As a youth basketball coach, it’s frustrating to see players catch the ball on offense and immediately start dribbling with their head down. In younger grades, it usually means the ball ends up in the “coffin corner,” the right-hand side of the basket — because most players are right-handed — and down at the baseline — because dribblers run out of room. Not a lot of good things typically happen for an offense when the dribblers picks up the ball in that position.
Wouldn’t it be great for your team’s players to catch the ball, and instead of dribbling right away, move into a triple threat position by squaring up to the basket? From that position, a player can pass, shoot or dribble. By catching the ball and not immediately pounding the ball on the floor, the player is able to look forward and see if there’s a teammate open in a better shooting position. The player that takes the time to survey the court will also be able to look for cutters to the basket. Looking up while securing the ball makes for a more effective offensive team and just a better overall level of play.
How then do you teach players to keep their heads up when they catch the basketball?
It starts with teaching the right attitude. Here a few exercises I like to implement at the very start of the season to help shape players’ attitudes about the importance of passing and to provide them skills to make it easier to execute.
1.) The Race: Passers vs. Dribblers. To start, I ask all of the players to volunteer if they think they’re the fastest dribbler on the team. After a few players step forward, balls are given to each of them and I ask them to line up on the baseline for a race. In addition to competing against the other dribblers, they’re going to be competing against a line of passers. Choosing from the remaining players and assistant coaches, I choose 5 people to make up the passing line. In a straight line from baseline to baseline, I place a person at each baseline and at each free throw line and one person at half-court.
Here’s the challenge: dribblers have to start at one baseline and dribble as fast as they can to the other baseline and back. Passers have to move the ball from one baseline to the other and back during the same time. As long as you’ve selected passers who can pass and catch, the passing line beats the dribblers by a big margin. After the race is completed is the time for the teachable moment. Ask your players what they’ve learned from this race. The big takeaway for players should be that passing can move the ball in a quicker fashion than dribbling on their own. Then describe a game situation where one player is dribbling the ball and there’s an open player ahead. What’s the quickest way to move the ball up court? The pass! (By the way, the race is a one-time exercise.)
2.) The History Lesson and an 1891 game. Early in the season, at a pre-practice meeting — before you’ve taken the court — educate your players a little on the history of basketball. Describe how James Naismith invented the game in 1891 while working at a YMCA and used peach baskets for the original hoops. Now, here’s the thing to call out to players. The original rules of the game didn’t even allow for dribbling. Basketball was designed to be a passing game. It took 10 years before dribbling was added to the official rules. Dribbling evolved from players passing to themselves.
When you take the court, and after warming up, have the players play a scrimmage where the rules were like they were in 1891 — no dribbling. Players with the ball work on ball security and looking to find open players; while their teammates work on cutting to get open and being a good receiver.
Hopefully, this exercise not only teaches the right attitude about passing but also provides some tactical practice to make the passing game work more effectively.
3.) Teach the triple threat position and reinforce the importance of it. Teaching the triple threat might start off with an explanation, then a demonstration and then have each player with a ball show you how they do it. During drills and scrimmages, make a point to emphasize the triple threat position and its importance. What you emphasize is what your players will think is important to you. If you’re running a drill on getting open with v-cuts and passes to the wing; make sure every receiver catches the ball, squares up to the basket and gets into the triple threat position. In scrimmages, call out someone who is doing the triple threat position well and give them an attaboy.
4.) Incorporate the triple threat into the start of dribbling drills. When one of my teams was struggling to remember to get to the triple threat position in games, and instead was just catching and dribbling right away, I started incorporating the triple threat into dribbling drills. One of my favorite dribbling drills features players starting in a corner of the court and moving in a zig-zag fashion to free throw line middle, back to half-court sideline, and so-on; all the time working on dribbling low and their dribble transitions — cross-overs, between the legs, reverse dribble, etc. To emphasize triple threat, I now have a coach pass a ball to the player who must get in the triple threat position before starting their dribble routine. The same thing could be done in other dribbling drills. The triple threat position needs to become a habit for players. Constant reinforcement and practice is needed.
Hopefully these exercises will help establish a good attitude about the importance of passing for your team and they’ll understand why it pays to look before you start dribbling. We’ll save ideas on how to teach your players to keep their heads up while dribbling for another time.
For more ideas on how to manage your practices with fun drills that teach, check out 30 Youth Basketball Practice Plans.