Youth basketball coaches can accomplish a lot of things in the time you have with your players before games. It can be the difference between winning and losing a close game.
Think about all the time you have with your team prior to games. If you play 30 games a year, and ask players to come 45 minutes prior to game time, you have almost the equivalent time of 15 more practices. If coaches view this time as an opportunity to continue the coaching process, it gives them a leg up on competitors.
Youth Basketball: Seven Pregame Activities for Coaches
1.) Review defense, offense and inbound plays
Basketball players make many decisions when on the court, with a good share of them having to be made very quickly. The more players understand exactly where they’re suppose to be and the associated action needed, the better shape the team will be in.
Prior to games is a great time to use your coaching white board. In addition to teaching and reinforcing concepts you’ve reviewed in practice, it also prepares players for when you might use it to communicate activities during a game. I think for the first 10 games of every season, I’d review the concept of ball-side and help-side defense on my coaching white board. This is such an important concept to defense that it merits repetition. Keep your reviews simple and short. Quiz your players to keep them engaged as you’re talking.
For some games when we introduced an inbounds play that not all of the players knew 100%, we’d actually walk thru the school’s hallways practicing where people needed to be, and what they needed to do. The immediacy of having just recently practiced a play sure seemed to make it work better during game time.
The overall goal of the quick review of defense, offense and inbound plays was to make sure our coaches were putting our players in the best position to succeed. Plus, since we really didn’t introduce new activities prior to game time, kids gained some confidence from reviewing roles they successfully accomplished in practice.
2.) Highlight one area of focus
After reviewing the basic game plan with players, it helps for the head coach to identify one area of focus. This might vary from game to game based on previous performances, your opponent or where you’re at in the season. Areas of focus that I tended to use a lot were moving your feet on defense, rebounding aggressively, winning 50/50 balls and make great passes.
By letting your players know that this is important to you will make it important to them. Your area of focus should tie to your practice plan for the week prior to the game.
For the area of focus, coaches might provide a few tips. For example, if the area of focus is rebounding, a coach might demonstrate the boxing out technique. A coach might speak to attitude, e.g., “Sometimes it’s the player who wants the ball more.” Some players might respond to technique improvements and others might respond to attitude challenges.
3.) Share a life lesson
When the season is completed, coaches don’t want to look back and realize that they’ve only taught basketball to their players. At young and impressionable ages, coaches need to take advantage of this time to teach bigger life lessons.
Share with the team a short story that emphasizes the value of practice and hard work, the importance of playing together as a team, or some other key learning that goes beyond just hoops.
A local college basketball player was in the news because he never made his high school basketball team. He continued to play basketball and work hard. He practiced daily. He never gave up. When some college varsity players noticed him in pick-up games on campus, they asked him to join the team. He made the team that year. Three years later, he was all-conference and led the team in scoring. Do you see how a story like this can emphasize the value of not giving up and working hard?
4.) Keep your players relaxed, loose and ready to play
Make sure your players’ basic necessities are met. Have them go to the bathroom, fill water bottles and ensure that their shoes are laced properly.
It’s been my experience that nearly all players have a little nervous energy before a game. And, that’s ok. But, as a coaching staff, you don’t need to make the situation more tense by reminding them, “This is a big game!” On the other hand, try to get players to calm down. Players typically play their best when they’re relaxed.
5.) Warm up
In practices prior to a game, you should review your warm-up drills. The overall goal is to get players’ bodies loosened up, and to familiarize players with the playing conditions, primarily the court surface and the backboard and rim. If the court has unique markings or different seating areas for fans, as a coach, you might highlight these for your players.
Activities for pre-game warm-ups should include some running, some dribbling and some shooting. As most baskets in any game are typically made within 5 feet of the rim, make sure players get an opportunity to practice some short shots and lay-ups.
Coaches should be looking for opportunities to provide positive comments. Five minutes before tip-off is not the time to change your center’s free throw shooting form. You want your players to be confident. Find things they’re doing right and let em know.
6.) Shooting practice
As lighting, background, rims and backboards can vary significantly from one gym to the next, it’s a great idea to spend a good chunk of the warm-up time having players shoot the basketball. Drills that include dribbling to a spot, stopping and shooting work well. Or, multiple passes leading to a shot.
While the head coach and perhaps one assistant are focused on preparing the team, another assistant coach can be scouting the other team during their warm-ups. That assistant coach might quickly discover the opponent’s best players and defensive assignments for your team can be made accordingly.
With shooting, perhaps more so than any other aspect of the game, it really helps to have confidence. Coaches should work to instill confidence in shooting during pre-game warm-ups.
7.) Getting focused and a “winning my shift attitude”
Unless warm-up time is greatly reduced, it’s a good idea to huddle up with players again about 2 minutes before the buzzer goes off signifying the time for the game to begin. These 2 minutes allow the coaching staff to refocus the players, make any specific defensive assignments, e.g. Sara, you’ll be guarding #33, and talk about the importance of a strong start.
Especially with younger aged teams, when complete team rotations happen, talk about the importance of winning a shift.
With youth basketball in particular, most teams start the game very tentatively. A team that is aggressive in the early going can frequently get off to a great start. Make sure your team is ready.
The way you prepare your team right before a game should be a direct reflection of your practices. The game preparation time serves largely as a reminder of activities that you’re practicing and completing successfully in practice. Prepare, be calm, and keep the big picture in mind.
Michael O’Halloran has coached basketball for 15 years and is the author of Youth Basketball Practice Plans.