When looking at the best players in middle school, high school and college, what skills separate the players? If we eliminate physical attributes like height which we cannot control, and adjust for athletic skills beyond the purview of most coaches like strength, agility and quickness, what technical and tactical skills separate the best players from the average players? If I could condense the ideas into one phrase, I would say that finishing plays separate the best from the average: the best players make better decisions and more shots inside the scoring zone than average players who miss open teammates or take more contested shots.
When I watch young and beginning players play, much of the game occurs outside the scoring zone. Players dribble too much and make too many passes to advance the ball from one of the court to the other, and every dribble and pass presents an opportunity for a beginner or young player to make a mistake, which means the ball never enters the scoring zone before being turned over. These 5v5 full-court games do not focus on the aspect of the game which separates the best players from the average: the finishing plays.
The same is true in soccer. When I refereed youth soccer, games were contested in the middle of the field. Entire halves passes without a shot on goal. Many refer to these games as “bumblebee ball” because of the lack of spacing as every child follows the ball around the field. When a shot did occur, it usually resulted from the fastest kid booting the ball ahead and outrunning everyone to take a shot.
This week, I tired of our basketball game at the after-school program where I coach, so we played indoor soccer. We played width-wise on the basketball court and played 4v4. Because of the size of the court and the limited number of players, the entire game was played in a scoring zone – defenders had to guard against the final pass or shot, while attacking players dribbled at defenders, ran quick 1-2s or shot on goal.
The 4v4 game did not develop every skill, as we did not take free kicks or throw-ins and the size of the field limited any long passes. However, the players practiced the important skills: passing in tight spaces around the goal, shooting on goal, attacking defenders with the dribble, and defending the area around the goal. Rather than booting the ball down field when the defense won possession, every ball was played out of the back with short passes, as booting the ball simply game the ball back to the offense for another attack.
5v5 basketball games often resemble the bumblebee ball. Basketball games never look quite so bad because players can use their hands, which is a less complex skill than using the feet, and there are fewer players on the court. However, when we play full-court 5v5 games, very little action occurs in the scoring zone. Most made shots result from a better player stealing the ball and outrunning the other players for a lay-up.
3v3 leagues center the game in the scoring zone. 3v3 does not develop every skill, as there is no press to break and it is hard to play a 3-man zone. However, when people talk about skills that are deficient in high school players, the four most common answers are typically:
- Moving without the ball
- Help defense
- Finding the open man
Furthermore, when I think of the biggest differences between a good player and a poor player at a young age, three basics separate these players in a progressive fashion:
- Making lay-ups
- Catching and squaring to the basket when defended
- Passing or shooting off the dribble rather than stopping and then making a pass or attempting a shot
For youth players, these three skills progress from easy to difficult. Making a lay-up is primarily a motor skill and often depends on the player’s coordination, strength and amount of practice. Catching and squaring to the basket often is a confidence issue; many players turtle with the ball because they are scared to make a mistake and they do not know what to do when they face the basket. They are overwhelmed by the possible responses, as well as the defensive pressure which narrows their attention and makes it harder for them to make a good decision. Passing or shooting off the dribble can be a strength and coordination issue, but often it relates to attention and decision-making. Because young players have to devote some attention to the dribble, which expert players do not, they have less attention to find an open teammate or concentrate on the basket. Therefore, they have to stop the dribble first and then decide what to do rather than making a decision while dribbling.
These three areas, as well as the four high school deficiencies, would be improved with more play inside the scoring zone. 3v3 play provides more opportunities for each player to shoot and practice lay-ups. 3v3 play forces players to move without the ball and puts more emphasis on the other two players to be ready to help if their teammate gets beat with the dribble. 3v3 also reduces possible responses which helps players learn to find the open man. They have more space and time to evaluate options and make correct decisions, whether squaring to the basket or passing off the dribble to the open player.
When players move from a 3v3 league to a 5v5 league, these skills will transfer. The players will have to adjust to a faster game, but that happens any time that a player moves up an age group. Players will face different pressure, including presses, but they will have a higher skill level with which to use against the increased defensive pressure. If players develop the confidence to square to the basket in 3v3, they carry over that skill to 5v5; when pressed, they square to the court to find an open player rather than turtling with the ball or panicking and throwing up the ball for grabs.
3v3 leagues are not the only way for young players to develop, and they will not solve every problem. However, for 8-10 year-olds, 3v3 is a more age-appropriate game, like small-sided games used by top soccer academies, and 3v3 leagues provide competitive experiences that focus more on the skills that eventually differentiate the better players from the average players. More time spent with the ball in the attacking area means more opportunities to make the finishing decision, more opportunities to shoot and more opportunities to defend the basket, the most important part of defense.
In this way, 3v3 leagues provide the best means to develop young players and prepare them for higher levels of competition.
By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League