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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len says:
10/17/2019 at 9:11:01 AM

dear coach chris, you appear to be a caring coach that takes this seriuos. you appear to care about all the players on your team. I appplaude your volunteerism. I think you are putting too much pressure on yourself. This league you are coaching is a rec league with mandatory playing time. These are the rules to make sure all kids play. Dont beat yourself up, and dont take any nonsense from the parents of the good players. Once again. This is a rec league with mandatory playing time. It is set up this way on purpose to give all kids equal playing time. If someone doesnt like it they should sign up their advanced skill player/kid on a travel team where you try out and have to be picked for the team. It is... what it is.


L Matthews says:
10/16/2019 at 10:39:43 AM

We have a board that allows stacking teams that leave kids that have never played on one team. One coach had all the kids that had never played with the exception of two and worked with them all year and they got pretty good. He taught them fundamentals of basketball as well as shooting. But the one thing he did was to allow the kids to have fun and laugh. We had one couch that put this one child on the court and told him to stay in one place and never move. That he was only playing because he had to. His mother asked him why he never moved and he said the coach told him not to. How sad is that. What is wrong with people today.


Coach Ken says:
3/8/2019 at 2:10:50 PM

I just finished our season coaching my son''s 7th grade travel team. We were the "C" team. We are the only town in our league that fields a third team so we only won 2 games. That being said, all of our kids got better, we were competitive in most of our games and we have a few players that developed enough to have a good chance to move up to the "B" team next season.
In terms of playing time most of our 10 kids played a half to 3/4 of the game. In our town, there is also CYO where 7th graders play a minimum of 3 quarters and town rec where everyone plays half the game. As the most competitive town league that also helps kids prepare for HS, the playing time is designed to gradually get to the HS level. Travel skews the minimum playing time as the kids get older from relatively equal in elementary school to 1/2 of a quarter in 7th grade and no minimum in 8th.
Our travel team has cuts and the dad evaluators typically make a handful of evaluation mistakes at each grade.
On my team there was a boy that should have been in rec not travel. He couldn''t shoot, dribble rebound or play defense and when pressured typically turned the ball over. In order to keep the games competitive against our mostly superior opponents, I needed kids who at a minimum played some defense, maybe rebound and weren''t turnover machines. I played man to man D and unfortunately, this boy would get beaten regularly for easy layups. He also only picks up a basketball during travel season. It was difficult to find playing time for him at all but I always gave him more than the minimum of 1/2 of a quarter our league required.
Needless to say, he and his parents were not happy at the end of the season. I have been a long time fan of your sight and your values so I regret not having played this boy more. If I had read this article before the season I would have. That being said, there were kids who were cut that are much better players and much more deserving of a spot on a travel team. In our town there''s a team for everyone and I think this boy is better served in either CYO or rec. where he wouldn''t be as overmatched and could play more.


Coach Vic says:
2/26/2019 at 11:46:47 PM

I currently run my own Basketball Development League in NYC. It is full court 3 vs 3. No racing up and down. We play three 8 minute quarters running time. No score is kept. Fouls are called as well as traveling, double dribbling, 5 seconds to inbound. Only 3 players on a team. Every player takes a turn dribbling the ball up and inbounding. Players are assigned to a side of the court. Right side and left side cannot enter into the 3 second area at all. The player in the middle cannot come outside the 3 second lines. I do this for spacing. It''s an interesting concept.


Chris says:
1/18/2019 at 10:04:16 AM


We have a team with 11 plays for 8th grade basketball. 5 players are 8th grade, 6 are in 7th grade.

The coach only wants to play 8 players a game because he says it's easier for him to manage and players get more playing time per game. He did this last year with the 5/6th grade boys team.

The 8th graders have never had this situation before, always about 7-10 players in the previous years, so the parents of course objected.

I believe that all players should be available for every game since:

1. Everybody practices the same amount of time
2. 8th grade basketball is vastly different than 6th grade basketball and you need all the bodies you can get.
3. By randomly sitting 3 players a week, how does that help your team if you sit the wrong 3 players based upon the matchup?

  1 reply  

Jeff says:
1/18/2019 at 11:18:20 AM

I actually like this as long as everyone gets equal opportunity during the year. This is a great way to develop players. When you have 10-11 on the bench, it is difficult to find enough meaningful playing time for each kid. Not to mention, if you travel it's frustrating for parents to travel and then watch you kid play for only a few minutes each game. If you know they will get plenty of playing time, it's a lot more fun to travel an hour or so and invest that time. And it's more fun for the kids to play more. With 11 kids... how much time does that 11th kid spend sitting on the bench? If it's completely equal playing time it wouldn't be too bad but if the better players get more minutes, then it could be pretty frustrating because there just isn't much time on the court for #11. I have found 8 is a good number of players to have in a game, get an effective rotation going, and get everyone lots of minutes. Depending on how the coach handles it, this might be a good thing.


Chris says:
12/18/2018 at 11:13:16 AM

I have been coaching youth sports of all kinds for decades. Both rec league and higher travel league. This year I am back coaching a 6th grade boys rec basketball team. As with most drafts, its skills based. Better skilled players go first, with more poorly skilled players going last. This season, I was one of the few coaches that had to pick from the couple of remaining players. Typically, I would not care and we would move on but the player I received is an issue. At this age level, a very significant amount of the boys have played organized ball and are merely shuffling between drafting teams with familiar coaches. This player has never played basketball before and is significantly behind the abilities and game understanding of the other 7 players. While I have not been told of an underlying condition, I believe he has significant learning and social issues. He does not talk much, stays away from other players and is isolated a lot even when I try to involve him. To complicate matters, he missed the first two weeks of practice and two pre-season games but is now showing up more consistently. Our league has an equal playing rule, in that each player must play 2 quarters a game. He has not played in our first two regular season games due to his absence but he will be playing (provided he shows up for practice) in the coming games.

With my main 7 players, we are practicing various defenses, offenses, plays, and strategies. With this player, he cannot participate at that level. He consistently runs with the ball, dribbles with two hands, and has no concept of the court (offense/defense), lane, rules, etc. His skill deficient is so large that his obligated participation will likely change the competitive ability of our team to a point that will affect the end result.

I have spoken to the mother a few times, but only about the boy in general. She states that he has never played and simply wants to try it. I have not been honest with her yet on his ability level or how it could affect the team in games. I have let her know he is behind the others in learning and basketball knowledge and that we are going to have to practice with him one on one a lot. She really seems indifferent about that and seems to take a position that this is my job to transform him into player in our short rec season. While I have no issue with a player that needs brushing up, this is a ground up process that will take far more than a 8 week season and a dozen practices. I would rate him at a first grade level playing with sixth grade boys.

While I am cognizant of over emphasizing winning as the main goal, it is still one of the goals. I have a big fear that this boy could become a pariah for the others if his forced participation causes us to lose games. That would not be good for him, the parent or me as a coach. And i am afraid in today's sports culture this may even carry over to other players parents.

I am in a dilemma. I have read and read about coaching kids with disabilities and dysfunctions and most of that is about managing expectations. However, with forced playing time, I cannot manage expectations. He will have to play a full quarter, not sub, regardless of his effect on the team play. What I would like to do is play him in smaller increments, 2-3 minutes at a time but still enough to allow him participation.

I have spoken to the league official and I think I can get that in place for him. I wonder if I need to speak to his mom more about her expectations for him and her assessment of his abilities. Last year, I had a similar type player in a competitive but still rec soccer league. The parent was upfront and simply stated he knew he was behind and simply wanted us to play him as we could. Which we did as well and all were happy. This is different, the pressure here is to play the child regardless of that or the effect on the team and I am afraid that is going to become an issue in the stands before too long.

I need advice. I am looking for grounding. If I am off base, then I want to consider how to get on a better path. Or if there are others that have dealt with this and have advice, it is much appreciated. This is single most stressful issue I have with this team. Winning or losing, I am ambivalent but not so much when it may be mandated based on the obligated play time for a very poor player.

  3 replies  

Jeff says:
12/18/2018 at 3:05:20 PM

It sounds like you are handling things pretty good so far.

The best situation for this kid is to get in a situation where he has a chance to succeed at least a little bit and grow. It does not sound like this is a situation where he'll have a chance to grow.

I think you are on the right track talking to league officials and the parents. Maybe it will help to explain that for players to grow the need to be close to their sweet spot of development... so they are succeeding 50% to 80% of the time.

If they are succeeding more than 80% of the time, then they are not getting challenged enough. If they are failing more than 50%, then they are getting challenged too much and in time they will get discouraged and can lead to quitting or lowering performance.

I have always tried to put players in a situation where they are in the appropriate competition level and have a chance for at least a little success and do not hold back other players on the team.

I'm sure the parents do not want their child to get completely overwhelmed, discouraged, and lose confidence because they are matched up against experienced players that have had years of training.

See if you can talk to the parents and offer solutions to get him in a situation where he can be in that sweet spot for development. Maybe he's practice only player. Maybe there's a rec program he can get into with other beginner players. Maybe he can player with younger players for a year or so. Maybe he can work with a trainer for a year. You get the idea.

Hope this helps.


Coach Vic says:
2/26/2019 at 11:57:31 PM

What city are you in coach??


John says:
3/2/2019 at 10:30:03 AM

Put the kid at point guard. I've always said "Anyone can dribble the ball halfway up the court and pass it off". Teach the other kids on the team to support him no matter what. That would be their lesson. You/we don't know his whole story.


Trey says:
12/8/2018 at 9:18:26 AM

This is the dumbest thing I have ever heard of.Ideologys like this ruin sports.


Robert Graber says:
11/30/2018 at 8:07:26 AM

I think that relying on teaching only M-F-M defense is not as good as we are being led to believe. Being able to change defenses often can be very effective even at a young age. I've coach basketball for 43 years, 40 in the same school district and am convinced it is important to teach both M-F-M and zone defenses to our youth. I view teaching only M-F-M defense is like teaching only the two handed chest pass. I think players need to be taught all of their options and early in their careers.

  1 reply  

Jeff Haefner says:
11/30/2018 at 9:04:49 AM

Those are interesting points. Some food for thought...

- One of the biggest problem with zone defense is volunteer parents are teaching. It's difficult to get the parents to learn one defense and teach it well... let alone get them to teach two defenses well. If I have to pick one, I hands down pick man to man and encourage youth coaches to start there... master that defense.

- Once you try switching youth defenses at youth level, it's hard to go back. It's addicting. But unfortunately things get sloppy. I see it first hand. You have youth teams doing a poor job executing their zone and man defenses... but even though the defenses are not good... the opponent is completely flustered because they are too young and mentally immature to recognize the changing of defenses... and honestly you have bad basketball on both ends of the court. Great coaching can overcome this.... but it's not easy and more times that not... it's a parent volunteering to coach the team.

- I have seriously thought many times about teaching our advanced 8th grade team how to switch defenses (man on makes and zone on misses or however you want to implement). I know some of those players will be using switching defenses in high school. But I always go back to spending time on shooting technique, shooting reps, dribbling, passing, pivoting, finishing moves, universals offensive concepts, agility, post moves, work ethic, mental toughness, and other things that I believe will help them more at this critical development time. Teaching them switching defenses takes too much of my limited practice time and I'd rather focus on skills and player development. As you know it's all about prioritizing. So we stick to our man to man defense and just get really good at that and spends tons of time on player development/skills.

- We do teach a little bit of zone defense. We play it roughly 10-20% of the time. But we're better at man to man because it's hard to find a lot of time to work on it. But our kids understand it so we're better at playing against it and they have a foundation to build on for whatever defense they are asked to play at high school level.

- Personally, as a high school coach, I have found that if I have kids that understand man to man defense, I can quickly teach them to play any defense... zone, press, switching defenses, etc. But if they do not have strong man fundamentals... it makes for a VERY long season and takes a really long time to get them learning zone or any defense because the can't stay in front of their man or just don't understand basic concepts like close outs and so on. Maybe others have a different view point but that is my experience.


stephen says:
7/16/2018 at 10:49:09 AM

Hi Erik. I am from Houston and would like to discuss this with you.


Noel says:
2/14/2018 at 8:02:12 PM

Seriously 80 % don't play because they are not good enough this article is dumb. If everyone was good enough to play it would be impossible to put one team out there from say a school district. It's not fun because your no good at it not because your great and got coached hard as a kid


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