Pre-Practice Routine: A Time for Skill Building and
Relationship Building

By Brian Sass

When I observe youth basketball practices, I see a lot of wonderful things being done. Creative drills, good teaching, and positive experiences being created to engender a love of the game in the participants.

However, there is one place where I see too many youth practices mismanaged: the beginning.

Let’s break it down: most practices start with a period of time where the court may be unavailable. This could be because another team is practicing on that court. This could be because the kids are in class until a dismissal bell and are unavailable. Regardless of the reason, there is normally a reason to give players roughly 10 minutes of time to “loosen up” or “warm-up”.

For example, my players have class until 3:30. While on the schedule, my team has the gym for practice from 3:30 to 5:30, they do not instantaneously materialize in the gym at 3:30. They have to get to the locker room and change, they may have to talk to teachers after school, they have materials to secure in their school lockers after their last class. Even though I may stress (and I strenuously do!) that they be in the gym ready to roll as quickly as possible, it will be some time before my full squad assembles.

This is the time where, when players do arrive in the gym and ready, they would like to shoot around in the gym. I always feel compelled to let them. Then I became aware of the teaching opportunity I was missing in just letting them shoot while I waited for the team to show up. .

I was missing an opportunity to build skills. And I was missing an opportunity to build a better relationship with my players.

Building the Skills

Bob Knight said that “The greatest waste of time in basketball is free shooting”.1

Watch what a kid does when they just take a ball and shoot around in a gym. They often times walk from spot to spot. They slowly hoist shots up to the rim. Many times a group of them decide to have a half-court shot contest. Shot after shot heaved to the rim from half court. Is this making them better players?

I decided to use the 10-15 minutes before practice officially began for me to build my players' shooting skills. I found a very good routine from Coach Mark Few of the Gonzaga Bulldogs. While his routine was much longer, I stripped what he had down to fit the time constraints and the level of players with whom I found myself working.

The first practice of the year, I introduce my players to their pre-practice shooting routine. It must be completed by the time I blow the whistle and point to the center circle (normally at 3:40, sometimes at 3:45).

  • Form shooting: Five spots, 5 shots each. The five spots are 3 feet from the basket: the two sides, two diagonals, and one dead on. Shots are not banked but swished. The players need to pay attention to keeping their elbows straight, bend at the knees, and follow through.
  • Set Lifts: Five spots, 5 shots each. The same five spots as the form shooting, but now we add the off hand to the ball, and make more of a traditional shooting motion, while still only 3 feet away from the basket.
  • Footwork check: Two times coming from the left, and two times from the right. Here we do not shoot the ball, but step back to a couple feet off the elbow to approximately the wing. We toss the ball with backspin out in front and simulate the catch and shot. We do not actually shoot, but instead we are catching in a ready position, then checking our feet and body position to make sure we are in a good position from which to shoot.
  • Catch and Shoot: Both elbows, 10 shots each. Use the same “spin out” technique as footwork check, only now shoot.
  • Shot Fake, one dribble pull up: both elbows, 5 shots each. Use the same “Spin out” as before, then shot fake, dribble by, and pull up jumper closer to the basket. I normally suggest their catch on this series should start at the three point line.
  • 3 point shooting. 2 shots from each of 5 spots. The two corners, the two wings, and dead on to the basket.

Do the math. That is 90 shots. 90 SHOTS!!! It will not seem doable. Believe me, it is possible to complete the sequence in 10 minutes. But your players have to hustle. No messing around, no half court shot contests. This routine is designed to utilize the time before practice starts.

Building the Relationships

It would be very static and distant for the coach just to walk around and make adjustments to shooting technique. Don’t get me wrong, I still do this during the pre-practice routine, but I have another purpose as I walk from player to player as they come into the gym, grab a ball, and begin working on their game.

Players Give Their Best Effort When They’re Convinced You Care About Them

Thousands of papers have been devoted to how to motivate athletes, how to push them, how to get them to give you the maximum effort when you need it the most.

I believe in my heart of hearts, that players give you their best effort when they care about you and when they are convinced that you care about them.

The key to convincing players you care about them is to build a relationship with them. The way you build a relationship with your players is by talking to them.

I heard someone once reference that Bill Parcells would say something to every player on his team. He would have some kind of positive interaction with every player on his team.

An NFL team has at any one time as many as 53 players on its active roster. If he is capable of having a positive interaction with each of his 53 players, I should have no problem finding something to say to each of my 12-15 players on a daily basis!

During pre-practice, as my players are working on building their shot, I am walking from player to player, having an interaction with them. The conversation doesn’t need to be long. It could be just a simple statement, an acknowledgement, a question. Players do not need a life shifting conversation. They only need an acknowledgement that their coach knows that they are there, that they are working, and that they are valuable.

Example: “Jackson, great defense in our game yesterday. You did a really nice job staying in front of their #32 while you were in there. That helped us a lot. Good job. ”

“Dominic, nice work, your shooting form is really coming along good. I want you to be able to bury a couple of those in our next scrimmage. ”

“TJ, how is class going? Nice work on the boards yesterday. Do you think you can get 3 more today? I’ll be keeping track... ”

Those simple acknowledgements go a long way towards building a relationship between the player and the coach.

They also give the player the opportunity to speak to the coach, to open up if something is bothering them, to ask their own questions. It need not interrupt the rest of their routine, and it makes them feel more comfortable approaching you, the coach.

The building of skills and the building of relationships are a huge part of building a successful team that can be accomplished inside of 10 minutes. It is often the most underutilized in a coach’s practice. Identifying it and finding ways to make that time constructive can give you a necessary edge as your season progresses.

Encourage them. Be positive and make players see value in themselves. Let them know that you, as the coach, notice what they do, what they contribute, and acknowledge that you find value in them.

1 Knight, B. , & Pete, N. (1993). Offensive Fundamentals. In Basketball: According to Knight and Newell (Vol. 2, p. 44). Seymour, IN: Graessie-Mercer Company.

Please leave your comments, suggestions, and questions below...


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Steven says:
10/3/2015 at 2:54:26 PM

I am a 24 year old graduate assistant at a D2 school...I played D2 basketball and started at point guard. I want to grow as much as possible as a coach in my teaching methods and relationship building. So far I think I''''ve done an ok job being around and being a guy that the players respect, but sometimes I struggle with what to say because I don''''t want to be somebody they don''''t respect and I know I can be doing a little bit more to help build relationships. A lot of the guys are around my age and only a few years younger so how can I continue to earn their respect as a COACH and not just some guy in the gym helping bring the balls out.

  1 reply  

Jeff says:
10/5/2015 at 8:53:54 AM

Just be yourself. Find your own way to connect (show them you care). And help them as much as you can. That will go a long ways.

The bottom line is that you have to play your role. If your role is to bring the balls out, be the best at rolling the balls out. If you want more, just ask the coach how you can help more. Maybe it's keeping more details stats. Maybe he'll let be the expert at screening... and do those drills. Maybe not.

You have to support the head coach and fill any role he wants you to fill. It's very important to have the coaches back and totally buy in to his system (even if you don't totally agree with it).

Maybe there are ways you can mentor the younger players. Agains ask the head coach if he has any suggestions.


Scott von Stade says:
9/13/2015 at 2:46:04 AM

Fantastic information. I've been coaching multiple sports for 25 years. Still with hoops 8th grade boys and high school travel. I learn more from you coaches than any book or clinic. Your words are genuine and from recent experiences. The connection principle is solid. We do a player to player interview, and then they share out. This reminds them how involved and important academics are in sports. It's a basic "what's your favorite ___?" series of questions and some answers are hilarious. I usually know who will struggle with reading because I pass out team rules and ask for volunteers to read. I also have players write their contact information down, which shows some writing. I express that we all learn differently and to help each other with spelling or unfamiliar words. Great citizenship shows up. I also show game film at the local pizza place once to see them off the court. Teaching the love of the game keeps us oldsters playing


Sheryl says:
9/8/2015 at 1:57:10 PM

Matthew, I am a female middle school and high school basketball coach and played in high school and college. It is good to remember while coaching females, that almost all of them respond positively to all of the positive acknowledgements that this article suggests. If each player knows that you care about her as a person and an athlete, and that you believe that they can do whatever you are teaching them (and that they are doing it well), they will push themselves to do anything you tell them to do. The challenge as a coach is to make sure you take the time to get to each player on your team on a consistent basis to help each player build that confidence. This is done by talking to her and positively reinforcing whatever skills she is doing great. I excelled the most as an athlete under the coaches that I knew believed in me and complimented me...I would have done anything on the court for them. I have seen this as a coach in players that started out on my team as bottom level players and by mid way through the season, they are some of my top level players. I hope this helps!


Larry McVey says:
9/8/2015 at 11:50:21 AM

Super ideas, I like free throws with running up/back on misses.
10 in a row with no misses (I must witness) player can get some varsity playing time. This really creates serious effort out of my players. Players need a way they can advance up. Not just subjective by my confidence. If a JV player happens to have a good day and makes 10 in a row, I may have him suit up varsity with the understanding playing time is my choice. I try hard to get him some varsity play. I coach beginning players male and female.


Tommy Offill says:
9/8/2015 at 9:37:04 AM

I coached a group of 1st graders last year and I did let them "goof off" too much before practice. We did lose some valuable minutes because of not working on drills. I know it''s much harder to contain a group of 6 and 7 year olds, but the principle and point still applies. They are now in the 2nd grade, so I''m going to work on having them more focused this year. We only get to practice for two hours a week, so I need to maximize the time.


Dale Kukla says:
9/8/2015 at 9:00:12 AM

I also add ball handling drills to my pre practice routine. Circling ball around legs and doing figure 8s.


Matthew Smick says:
9/8/2015 at 7:27:04 AM

As a young male coach (I'm 30 yrs old) heading into my third year of coaching high school girls, my goal this year is to build relationships with my players. Is there a difference in the way to communicate effectively with females as a male coach? Any advice from males who have experienced a similar situation would be great. Thanks.

  3 replies  

Jeff Haefner says:
9/8/2015 at 9:21:46 AM

Nothing comes to mind for me regarding different ways to communicate. Of course the interests are often different and the conversations go in different directions. But the approach for me has been the same... ask questions, get to know them, try to help them, be sincere, be honest, set a good example, be polite, etc. Then just improvise as you go.


Rafael Manriquez says:
9/8/2015 at 2:25:11 PM

I have found that getting to know my female athletes on a personal level is a very important part of coaching girls being a male coach. I would suggested doing things outside of practice together as a group to get to the know them as well... maybe team meals/ white elephant gift exchange or whatever you can think of. It has been these kind of personal connections that I have made with getting to know my players that have built trust between us all!


Brian Williams says:
9/10/2015 at 1:51:33 PM

Let them know that you care about them individually. I found they don't like sarcasm too much and always be honest. The more relaxed you are the more relaxed they will be. In my 25 years of coaching high school basketball, the most enduring relationships I have, have been with my female players. It was like I adopted 12-15 daughters every year. I just received baby pictures from a young woman I coached back in 1994.


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