to crash the offensive boards.

So what should youth coaches do for ball handling, passing, and shooting during practice?

  • Depending on the length of your practice, spend 10 to 20 minutes on dribbling and ball handling drills and games.
  • Incorporate athletic development, footwork, and passing into your practices.
  • Spend 5 minutes every day shooting form away from the basket. Do wall shooting or line shooting. That way, they’re only concerned with their form and not whether the ball is going in the hole.

    Don’t get me wrong, you might spend 15 minutes the first couple of practices to teach some of the shooting basics, but after that your time would be much better spent on ball handling, footwork, and passing.

    Then each week, you can slowly progress them through shooting form where they eventually get to the point that they’re shooting at the basket within close range WITH PROPER FORM. Maybe you can even do some catch and shoot drills.

    Also, I recommend smaller balls and lower hoops so they can shoot consistently with good form and just aren’t chucking the ball at the hoops. In baseball, we progress kids from shorter pitching mounds, shorter base paths, and shorter fences for strength and coordination reasons. But for some reason in basketball, we don’t use that same logic.

Also, here is an article that could help you decide what you should work on:

Long-term planning for youth basketball

As a coach, it would help you tremendously to sit down and plan what skills you are going to focus on each year to help develop well-rounded players. By focusing on just a few things, this helps simplify your practices and helps you make big improvements in a few key areas. If you do this every year, then by the time they reach high school, they will be light years ahead of other players their age.

And of course, remember to include small-sided games and make things fun. That way, they’ll actually want to play when they’re older and won’t become one of the 80% that quit sports before the age of 13.

Basketball In Anguilla

By Don Kelbick


I have a great interest in helping basketball grow, wherever the seeds are sewn. I made a trip to Anguilla to help some very dedicated people try to realize their goal of making basketball matter here.

Anguilla is a very small island, located about 200 miles east of Puerto Rico, in the Leeward Islands. It has really friendly people, great food and beautiful beaches. Travel was a flight from Miami to St. Martin and then a 20 minute ferry to Anguilla.

The first thing I noticed was, as a British territory, that people drive on the wrong side of the road. I always thought that would be no big deal, but I was wrong. I have no doubt that if I drove here many people would wind up dead. Just crossing the street is a problem.

On this island of 13,000 people, there is really no basketball culture to speak of, except for a small group of dedicated residents who believe they can enrich the lives of the people of Anguilla, especially the kids, by exposing them to the game. The trip was postponed once to allow  Hurricane Irene to pass over the Island. In fact, the coaches almost got caught in the weather as they were painting the court. That’s right, the coaches were painting the court!

We are running the camp in 2 sections, 8-12 in the morning and 13 and up in the afternoon. It is a long day in the sun. Never did I ever think you could burn through SPF 50. The kids are great. Very positive, very respectful and very friendly. As players, they are all novices, even the older ones. They have never been through anything like this camp before. They are learning how to work hard, how to respect others on their team and how to play basketball.

The players are very willing learners. They are eager to soak up knowledge, no matter where it comes from. The coaches, all Island residents, are eager to learn as well. I have worked a lot of camps for a lot of years and rarely have I found a group that I enjoy being with as much as this group of coaches. Their connection through the kids to the game is something to be admired.

This has not been an easy week. Temperatures in the mid 90′s, no cover, blazing sun, and other obstacles (I lathered on the SPF 50 but it had no effect). In the U. S. we get spoiled with facilities, equipment, etc. This camp, however, is the reason why we all should coach. An unique opportunity to reach people of all ages who are not jaded by false hopes of NBA paydays, no helicopter parents and no desires other than looking for a positive influence in their lives. The opportunity to touch so many people and have an effect on their lives is what coaching is all about.

Maribelle West and Paul Bell, the driving forces behind the effort, have created a true grass roots program. Hopefully they will get the support they so richly deserve.

You can see their goals and aspirations at

For more information visit

Drillz and Skillz/Breakthrough Basketball “Attack and Counter” Skills Clinic in the Chicago Area

By Don Kelbick

Drillz and Skillz/Breakthrough Basketball “Attack and Counter” Skillz Clinic in Chicago Area

The Drillz and Skillz/Breakthrough Basketball “Attack and Counter” Skills Clinic held in Libertyville, Il (40 minutes outside of Chicago) is history and was a great success.

Held in the Libertyville Athletic Complex, the clinic welcomed 60 players and at least 2 dozen coaches for the weekend clinic. The Libertyville Athletic Complex is an unbelievable facility. Indoors it houses a fitness center, boxing center, 2 soccer fields, multiple volleyball courts and too many basketball courts to count. We used 12 baskets to work out 60 players.

Friday we started with footwork and looked at it from several different angles. A good 3 hour evening workout that introduced the footwork and the mentality that have worked so well in improving players. The rest of the weekend was spent applying that footwork and mentality to basketball situations.

On Saturday, we worked on shooting, coming off screens and ball screens. Sunday was the day for post drills, fast break drills, ball handling and a few games of 1 on 1. All in all players took between 800-1000 shots for the weekend.

The players were extremely hard workers and were great to work with. Players continue to amaze me. When they give themselves to you, it is incredible how quickly they improve.

Not lost in the shuffle were the coaches. Many of them came to watch  but when I invited them to come on the court and help out, many of them did so. The weekend could not have been a success without them.

I am looking forward to the next clinic.

For more information on Don Kelbick, go to

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5 Bucks To a Better Team

By JimBado

If you’ve only got five bucks, your best investment is a roll of blue painter’s tape. Like duct tape for a homeowner, blue tape is invaluable for a coach and much easier to use than masking tape. Carry it to practices and games to help your team:

1) Build a better understanding of offensive positions/spacing

You can explain positions and tell your squad to spread out until you’re “blue” in the face, but many kids still won’t understand. We showed our players where to line up on offense untold times, but they always seemed to forget their positions. Part of this came from us always rotating positions, but it also stemmed from a lack of markings on the court (we pointed out the block and elbow, but they forgot what those were too).

The solution: mark guards’ and forwards’ spots with blue tape Xs. That worked so well in practice that we started doing it in games. Our players would run down the hardwood during games, look for the blue X and jump stop on it with a smile. After a couple weeks, we didn’t need the Xs anymore.

2) End endless trips into the corners

Inexperienced players tend to dribble into the corner and stop. The defense swarms them and steals the ball or causes a turnover or jump ball. Repeated instructions to avoid the corners, labeling them the “no” zone (i.e., don’t go in there) and stopping scrimmages when someone dribbled into one all failed to end the bad habit for our squad. Once a player started dribbling, the corner seemed to attract her with almost irresistible magnetic power.

We solved the problem by making large squares/boxes in each corner with two pieces of blue tape and the out of bounds lines. When a player dribbled into the “box” during a scrimmage, we blew the whistle. Now, instead of wondering what they did, they looked down, saw where they stood (i.e., inside the no zone) and immediately understood. After a couple whistles, we didn’t even need to say anything.

The boxes virtually eliminated the corners’ magnetic power and, after two practices, we didn’t need to tape them anymore. Thanks to the “power of blue”, our players now remind each other to avoid the “no” zone.

3) Develop a clearer understanding of weak side defensive positioning

Knowing where to position yourself in a man-to-man defense is a tough concept to grasp. Young players tend to “chase” the person they’re guarding all over the court, rather than play defense with their brains. Even those who understand the concept of weak-side defense often stand too close to the player they’re guarding to be effective help defenders.

We discussed “on-the-line/up-the-line” without success until finally realizing (duh), we ought to just put the dern line in the middle of the key from the foul line to the baseline. With blue tape on the floor, our players could see where they should be when they’re weak side defenders. Do they still get out of position? Of course, but the tape has improved their understanding of how to man-to-man defense tremendously. You can also mark the “danger zone” near your basket with tape. Tell your players to keep the ball out of the taped area or, if the ball gets into it, to swarm the offensive player. When kids can see what they should do, they do it.

Just when it seems we’ve advanced beyond it, blue tape continues proving its value. Since our summer league plays two simultaneous games crosscourt on a large varsity court, the crosscourt marks for the foul , three point and out-of-bounds lines are all very light. Unable to see the yellow foul line, our kids repeatedly stepped over it; the referees waved off the shots we made due to lane violations.

Once we put down a blue tape line, violations disappeared. After marking both foul lines, the referee called our squad for three seconds. During a time out, I asked him how our players were supposed to know they were inside the key (the key is the exact same color as the rest of the floor). He had no response, but we did: marking it with more of our trusty blue tape.

You can find more articles from Jim Bado that are usually non-basketball related at the LOSER Report.

For more youth coaching tips, drills, plays, offense tips, defense tips, and much more, visit our Youth Basketball Coaching Home Page.

Stop Yelling and Start Coaching

By JimBado

Do you like getting yelled at? I bet you don’t whether it’s at work, home or on the basketball court. But, if you’re like many youth coaches, you yell at your players and criticize their performance. And here’s why: they play better after you do that, don’t they?

Let me share a not so secret “secret” with you: when you yell at your players after a really bad game, their improvement in the next one isn’t due to your screams. In fact, your criticism may hurt more than help; it can turn your kids off from playing the sport. If a player or team does poorly – and most do from time to time — the next game, inevitably, they will be better because of a simple statistical phenomenon: regression to the mean.

Why should you care about a somewhat obscure statistical concept as a youth basketball coach? Because, in short, regression to the mean means your performance — in anything you do — will tend to be close to the same most times. If you have an outstandingly good performance or an outstandingly poor one, your next will not be nearly as good or bad, you will move back toward your average performance (or regress to the mean). This phenomenon is important because of how you perceive the impact of your yelling and screaming.

In a famous example, Psychologist and Noble Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman, interviewed Israeli flight instructors – a critical job if one ever existed – about the feedback they gave the pilots they trained. Instructors told Kahneman they stopped giving the pilots positive feedback because whenever a pilot did an outstanding job and they praised him, he flew worse on the next flight. And, on the other hand, when the pilot performed poorly and the instructor read him the riot act, he did better the next time.

The instructors, like many of us, saw their words as having more influence that they, in reality, actually had. An outstanding performance, due to regression to the mean, will be followed by one not as outstanding. Conversely, a terrible one will be followed by a better one. What goes up, must come down and vice versa. The instructors made the same mistake we make as youth coaches: a team who plays terribly will, in all likelihood, play better the next game whether or not you yell at them.

Does this mean you shouldn’t say anything because your words have no impact? That you can’t hold your players accountable for their performance? Absolutely not! Instead of yelling, you can:

1) Show your team what to do (not tell them what not to do)
2) Tell them, they can do better (because they can be)
3) Focus on a few, specific fundamentals to improve and
4) Practice, practice, practice those skills, remembering to have fun
5) Track, reward and recognize progress, no matter how slow

Earlier this season, one of my youth teams got drilled 33-1 (we only scored due league rules requiring a point be awarded when a player gets fouled while shooting). Believe me, at numerous times, I wanted to yell at various players, but stopped myself. Yelling would have made me feel better, but wouldn’t have made much sense: as a coach, you do your work at practices, not during games.

Although I really – really – wanted to tear into them after the contest – some players seemed to not put in much effort during the game — I backed off and focused on the five above at the next practice. Reminding myself my job was showing them how to play better and encouraging them – they are eleven and twelve year olds playing in a YMCA rec league — we practiced specific fundamentals we failed to execute during the game, believing those would help us do better in the next one.

The next week, my squad won 16-14 in overtime. What happened the week after that? Well, you know that concept of regression to the mean….

You can find more articles from Jim Bado that are usually non-basketball related at the LOSER Report.

For more youth coaching tips, drills, plays, offense tips, defense tips, and much more, visit our Youth Basketball Coaching Home Page.

How to Avoid Squandering Your Greatest Resources – Volunteer Assistant Coaches

By JimBado

If your team is like most, you’ll have parents willing to help you. Some parents will be able to make every practice and game; others only some. Some will understand basketball; others will be clueless. No matter who they are, how you use them, to a great extent, will determine how well your team performs.

The worst thing you can do: squander adult volunteers’ time, knowledge and skills. If you’re a control freak who must manage and run every aspect of practices and games, do your volunteers a favor and tell them you don’t need their help (even though you do). Why? Because adult volunteers want to be active and involved; nothing is worse for them than standing around with nothing to do. Failure to give your helpers meaningful roles where they can deploy their knowledge and skills (some may know more about the sport than you) is a sure way to create frustrated, disappointed adult volunteers.

The good news: with a little foresight and planning, you can get a lot out of your volunteers. And, even better, the adults will enjoy being “used”. Assistants, in fact, are a lot like players, you need to keep them busy. One of the simplest and easiest ways to get the most from your volunteers is running stations in practice.

To run stations, follow these simple steps:

1) Split your squad into 2, 3, or 4 relatively even groups

2) Pick a fundamental skill to practice at each station

3) Assign an assistant to run each station

4) Rotate the players every 3-5 minutes among the stations (you will keep track of time)

5) Get the heck out of the way!

Splitting your squad into smaller groups benefits both your players and your volunteers. In station work, players get many repetitions of a fundamental skill. Since they run the station, your adult volunteers will share their knowledge with the team and work closely with all the players. Will your volunteers always teach a skill the exact way you would have? Of course not, but, remember, you’re a youth league coach – just like your assistants – not Duke’s Coach K.

Here’s a three-station example (3-5 minutes at each station, then rotate, 15-20 minutes total):

1) One basket: v-cut, catch pass from coach or another player, shoot jump shot

2) Up and down both sidelines: defensive slide/turn the dribbler (dribble against pressure)

3) Other basket: roll ball to shooter/defender runs to guard shooter and boxes-out/rebounds

If you follow this approach, your players will practice v-cuts, shooting, defensive slides, dribbling against pressure and boxing out multiple times over the quarter hour. As a youth coach, you’re always pressed for time: stations help you get the most out of your limited time. In some of our practices, we run two different sets of stations to keep the team and volunteers all busy.

There’s no limit to what you can practice in stations. You could do lay-ups, machine-gun passing and crossover/change of pace/speed dribbling. You could split your team in half where one group works on footwork drills while the other plays dribble knockout. No matter how you split them, you’ll receive the same benefits: multiple repetitions of fundamental skills while everyone stays active and involved.

Remember, your enemies are idle, bored players and, also, idle, bored volunteers. If you keep your assistants busy leading valuable station work, they will enjoy volunteering. And, even better, your team will be more successful as a result of their active participation.

You can find more articles from Jim Bado that are usually non-basketball related at the LOSER Report.

For more youth coaching tips, drills, plays, offense tips, defense tips, and much more, visit our Youth Basketball Coaching Home Page.

Does Each Player Dribble The Ball On Your Youth Team

By Joe Haefner

Here is a short commentary between Jim Bado and one of the girls on his youth team. It discusses the importance of having everybody handle the ball on your youth teams…

Before Saturday’s game started, Michele plopped beside me on the bench.

“Coach,” she said, “do I have to play guard today?”
“Yeah,” I replied, “everyone plays guard on our team.”
“But I don’t want to. I’m not any good at dribbling. Can’t I just play forward? I’m better at that.”
“You’re playing guard. You get better at dribbling by doing it.”
“But I always lose the ball or they take it from me — I don’t want to do that in the game today.”
“Michele,” I said. “Remember when you started with our team two seasons ago?”
“You’d never played basketball before and didn’t know how to shoot a lay-up, did you?”
“And you didn’t know how to pass or play defense either, right?”
“And now, because you’ve done those things in games, you can do all of them, right?”
“No,” she said, before catching herself, “I mean yeah, yeah, I can.”
“Well, it’s the same way with dribbling. That’s why I want you to bring the ball up in games, so you’ll get better at it. And I know you can do it.”
She thought about that for a second and said. “Ok, but can I just do it once or twice today?”

It took everything I had not to crack up. Seeing her, and all the girls improve, is why you coach youth sports.

You can find more articles from Jim Bado that are usually non-basketball related at the LOSER Report.

The 10 Commandments of Youth Sports for Parents (with apologies to the Bible)

By Joe Haefner

Here is a great article from Jim Bado on 10 great guidelines that all adults should follow pertaining to youth sports.

1) You shall support and encourage your child, attend games and cheer for all the players, including the opposition.

2) You shall play the sport with your child outside practices if the child wants to, but not push your child into doing so. Pushing your child can cause resentment and burnout.

3) You shall practice good sportsmanship and avoid yelling at your child about the child’s performance during or after games, even when said child deserves it.

4) You shall realize youth sports are for kids, not adults, and not compare your child to another player nor sibling in either a positive or negative manner.

5) You shall avoid critiquing your child’s or any other player’s game performance on the car ride home. You will only discuss the game if the child wants to.

6) You shall bring your child to practices and games on time and contact the coaches if your child cannot attend or will be late for a practice or game.

7) You will endeavor to always be a positive role model for all children and avoid complaining about or yelling at referees, even when they make bad calls or screw up royally. When tempted to violate this commandment, you will remind yourself referees are often volunteers, teenagers or in training themselves.

8.) You shall understand that while winning is fun, youth sports research clearly shows kids would rather play on a losing team, than sit the bench on a winning one. This understanding will include the fact that all kids need to play significant minutes – not just your kid or the best ones — and make mistakes during games to have fun and improve. Children mature and progress at different rates. Michael Jordan was cut from the Varsity as a high school sophomore and Bill Russell was only 5’9 as a sophomore in high school.

9) You shall not coach your child or any other players from the sidelines or stands. If you have a problem with the “official” coach, you will address it in private with said coach. If you would like to coach, you will volunteer to be one.

10) You shall always remember you are the adult and act like one. It is much more difficult for a child to deal with an out-of-control parent than for a parent (that is, you) to deal with an out-of-control child.

Developing better basketball players (America needs more teaching from coaches)

By Jeff Haefner

I came across this article by Jay Bilas. It’s a really good article that I think parents and youth coaches should read.

If you want your child and/or players to get better, you should be aware of what Jay Bilas says in this article:

He makes a really good point about the difference between “teaching” and “coaching” — and that America needs more ‘teaching’ from its coaches.

Great Story On What Youth Basketball Is All About

By Joe Haefner

Here is a great story from Jim Bado of Ohio on his experience with coaching youth basketball. It really shows what youth basketball should be all about.

Jim is also an author of the LOSER Report.

Matthew and I strode through the chilly, snow-flecked darkness outside the soaring Gateway Church.

“Have you had fun this season?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied. “But I’m kind of nervous about our last game. I haven’t scored a basket this season and Saturday is my last game. It’s my last chance to score in a game.”

“Don’t worry,” I replied with the overconfidence of someone who’s tossed in countless points during innumerable contests, “you’re going to score Saturday, I promise.”

I intended to keep that promise because last season, Matthew’s first, he failed to score during all eight games, a fact that frustrated me to no end. During last year’s practices, despite my objections, we spent almost the entire time working on plays. The head coach more fixated on executing six different set plays than the paparazzi on the movements of Britney Spears, even though more than half our kids, including Matthew, couldn’t shoot a lay-up, pivot or rebound to save their young lives.

This season, the coaches agreed to focus on fundamentals, keep the players moving with skill-based drills and have fun scrimmaging. With the goal of taking more shots, the team pushed the ball up the court to shoot lay-ups, rather than setting up plays. As we told the players, check any basketball box score: the squad attempting more shots usually wins.

Running late, Matthew and I arrived at Saturday afternoon’s contest a couple minutes before introductions. Slapping each player five in the pre-game room, I saw the team’s “rules” written across the whiteboard

1) Have Fun
2) TA-TA-team (support and respect your teammates)
3) Fun Have (the Star Wars Yoda rule)

In addition to Matthew, Talyn, our tea drinking, skin-and-bones — he weighed about sixty-five pounds dripping wet – forward hadn’t scored a basket either. Huddling with the other coaches, we agreed today’s primary goal was somehow, someway getting them a bucket during the next thirty-six minutes.

From my perspective, if any kid didn’t score, the coaches failed to reach the program’s goal of “every child a winner.” As the head coach, their success became my responsibility. Moreover, if Matthew didn’t make a basket, that would mean he’d played two seasons without scoring. I’d promised him better than that.

Before the game, I asked the opposing coach who hadn’t scored on his squad; he pointed to Suns #32, a tall, slender kid playing the first period. Giving the other team the ball rather than staging a coin flip, I huddled our starting five, asking them avoid guarding #32 on the first possession. I figured the other team would throw him the ball under the hoop and he’d score easily. Our guys followed the plan; the other team didn’t and another kid shot instead of #32. We rebounded and the game rolled onward from that inauspicious start. I looked at the Suns coach and he shrugged a “what can I do?” response. A missed opportunity, but not the end of the world: plenty of time remained for all three guys to get a bucket.

Matthew and Talyn played the second and third periods. Our guys passed them the ball and they took multiple shots, but, alas, missed all of them. During half-time, I checked the league-mandated player rotation for the second half (a great rule requiring each kid to play a minimum of half of every game). Matthew only played one period: the 5th. That would be his last chance to make a basket; we needed to make it happen. Prior to its start, I pulled the team together, telling them to get Matthew the ball. They complied and he took four shots, missing every one.

Without timeouts, an Upward Bound Basketball coach cannot stop play to direct the team, even to help someone score. As the clock wound toward zero, a Suns player tossed up a long shot. It clanged off the backboard and the shrill buzzer ended Matthew’s Upward Bound career. He’d participated in sixteen basketball games without scoring one single basket. Matthew wouldn’t start the final period and the league’s player rotation rules prohibited substitutions, meaning — even though I wanted him on the court — he couldn’t return to the game. As a sixth grader, this was his last year playing; in other words, he would never score a basket in an Upward Bound game, ever.

Talyn, however, played during the final period. Before inbounding the ball, I emphasized how the team needed to get him a basket. The players nodded in agreement. Grabbing Talyn’s bony shoulders, I squatted to eye level, telling him that somehow, someway, he would score today. The players put their hands together and yelled “1-2-3 Talyn”! Out for the last period of his last game, my son sat quietly on the bench. I wrapped an arm around his shoulder, consoling him, rather than watching the game and yelling encouragement to our team. He seemed fine, but I knew the painful sadness of failure lurked behind his happy-go-lucky facade.

My throat went dry thinking how Matthew’s Monday night vision became Saturday-afternoon reality. I’d broken my promise to him, failed as his coach and, more importantly, failed as his father. Although mostly uninterested in sports, Matthew, at our insistence, had played three youth soccer seasons while in elementary school without scoring a goal. He “retired from soccer” — his description — at age nine. Now he’d participated in two seasons of Upward basketball without one hoop. Clenching fists, I grew angry with myself for not doing more to help him succeed. One dern basket to reward all the kid’s effort, was that too much to ask for?

On the court, Talyn caught a pass and shot the ball right into the basket. The team high-fived him as he raced down the court, beaming with happiness. At least Talyn scored, I thought, taking some solace in that victory before looking at my son sitting on the bench. Trying to get my head beyond my failure with Matthew and back into the game, I strode past Markus, another of our players; he reached out a hand to stop me.

“Coach,” Markus said. “Can’t Matthew go back in and score? This is his last game. We all get to play again next year. He ought to get a chance to score.”
“I wish I could put him in,” I replied. “But the rules don’t allow it.”

Play continued and our squad took a one point lead on Logan’s slashing drive with ninety seconds left. Running up and down the court, #32 from the Suns still hadn’t hit a bucket, despite several pointblank shots this period. In a minute and a half, the game would be over and neither #32 nor Matthew would have scored all season. That awful fact turned my stomach: didn’t it run completely counter to the philosophy of every child a winner? But the game’s substitution and player rotation rules existed for good reasons too. I’d learned to play sports by the rules untold years ago and needed to set a positive example for our players by following them now. Or did I?

Watching the ball bounce out of bounds, I realized adults needed to demonstrate to children how to exercise judgment following rules. Striding onto the court, I stopped play, motioning to the other coach and referees. If I had anything to say about it, #32 would score today. Pulling our guys together, I asked them to avoid guarding #32 and to even rebound for him if he missed. They agreed.

Then, listening to the wisdom of a child, I followed Markus’ suggestion and broke Upward’s substitution rules. Asking Thomas, who played a fantastic game (knocking the ball away from a player twice his height several times), to take a seat, I sent Matthew back onto the court. No one, the Suns coaches, Upward coordinators nor the referees said a word in opposition. We all silently agreed to break the rules in favor of a more important principle: every child a winner. After all, how could any kid have fun and feel like a winner if he failed to score for an entire season, let alone two?

Inbounding, the other team passed to #32, he caught the ball, squared up to the basket and tossed in a shot; the parents cheered. Ticking game clock closing Matthew’s narrow window of opportunity, the team passed him the ball at the top of the circle. He dribbled down the open lane toward the hoop. This it it, I thought, he will score. But, unfortunately, an aggressive Suns player left his man to block Matthew’s shot, knocking the ball out of bounds. The referees called it our ball out. Echoing me, the Suns coach motioned his guy to back off and guard his own man.

With forty seconds left, we inbounded to Matthew. The orange ball left his fingers, kissed the backboard and swished through the net. Never in my long basketball career had one basket been more important, never. Throwing arms over his head, Matthew floated on a wave of pure joy down the court. The rest of the team, including the players on the bench, cheered. The Bobcats stopped the Suns from scoring on their final possession, garnering a one-point second-half victory via Matthew’s first basket.

During the post-game stars presentation, the coaches awarded Talyn and Matthew gray stars for best offense. Sticking out smooth, eleven-year-old palms, they smiled proudly as players, coaches and parents clapped. On the drive home, I asked Matthew and Talyn what they enjoyed most about the season.

“When I scored the basket today,” Talyn said. “I felt sky high. I felt like I could do anything. That was the best moment of all.”

Matthew thought for a minute and commented in a soft voice, “Me too. After that last quarter I didn’t think I would ever score a basket, but I got in there and I did it.”

Saturday’s victory wasn’t about the scoreboard, it was about our players “doing it” by following the team’s rules: have fun, support and respect your teammates, and fun have. Our team’s unselfishness enabled both Talyn and Matthew to score and created the opportunity for Suns player #32 to get a bucket. The rules we’d opened the first practice with nine weeks ago taught our players about more than just basketball. And they’d been used by the team to teach me something important today. I had thought teaching the kids was my job, but, in reality, my real job was to learn from the wisdom of children.