Youth Coaches: Destroy Your Playbook and Do This Instead

This could be one of the biggest mistakes in youth basketball.

In fact, if you're making this same mistake, you could be crippling the development of your team.

Unfortunately, I learned the hard way and made this same mistake.

It's running set plays and patterned offenses instead of teaching universal skills that apply to all offenses.

Now, so we get on the same page, let's explain exactly what I mean by each term.

What is a set play?

A set play is a strategically planned and choreographed sequence of movements to get open shots and score points. Generally speaking, the sequence is ran through just one time.

Here is an example:


Step 1:

Four players start on the perimeter with player 1 in possession of the ball.

Player 5, who the play is run for, is positioned on the strong side low-block.

Player 1 passes the ball to player 2 and cuts to opposite corner.

Step 2:

After player 1 cuts to opposite corner, player 5 goes to set a back screen for player 4, who cuts to the ball-side block.

Player 5 then goes to set a ball-screen for player 2.

Step 3:

Player 5 sets a ball screen for player 2 and then rolls to the basket.

As player 5 is setting a ball-screen for player 2, player 4 cuts out to the near corner.

Player 2 dribbles towards the top of the key.

Step 4:

Player 2 passes the ball to player 4 in the corner.

In the meanwhile, player 5 is working to keep his defender under control (i.e. behind him).

Step 5:
Player 4 passes to player 5, who looks to score.

What is a patterned offense?

A patterned offense runs a sequence that turns over and over and over without the need to stop or reset.

An example would be the flex offense.

Basic Flex Motion - Guard to Guard Passes

When a guard to guard pass is made, the player on the low block sets a flex screen for the player in the corner which is followed by a down screen by the passer for the player setting the flex screen.

Any time this guard to guard pass is made, this action occurs. You could run the flex offense simply by passing guard to guard continuously. You will see this in this action over the next few diagrams.

1 passes to 2.

5 sets a flex screen for 4. 4 cuts across the lane looking for the pass from 2. This is the first option off of the flex. If 4 does not receive the pass, 4 finishes the cut at the low block.

After the screen is set, 5 opens up to the ball. This is the second flex offense option.

1 sets a down screen for 5.

1 clears to the corner.

2 passes to 5.

4 sets a flex screen for 3.

2 sets a down screen for 4.

2 clears to the corner.

And the flex pattern continues.

What are universal offensive concepts?

Universal offensive concepts are offensive skills that apply to any offense or set play.

It doesn't matter what the coach teaches, you have developed skills that will make you a better player in their system.

This includes things like...

  • Getting open using cuts - V-cut, L-cut, basket cut, backdoor cut, post cut, flare cut, and more.

  • Utilizing screens - Down screens, ball screens, back screens, flare screens, and more.

  • Spacing

  • Counter movements to dribble penetration - Curl up, space out, cut backdoor, and so on.

As a high school coach, I would be extremely happy if you brought me a group of kids that simply knew how to keep proper spacing, basket cut (give and go), cut backdoor when overplayed, and v-cut to get open.

Then you spend the rest of practice developing 1v1 offensive skills and some man to man defense.

As all great coaches have said, it's better to teach kids how to play rather than how to run a play.

And that's a big problem I see at the youth level. Well-intentioned coaches will teach plays and patterned offenses, but they spend little time teaching universal offensive skills; the same skills that help them progress to the next level of basketball.

Teaching Offensive Concepts Within Plays and Patterned Offenses?

I've often heard the response... "But Joe, I teach my team plays (or patterned offenses) and I teach them universal offensive concepts."

Is this okay?

Yes and no.

First, here is an example. This is a piece of the flex offense.

In the flex offense, when a player sets a screen and the player fills the guard spot.

In the diagram to the right, 1 sets a screen for 5.

However, let's pretend that the defender guarding 5 is denying the pass.

This could cause the offense to stop and give the defense an advantage.

If you've ever taught plays and patterned offenses at the youth level, you know this can happen quite often.

So a coach who teaches universal concepts would simply have 5 cut backdoor or screen again for 1.

This is better than what most youth coaches do.

However, there is a big reason I'm still not a proponent of this.

Running set plays and patterned offenses wastes tons of practice time

At the youth level, I've ran set plays. I've ran patterned offenses.

I know how much practice time it takes to effectively run them during games.

I once saw a coach who ran 30 set plays with his middle school team. Each week, they had a practice day dedicated only to running plays.

90 minutes every week wasted.

Do that over a 16-week season. That's 1,440 minutes!

Do that over 5 seasons... that's 7,200 minutes!

Imagine if you take that time and you practiced 1v1 offensive skills and universal offensive concepts.

You would make a ton of progress. And the players would be much better.

And they would have a way better chance of making their high school teams. And the few fortunate ones might even play at the college level.

I was fortunate to coach a 7th grade team that had 4 future college players on it. And it wasn't even an elite or all star team.

With a professional career, would you rather make less money or more money in the future?

Imagine that you are currently working and you had two choices in your profession.

Option 1 - Each week, you work 20 hours on tasks that develop your professional skills. These skills directly increase your future salary.

Then you spend another 20 hours each week on tasks that don't increase your skills and won't increase your future salary.

Option 2 - Each week, you work 40 hours on tasks that develop professional skills. These skills directly increase your future salary.

The answer is so evident that you already know the answer!

Now think back to what we just talked about with set plays.

You're asking players to choose Option 1. You're asking them to waste their time working on things that won't make them better basketball players for the future!

Also since I know there are some people that are going to agree to disagree...

Now, I wholeheartedly believe you should teach universal offensive concepts in a progressive manner within a motion offense structure.

However, if you still disagree with me. Make sure you do this...

If you're running a patterned offense with youth teams, use the flex offense and teach universal concepts. It puts players in all positions on the floor. It also teaches them how to utilize multiple cuts and screens.

Don Kelbick's Dynamic Flex Offense shows you how to do that.

Absolutely do not run an offense that puts big players underneath the basket and guards outside. You want them to learn all positions and skills.

I've seen too many situations where a 6'1 twelve year old is a 6'1 eighteen year old. And because they were put under the basket, they never developed any guard skills.

I've seen other situations where a 5'5 twelve year old only practiced guard skills but grew to be a 6'8 player. Imagine a 6'8 player with guard and post skills!

Resource For Motion Offense and Universal Offensive Concepts:

Don Kelbick's Motion Offense -- DVD 2-Pack & Supplemental eBook

Tim Schuring's Complete Offensive System -- Transition, Secondary Break, Motion, Press Breaker

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


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Tim Nick says:
5/21/2020 at 9:18:57 PM

Nothing wrong with adding a few simple pattern to help the kids keep moving. They tend to stand and watch when they dont have the ball.


Mike Harrold says:
1/2/2020 at 6:55:56 PM

Completely agree. We have a girl in my daughters 6th grade team who is 6’ tall, so they only have her stand down low in the box on offense and in the lane on defense. She NEVER is allowed to leave that area. Has been in the league for 2 years and has not developed any skills outside of reaching up and rebounding or blocking. It’s a shame. With a little coaching and a little less selfishness on behalf of the coach, she would be a high school player for sure. But the coach just wants to win his 6th grade school league, so she’s screwed out of learning basketball.


Coach JNS says:
6/14/2019 at 9:35:56 AM

I agree also, but I´ve also been in coaching situations, where it wasnt that simple

I coach both youth and seniors. My most succesfull team was a group of u13 boys, that i took all the way though their youth years, and continued to coach into adult basketball -hood.

Coachin the same core for 10+ years opens up to do different things. The kids i eventually sent out into the world ended up in most cases being smarter and much much more strategic than even their coaches on later teams were. including the pro league.

it all started with fundamentals, but my approach was simple. since we had so much time to develop the team, in the last few years i often included plays for them, which was in direct contrast to their skillset. i simply forced them to do things, they otherwise wouldnt have naturally done. cant shoot? alright, so well run 1 play a couple of times each game for you to shoot the ball. miss or make, it didnt matter so much, all it was was forced repetitions..

this philosophy took us to a place, where i ended up having one of the best postup guys in the league (second highest in our country) as my pg. our big guys got really good at attacking the rim off the dribble, etc, etc

i realize I wouldnt and cant use this approach with teams, ive just taken over. it takes years. and there are a lot of things u need to check off as a team, and a coaching team, before you can start this process.

but for this particular team it meant two national titles as u21 and a trip into the 1st division a couple of years after - against teams with multiple nationalteam players, future pros etc., bought american help, and so on. we had none of that, but we also had too many things we could do to manipulate games (and refs) to become a collected whole.

i think sometimes, administratively we advice coaches in youth to not touch the strategic side, out of fear, that it will dominate the development and coaching. In my view - it CAN be combined, but it takes a lot of preparation and informed choices for the coachingstaff, before it can be implemented. if you do, though - you can really get deep into the developmental side of bball and bball iq


Dale says:
4/26/2019 at 5:38:05 PM

Absolute truth!! I coach U19 and by this time you would think fundamentals like spacing and balance and knowing what to do off the ball to get open and how to use screens, how to cut, how to adjust to different defenses etc. would be a given. Unfortunately too many youth coaches spend all of their practice time on practicing complicated plays and it shows when the players struggle with decisions at the varsity level. Keep up the great work! I love your posts.


Steve says:
11/16/2018 at 4:10:46 PM

Players need to learn at a young age the concepts of basketball on offense & how to make decisions off of those base concepts.
As players get older & play at higher levels.
Of course there will be basic sets to combat different defensive looks.
Running these basic sets
(NOT a bunch of set plays)
Will run smoothley if basic concepts & decision making are 2nd nature to players


Dave says:
11/16/2018 at 10:35:43 AM

Completely agree. As a coach in a rec league for 15 years now, my philosophy is to teach the tools to make my boys better basketball players. It doesn''t have to be anything advanced. Simple "give and go", "pick and roll", finding an open spot on the court, staying spread out, moving the ball, cutting to the basket, etc. For the few who do go on to play high school ball and beyond, these basics will serve them well regardless of what offense they run in the future.


Troy says:
11/16/2018 at 8:21:41 AM

I disagree with the Read & React comments as this is a typical case of not running something correctly. I run Grade 7 & 8 Boys and we screen out off corner cuts and the kids can screen out to any position so it may be off ball and they need to learn how to screen properly and read screens. You also have to read the defense as there are cuts that need to be made when the defensive player is over the read line as you can puppy dog (front) cut if your defender is slow to fill up plus you can back door cut when your defensive player is over playing you. Kids don''''t memorize on read & react they create habits and most of the habits are based on very good basketball concepts. I find read & react teaches everything this article is about IF it is taught correctly.


Graham says:
10/11/2017 at 10:24:37 PM

I coach kids ranging from 13-18 at a very small school. I noticed, however, that kids today have a tendency to NOT think... I completely understand not having "plays", but what happens that's all they are used to doing? This year I'd love to see them running a simple motion offense (with options of course). - But I can't fure out a "starting point"... any ideas?


Just brewer says:
10/5/2017 at 10:06:06 PM

How can I get this article sent to my son's high school coach? They really need to see this... It opens up so many options for every player on the floor, not just guards.


Jack says:
10/5/2017 at 10:45:27 AM

Great article. We run motion very similar to Breakthrough Kelbick Motion to teach universal concepts. We looked at Read and React but it's missing some concepts I thought were important... setting off ball screens, reading screens, and reacting to defenders on the court instead of mostly reacting to what ball does. And didn't want to spend time memorizing what to do based on what ball does. So we went with Kelbick type of motion that has worked really well for us. Totally agree with teaching kids "how to play" instead of memorizing patterns. Thanks... great stuff!

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