Building a Youth Basketball Program

I recently sat down with two people that have a good deal of experience at both the high school and Division 3 college level. Steve Boudreau and Seth Stantial offered good questions and advice, but the part of the conversation I took the most out of was the discussion about building a youth basketball program.

All of these ideas have been either introduced to me or modified based on experience over the past four years. Building a youth basketball program in other words is something that requires constant reevaluation. Here are ten ideas that will enhance any youth program:

1. Process over Results

The more times that the people in our basketball community have said this to the kids, the more that they have bought in. There are some games where the other team is just more experienced, more athletic, etc. In those environments it’s important to remember the goal is to learn and grow, not to win. Equally if not more important is that the coach and parents stay focused on the positives and have realistic expectations for the learning curve. As long as the players believe they are improving and feel a sense of accomplishment in what they do, they will continue to play. As players continue to come to clinics, camps, and sign up for travel league and summer league they will develop. The main key to player development should not be a secret – hours of sweat trumps everything else.

2. AAU

As I elaborated on last week, AAU is hardly for everyone. The two greatest constraints of time and money weed out most players in a community. There is also a great deal of research that states that if athletes do not play other sports they are at higher risk for injury. I also believe that the AAU mission and the mission of a high school program do not align. That said, as myself and the other two coaches discussed, AAU gives players top-notch competition. If everything is equal, I would rather have a player opt to play AAU than not and also manage to play other sports (I have coached several players who do exactly that). The hours of intensity and competition that come out of AAU cannot possibly be replicated in a driveway.

3. Travel Basketball

Most communities have a travel basketball team. If your community does not, how do you think travel teams started in the first place? Get out there and make a travel team happen. The advantages to travel are that it gets kids representing their own community, it takes place in the natural basketball season so kids can still play other sports, and as long as teams start in elementary school it gives players an opportunity to build team cohesiveness for several years.

Of course getting involved for high school coaches can prove challenging given that their own teams are playing. High school coaches won’t make everything, but going as often as possible demonstrates a commitment to developing a youth basketball program. Operate the scoreboard, ask to run an occasional practice, or pull players aside to give positive feedback if their coach (typically a parent) gives you the ok.

4. Summer Camps

For coaches that can afford to take a week off in the summer, this is a powerful way to build up initial interest in the game.

All camps can have their own unique characteristics, but I’ve always felt it was important to establish some sense of school and team pride. One of the coaches related a story about a coach who was seeing many of the younger players move toward private school put on the back of the camp t-shirt the slogan “Play where you’re from.” The basic idea is that young kids should aspire to some day play for their school.

The level of intensity at a camp can be modified depending on the age and experience level, but the main goal should again be centered on positive feedback. For many players, a misconception when they get to court is that scoring baskets is the only worthwhile part of the game. Younger players cannot even reach the hoop yet! Change things up by challenging kids to see how many dribbles they can do in a row with two balls and watch how addicted they become when they see how more practice leads to improvement.

5. Summer League

Summer leagues are a great way to give kids something to look forward on a weekly basis. In my experiences the amount of practice time is much more limited than it would be during the season, but from the perspective of the players that is just fine. Remember, if players are not enjoying themselves the whole process fails.

The expectations should be a little different than the actual season. Running these leagues as some high school coaches often do comes with the inherent challenges of competing sports, family vacations, and other time commitments. Unless we are talking about players that want to make it to the highest level of basketball, this is normal and completely fine – just be sure to communicate the priorities of the league to all families ahead of time.

6. Clinics

Summer camps are great, but it is also important to just keep a ball in a kid’s hands during the off-seasons. There is a balance point that allows kids to play other sports while devoting an hour or two per week during the off-season. Reach out to the people in charge of softball, soccer, etc. to find a day and time where the kids won’t have to choose between sports and do the same for those folks during the basketball season. Running fall skills stations on a weekly basis, doing a day of scrimmaging and stations the day after Thanksgiving, utilizing school vacations in February and April, or getting a permit from a local playground in August are just some ways to squeeze extra hours of deliberate practice into the year. And if kids want to play more, their families should explore AAU to see if it’s a fit with the rest of their lifestyle.

7. Come to a Varsity Practice

This idea was introduced to be by Coach Stantial. Every year he invites players in their youth leagues to come to practice. I copied the idea last year to invite all eighth graders, and expanded it further this past season to include even younger players. The high school girls love playing the role of mentors and it gives the youth players a glimpse at what playing at the high school is all about. The feedback from everyone involved has been overwhelmingly positive.

8. Come to a Varsity Game

For every home game, we invite any potential young player in the community via email and/or social media. This includes players that have done clinics, camps, or played travel basketball in grades one through eight. These players are encouraged to wear their jersey (either from a camp or their team) in order to get into the game for free. They join us for the starting lineups and the national anthem before the game, and sit behind our bench with enthusiastic voices during the game.We also allow each team in the travel program the opportunity to scrimmage at half-time at at least one game per year. It gives these players exposure to a bigger crowd than they have ever played in front of to that point in their lives.

9. Read to Elementary Schools

Another idea that brings the high school players to the elementary schools that was just introduced to me the other day is reading books to the elementary schools. In addition to the fact that the high school players do not mind the occasional escape of the classroom, the administrators of the school community would likely embrace this opportunity. The high school students are doing community service while the elementary students get a role model of someone that is much closer to them in age than their teachers or parents. I would have the players wear their uniform and if possible go on the day of a game to promote awareness for the children to try to make the game that night and create a fan of the game and team for the long term.

10. Remember: Quantity Does Not Always Lead to Quality

It’s very easy to get hung up on the numbers when trying to get any movement going. As an example, if there are only two players that show up for an hour clinic, do not be discouraged. Working with players in very small groups is an opportunity to get more improvement gains from those two players than if there had been a much larger group. You can truly focus on the little details of these players games, and if the job is done well and the player feels successful, eventually greater numbers should start to trickle in.


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