The Value of 3v3

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.

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

4 thoughts on “The Value of 3v3

  • Hello Coach McCormick, big fan, read most of your books. I agree and am a big proponent of 3V3. My daughter plays for a competitive club team but I’ve volunteered to coach her and some friends from school (non club players) in a 3V3 league this spring.

    One thing I’ve noticed with girls is since they are less likely to play pickup basketball than boys, they don’t know how to just play basketball when it’s not in a structured system. Thus, you have 6th grade girls that can run complex offenses, multiple out of bounds play, but they’ll often go to set a pick on a player and instead pick the “air” because they are just going through the motions and don’t really understand the purpose of the pick. I’d say 95% of 6th grade girls that I see, couldn’t run a pick and roll if you asked them.

    My thoughts for this 3V3 league is essentially let the girls play with minimal coaching and just give them tips on setting screens, cutting, spacing, etc. But I’m thinking that’s more beneficial than actually running an offense, since they do that all the time anyway? I’m more concerned with maximizing learning and development than winning.

    Lastly, two potential blog post or book ideas that I’d love to hear your thoughts on.

    1. I’d love a good book on working/training for parents. I think they’re a lot of parents who work with their kids, but it’s hard to think of drills that are transferable when’s it’s just say a dad and his daughter.
    2. If your child practices basketball for 200 hours pear year, what’s a good ratio of how that time should be spent. Thus I think a typical 6th grader spends about 60% on team practices and 40% playing games. But should that be 30% individual skill development, 40% team practices and 20% games?

    Keep up the great work!

  • Thank you for the comments and suggestions.

    1. Have you seen It has information for running a 3v3 league.
    2. Book for parents – I am writing a book for parents, but probably not in the direction that you suggested. Maybe I’ll add a specific chapter that addresses this. For the basketball side, maybe 21st Century Guide to Individual Skill Development has some of the information.
    3. This is a loaded question. Does she play other sports? What constitutes games? Do we consider free play or spontaneous practice as part of the 200 hours or is that additional? What type of environment is there at a team practice? Would strength training and/or athletic development fall within or outside these 200 hours? Does a team practice address athletic development (especially neuromuscular training)?

  • Thanks Brian! Great news on the book for parents, I’ve definitely picked up a lot of great tools from your books and website. I’m still blown away at the basketball trainers that I do see and how most of them feel the more gimics and props they have on the court the better the marketing will be for parents. Just last week I saw a basketball trainer working out two kids, he had them standing on Bosu balls doing one handed form shooting, I thought of you when I saw that, all for $60 an hour!

    Unrelated question, as I’m working my way through Hard2Guard Newsletters. I’m a big fan of Kelly Starrett and am always amazed at how many high school basketball players I see wearing ankle braces and I feel like girls wear them more than boys. You had mentioned that it reduces the flexion of the ankle, thus increasing the force on the knee and hips. Loved it and what I always assumed, but had never heard anyone comment on it.

    My question then is do you have any thoughts on leg sleeves/knee support that are so popular today with basketball players. I’m thinking that added support is doing the exact same thing, limiting range of motion, etc. I think the analogy is knee support sleeves that you see CrossFit athletes wearing or weight lifters, yes it helps to stabilize the knee and that’s great if you’re going for a max back squat, but you don’t want to wear them all the time.


  • I don’t have an opinion, but as I read through Volume 2 again before publishing it as a Kindle this week, I saw this:

    Knee Braces
    In the September 2008 Men’s Health (David Beckham on the cover), a study suggests that neoprene sleeves help protect against knee injury because they “significantly boost joint stability.”
    “According to Damien Van Tiggelen, P.T., the study’s lead author, injuries often occur when knee stability breaks down due to fatigue [another reason I argue against playing five games over a weekend]. He suggests reaching for the sleeves before the fourth quarter of a basketball game… ‘The brace provides support but doesn’t impair muscle function, so there’s no detrimental effect,’ he says, adding that the proprioception (sense of balance) can potentially smooth your movements.”
    Men’s Health suggests McDavid’s Level I knee support.

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