How To Teach The Most Important Skills In Youth Basketball

By Jeff Huber

I will never forget the first game coaching my daughter's third grade basketball team.

Where we live, 'travel' basketball starts in third grade. My wife and I were coaching the team. At that time, I had 15 years of high school coaching experience. My wife had coached six years of middle school basketball. Both of us played college basketball. In other words, we had a pretty extensive history in the game.

So we figured we were prepared to coach third graders, many of whom were playing for the first time. Wow, were we wrong!

In our first game, the ball was passed to one of our girls who was playing for the first time. She caught the ball and began dribbling (that part was good).

As she approached the baseline, it seemed odd that she wasn't slowing down. Instead of stopping, she just kept dribbling right past the baseline and on to the adjacent court, where another game was going on. It was only the ref's whistle that eventually reined her in.

Somewhere I was having flashbacks of Forrest Gump returning a kickoff for a touchdown and running right up the tunnel!

When we brought her over to ask her what had happened, she told us that she had forgotten that there was an out of bounds line and just thought you could dribble anywhere.

Her mistake was my fault. At that moment I realized knowing how to coach high school kids was totally different than knowing how to coach youth basketball.

The first lesson I learned that day was to take NOTHING for granted. You should explain and teach even the most basic things.

I am now in my fourth year of coaching youth basketball. My oldest daughter is in sixth grade and my youngest daughter is in third grade. I felt confident saying I'm a much better youth coach for her third grade team than I was for my older daughter's third grade team.

An Important Lesson Learned - Don't Teach Offense?

When I was preparing to coach that first youth season, I had grand plans. We were going to run an offense!

You know what they say about the best-laid plans...

It quickly became clear that running an offense was a pipedream. So what to do?

What I learned was at the youth level, coaching should start heavy on skills and light on concepts. As players get older, the skill emphasis should remain and the conceptual teaching can increase.

For those of you coaching a youth team, congrats and thank you. Basketball needs coaches who are committed to helping young players learn and have fun!

It is especially concerning to see declining numbers of girls playing basketball. A great youth experience is the best way to keep kids playing!

How To Create A Great Youth Experience

Mastery is a key desire for all people. We all feel better when we are making progress and see ourselves improving.

With youth athletes, this is especially true.

If youth athletes don't feel some sense of competency early on, there are a million other things they can do with their time.

So, how do we help them improve?

Start with the most important skill in youth basketball... dribbling!

Some of you might be wondering about shooting. At the higher levels, I would agree that shooting is the most important skill. But not at the youth level.

At the youth level, most baskets are within a few feet of the rim. Shooting is not a big emphasis. Further, players are not yet strong enough to shoot the ball with proper form.

This means a lot (not all) of the work you put into shooting form is either wasted time or will have to be redone as they get older.

Many players dramatically change their shot after puberty and as they reach high school.

Why You Should Focus On Dribbling

If you watch a youth game, it's clear who is in control. The kids who can dribble!

At the youngest levels of basketball, a team that has a couple of kids who can dribble is in great shape. Those are the kids who can get places on the court, who get the most shots, and who drive the action.

As a result, those kids tend to have the most fun, which feeds their desire to improve, which becomes an upward spiral leading to improved performance.

Why Beginning Players Struggle With Dribbling - The #1 Youth Dribbling Issue

I've been running basketball camps for almost twenty years. The #1 issue young players have dribbling the ball is not using enough force.

There is a lot of emphasis placed on dribbling with your head up. This is crucial and will be addressed in part 2 of this series.

However, if you aren't dribbling hard enough to maintain your dribble, having your head up becomes irrelevant.

Why do players not dribble hard enough? It's not a strength issue. It's a technique issue. These players don't use their arm when they dribble.

If you've watched novice players dribble, you've seen kids who slap the ball. This results in a weak dribble that doesn't come back up to their hand.

Players who dribble like this are only using the force generated by their wrist. Without the strength of the elbow and shoulder, a forceful dribble cannot be generated.

How To Teach Dribbling

With the above in mind, the first thing you must do is get players to dribble using their entire arm.

Here are a few ways to do that:

  • Practice shooting the ball to the floor-Most coaches are familiar with having players hold the ball in their shooting pocket and shooting the ball up towards the ceiling. If done correctly, this results in locking out both the elbow and shoulder.
  • You want your players to do the same thing when dribbling, just in the opposite direction.

    Start by having your players hold the ball in their shooting pocket (near their rib cage on their dominant hand side). This positions the dribbling hand on top of the ball, and the non-dribbling hand on the side, where it can easily come off.

    power dribble example

    From here, have your players lock out their elbow and shoulder as they push/dribble the ball down to the floor. This teaches them the proper arm motion for dribbling.

    power dribble example

    Initially, you will want your players to catch the ball as it bounces back up. A good coaching point is that they want the ball to bounce right back up to their shooting pocket. As they become comfortable with that, challenge them to do two dribbles in a row, then three, etc. This is a good way for them to see themselves improving.

  • Use external cues- when teaching, you can use either internal or external cues.
  • Internal cues make reference to things inside your body. When teaching dribbling, an internal cue could be "lock out your elbow" or "dribble from your shoulder".

    External cues reference things outside your body. When teaching dribbling, external cues could be "push the ball through the floor" to encourage force or "touch the floor" to encourage arm extension.

    Research has shown that external cues are much more effective for teaching.

    This is especially true for young athletes, who have less body awareness.

    When teaching your players to dribble, use the external cues above, or come up with your own. If your player has a certain interest you can tie into a cue, it will be even more effective.

  • Be patient and positive-learning is not a linear process. They might leave practice one way looking like they have figured this dribbling thing out. Then they come back the next practice looking like they're dribbling a medicine ball.
  • This happens! Rather than getting frustrated, keep encouraging them. This will help them stay motivated and working to improve.

  • Make them use both hands-With all these teaching points and drills, it is important you make your players practice with both hands.
  • I cringe when I see old NBA highlights of Celtics' legend Bob Cousy dribbling to his left with his right hand. While that might have worked in the 50's, it won't today. And yet, in youth games you commonly see players dribbling only with their dominant hand. When they do this going the opposite direction, the ball is directly exposed to their defender.

    Most won't want to use their non-dominant hand because they don't have confidence in using it. Well, they won't gain that confidence if they never do it!

    Effective learning requires psychological safety. Your players need to know it's okay to make mistakes as they learn.

    While this seems obvious, many coaches say one thing and do another.

    They tell their players it's okay to make a mistake but then they get frustrated when a player makes a mistake. Make sure your actions match your words!

Do Your Homework - Why Short Dribbling Workouts Are Important

Once your players have mastered the technique of dribbling, the game will open up in new ways.

There are hundreds of dribbling drills out there. You should start with the most basic. Have you players learn the pound dribble first. Then move to a crossover so they can change hands.

Once you've taught those things, consider making them "homework." Assign dribbling drills for players to do at home in between practices. Send the drills to their parents to make them your partner in this endeavor. Reward players who do them!

These homework assignments should be brief (5-8 minutes).

By having the players do these drills at home, they can continue to improve in between practices. That will also free up more time in your practices for other teaching.

How To Gamify Your Dribbling In Practice - 4 Great Dribbling Games To Use At Next Practice!

While Cyndi Lauper told us that 'Girls Just Want To Have Fun', she could have just as easily been talking about kids.

While basic dribbling drills have their place, they aren't the most exciting. How can you teach dribbling in a way that's more mentally engaging and enjoyable? Try some of these ideas:

Simon Says

You can adapt this classic to any level. Your commands will vary depending on the age level of your group, but can include which hand to dribble with, what height to dribble, what moves to execute, and what direction to move.

Kids love this game and will want to play it multiple times. A great part of it is you can control what type of dribbles they are executing and can tailor that to your team's needs.

Red Light, Green Light

Another game they will already know so you don't have to teach the game. Like Simon Says, that will save you some time.

This is also a good way to teach dribbling on the move. You can have your players dribble at different paces when the light is green and yellow.

You can also use this drill to tie footwork to dribbling. These two skills are indelibly linked. With the youngest players, you will probably start with jump stops and triple threat. You could tell all players that on every red light they have to jump stop and get in triple threat.

From there, you could add pivoting before the next green light.

Dribble Relay Races

Relay races are a fun way to work on speed dribbling. Kids love a race. If you do relay races, a couple things to keep in mind:

  • You want your players dribbling fast.
  • However, in the words of John Wooden, you want them to "Be quick but don't hurry." They will want to go 100 mph.

    This can result in losing the ball. That is not necessarily a bad thing. They have to push their limits to see what they're capable of. However, make sure to make them restart from the point they lost the ball to keep the race fair.

  • Make them race with their left hand too!

"Call Out Dribble Game" - Speed, Power, Control, Reverse

This is a good way to teach different types of dribbles. Players generally focus on speed and control dribbling, but all four of these are needed.

  • A speed dribble is just what it sounds like. Going as fast as you can under control.
  • A power dribble is what you would use when closely guarded. First, you turn your body sideways. Then, you dribble with your rear hand to keep space between the defender and the ball.
  • The front arm should be bent 90 degrees to act as a shield and protect the ball from the defender. Then you would advance the ball from there.

    power dribble example
  • A control dribble is when you advance the ball at a slower pace. This could commonly mean walking the ball up the court. This is probably where you started so your players may be best with this one.
  • A reverse dribble (or back up dribble) is when you dribble backward. This is a skill many players neglect. It is needed when being pressured or trapped. One key aspect is still keeping your eye forward to see what's going on up the floor.
  • When you reverse dribble, your body is positioned the same as a power dribble. However, when dribbling, you pull the ball back and hop or shuffle back to create space from the defender.

To play the game, have players line up on the baseline. They will advance down the court responding to your verbal cues. Every couple seconds you will call out a different type of dribble and they must immediately switch to that dribble without stopping.

Again, make sure to use both hands. If you want to change hands within the drill, you could also add a "crossover" command.

Final Thoughts - The True Winning Combination

Basketball is meant to be fun. For it to be fun, players have to experience success. The fastest way to do this is to be able to dribble effectively.

Learn from my mistakes. When coaching beginning players, less is more. Start from here - what skills and concepts will allow them to play successfully at this age level?

When you look at it through the prism, dribbling is the place to start.

If you choose to start with dribbling, start from square one. Don't worry about moves until the technique is correct. Make learning techniques fun through gamifying.

If you do this, your players will get better and have fun. That's a true winning combination!

Resources For Youth Basketball

The Youth Basketball Coaching System with Jim Huber - Ages 9 to 14

The Beginner Basketball Coaching System with Jim Huber - Ages 5 to 9

Ball Handling & Footwork Workouts - For Individual Players (Team Management Capability Also!)

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


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Larry Ellis says:
2/17/2024 at 10:30:24 PM

Keep on keeping on


gary gogolinski says:
2/2/2024 at 12:48:51 PM

Great article! I have tried and used these drills for 8-9 year old girls. They do them well. Here's the BUT. They dribble well in drills BUT as soon as we put defense on them, it all breaks down. I've tried applying light defense and first progressing to more aggressive defense but it doesn't seem to transition to when we play actual games. Any suggestions?


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