If as they say, “Today’s preparation determines tomorrow’s achievement,” it pays for youth basketball coaches to go into each practice with a plan. As a basketball coach is mapping out a season’s plan and individual practice plans, strong consideration should be given these 5 topics:
1.) Cardio — Players need to be in great cardio shape to compete at the highest levels. A coach doesn’t want to see his team worn out in the second half. Tiredness leads to playing lazy defense and missing out on offensive opportunities. Building a team’s endurance takes a consistent effort. Every practice should have portions devoted to building the players’ cardio endurance.
To make the most of your court time, don’t run for running’s sake. Whenever possible, make sure players are handling the ball when they run. If you’re interested in having the team run 30-second killers, make sure each player is dribbling a ball when run. If you want them to run a few laps around the court, have players practice dribbling with their off-hand while they complete the task.
Keep the pace of the practices at an up-tempo and players will get in shape by keeping up with the series of drills and exercises that you run them through.
2.) Defense — It’s easy to fall into the novice basketball coach’s mistake of focusing too much practice time on just offensive skills. A solid defense will keep any team in most games, but players need to learn a defensive philosophy and the defensive skills necessary to play their best.
Perhaps because players enjoy working on dribbling and shooting, it’s easy to devote time to drills focused on these offensive skills. There’s lot to be learned on defense and it’s been my experience that too many coaches focus too little time on this important aspect of the game. Research and learn some great defensive drills for your team. Buy a book, talk to coaches, and go online to find out what works well in teaching defensive concepts.
What a coach recognizes and calls out in practices becomes what’s important to a team. Make a point of calling out great defensive plays in drills and intra-squad scrimmages. If your players know that defense is important to you, it will become important to them. As you review each practice plan, look and see how much time is devoted to offense and how much time is devoted to defense. If the proportions are out of sync, make adjustments.
3.) Scrimmaging — Scrimmaging definitely has its place in youth basketball practices. However, don’t follow the lazy coach’s habit of running one or two drills and then scrimmage the rest of practice at virtually every practice. Deliberate practice of one skill with explanation, demonstration and repetitions is a great way for players to learn a lot of different skills.
Drills and exercises alone won’t prepare a team for games. Intra-squad scrimmages and scrimmages with other teams provide valuable opportunities to get a team ready for game play. I like to introduce some intra-squad scrimmage time after the first few practices and increase the time devoted to it as the season progresses. Also, I strongly recommend trying to set up a scrimmage with another team at least a week before your first big game. This will give you enough time to work on things you discover from the scrimmage at subsequent practices before the first game.
College basketball coaching legend Don Meyer is an advocate of stopping play during scrimmages — don’t let play go longer than 3 or 4possessions without a stop — and calling out teaching points for your players. Scrimmages enable a coach to get right out on the court to demonstrate correct play, which is something you can’t do during official games. Take advantage of this opportunity. Show players what you mean. Demonstrate.
4.) Shooting — Set aside some time at each practice to allow players the opportunity to work on their shooting. With so many different concepts to teach young players, it’s easy to go through an entire practice session and not have one part devoted to players’ shooting. Make the time. I think it’s especially important toward the tail end of the basketball season, when due to cold winter weather, players may not be having the opportunity to work on shooting on their own.
Encourage players to practice the type of shots that they take in games and try to replicate game conditions. If a player usually shoots 10 footers in games, should that same player be spending 90% of their time practicing 3-pointers?
John Wooden was a big believer in finishing each practice on a high note. Since nearly every player I’ve met has enjoyed shooting, ending each practice session with some type of shooting contest or drill makes sense. Maybe it’s a game of Lightning or a lay-up contest between 2, equally-divided teams.
5.) Player engagement — One of basketball coaches’ biggest challenges is balancing the need for repetition in drills and exercises, and trying to keep players interested and involved. Doing the same thing over and over again can get boring. Look for creative ways to keep players engaged. Introduce a competitive element, e.g., Team A vs. Team B: most baskets wins. Teach a drill in a progressive way. First, players work on technique by themselves. Then, the same technique is worked on with players competing in a small group, e.g. one-on-one or two-on-two. And finally, focus on the same concept in a 5-on-5 setting. Also, try to keep all players involved as much as you can. Have each player bring a ball to practice and use as many baskets as you can for drills. Sitting and watching is for spectators; players want to play.
Get to know your players. What makes a player tick? Are they motivated by your confidence in them? By praise? By competition? Different approaches might need to be taken with different players. It’s a good idea for coaches to schedule 10 minutes before court time for each practice to address a wide variety of topics. In addition to giving you enough time to cover information topics, it will also provide you the opportunity to get to know your players better.
Look for ways to make practices fun for players. The same old, same old, can get boring. Bring a boom box and music to a practice. Come up with a fun shooting contest and award prizes to the top 3 finishers. What else can you teach players beyond offensive and defensive techniques? Consider the history of basketball (you know the Dr. James Naismith and the peach baskets story) and important elements of sportsmanship. Each new concept that you introduce to your team may not be a slam dunk, but most of your players will appreciate the effort.
Bottom line, an effective basketball coach comes ups with an effective basketball practice plan.