Time and the difference between coaching in college and coaching youth basketball

I watched the end of a college basketball practice yesterday and spoke to a college assistant from a different program. At the practice, I saw the team play two one-minute games in the last 20 minutes of practice; the coach spent the rest of the time talking or instructing (I could not hear as I was at the opposite basket). When I spoke to the assistant coach, he emphasized the importance of repetitions and doing things (running the plays) over and over again so that the players learned.

Whereas this is not my approach to coaching, and wouldn’t be my approach even if I was a college coach, this is certainly not uncommon from the practices that I have watched over the years. However, does this mean that youth and high-school coaches should emulate college coaches?

The college coach had a three-hour practice. Assuming the team practices for three hours per day for six days per week, the team has more time on court in one week than many youth leagues have in a season. Think about that. An eight-week league with a one practice and one game per week schedule provides less court time for the players than a college team gets in a week!

A youth coach, therefore, cannot mimic a college coach. In fact, there is almost nothing that transfers between coaching a college team and coaching a youth team because of this fact. There is no time to do things over and over again to get something (a play) perfect.

When I moved from being a college assistant to being the head coach of a youth team, I learned this lesson quickly. I coached an AAU team, so we had more practice time: We were allotted four hours per week (not two) and occasionally played in tournaments on the weekends. However, due to Los Angeles traffic and a 6:00 P.M. practice time, the entire team was never there when practice started.

I went from a practice environment of roughly 15 hours per week of practice (and additional court time for 1 or 2 games per week), plus players asking me to do individual workouts prior to practice, to an environment of 3-4 hours per week, and I approached practice in the same way. We warmed up with isolated ball-handling drills; we did a lot of form shooting drills; we moved to build-up progression drills, etc. Fortunately, even then, I did not try to teach a lot of plays, defenses, or out-of-bounds plays.

Shortly after I started, the program director, Jerome Green, told me that the players needed to play more. He knew what I had yet to learn: I could not coach a youth team like a college team, if for no other reason than the amount of time on the court.

A college coach, if he or she chooses, can talk for 15 minutes straight and still have 2+ hours of practice time; if a youth coach talks for 15 minutes at an average youth practice with a typical recreation schedule, a quarter of the week’s practice time is wasted!

When I coached high school a couple years ago, I noticed this. We had three practices and two games per week. We could not go over two hours with our practices due to the gym schedule. Therefore, we practiced less than six hours per week. I did not feel that this was enough, so we treated every pre-game warm-up and every half-time like practice.

At the junior-varsity high-school level, we were often the first game and arrived early for fear of traffic making us late. We normally had close to an hour of warm-ups before a game. Whereas other coaches went into the locker room for extended periods of times and spent 20 minutes doing two-line lay-up drills and half-court 3v2 drills, we did the same drills that we did at practice: chaser lay-up drills, transition drills (when the other team went into the locker room), shooting drills, etc. With only six hours per week of practice, we tried to sneak an extra hour or two per week between pre-game warm-ups and half-times.

One of the big challenges with coaching youth is being efficient with the practice time. Of course, young players often need more simplicity because they have not mastered all (or any) of the skills. This presents a big problem.

The solution, oftentimes, is to rely on block practice to get as many repetitions as possible. Another solution is to combine skills in a game: Coaches attempt to add a ball to a dynamic warm-up to get some ball-handling practice. The problem with this approach is that each aspect of the work (general movements and ball handling) ends up mediocre.

Another solution is to limit the number of things that a coach attempts to teach. We took this approach. In 2-4 hours per week, we could not teach everything. We acknowledged this. Therefore, we focused on ball handling, lay-ups, and defending the ball – that means we spent very little time on passing skills, help rotations, shooting technique, etc. Our goal was to master these three things during the year rather than practicing a multitude of things and being mediocre at all of them.

Rather than practice these things through block practice, we used games. These small-sided games provided sufficient repetitions, limited feedback, and prepared the team for competitive game play, while developing the specific skills that we wanted to develop. The constraints that we placed on the games (such as 2v2 Rugby below) emphasized the skills (lay-ups, ball handling, on-ball defense) that we wanted to develop and created numerous random and variable repetitions. This practice transferred well to game situations. With the limited time, we reduced instructions and allowed the game to be the teacher. There simply was not enough time to teach via long-winded instructions like there may be at the college level where time is not nearly as precious.

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

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