What's Wrong With Youth Basketball Leagues

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There are so many youth basketball leagues that are win-loss leagues which focus on the end result of whether the kids win or lose the games and that's it. They play zones, have unequal playing time, and create a stressful environment with coaches yelling at the kids and placing the unwanted pressure of winning & losing on them.

This needs to stop!

You want to know what happens with these kids & teams in 5 to 6 years:
  1. Kids Quit the Sport.

    The number 1 reason kids quit sports is because it's not fun anymore. So why are we making it so stressful for them?

    Don Kelbick informed us about a recent study by AAHPER revealed that over 80% of kids who play in organized youth sports no longer play that sport after the age of 13. THAT'S TERRIBLE!!!! Back in the day, kids did not start playing organized sports until they were 13.

    Why does this happen?

    Kids respond poorly to stress at a young age.

    Kids prefer to have fun & play freely!! Placing an emphasis on winning, having unequal playing time and yelling at the kids create stress which is why so many kids turn to the Wii & playstation. This is part of the reason why we have an UNHEALTHY nation.

    Why do you think AND1 basketball has become so popular?

    The stress levels are low and the kids are allowed to have FUN. I used to be opposed to AND1 basketball until I learned why kids were turning to it.

  2. The other teams that focused on the fundamentals & practiced game-like situations are better!!

    They didn't get caught up in the wins and losses. Rather, they focused on creating fun, relaxed atmosphere while teaching the fundamentals. Since they have solid foundation on making lay ups, dribbling, passing, shooting, and playing man to man defense, they now can handle the other teams that spent less time on the fundamentals and focused on the insignificant stuff that won't work at the higher levels.

    It's also VERY IMPORTANT to apply the basketball fundamentals & skills in competitive game-like situations. If you never put them in situations that make them use the new skill in a game-like environment, it'll be very difficult for them to apply it to the games. All of the sudden, defenders are there and the newly-learned skills go out the window because they had few repetitions practicing the fundamentals with a defender guarding them.

    Practice the skill WITHOUT the defense to LEARN the skill.

    Practice the skill WITH the defense to APPLY the skill.

    Also, if the high school coach of these same kids decides to run zones, traps, and presses, they are that much more effective because the players have a solid foundation versus a group of kids that just worked on presses, traps, and any other tactic that took advantage of a flaw in the youth basketball system.

  3. Kids that could have been great never got the playing time to develop.

    A 6'0 mature 13 year old may be good now, but the 5'9 skinny, uncoordinated kid that is going to be 6'9 may be the best in the future. The timid, smaller player with great decision-making skills loses playing time to the more aggressive, bigger player.

    If these players don't get playing how time, how are they supposed to get better? If they don't play, they might QUIT!!

I'm not saying that you don't want your kids to win. The kids should still play to win. I'm just saying that YOUR focus should be on developing the players, so it gives them the best opportunity to win when they get older.

Here is an example of a development league progression:
* Updated on 11/8/2016

8 to 10 Year Olds (3rd & 4th Grade):
10 to 12 Year Olds (5th & 6th Grade):
  • Start to introduce 5 on 5. (Still use 3 on 3 and other small sided games to teach basketball concepts in every practice.)
  • No trapping defenses, zone defenses, or full court zone presses.
  • Half court man to man defense in 1st half. Full court man to man defense in 2nd half.
  • Equal playing time for players that give their best effort and follow team rules. Players that violate rules may get reduced playing time.
  • No 3-pointers (or move in 3-point line - 15 feet to 18 feet)
  • Height of Rim - 9 to 10 Feet
  • Intermediate Ball - 27.75 - 28.5" (9") - International Size 6

12 to 14 Year Olds (7th & 8th Grade): If you would like to find out more about a successful league, that encourages development of our youth the right way, I highly advise you to visit Martin Spencer's site on Mini-Basketball. It's great!


All of the leagues should be required to place a heavy emphasis on:
  • Teaching skills and concepts.

  • Placing players in competitive, game-like situations to practice the skills. You can also use fun, youth basketball drills.

  • Creating a relaxed, fun environment. Higher stress levels slow the learning process and cause kids to quit sports.

  • Treating competition like fun scrimmages. Too many coaches get caught up with what's happening on the scoreboard rather than teaching their players how to play.

Do you have any questions or suggestions for this article? Let us know by leaving your comments...


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Coach W. says:
1/17/2022 at 9:49:34 PM

This sounds great, but part of the challenge that is not listed is the practice time that is allotted in these recreation and community based competitive leagues. If you have 1 or 2 practices a week and only two weeks before first game, the development aspect on top of teaching them skills for years down the road is not realistic. I think that is more the reason for zone D. It is quicker to pick up.

I agree that putting as much skills and fundamentals should lead the goals of youth sports. I also agree that we should be putting as much competition in practice as possible. Then in games, give the hussle metrics more time. Rebounds, steals, great passes, etc. But not to the extent of preventing game entry of others. I pick an amount every player gets, then leave some play to win time for hussle and play makers.


Jaron Hall says:
2/1/2020 at 3:28:54 PM

I don't believe the question is competitive vs recreational as much as it is like-talented vs mixed talented teams. We have to face the reality that youth sports are not what they once were. Kids are more talented than previous years and let's be honest, youth sports are now rackets that cost parents thousands of dollars per year.

I don't believe we should look at it as competitive but like talented. Let's say we have a rating system 1 to 10. 10 begin the highest and 1 being the lowest. Should we have a mixture of kids together or group kids per their rating? Some kids are losing interest in the game because they are far better than their teammates and they aren't being challenged and overtime aren't getting better. If we simply begin to created like-talented teams and allow kids of similar rating to play at their assigned level, they will not only have fun but develop the foundational skills needed to grow and excel.

Coaching is also a big factor. Today more than ever, it appears that coaches have put their self interest above the sport and that of the kids. We have to find ways to find those men and women who have a passion to teach our youth, love the sport they coach, and want to make a difference for others before themselves.

  1 person liked this. 4 replies  

Eagles Basketball says:
2/4/2021 at 11:21:25 PM

In regards to 3rd grade teams. What type of defense do you run? Man, Zone, 3-2, 3-1-1,
2-1-2, etc?
I’d like to add that I think we are taking the fun out of youth sports by pushing our kids to be on AAU teams way to early and by default parents feel pressured to get little Johnny or. Susie on said AAU team because they don’t want to feel left out. Let the kids enjoy their childhood! I mean, the greatest player imo Michael Jordan didn’t even make the varsity team in HS!!! I think he turned out to be OK at basketball.


Eagles Basketball says:
2/4/2021 at 11:21:27 PM

In regards to 3rd grade teams. What type of defense do you run? Man, Zone, 3-2, 3-1-1,
2-1-2, etc?
I’d like to add that I think we are taking the fun out of youth sports by pushing our kids to be on AAU teams way to early and by default parents feel pressured to get little Johnny or. Susie on said AAU team because they don’t want to feel left out. Let the kids enjoy their childhood! I mean, the greatest player imo Michael Jordan didn’t even make the varsity team in HS!!! I think he turned out to be OK at basketball.


Paul Rockwell says:
8/23/2021 at 8:30:25 PM

Like players? You can stack teams so 10 star players play 10 star players.

Problem is is all 10 star players are on a travel team, the 5 star kids do not get better and the 10 star players do not learn how to be a team mate. You have to be a teammate before you are a player. Read it slowly is you need to. LoL. Good stuff! Thanks!


Paul Rockwell says:
8/23/2021 at 8:30:28 PM

Like players? You can stack teams so 10 star players play 10 star players.

Problem is is all 10 star players are on a travel team, the 5 star kids do not get better and the 10 star players do not learn how to be a team mate. You have to be a teammate before you are a player. Read it slowly is you need to. LoL. Good stuff! Thanks!


Susan Clem says:
1/25/2020 at 7:15:58 PM

Our Rec league stacks teams also. My son coaches my grandson and always gets loaded with the new ones. He played in High School loves the sport and so does my grandson. Who are we kidding we all love to win. So these teams that are stacked make our team look like they don’t have a clue at what they are doing and usually see them at school the next day. The Rec league go through the steps of evaluations of all the boys that sign up and claim they have a fair way of distribution of the boys on teams but always ends up the same.


Cpsquared says:
1/24/2020 at 12:17:04 PM

My daughter is in the 5th grade (10) and currently in her 2nd year of travel basketball. She is a kid who knows all of the skills and drills, but has a hard time implementing them at game time. Where a lot of her teammates will wrestle to the ground and get fouled, She has more of a timid approach. I see her on the court having a hard time processing what is going on at times, but while scrimmaging at practice and home, I’ve really seen her give it her all. I’m frustrated by this because I can’t put my finger on the disconnect she has. Her coach has also expressed the same frustrations. I’m worried that if she doesn’t give it her all she won’t make the team next year. Does anybody have a child who had this issue while playing? Just looking for some helpful feedback.

  1 reply  

Jeff Haefner says:
1/25/2020 at 2:52:58 PM

I think probably half of the parents out there have had some frustration one time or another. Often times their personality has to a lot to do with it. All you can do is praise and emphasize effort, let them know mistakes are ok (effort is all that matters), be supportive, and put them in appropriate situations where they can get experience and confidence. They can and will improve. But remember, some kids are just wired a certain way and being supportive is most important things. Don Kelbick camps are good for developing aggressiveness and confidence too.

  1 person liked this. 1 reply  

Mel says:
3/4/2021 at 8:37:18 AM

My daughter is on a travel team as well. She also wants to play on the Rec league but the last few years she has done this she plays really lazy and doesn’t take it seriously. I want her to have fun playing but I also don’t want her creating bad habits. Do you think the more play time the better or is there something to be said about playing and learning from people that are better than you?


Beth says:
1/16/2020 at 4:00:11 AM

Is it right to have a coaches kid to be chosen All-Star knowing their play was less than..these kids are supposed selected by kids themselves🤔


Justin says:
11/22/2019 at 5:03:17 PM

My son is in 5th grade. Does anyone know the rules on the grade checking? I thought they were checked every semester. His school checks every week. He had a Dt on his progress report and next day they did grade check, he had an F so they deemed him ineligible to play for the week. Is this right?

  1 reply  

Jeff Haefner says:
11/24/2019 at 9:23:16 AM

It varies depending on where you live and I believe it varies based on the specific team rules. Check with your local school district on the rules for your son and with the coach or athletic director.

With that said, it seems like a good rule. Grades come first. I of course do not know the situation but seems like in most cases a good lesson for kids to learn priority, in my opinion. Get grades up and problem solved!


Liz says:
11/19/2019 at 10:14:49 AM

My daughter was cut from the town travel team. She’s in 6th and going to play rec this year. Level of play is much lower. She rolled over the other girls in evaluations. Travel coach stated that although her shooting skills are better than some chosen she needs to play under pressure. Hindsight he really likes the aggressive roll on the floor kids. Tips? She really wants to keep playing and has decent skills. She’s athletic but is behind most puberty wise. It was a surprise to us and other teammates parents that she was cut. I can’t say the coach doesn’t develop but he is very much into winning and admits he hates to lose. I get that to a point. How do we use this to up her play and not get further behind? Not trying to be a whining parent but it’s been a rough few weeks around here.

  1 reply  

MCSmith says:
1/10/2020 at 3:27:27 PM

I played quite a bit when I was in 5th - 7th grade but I was cut from 7th and 8th grade boys basketball. I remebering thinking that I should have been cut for 7th grade as we played with both 7th and 8th grade boys and I wasn't quite as strong or aggressive as the other kids. I was thin and I didn't have the proper footwork and strength to make a meaningful difference to our team. Other kids were simply bigger and stronger.

In 8th grade, after being cut, I remember thinking, "I got ripped off!" I felt I should have made the team, even if I sat the bench most of the games. It was frustrating. I never forgot crying about it. Still, I wasn't very strong and I would have been a below average player on the squad.

Motivated, I worked my tail off during the season and summer, spending time lifting weights and then playing recreational "pick-up" games at the local CYO. I improved, but the question was how much compared to the other kids that made the 8th grade team?

The next year I finally made the team (freshman boys). I didn't play at all except one game I remember I scored 6 points and the coach left me in the game. I was elated! My coach was a wonderful man and after the season he said, "You need to lift weights more." He was brutally honest.

I again worked my tail off, lifting weights and playing pick up basketball with older kids. That is the biggest tip I can give. I even sneaked into the local college pick-up basketball games with a friend (who was a lot better than I was) but also looking to improve his game. These college kids were 4-5 years older than I was.

I'll never forget the feeling of walking across the stage after the completion of my senior year of baskeball and accepting the MVP trophy. To this day, it has been a moment of great personal achievement and satisfaction. I also went on to play in college.

I'm in my 40's now and coach younger kids in 7th-8th grade. I love the kid who gets cut more than the ones that make the squad. They remind me of myself and the potential for capturing the beauty of personal motivation and success.


  1 person liked this.  

Wayne Johnson says:
11/11/2019 at 9:32:23 AM

I concur with the articles analysis. When player development takes a back seat to winning you have a fatally flawed program. I think game time experience with the ball is crucial. All players should spend some time playing all positions. Post players of today may be guards of tomorrow. I see post players getting the least amount of touches in game situations even though they may be better skilled and suited for guard play....all because of height. Makes no sense. I see guards controlling 90 percent of the play and having a vastly disproportionate number of the points. Even though often times their turnovers and poor decision making leads to a negative personal stat sheets. I’m not a coach but believe I have sound common sense and it appears to me that as a whole youth sports in the United States has some real problems in so far as player development.


David Fredrick says:
11/11/2019 at 6:21:01 AM

I run a Recreation Basketball program and we have a parent that feels the games are too rough. The parent''s child is in 5th grade and has sent us videos of the games to try and prove our her point.

We have reviewed her videos and do not agree that it is anything out of the ordinary other than children playing hard and not being in total control of their bodies. Most if not all of the plays she refers too are being called fouls.

How do we explain to this parent, they are being over the top in their analysis of the games?

  1 reply  

Jeff Haefner says:
11/12/2019 at 4:01:57 PM

Other than respectfully communicating your conclusions upon reviewing the feedback, I'm not sure there's much you can do. You could point out that fouls area already being called and see if they have a solution? Because I don't know what else you can do other than asking officials to emphasize and watch for certain things. But I don't know if you want to open that can of worms.


Maria says:
10/29/2019 at 9:21:00 AM

I thought this was a recr league. Who cares if the kid never player before and his poor abilities wreck the out come of u standings. What about looking at it as exercise for health for the kid during the basketball game. Who cares if u team wins or losses in a rec league? I have played both high school and college sport with teams that have won many on champions. When u actually grow up, u will realize winning isnt everything. trophy get thrown away after decades in the attic. maybe u should not be coaching in a rec league


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