On coaching youth basketball

Sometimes we youth coaches watch professional basketball so much that we confuse that with what we do.

Professional basketball is mostly about winning — and it should be. After all, at that level, while basketball may still look like a game, in reality it is a business, and people’s livelihoods are affected by the wins and loses. Consequently, pro basketball coaches coach to win, and while it is a shame Adam Morrison barely got off the Lakers‘ bench last year en route to a championship, or the Utah Jazz let go of Sundiata Gaines, the hero of their victory over LeBron James last year, that’s the business of basketball. It’s about winning, and the players are just a means to an end.

But youth basketball is not about business, it’s about the kids.

Let me say that again because that is a huge difference between the basketball we watch on TV, and the basketball we coaches coach: youth basketball is not about the wins, it is about the kids.

Sure, winning is still the object of the game for youth basketball, but it isn’t the REASON for it.

And youth coaches who don’t get that remind me of the coach in the movie, The Karate Kid. And like the movie, these coaches tend to produce kids with warped values when it comes to sports. And unfortunately, there are enough people with warped values involved with sports that it confuses young athletes.

When coaching youth, it is important for youth coaches (and parents too for that matter) to remember that the meat and potatoes of youth basketball are the kids — building their skills, knowledge, confidence, and love of the game — and winning is gravy.

Don’t get me wrong, I love gravy, but gravy on its own without meat and potatoes is actually pretty gross.

And not very filling.

Yes, it’s all basketball, and winning is always the object of the game, but it’s not the object of the sport itself.

The different levels of basketball have different reasons to exist, reasons coaches need to accept that while it is all basketball, the different levels it is played at have different purposes.

  • Youth basketball is about building skills, knowledge, confidence, and a love of the game in kids.
  • High school basketball is about player development, including character development, team loyalty, representing your school, etc.
  • College basketball is about the big dance. Just getting to the NCAA championship tournament is a legitimate accomplishment in college basketball, especially since there are great deal more college teams than the 30 teams the NBA has. And reaching the “Sweet 16,” “Elite Eight,” or “Final Four” is so legit, it actually goes on coaches’ and players’ resumes.
  • NBA basketball, as we’ve already discussed is about winning, and people’s livelihoods depend on it.
  • D-League basketball, however, is a different animal. Like the NBA, fans love the high level of play in the NBADL, and the passion players play with for meager paychecks, but what fans really love is when players get called up to the NBA.

And the better a player does in the NBA, the cooler his former d-league team is. Then a fan can say, “I saw Fesenko play when he was with the Utah Flash.”

And even cooler is when d-league teams are generous with player access, then a fan can say, “I visited with Fesenko a few times when he was with the Flash. See? Here’s a photo of the two of us together.”

But the point is, just because it’s all basketball, that doesn’t mean it all serves the same purpose. Just as the difference between self-defense and murder comes down to the reason, so too do reasons make basketball different at its different levels.

So youth coaches, remember to serve the meat and potatoes before the gravy, and make Mr. Miyagi (and Mr. Han) proud. πŸ™‚



  2. Joe HaefnerJoe Haefner10-28-2011

    Couldn’t agree more! Great stuff.

    Lol… I love this analogy in regards to youth basketball, “Don’t get me wrong, I love gravy, but gravy on its own without meat and potatoes is actually pretty gross.”

  3. Tom7Tom710-29-2011

    @ Joe Haefner

    Thanks, Joe! By the way, I’m really enjoying Breakthrough Basketball. I wish I had more time to linger over there; I’m sure I’d learn even more. Keep up the great work.

  4. CoachCoach03-21-2012

    Great job with the site, we plan on running the read and react next season in the PSAL in NYC with one of our Girls Varsity teams. Love the concepts and most importantly the focus on the 90 percent!! The system is very similar to what Bruce Lee believed in once they master it they will bel like water: when you put water in a cup it becomes the cup when you put water in a bottle it becomes the bottle and even if you put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot…water can flow and we must become water! Once they learn the system the game of basketball will flow “90” percent of the time all the time πŸ˜‰ Great Job thanks for the info when does the book drop and to you have a twitter account….

    • Tom7Tom703-21-2012

      Wow! I LOVE the water analogy you gave! I forgot about water and its place in martial arts teaching, but that is spot on for this offense as well.

      The book has unfortunately been delayed. My timeline assumed I would be working on it full time, and that time has now gone to a friend who really needs a hand to get his business going. There has been encouraging news with it though, so I’m hoping I can be full time on the book again in several months.

      Also, it will help when our basketball season winds down.

      Until then, I’m just putting in a few hours a week, and can’t project when the book will be ready.

      I do have a twitter account… I’ll get a link to it up and going on the site. Thanks for the prompting.

      p.s. I have a LOT more on the 90 percent that I’m dying to share. It is transforming for players to realize how critical their off ball decisions and actions are for their team’s success. In fact, improving a team’s 90% helps a great deal to elevate teams beyond their collective talent / skill level.

Leave a Reply