Kristen McDonnell on Developing Youth Basketball Programs

Kristen McDonnell provided some really practical ideas for improving a youth program. Among the topics she uncovered were coaches clinics, facilitating camps in the summer, and player clinics during the season.

Coach’s Clinics

When she started out in Braintree, Coach McDonnell said she was very lucky on a couple of fronts. First, the parents there were very invested and willing to do the coach’s clinics and had some strong knowledge of the game. Second, there was an AAU program within the Braintree community already established which allowed players to develop in the off-season.

I am less familiar and experienced with coach’s clinics. I see the value in showing the youth coaches what the high school program expects, but I have always a hard time coordinating an event like this. Getting on the same schedule with parents who have all the typical daily responsibilities of working and raising a family. Then, there is the consideration of what to do about getting high school or middle school players to run through the drills and system. I prefer to have high school players given their familiarity with drills and system, but their availability can be spotty. Coach McDonnell said that by putting the coach’s clinic on a Saturday before the season started for both teams it usually served everyone.

Skits at Coach’s Clinics

Perhaps my favorite idea in our whole conversation was how Coach McDonnell actually coordinates skits for the youth coaches. They are entertained as players handle all sorts of situations that can happen in a game. Players might show the wrong way to handle adversity and the way that Coach McDonnell endorses. How the players act on the bench, what to do in the handshake line, and how to approach referee mistakes are among the vignettes. The main theme she wants the coaches to come away with is that how you act matters.

When the phrase “develop the youth program” gets tossed around, we naturally think about on the court. And at the same time, if you ask a coach what are the three most important things in a program the term culture will always make the list. How is it then that culture gets dismissed at the youth level? We are so excited to teach players to box out or BEEF that we skip one of the biggest parts. Coaches might assume that culture can take shape once players reach grade nine, but character habits are tougher to break than skill habits. Coach McDonnell’s skits are attention grabbing and memorable. Asking a youth coach to have the bench engaged is one thing, but it will not drive the point home like a skit. Running a coach’s clinic and performing skits is an idea that I will steal next fall.

Skill Development at Coach’s Clinics

Coach McDonnell also goes into the on-court skills, drills, and systems at the coach’s clinic. She will take a drill or system that the varsity team runs and modifies it for a fifth or sixth grader. There is a temptation to impress youth coaches and give them too much information. The reverse of this idea also applies. If a fourth-grade player is demonstrating sixth grade caliber skills, Coach McDonnell wants to offer coaches ideas to help push these players. As she pointed out, it does not matter if the coach is an A team or a B team. Particularly at lower levels, so much can happen with player development over time. Coach McDonnell wants to help push every team to be the best it can be.

Language and Terminology at Coach’s Clinics

The final key outcome of these coach’s clinics is the terminology that Coach McDonnell uses. The terms that she uses will also be applied by the younger coaches. That way when players get to the high school, they will already have a strong foundation in the team’s terminology and communication. As Coach McDonnell told me regarding warm ups, they advocate for the term “tag” instead of “box out.” This is the type of thing that high school coaches can introduce the community’s youth coaches to.

One final idea that Coach McDonnell and I discussed is a terms index. My team used a terms index last season, but you might want to keep it to eight to ten terms. Similar to modifying the drills and system, focus the young players on the more basic fundamentals and older players can gradually be pushed to learn more as they grow.

Basketball Camps

I told Coach McDonnell that my frustration with camps is that they yield diminishing returns as the day goes on. Let’s say a camp is going from 8:30 until 12:30. Players are captivated for the first hour or hour and a half. After that point though, a camper’s attention begins to wane. The patience of the counselors (which for many coaches are the teams they coach) runs thin with youngsters that demand non-stop attention. In recent years, I got away from the traditional camp. I now do a clinic that lasts an hour to ninety minutes twice per week. The clinic takes place over a period of several weeks so that the total time is equivalent to a camp. It is a greater commitment in terms of days, but the stress is lower and the basketball focus is higher.

I asked Coach McDonnell what her thoughts were on this and she offered one very helpful thought. At her camps, the increased time spent with the youth players allows for relationship building. Time is built directly into the day for there to be periods where no basketball is played. During this time, the high school players have heart to heart talks with the younger players. Many of the younger players look up to the high schoolers to some extent. It is an obvious win-win for both the high schooler and youth player. The heart to heart talks can cover basketball ideas such as the mental part of the game or individual growth.

At the same time, the talks could simply be the players getting to know one another. As Army West Point coach Heather Stec said, relationships are the foundation for everything else. Coach McDonnell said these heart to heart ideas work especially well with the girls.

Drill, Drill, Fun

Kristen McDonnell agrees that sustaining focus at basketball camps is a challenge. She tries to go with the pattern of doing a drill, getting a slightly more exciting drill, and then doing something fun. I think this pattern applies to a youth practice at a micro level.

For instance, one coach I spoke with recently tries to keep his drills to no more than six minutes at the high school level. Short attention spans is an even greater challenge to youth coaches. As Coach McDonnell told me if you ask youth players what they want to do the answer is inevitably, “Scrimmage!” Let them scrimmage five out of every fifteen minutes of a practice. Coaches think they are doing young players a service by teaching them how to play. It should be fun for them. Players will only want to learn how when they have a why, and the why happens as a result of enjoyment.

Any situation where players are required to say one another’s name tends to be fun in Coach McDonnell’s experience. Failing to do so results in a penalty. The penalty that she suggested was not a sprint for a young player, but something silly like skipping and snapping from baseline to baseline. It still reinforces the message, but players see each other doing this sort of thing and are laughing in the moment.

Ideas to Build Youth Connections During the Season

The basketball season can be a very difficult time for high school coaches to check in on players at elementary and middle school. Almost all of them have a full-time job. They also have the responsibilities to their families and friends. And of course, they also coach the high school team, which can seem like a full-time job. Finding time to build relationships and skills for the players that are in the younger grades is a giant hurdle.

Coach McDonnell told me that at Norwood this year they actually did clinics on Monday nights. Every other week they alternated between boys and girls practice running late. Whoever happened to be late on that night also stayed late and ran a clinic for the younger levels.

Another thing that the Norwood team does to promote youth basketball is recognize one team per night. For instance, they might have their first home game of the year where they invite the fifth-grade A team. The second game might feature the fifth-grade B team. They try to end the season with senior night being the night for the eighth-grade team so that those players can aspire to be like the high school players. Norwood lets the young players join them at halftime, which has been a very positive experience. Other teams have these players join them for starting lineups and the national anthem. The customs of a high school game are more official than a youth game, and giving these players a taste of it helps create long-term demand for the sport.

Seeking More Information on Coaching Youth Basketball?

One of my favorite questions to ask high school coaches pertains to how to improve youth programs. A great youth program will eventually translate into a great high school program, but it’s more than that. Relationships and fundamentals are born at the youth level. I still remember my first organized clinics and YMCA leagues in elementary school.

If you continue to just build on the fundamentals and relationships, the team will be good and the job will be fulfilling. Philosophies, drills, and techniques designed for youth players can work wonders at higher levels. If you have any crazy (or practical) ideas that have worked leave a comment or reach out on Twitter. I’d love to hear about them and so would the coaching community. Here are three more articles from other coaches on the topic of youth basketball:

Joe Lowe on skipping 5 on 5 and Brian Myers on learning names.

Seth Stantial on reading to elementary schools

Casey Grange on playing soccer and basketball

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