Stan Van Gundy on Youth Basketball

In the video below, Stan Van Gundy, the head coach of the NBA's Orlando Magic, really hits the nail on the head in regards to some of the big problems in the youth basketball system.

Winning vs. Skill Development

The youth basketball system has become flawed, because some coaches and parents judge whether they've had a successful season based on wins and losses rather than if the players have improved and actually enjoy the game. Without skill development and enjoyment of playing the game, players will never succeed at the higher levels of basketball because they won't be good enough and/or they won't want to practice.

You could almost grab any group of kids with average athleticism, play a 1-3-1 half court trap, work on lay ups and offensive rebounding, and you'll win a high percentage of your games against similar competition. I can guarantee that. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out and it doesn't take a good coach to do that. I can also guarantee that they won't develop the necessary basketball skills to be successful at the higher levels. I can't count the number of players that I've coached at the high school level that lacked the necessary basketball fundamentals and struggled to pivot, dribble, pass, and shoot. Not to mention, all of the terrible defensive habits players learned by using poor defensive fundamentals (swarming the ball, constantly lunging out of position) that allowed them to force turnovers, but won't work at the higher levels.

Stan also mentions an important concept of having different ball handlers. Many coaches don't realize it, but to improve a player's ball skills, all players need to be touching and handling the ball during games. If the player stands under the hoop and never touches the ball, he's never going to improve the necessary skills to become a good player. As Stan says, that's why we don't have more 6'8 guys who can shoot, pass, and dribble.

Since strength and coordination restricts the amount of development you can do with shooting for kids generally under the age of 12, you should spend a high percentage of your time improving ballhandling, footwork, passing (passing is even somewhat restricted), and coordination.

These are some reasons, along with many others, that I believe that players under the age of 11 (6th grade) should be playing 3v3 basketball along with plenty of 1v1 and 2v2. It allows for more touches to improve ball skills such as pivoting, ball handling and dribbling, passing, and shooting. It is simple math, you are not going to get as many touches with 5v5 compared to 3v3.

24 minutes divided by 10 (5 players each team) = 2.4 minutes for each player.

24 minutes divided by 6 (3 players each team) = 4 minutes for each player.

The Most Important Aspect of Youth Sports

Something not mentioned in the video, but it is probably the most important aspect of youth sports, are the kids having fun?!? If the kids are not having fun, why would they ever want to participate in the sport as they get older?

According to the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports by Michigan State, the top two reasons that kids quit sports is because it's not fun anymore and they are no longer interested.

Top 10 Reasons For Boys:
  1. I was no longer interested.
  2. It was no longer fun.
  3. The sport took too much time.
  4. The coach played favorites.
  5. The coach was a poor teacher.
  6. I was tired of playing.
  7. There was too much emphasis on winning.
  8. I wanted to participate in other non-sport activities.
  9. I needed more time to study.
  10. There was too much pressure.
Top 10 Reasons For Girls:
  1. I was no longer interested.
  2. It was no longer fun.
  3. I needed more time to study.
  4. There was too much pressure.
  5. The coach was a poor teacher.
  6. I wanted to participate in other non-sport activities.
  7. The sport took too much time.
  8. The coach played favorites.
  9. I was tired of playing.
  10. Games and practices were scheduled when I could not attend.
The youth basketball system has been flawed for awhile and we all need to put in an effort to help fix it. Our focus should be on needs of the children, not the adults need to win. Our focus needs to be on making this game more enjoyable.

Please meet with your league administrators and youth coaches to try to help them understand the glaring need for a revamped youth basketball system. If you have the opportunity, start your own league.

What do you think? What are your experiences? Do you have any thoughts, ideas, and suggestions?


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Coach T says:
12/14/2010 at 6:41:38 AM

I put a Skittle candy in each of their hands during wall-sits. Not only do they love the 2 pieces of "fun", it keeps their hands up. So instead of hearing groans for wall-sits...I get enthusiastic "YEAH!" when I say "Skittles!"


Ed says:
12/15/2010 at 6:55:28 PM

He hit the nail on the head! I''m an assistant coach for middle school boys and girls teams. Both teams are defending champions with perfect no loss records. Our coaching philosophy is to develop every player on the team. Like all teams, we have our domiant players but everyone on the team contributes. On our girls team, 3 of the 5 starters never played ball before this season.

Most teams we play against rely soley on their domiant player so if you shut that player down, the game''s over. It''s sad to see that the other players who were essentially neglected don''t have the basic skills to continue playing in high school. Wining is great but we have a responsibility as coaches to work with and deveop all players on the team. Who may have a future NBA or WNBA star on your youth team.


Doug says:
12/16/2010 at 12:39:15 AM

I agree completely with this article and Coach Van Gundy. We are 3 weeks into our 8-9 yr old season and have done very little beyond dribbling, footwork, passing, pivoting, and some screening. We then incorporate these fundamentals into scrimmages for about 30%-40% of our practice time. The problem is that we're now 0-2 and the team that we share the court with is 2-0. They scrimmage basically the full 2 hours each week and work on plays to get the ball to the dominant players. So, while I would prefer to teach and worry later about winning, the kids know they're losing. That certainly takes away from the fun. Any advice?


Jon says:
12/16/2010 at 10:23:42 AM

I heard Tom Crean say the exact same thing during his youth camp last summer. Maybe Crean heard it from Van Gundy, or vice versa, but in any case it''s good that this important message is coming from the highest levels of basketball in the U.S.


Joe Haefner says:
12/16/2010 at 11:55:06 AM

Doug, kudos to you for working on the right things. Trust me, that will pay off in the long run. Short-term losses for long-term gains. It's much more gratifying seeing a team that you coached take some hits early on, just to pass the competition after working with them for a few years. Lots of patience and communication with the parents is required, so they understand what you are doing. You may not see the results until 6th grade, 7th grade, 8th grade, or sometimes high school.

Usually the losing thing is a parental and coaching issue. The parents and the coaches take the losses much harder than the kids. Most kids forget about the loss about 10 minutes after the game. They're more worried about where they're getting pizza or some ice cream.

I always go by this motto: Coach to develop players. Players play to win.

If you look at the reasons above on why kids quit sports, there isn't an item that says anything about winning or losing.

Focus on the little things and set small goals. Do not worry about the scoreboard. Count things like:
- Good passes
- Good box outs
- Hustles (diving on the floor, sprinting back on defense)

Be creative!

I wouldn't even mention wins or losses to the kids. Always leave the game talking about things that they did well.

Focus on the process, not the results.


Joe Haefner says:
12/16/2010 at 11:56:40 AM

Jon, that is great to see that coaches at those levels get it. Unfortunately, a lot of the youth coaching dogma got passed on by some high school and college coaches years ago and carried on to the present.


sabrina says:
12/16/2010 at 11:59:52 AM

i love this!! i wish that every coach of youth players would hear this!! i coached a varsity girls team, and saw the basic skills they were lacking e.i: pivoting, good shooting form, dribbling without looking at the ball, left handed dribbling, etc. so i started the 3rd & 4th grade teams and now coach 3rd, 4th, 5th, & 6th grade girls basketball. we work on all the basic skill and good defense. i don't even talk about winning or losing. we have won 4 out of 5 games, but i don't let them celebrate too much about that, i challenge them to get so many rebounds, or turn overs and when we do that then we celebrate! and everyone plays the same amount of time.


MikeL says:
12/16/2010 at 1:09:00 PM

Another factor is that some few youth coaches lack confidence or knowledge to teach M/M defense. It's simpler to put in a zone, to free up more minutes for layins, passing, scrimmage. I'm converting a former "zone" U13 team to M/M this year. They have fun and swarm the ballhandlers, but have no idea about helpside or ballscreen D yet. Unlike most teams, we haven't pressed (though we're quick) until we learn some basics, maybe by playoff time.


Bri says:
12/16/2010 at 2:45:34 PM

It is really encouraging to hear of so many other coaches with this philosophy. The community in which I live does not, for the most part, emphasize skill development. I love coaching youth basketball, and it breaks my heart to see so many other kids get the short end of what should be a great experience.

I would like to pose a question to all you coaches. When dealing with shooting development, do you like the idea of using a shorter basket? If so, up to what grade do you feel is appropriate?


Bri says:
12/16/2010 at 2:48:27 PM

Just did some more hunting around (I love this website!) and found an article on your suggestions on rim height for given age groups. Thanks for all you do!


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