The Purpose of Practice

Last week, I spent the week running basketball camps for a high school coach. We had sessions for high school players; 6th-8th graders; and 3rd-5th graders.

With each session, I had a different purpose. However, I managed the camp based on the players’ enthusiasm: if they appeared to enjoy something, we continued; if they did not, we stopped.

Old school coaches would think the camps for 3rd – 5th graders were a joke, but several parents asked us to run the camp again every week of the year. I probably spent no more than 20 minutes per day on drills, and we never played a second of 5v5. On the last day of camp, as I tried to create some new, fun games, we played capture the flag with basketball rules for almost 90 minutes and the players never lost their enthusiasm. In fact, it was the first time all week that they were not begging me to play steal the bacon by the end of the first hour.

I have never directed a camp (or practice) with so little actual basketball, but I do not know if I have ever had a camp as successful. The players appeared to love playing team tag, dribble tag, sharks & minnows, steal the bacon and capture the flag. Not once did a player ask to scrimmage or play a “real game.” In fact, by the last day, when I tried out freeze tag (did not go as well as planned: cannot play freeze tag with equal numbers per team), the players actually finished a game and started the next game without me having to say anything.

I think the camp was successful because I got out of the way. During capture the flag, I had to intervene once because there were too many disagreements about who got tagged or whether someone should have been in jail or not, but once I explained that we were going to play fair or play not at all, we had no issues. In fact, in the last game, there was a close call as to whether a player crossed the line before getting tagged and I asked the tagger if he got him in time and he said no – he played fair even when given the opportunity to decide the outcome of the game.

Even when we did drills, we went for short spurts and worked on important skills, so the players maintained their enthusiasm. I essentially focused on lay-ups, ball handling, jump stops, pivots and passing during the week – I did not introduce shooting to this group. One day, we did a right-hand lay-up drill (not the most skilled players in the world and many were beginners) for over 20 minutes and nearly every player maintained his enthusiasm and effort level throughout the drill with no direct supervision (I walked around to six different baskets).

The key with this age group is to make the activity fun so that they want to continue. I concentrated on agility and ball handling the most because the skills are most accessible to the age group and the games are easy and fun. As a bonus, improvement was visible.

I tried a couple generic straight-line ball handling drills to introduce the proper technique for dribbling. One young player was in front of me, s I watched him most intently. He struggled. He slapped at the ball and could not keep his head up at all. Later, when I watched him while we played dribble tag, he attacked other players, changed directions, controlled his dribble and looked up. He was a much better ball handler and practiced more game-like skills while playing tag than during a straight-line drill. If that is the case, why even bother with the boring drill when the fun game involved more realistic practice and improvement?

The 6th-8th grade group was more difficult because of the disparity of talent. Some players would not have been too good for the 3rd-5th grade session, while several would have been okay with the high school players. There were also several cliques of teammates, which always makes a camp environment tougher.

However, these players rarely lost their enthusiasm. Every drill had a purpose and an end-goal, and we moved quickly between skills and games. For instance, when I introduced shooting, each group made 20 shots at a spot and then moved to the next practice. While the goal may interfere with learning to some degree (players concentrate on making shots rather than learning the correct shooting technique), the goal maintained concentration.

On the final day, I split the group into 3v3 teams and we played 3v3 games to 3 baskets. I put the bigger, older players at one end and the younger, smaller player at the other end. When I watched the older players, I was disappointed by a lack of effort. We had played an advantage passing game before the 3v3 and it was probably the poorest effort of the camp. I gathered the older players and asked for help. I explained that they were not playing with any enthusiasm or effort in this drill or the previous drill. I asked if they wanted to continue or move on. Several suggested a move to cut-throat, rather than the 3v3 games. I had them finish a couple more games and then we played cut-throat. After the discussion, they played hard for the rest of the camp, and again there were no complaints about the lack of full-court games or 5v5 or “real basketball.”

When coaching young players, sometimes we allow our adult sensibilities and perspective to get in our way. Young players do not need to develop adult-level skills. It does not matter if none of the players shoots like Ray Allen or handles like Steve Nash. Instead, the goal is to make the game fun so the players want to play more. Sometimes that means fewer drills or less specific skill development and more fun games and general skill development (tag, for instance).

Do you have any great ideas for summer basketball camps? Please share in the forum.

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

6 thoughts on “The Purpose of Practice

  • Brian – That’s a great post. Thanks for the details. In it, you reference the following games for the 3rd-5th graders: team tag, dribble tag, sharks & minnows, steal the bacon and capture the flag. Can you provide an explanation of how those work? Or, send me to a link that explains them? I’m coaching a team of 7-8 year olds, and some of them would be great to integrate.



  • Team Tag is called “Speed Tag” in Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development.

    Dribble Tag is an individual game where each player has a ball and you try to knock away everyone else’s ball until one person is left.

    Sharks & Minnows, Steal the Bacon and Capture the Flag are common children’s games. S&M is simply a bunch of kids on one line (minnows) and a couple sharks in the middle and the minnows try to run from boundary to boundary without being tagged. StB is a team game; each kid has a number; call out numbers; the number for each team runs out and gets the ball and tries to score; after a basket, start with new numbers. CtF is a team game with a flag on each end and each team tries to get both flags safely onto their side – there are various permutations of this game.

  • How exactly does Capture the Flag work on a basketball court ? It sounds like a fantastic idea, but trying to think about the exact structure. I could not find an outline that discussed how “prison” works. Really sounds perfect for 8-10y olds.

  • Brett:
    I honestly forget exactly how it worked. I haven’t played capture the flag, basketball or otherwise, in a long time. Usually, the players know the rules better than I, and I simply add basketball rules. I believe jail is when you are tagged in your attacking half by an opponent. You stand in jail. If a teammate runs and tags you in jail, it is a “jail break” and you and your teammate hold hands (to denote that you’re safe and retreating to your side) and you walk back to your defensive side before rejoining the activity. Some allow players to run free directly from jail, but on a basketball court, jail and the flags (balls) are fairly close, which makes it easier to attack from jail.

    As for the basketball rules, you have to dribble with the ball when running or pass without traveling. I also limit long passes by requiring that the ball is dribbled across the mid-court line; otherwise, players can capture the ball and throw it to the other half of the court.

    Make sense?

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