Teaching a complex game to novice basketball players

This afternoon, I conducted a basketball clinic for children who had never played basketball. I knew that it would be a challenge when the boys and girls ran around throwing and kicking balls into the handball/futsal goals prior to the start. The children wore F.C. Barcelona jerseys and handball shoes. This was different than doing previous clinics with beginners in India where the children were happy for any activity. These were children with choices, and they had made their choice not to play basketball.

As I watched them play around prior to our start, I realized two things: (1) it is much easier for a small 10-year-old to kick or throw a ball into a large goal than it is to make a basket in a small circle 10 feet in the air; and (2) the relative absence of goals in soccer makes playing around with the ball without shooting seem purposeful and gamelike.

In a game, of course, there is a goalie which makes scoring in handball and soccer/futsal more difficult, and basketball is comparatively easy when looking at the number of shots made per minute in the NBA versus the EPL as an example. However, when children are playing around – when they are engaging in unstructured activities before choosing a sport to play on a team – they can throw a ball through a big goal and feel a sense of accomplishment and ability. Shooting at a 10-foot hoop is a far more daunting task.

As for soccer, children are happy to dribble around or juggle a soccer ball because there are few few shots and fewer goals in a game. In basketball, however, it is putting the ball into the basket that is the attraction, and for a young beginner, this is a complex task, often made more difficult by a coach or teacher giving numerous instructions before one can even attempt a shot.

Think of the numerous things a beginner basketball player must learn: rules, dribbling, passing, shooting, defense, etc. How many players quit before they even have a chance to learn these skills because the game seems too complicated or the learning takes too much time and/or is too boring?

Is there a way to simplify the game to make the entry into the game easier for young children? Can we make the skills easier to learn? As I asked before, how necessary are rules with beginners?

Would basketball be more fun for younger players if the rims were bigger? Do playgrounds have adjustable rims so children can play on rims that are more age-appropriate? In a sport like soccer or handball, children use the same sized goals as adults. However, the goalie changes in size, meaning that the ratio of size between the goalie and the goal gets smaller as players get older and better – therefore, the game grows increasingly more challenging as players improve. In basketball, a sport without a goalie, the opposite is true: the challenge is really never greater than when a child plays basketball. The ratio between the size of the shooter and the height of the basket gets progressively smaller as players get older, so the challenge actually gets smaller as players improve (this, of course, assumes that children are using a 10-foot hoop; I never went to a school with a lower hoop, but I know some leagues and schools do start children on smaller baskets; however, I also know when I coached u9 AAU, players played on 10-foot baskets).

Is there a way that we can change the game without changing the intrinsic dynamics of basketball to make it more accessible for children? If so, why aren’t we doing it?

By Brian McCormick, M.S.S., PES
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

7 thoughts on “Teaching a complex game to novice basketball players

  • I think in DK they do a good job with the adjustable baskets; playing the mini basketball on the shorter hoops. Side note: I actually had som u16 gym rats that would spend a lot of time dunking on the lower baskets. At the time I thought it was a waste of time, but now I think it was another way to get a ball in their hands and to work on other stuff like body control. It was also fun for them. One of the kids actually had a growth spurt and was dunking on 10 ft rims a few years later. In larry Bird’s autobiography “drive” he talks about some mean games of basketball with his brothers in their hallway using tin cans as hoops. Kids in brazil often don’t play regular soccer until their teens, and play hall soccer (futsal) as kids. Making the game easier with mini baskets and balls might be the best solution for beginner basketball players…

  • Hey Brian

    I worked with a European player at a bball camp once and she mentioned that when she was going through her sports school and as a young player they played a version of European handball with basketball nets. There was no dribbling, players ran with the ball and tried to shoot at the basket. I kinda thought it was a recipe for disaster with all the contact but kids were able to police themselves. Over time kids seemed to discover that they need to run and draw number of players toward them and than pass the ball. I don’t know if I would play this without some modifications to the rules regarding contact but it did get kids thinking about how to move the ball to create better scoring options. It also eliminated a lot of traveling and kept the game more free flowing like hockey or soccer.

    Just a thought.

  • On another note when I work with younger players (grade 2 and 3) all they seem to want to do is shoot. I am lucky that we have adjustable hoops at my school where I run the program and we use the Spaulding Rookie balls which are smaller (size 5) and about 25% lighter than the regular size 5 balls. However I fail to tap into this interest right away, I usually do a lot of ball handling or passing to start and gradually add in shooting. I find their form is way off and I am always correcting them.

    I am curious about your opinion on how to go about introducing the shooting from the beginning and building on their interest. How much corrections should I be doing when teaching shooting. They don’t listen particularly well to formal instruction, they do better with activities or games. How much of the “shooting form” should I be teaching?


  • Albert:
    I don’t work a lot with that age group anymore. When I coached u9’s, and had more of a training mindset, I still spent very little time each practice on shooting. Our emphasis was ball handling, lay-ups, and competitiveness.

    When I do clinics, my basic instructions with regards to shooting for the young players is to start and finish correctly. Essentially, I want them to learn to start with their hand under the ball, regardless of how low they start their shot, and I want them to learn to finish high. My major cues are “start small, finish tall,” and “shoot out of a phone booth.” (I met a coach who took that cue seriously and built a replica phone booth to use with children to give them the idea of shooting up then out). That’s really it. I just want to get rid of the error-prone starting positions that are usually a symptom of a lack of strength, whether shooting across one’s body, elbow flaring out, twisting as they jump, etc.

  • Albert:
    Interesting. I walked an u10 handball practice today. For children that small, it is rather easy to score. It generally takes 1-2 passes, and unless it is thrown directly at the goalie, I did not see him stop one. Just as in soccer, the goals are huge relative to the player’s size compared to the size of the goals relative to the adult athlete’s size. It seems so easy to have success; meanwhile, I watch u10s play basketball, and it is much harder for them to make a basket, even on an 8-foot hoop because the goal is relatively small and relatively high compared to their size.

  • Thanks

    As for a bigger goal – I have hung a hoola hoop from a bball rim to make a bigger target. With the rim hanging perpendicular to the ground it kind of gives an un natural target and kids literally try and throw the ball at the hoola hoop.

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