Complexity and Small-Sided Games

At halftime of a recent college game, two youth teams played at halftime. The children were tiny, and the crowd loved it, and everyone went crazy when a player finally scored as they were leaving the court after 10 minutes. In 10 minutes of fullcourt 5v5 basketball, more children face-planted by tripping on their own feet than made a shot!

Throughout the 10 minutes, three fathers stood on the court. One acted as the referee, and the other two coached their teams, as these were teams from a local youth league. The three adults mingled with the players, telling them what to do and where to go, occasionally even physically changing their positions or guiding their movement.

Why? I never played in a league like this. I started basketball in 5th grade. I was never on a team when I was 5 or 6 years old. What is the point of playing a game when the adults feel the necessity to instruct and control the movements of the players?

Would it diminish the fun of the game if the coaches stepped off the court? Would it diminish the skill development of the players? Would more players be injured? Would it somehow be more dangerous for the players?

If the absence of the coaches from the middle of the court would not hinder the fun or put players in danger, why are leagues such as this so common? Is the game for the players or the parents/coaches?

My friend, a high school coach, told me about his daughter’s league. In this league, players run from one end to the next and stand on spots. The only player who moves is the point guard who passes to one wing, cuts to the basket, receives the pass, and scores a (undefended) layup. Everyone cheers, the teams run to the other end of the court for the other team to do the same thing.

What is the point? Is it fun? Is there learning? Is their skill development? When the coach has to stand on the court amidst the players and direct all of the action, or the players need dots to stand on, the game is too complex. Simplify the game.

How are either of these examples better than playing 2v2 or 3v3? How is standing on dots more fun than playing? How is following constant instructions from a meddling coach more fun than playing?

When I was this age, we played basketball at recess. Of course we broke the rules. Occasionally, someone was hurt. We fought. We committed turnovers. We made mistakes. We were not fundamentally sound. We got in each other’s way. Somehow, however, when we got to 5th grade and joined a team, we could dribble, pass, shoot, and make layups. We never had shooting coaches or private workouts. I don’t remember doing a single straight-line dribbling drill in elementary school, as dribbling was frowned upon. Somehow, we managed to learn. In fact, my fifth grade team produced three point guards for our 9th grade teams.

We learned through self-initiated play. We imitated older players. We tried new things, such as three-pointers and behind-the-back passes, that would have been discouraged if we were on teams. We ran around. We had fun.

I watched these games, and listened to my friend’s story, and I probably would have quit basketball at my first exposure if I played in such a league at 6 years old. My friend’s daughter likes soccer better. Is there any wonder? I don’t know what her soccer team/coach is like, but as long as her coach is not on the field holding her hand and telling her where to go in every second of the game, and there are not spots on which to stand, it sounds more fun.

I do not understand how dots on the court or coach interference are accepted modifications to the game, but playing 2v2 or 3v3 somehow is not real enough for the super-competitive parents who are developing future professional athletes.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice

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