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.
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