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.

12 Comments

  1. Alex Allen — June 11, 2010 @ 12:19 am

    I think this is a terrible story. The coach should have focused on the other parts of the game (defense, rebounding, passing, etc.) rather than just scoring. That’s the mentality of too many parents with kids in youth sports, all they think about is how many points a kid scores. That’s part of the reason kids lose interest, they think, “if I can’t score, I can’t play.” That’s wrong, any coach worth his salt knows they need players that can defend, rebound, handle the ball, etc. On most good high school teams, only 2-3 kids do the bulk of the scoring. The rest of the players know their roles. That’s why the team is successful. When a team has a bunch of players who all think they need to score (because that’s what their youth coach and parents have been telling them for years), then you have a team that has little chance to be successful.
    Added to that, the coach broke the rules (that sets a great example) and humiliated players on the other team by letting them score. That’s wrong.

  2. Joe Haefner — June 11, 2010 @ 8:17 am

    I had a feeling somebody would look at it that way. I agree that coaches should emphasize and focus on other areas. Who says the coach didn’t?

    But this is 5th/6th grade REC basketball! This isn’t mini-progressional basketball. You can focus on everything but scoring for 10 straight years and the kid is still going to want to score. It’s hard enough to get high school players to buy in, yet alone an 11 year old.

    If you can find me one 6th grade rec player that played bball for 2 years and isn’t a little down that they never got a chance to score a point no matter what you emphasized, I’ll be amazed.

    In life, the decision isn’t as always as simple as right or wrong. There is a little gray area and sometimes, rules need to be broken. I would back any coach that made this decision.

    Also, that’s why so many experienced coaches have very few rules, because they don’t want to be backed into a corner.

    I like what you’re saying. I just disagree in this situation.

  3. dipsyjean — June 11, 2010 @ 10:02 am

    Alex, Apparently you’re not familiar with Upward Bound – it’s all about having fun, giving all the kid’s fair play – being competitive is not taught. My child didn’t participate in this program but neighbor kids have.

    I don’t think the story is a bad one – I think it has to do with having a heart and I think the coaches did the right thing. On the other hand, I do believe you’re right about actual competitive play in high school. There are the great scorer’s who are usually poor on defensive/offensive skills – they are there to score only – then you have the great players who’s whole purpose is to get the scorer the ball. Can’t do one without the other and in my eyes they are all important. Just because you put up a lot of points doesn’t make you the best player because the player always making the good plays and passing you the ball is usually just as good if not better than you.

    Bottom line – basketball is a team sport and you can’t play with just one person – all skills are necessary.

  4. Dave Gillem — June 11, 2010 @ 10:08 am

    I think this is an awesome story!! And while I agree with Alex that the focus shouldn’t be on points, thats the coaches perspective. I don’t care how many times you tell a kid the score doesn’t matter, don’t worry about who scores, at the end of the day every kid can tell you what the score was and how many points they scored, regardless of what the coach said. What I like so much about this story is what the coach did was take the monkey off the back of the kid who had that self-imposed pressure clearly affecting his enjoyment of the game. All to often I think coaches loose sight or forget what it was like to be 11/12 years old, trying to fit in and find your place, and that can have such a huge impact on what I feel is the single most important thing we can give kids as a youth coach… confidence. Confidence in themselves, confidence in their team, and confidence in their coach that they have their best interest in mind. Soon enough they will be trying out for their school teams, playing for a coach who is paid to win, but at 11/12 it should still be about having fun and enjoying the game first and foremost.

    @Alex, the other piece I think in your comment that I think coaches should do different is many times coaches design offenses and plays and schemes to get the ball in the hands of one or two players who “can score” and the other 3 players are there to “play their role”. While its important for every kid/player to know their role on the team I dont think who can/should score is a role. In effect what you get in that scenario is a couple kids who get really good at scoring and a bigger lot who are apprehensive to take an open shot because it’s “not their role”. Thats one of the reason I like the Read and React offense and similar offenses so much. They aren’t centered around one or two kids doing the scoring, everyone is live, everyone is taught to develop that instinct, everyone has the RIGHT to score.. it’s everyones role.

    Anyway sorry to get off topic so much, but I just see so many coaches doing things that dont serve the good of these kids in the long run for the sake of winning. This is such a gift we have been given to be able to have an impact on these kids lives as coaches, we really should make sure we have each and every one of their long term best interest at heart, not just the final score.

    Just my $0.02,
    -Dave

  5. Joe Haefner — June 11, 2010 @ 10:36 am

    Great thoughts, guys! Thank you.

  6. Peter Voltz — July 13, 2010 @ 8:17 am

    I would have to agree with Alex, it’s a terrible story.
    Why do we need to “baby” 11/12 tear olds. I now refuse to tell the children I coach to have fun playing basketball. Instead I tell them need to learn to enjoy the hard work of training that will help them improve so they can enjoy playing basketball. I also try to help them understand that it is better to help their team mates score then thinking they need to score to be important on the team.
    As coaches we also need to help young players set goals so they will see the need to put in the necessary training so they can continually improve and become the best they can possibly be.
    While coaches and parents keep on bring things down to the lowest possible level and simply focus on the “fun factor” young players will not reach their full potential as players and human beings.

  7. Dale W — July 13, 2010 @ 9:03 am

    Great story! The thing the kids will remember is their 1st basket. All kids want to score, and it’s very important for coaches at this level to help the kids get some confidance. It is a great example for a coach to set a small goal for the team and have it reached. That is a very valuble life lesson. We have to teach way more than basketball.

    I had a similar situation a couple of years ago in our final game we got 1 of our kids to score, and worked hard to make sure an opposing player scored. When they did finally score, the cheering was incredible.

  8. Steven W. — July 13, 2010 @ 10:36 am

    I understand Alex’s point, but his response is inapplicable to the situation. While it is true that coaches, in any type of league, should discourage children from the attitude of “if I can’t score, I can’t play”, I take that to mean “if I can’t score regularly, I can’t play”.
    The notion that anyone could expect that any child, in any type of league, but especially a REC type league, would possibly enjoy playing in that league without scoring AT ALL – EVER – is unrealistic. All Mr. Haefner tried to do was to get his child and the other two children to have at least one basket. This could hardly conflict with the concept that teamwork requires different players to have different responsibilities.
    The primary purpose of a rec league is for the kids to have fun playing basketball. It is not school. It is play. It is not a developmental league. Through play, children get exercise and learn various social skills, including the value of teamwork. Yes, the value of teamwork means that not everyone get to score regularly, but when the emphasis on teamwork results in a child not scoring AT ALL, that is the tail wagging the dog. No normal kid is going to have fun under those circumstances, and the system will have failed that child.

  9. Ben — July 14, 2010 @ 11:55 am

    We left Upward at a very early age. First of all I am a Christian and the reason I say this is because Upward is organized through the Southern Baptist Convention as a outreach Ministry to kids. That was my attraction when my son was in kindergarten and first grade. But after that he he started to attend camps and I coach so he became very aggressive in a basketball since and it was causing problems with parents and Upward and rules are rules (no pressing or guarding in the backcourt etc.) It’s a great program for rec purposes but if you have that really aggressive athletic child after 2nd grade Upward would not be for him. But the story is great. Upward has no Championships just Champions and that’s all the kids that participate.

  10. BRIAN T. — July 14, 2010 @ 3:33 pm

    The story is a good one that I agree with everything that they did and stand for in the league. I have done the samething with other coaches or I can tell from the play on the court who is not the best on the other team and tell my players to adjust. I coach from kindergarten up to 6th grade. One thing that I have learned in over 15 years of coaching various level of kids that Alex has a point a little strong but a point non-the less. As a coach I have been able to see things on the court that the players don’t see and I tell my players about that at halftime or at the end of game. I try to point out other aspects of the game. Stopping an opposing team from scoring or stealing the ball with good defense. I do not glory the kids on scoring. I feel successful as a coach when 8 or 9 out of 10 total on the team scored in a game. This shows two things 1. that the kids are not selfish and 2. that they work the ball around the court to get the best opportunity to score. Which is very hard thing to teach at this age level but can be done over time.

  11. Bob Boone — December 21, 2010 @ 9:04 pm

    I know these posts are old, but I’m sorry dad, sometimes kids fail at things. We don’t want to admit that, but its true. Would the seasons spent doing that have been wasted if he didn’t score? No. He would have realized it wouldn’t be his career. Lets face it, the upward leagues are generally very homogeneous with respect to race, and the play is no where near as good as a normal city rec league. If he can’t score at that level in two years–he should quit. I can’t stand parents who try to twist everything around to make everything wonderful for their kids. Life is not like that. Sports imitate the real world. A better growing up experience would have been an un-manipulated failure. Take him jogging, or teach him tennis.

  12. Lawrence Summers — January 29, 2013 @ 5:51 am

    This article is from years ago, but I’m just reading it, and I think it’s absolutely amazing. I’ve been a professional in Europe for the last 7 years, and in that time have coached and trained players from 8 years old up to other professionals on my own teams. And this story isn’t about “Every kid needs to score,” it’s about that last sentence that Tayln said: I felt like I could do anything. If we can do that, as a coach…if we can make kids feel like that, whether it’s teaching them that not everyone has to score or that even the simple bounce pass they made was important…then we have succeeded. I am as fundamental a coach as I’ve come across (not to pat myself of the back), but there is one fundamental more important than dribbling, passing, shooting, playing defense, etc, and that’s the fundamental of allowing kids to grow. And giving them confidence is a HUGE part of that. This article made my day. 100% I’m glad I came across it!

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