I coached a high-school varsity girls basketball team this season that was a varsity team in name only. There were more absolute beginners on the team – girls who have played any sport on an organized team – then there were players with basketball experience. There was no a single player on the team who played on a high school basketball team last season.
As one might imagine, playing against varsity competition, we did not fare well competitively. Often, we appeared to have no idea what to do. We dribbled too much, passed to the other team, traveled, missed defensive rotations, etc. We struggled with the simple skills because we were beginners played against more experienced teams and players.
This happens frequently, although typically this disparity is more common at younger ages. One team of 10 year-olds is beginners, and they play in a tournament against a team of players who have played together for 2-3 years. Of course the experienced team is going to be better and the beginner are going to look like, well, beginners.
My friend coached in a recreation league for 10-year-old boys one season where the previous season’s all-star team got together and signed up together as a team. Did they win? Of course. Take the 8 best players from an average recreation league, but them on the same team, and they are likely to beat everyone else. What does that prove? Who does that help? What’s the point?
With my team, we struggled with other opponents all the way to the final game, despite real improvements that were evident during practice. In many ways, the disparity of an experienced varsity player and an absolute beginner is too big to overcome in one short (14 games) season, especially without a preseason, full team, and other impediments.
In practice, when playing 3v3, we looked like we knew how to play basketball by the end of the season. We certainly made mistakes, and missed too many shots, and traveled more than typical varsity players, but we did real basketball things: help defense, cutting, screening, scoring, passing, etc.
In games against other teams, the extra players, and their experience, meant that we had little time to make decisions, shoot, or attack. Because of our inexperience, it took us longer to recognize advantages or open teammates. In 3v3, we are afforded more time, and the reduced number of options reduces complexity and speeds up the decision making.
Obviously, beginners playing against other beginners in practice is part of the advantage as well (we have 8 players, so no chance to see what 5v5 looks like in practice; that of course is another issue with transfer to practice, as we never practice against 5 defenders). However, to me, it is a combination of facing more similar competition and playing a small-sided game that enable players to perform better during practice.
These two reasons are the primary reasons that I argue for SSGs with beginners. The increased time and space enables players to perform better during the learning or development phase; consequently, they have more opportunities to shoot, pass, and dribble. Also, it is easier to create more equitable teams in 3v3 than in 5v5. The structure of leagues such as Playmakers Basketball Development Leagues allows for easier team modifications in the 3v3 games than is usual during 5v5; how many leagues trade players from one team to the next because they find the teams are inequitable? I have never seen it.
Inequitable competition does not help anyone; most of the teams that face us do not get much out of the game beyond possibly some confidence and extra minutes for subs who rarely play. We do not benefit much from the games because we struggle to execute basic skills against more experienced, more athletic players and teams.
At the varsity level, those are the breaks; varsity high school is the end of organized sport for most people, and it should be competitive with teams competing to put banners for league and state championships on their gym walls. At the developmental levels, however, where most beginners enter the game, we should match the game to the players, rather than fitting the players into the adult game. Allow players to learn the game in a developmental environment with more equitable competition to improve learning, improvement, and fun. Once players have learned the basics and added some experience, the players can move to more competitive outlets if that is what they desire. Beginners, and young players, deserve the opportunity to learn and develop first before being pressured to perform.