10 Ways To Ensure Your Team Actually Improves At Open Gym

By Jeff Huber

Most players love open gym. Most coaches don't!

There's a good reason for that. Players love open gyms because they are fun. Most players love to play basketball, and an open gym allows them to do that.

Most coaches have a different reaction. Open gyms often result in bad basketball.

Players don't play that hard. The ball doesn't move. Communication is lacking. Left unchecked, open gyms can develop bad habits.

Some coaches are lucky enough to have leaders who don't allow this to happen. They always play hard and demand that of their teammates.

If that's you, consider yourself lucky.

If it's not, you may need to intervene to make sure your open gyms actually help your players improve.

Either way, these following 10 ideas can help improve your open gyms. Incorporate them and see which ones work best for you. Chances are, you'll find a handful that elevate the level of play!

10 Ways To Enhance Open Gyms

The goal of open gyms is that your players improve and have fun. Playing is and should be fun. But it should also be purposeful and competitive.

Every state has different rules for open gyms. Some allow coaches to provide direction. If so, it's easier to implement these ideas.

If your state doesn't allow you to coach at an open gym, that doesn't mean you're helpless. Perhaps you could share this article with your players. Let them decide and implement the ideas they like.

The upside of that is it requires them to take ownership and lead. They become the ones responsible for making sure an open gym is productive. That's a good thing!

Here are 10 ways to make that happen:

  1. Invite other schools - this is probably the best way to improve open gym. It ensures players compete. It raises the level of competition when you bring in other quality players.

    Reach out to neighboring schools. Have them send a team over. If you have more than 2 schools participating, play a winners and losers court. Or have losers sit. That increases the stakes.

    Playing against other schools is a great way to get more out of open gym. Your players get to play against better players in an environment where winning matters. That's exactly what you're looking for!

  2. Play short games - play to 11 by 2's and 3's. That keeps games moving. No one wants to see an open gym game last for 20 minutes.

    Playing fast games helps in a couple ways. It makes for closer games. Because the target score is lower, you are less likely to have blowouts.

    It also ensures that no one is sitting out for an extended period of time.

    Finally, players will play harder. When games drag on, effort and focus starts to wane. When players know they only have to play hard for a short period of time, they are more willing and able to do so.

  3. Use creative scoring systems - This would be a tweak on #2. While games to 11 by 2's and 3's is a good starting point, you might want to change the scoring system to encourage certain actions.

    If your players need to work on their weak hand finishing, make weak hand finishes worth double. If you're trying to create paint touch 3's, make those shots for 4 points.

    Giving extra points is an easy way to incentivize what you want to see. Use this and you'll see your players tailor their games accordingly.

  4. Free throw validation - it's really hard to recreate pressure free throw situations. Making players validate a win with a free throw is a great way to do this.

    When a team reaches the target score, the player who scored that basket must make a free throw to 'validate' the win. If they make it, game over. If not, the basket doesn't count and play continues.

    This simulates some of the pressure players feel at the end of a tight game. One risk of doing this is that it can make games drag on.

    If that's a concern, you might consider a do or die free throw. In other words, if the player makes it, their team wins. If they miss it, they lose. That really ups the pressure - which is a good thing!

  5. Automatic turnovers - as we talked about in the intro, open gyms can produce bad habits. To prevent that, make those bad habits an automatic turnover.

    For instance, an open gym can easily turn into 1v1 play while 8 other players stand around. To make that less likely, require players to cut (or screen away, or whatever action you like) after a pass. If they don't, it's a turnover.

    The other offensive action that is overused at open gym is ball screens. Especially if you're a team that doesn't use many ball screens, make those a turnover. This requires players to find other ways to create an advantage.

    Bottom line - whatever bad habit you're trying to eliminate, make that a turnover. You'll be amazed at how quickly your players adjust!

  6. Make players cross half court - one pet peeve of many coaches is players who don't play hard at open gym. You'll see players who never cross half court.

    This is a terrible habit and detracts from the culture and competitiveness you are trying to create.

    The half court rule is a great way to fight this tendency.

    Under this rule, all 5 players on a team must cross half court before the ball is scored. If all 5 offensive players do not cross half court before the basket, the basket doesn't count. If all 5 defensive players do not cross half court before the basket, the basket counts and the offense retains possession.

    This rule works great 98% of the time. It forces players to hustle. They know the consequences if they don't.

    The other 2% is where you might need to use some judgment. If there's a steal and quick basket in the backcourt, it might not be feasible for every player to cross half court.

    In that situation, judge them on their effort. If they made a good faith effort, keep playing. If not, enforce the rule.

  7. Constrain individual players - this is a fun one. Challenge your best players by giving them constraints.

    Maybe you have a player who is an outstanding driver and reluctant shooter. Tell them they are only allowed to shoot 3's that day.

    Whatever it is that you want a player to work on, constrain them in that way. Some players love this - they take it as a challenge. Others hate it - it takes them out of their comfort zone. Once again, that's a good thing!

    Different players can have different constraints. You can share them with the other players or just go over them 1v1. Either way, this is a good way to force your players to work on different skills.

  8. Defense calls fouls - not much is more frustrating than watching open gym games deteriorate as players call foul after foul. It creates a negative environment.

    Stop that by creating rules around calling fouls. The rule is simply this - the defense calls fouls. If they call it, it's a foul. If they don't, it's not.

    Of course, you need to encourage your players to be honest. If they commit a foul, they should call it.

    Making this rule around fouls serves a couple purposes.

    First, it eliminates unnecessary arguments around fouls. The defense either calls it or they don't.

    Second, it trains your players to expect to play through contact. Because the offense can't count on a foul, they must attack with physicality.

    Finally, it builds the mental toughness of your players. There will be times they think they got fouled and the defender doesn't call it. The same thing happens in games.

    This disciplines them to play through non-calls, a critical skill for a mentally tough player.

  9. Don't always play full court - you should go up and down the majority of the time. After all, that's how the game is played.

    However, from time to time, consider playing half court. It's a good change of pace.

    Because open gyms are often very free flowing, there's not much half court play. However, you know that to be good in your season, you need to be able to play at different paces and in different settings.

    Playing half court games allows you to emphasize different things. It's also a good idea when you have fewer players since it conserves some energy.

  10. Get outside - this is a fun alternative to consider a couple times a year. Instead of having an open gym in your gym, take it outside.

    Find a local outdoor court where people play. Have your team meet there and play.

    Playing outside is fun. Your players will be energized by the chance to play in a different setting.

    They'll also be likely to play with different people. This is a good thing too.

    All told, it's a way to keep things fresh while still getting better!

Final Thoughts: Keep Open Gym Fun AND Competitive

The offseason is crucial to your team's development. As a coach, it's really frustrating to walk out of an open gym feeling like your players didn't improve (or got worse)!

By implementing these ideas, you prevent that from happening. Open gyms will still be fun. Your players will still look forward to them.

But now, you will too - because you know they are getting better!

What do you think? Let us know by leaving your comments, suggestions, and questions...


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