Using the club system to develop a true feeder system

Last week, after watching some of the youth teams in the club play, I asked to organize a coach’s meeting. My purpose for the meeting was a desire to create a club philosophy. Within our club, coaches change almost every year, as most youth teams are coached by senior players. Therefore, there is little consistency from year to year, and the growth and development of the players appears slow and fragmented. 

Yesterday, however, Finnish coach Harri Mannonen posted a blog about clubs designing their feeder systems around a staple system and questioned whether this limited development rather than enhancing it. Whereas a philosophy and a staple system are not necessarily the same thing, and in many ways are different, what is the purpose or the benefit of developing within one club?

In the U.S., it is rare for a basketball player to develop within one environment fro several consecutive years. Even when I coached with a very good AAU program – Hoop Masters in Los Angeles – it was rare to retain good players for more than 2-3 years. I worked with another lasting program, the NorCal Sparx, but it imploded during the high school years. Another former club, the Santa Monica Surf, kept a group together for 2-3 years, and some for a couple more, but eventually the players split.

There are advantages and disadvantages to a one club or one coach system. For instance, when I was at Hoop Masters and coached u9 boys, we emphasized several things with the belief that their coach at the u10 level could complement this development. Therefore, we focused on individual defense, ball handling, and lay-ups, and believed the next coach could build on these skills with more team defense and shooting concepts. Because the majority of the players on the u10 team had played together on the u9 team, they had similar skills and a similar playing background which could be used as a foundation to continue to build and develop skills.

Instead, oftentimes players move from coach to coach without a natural progression. For instance, if a child plays in a local Parks & Recreation league as an u9, there is no guarantee of what skills his or her coach will emphasize. When these players move to u10, there is no guarantee that players will play for the same team or that the u10 coach will know the u9 coach. Therefore, the players may or may not have a similar playing background or skill set.

As a small example, with our team, every player handled the ball. Every player had varying abilities with the ball and varying size and quickness, but every player did every ball handling drill. We did not designate positions. Whereas there was definitely a discrepancy between the best and the worst ball handlers at the end of the season, even the worst ball handler was capable with the ball against a full-court press, which several opponents noted to us. In another environment, a coach may tell the bigger players not to dribble or focus only on one to two players dribbling the ball at all times. If one of the bigger players from this environment had joined with the players who we had at u9s, he would have been far behind. There would have been multiple foundations from which the next coach would have to start.

The disadvantage of the one coach or one club system, from an individual’s perspective, is the other side. What if your skills or strengths do not mesh with the coach’s approach to the game? For instance, what if Dirk Nowitski had played for coaches who believed that he should never leave the key, that a 6’10 player had to rebound and protect the basket, not shoot jump shots? If he was stuck in a one club or one coach situation, he may have quit the game because that approach did not fit his skills or his desires or he may not have developed into the player that he is today.

I worry about this with the teams that I coach. What if I miss on a player? What if a player excels at something that I am not noticing and I stunt his growth? Two years ago, I asked the varsity coach to promote a freshman player to the sophomore team because I id not feel like I was maximizing his talent. I did not think that he was the best player on my team, but I thought that a new coach might be able to get more from him than I was able to. I was worried that maybe he did not fit my system or our personalities did not mesh or whatever. In a one club or one coach system, however, what if that player was stuck with me or with my ideas for his entire career? When I trained a number of players, I encouraged them to try other trainers to see if there was something else that they could learn rather than being limited only to my knowledge and teaching.

When I played, I thought the best experience was playing for other coaches, whether at summer camps or summer leagues. In truth, my game and my skills never fit with the systems that my school teams used even though my school teams were always very successful. When I played in other environments, I was able to utilize my full skill set. As an example, as a high-school freshman, as a point guard, I basically dribbled the ball into the front court, passed to the wing, cut away and became a spot-up shooter. That summer, in a summer league, I was basically Steve Nash with the Suns. The coach gave me the ball, encouraged us to run, and let me use ball screens all game long. In the summer, I was able to use and improve all my skills even though our school-team system did not require those skills. If I only played with my school team, I may never have developed those skills.

Despite my fun and learning with my summer teams, most of my skill development occurred with my school teams. From 5th-8th grade, I basically had the same coach. Our skills progressed on an annual basis, as we progressed with the same foundation from 5th grade to 6th grade. With the summer team, I was the fortunate player chosen by my coach – there were other players who rarely ever touched the ball as I was the dominant ball handler. I was the one with the higher skill level. My coach once admonished me for passing up an open shot to pass to a less-skilled teammate for a lay-up which he missed. Whereas this built m confidence as no coach had, what was it like for my teammate? Was he developing? Would that situation been good for him had that been his only coach for his entire career?

Therefore, I don’t know if there is a correct answer. I imagine players can develop in either situation. In the U.S., there is an embarrassment of riches. With the freshman player on my team, if he did not develop, there were another five point guards in the class behind him. If he never maximizes his talent, someone else will, and the success of the program will likely not be altered; just his individual career. In small clubs, like the one where I am now, we cannot afford to lose a player. We cannot afford not to maximize each player. My first team has only one true homegrown player; that means the club has to find ways to attract an entire team’s worth of players. That means finding jobs for some, enrolling some in schools, etc. Luckily, we are the only club at our level for miles and miles, so a couple players choose to drive an hour to play for our club in a more competitive level, as opposed to playing for their home club. On my second team, I have 3-4 homegrown players. The next level is the u16s, and they have only 8 players. Because of the dearth of players, we essentially have to develop all eight players and maximize the talents of all of them. Imagine coaching a varsity high-school team in a district where there were only 8 players playing on a combined 6th-8th grade team. It’d be pretty difficult to build a program. You would feel a need to develop all eight players to maximize their skills. That is a very different situation than being in a large public school where 70-100 freshman tryout for the team every year. If one of those 8th graders quit, there are plenty of players to replace him.

In a small club, I think there needs to be greater organization governed by a club philosophy. The philosophy does not need to be restrictive, but it should help to guide the coaches and players. When I watch our clubs play, each team from year to year plays different defense and runs different offense. Is that enhancing adaptability, as Mannonen suggested, or is it simply leading to a lack of mastery?

When I studied English at UCLA, I remember a professor telling us about the haiku that the greatest constraints allow for the most creativity. Because a poet no longer has to think about rhyme scheme or syllables per line because the haiku constraints the poet to three lines in a 5-7-5 pattern, the poet can focus entirely on the creativity of the content and the idea. In the same way, whereas a philosophy could be seen as reducing variability or creativity, simplifying the process may actually serve to create more creativity.

Mannonen wrote:

“Variability is one the main principles of motor skill learning. But if the club has a staple system, it will make the players repeat the same motor patterns over and over again, season after season. So having a staple system is counter-productive when comes to motor skill learning.”

Which motor skills? If a club adopts a packline defense philosophy for all levels, does that ensure that players will repeat the same patterns over and over? Doesn’t that depend on the offenses? If a team becomes very adept at its basic defensive principles, won’t that allow for additional creativity?

I agree, for the most part, with Mannonen’s argument because he is influenced by more restrictive systems, as he wrote:

“Sometimes clubs – at least here in Finland – will put an emphasis on designing a staple system of play for all or most youth teams within the organization. This staple system may be drawn up in great detail. It may include set plays, a continuity offense, a distinctive set of defensive rules and so on.”

My goal with my club is not to create a restrictive system or to force all the coaches to run my plays, my defense, and my drills. However, I do believe that a philosophy, an objective, and a systematic progression for players will enhance our club’s player development. From year to year, this development will be shaped by the individual coaches, who will change, but some things should be absolutes for all the teams or for specific ages.

What does that mean? Based on the way our teams have performed, I think we need to emphasize speed with all our age groups: speed of play, speed of foot, speed of thought, and speed of decision making. The better teams play so much faster than us at the youth ages, and much of that starts at practice. We need more of an emphasis on shooting at every level, as only one or two homegrown players is an above-average shooter for his or her age group. As an extension of speed, we need more attention placed on individual defense, as very few players in the club at any age group excel at moving their feet and containing dribble penetration.

My goal is not to design one specific system for the entire club so every team runs the Flex and plays the packline defense. My goal is to create some absolutes and allow each coach to use his or her creativity within those absolutes. I think that the u16 coach should have an expectation of skill levels and knowledge base when players move from u14 to u16 rather than starting over each year.

Essentially, I think the goal of a club should be to utilize the best of both approaches (one coach/one club vs. hodge-podge), whereas, I think my club, due to the constant changing of coaches is stuck with the worst of both. I believe a club should have a continuity of learning for players as they progress from level to level. The teams should speak the same language so I can pluck an u16 player for my 2nd team, and he can adjust quickly to the new team because we have the same basic principles. However, I also believe that individual coaches should have some freedom to use their own drills or their own style, as long as they achieve certain skill-related benchmarks with their players and speak the same basketball language. In this way, there is continuity in each player’s development, but there is the opportunity for players to learn from different coaches and different styles, even within one club.

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

9 thoughts on “Using the club system to develop a true feeder system

  • Hey Brian,

    Are you familiar with how soccer clubs manage this challenge. I remember the article in the New York times magazine about Ajax – I think – and how they looked to develop players to trade or sell to bigger wealthier clubs. The article gave the impression they were very good at it. I also remember reading about the Barca club and how their first team is composed of a lot of players that they developed in their feeder system. Any thoughts?

    Perhaps its not feasible to look at large wealthy clubs were money isn’t and issue and their wealth gives them a larger margin of error. Are there smaller clubs that can develop talent without a large influx of money?


  • Albert:
    I don’t know if I’d say that I am familiar, but I have read about several clubs. I imagine there are some smaller clubs that develop players that are lesser known, but it also depends what one means when he says that a club developed a player.

    For instance, Arsenal gets a lot of credit for developing players, however several of its good young players – Walcott, Ox – started at Southhampton and were bought my Arsenal as teenagers. Did Arsenal develop them? Yes and no. They were already good players who had shown a lot of potential, otherwise Arsenal would not have bought them. However, Arsenal gave them the playing time and the final touches to become BPL quality players. It’s kind of like saying that Kentucky developed Anthony Davis. He was already good; otherwise, Kentucky would not offer him a scholarship. However, Kentucky likely helped to mature his game and make his NBA transition easier, so they did have some effect on his development. However, what about his high school? AAU team? youth teams? Were they not involved in his development?

    The article about Ajax also mentioned how it has a network of scouts throughout the country looking to find players as young as 6 to bring to the Academy, and that parents look favorably upon this. Here, especially with basketball, the environment is completely different. We do have a small dorm and can bring in high-school aged players, but most are from outside the country, and the locals include 2 players who are from the club in the next town who does act as an unofficial feeder club to our club.

    Also, basketball, for whatever reason, tends not to have the huge transfer fees of soccer, unless a player is drafted by the NBA. Ajax funds its entire annual operations with the sale of 1-2 great players. In basketball, you just don’t hear about these big transfer fees. For instance, there is a young player in our club who essentially has committed to a professional club here for next season, so he doesn’t play with any of our teams anymore, just his age group team (u16). When he leaves for the new club, there will not be a transfer fee. He just leaves. The same thing happens with college basketball. The league here is hurt when its best players leave to play college basketball. In a small country without a ton of homegrown talent, 2-3 players leaving every year robs the league of 8-12 players, and some of those players do well enough in college to sign contracts with better leagues after college. Again, the clubs do not make any money when a player signs with a college or when they sign a contract post-college.

    The club invested 5-6 years in the u16 player, and now he will play for someone else. This affects participation, as since Ajax views players as an investment and a commodity, they have to start with a lot of players, which means playing for free as a child, but it also means cutting players once it is determined that they will not make it. Here, players have to pay to play, which is another obstacle to participation, but it also means that we find a team for anyone desiring to play, even if that means adding a player who has never touched a ball before to an u16 team or an adult team. We don’t cut anyone; our club is more inclusive, rather than being a cutthroat professional club. Our primary goal is simply to add numbers to all of our teams whether those players are good or not. Rather than sending out scouts to identify talent to sign, we invite any and all children to join the club regardless of experience or ability.

    My team, even though we are really young, might disappear in 2-3 seasons. First, my best local player said he’s playing 2 more years than retiring at age 30. Second, his back-up is 36 and a part-time player as is. Third, the best young player is looking to go to college in the States. Fourth, the u16 player is committed to another club. Fifth, my sixth man this coming weekend, in his last year of high school, is joining the military. Take a small club, with these changes, and I don’t know if there are enough good, young, local players to overcome these departures. I don’t see any other young players who I anticipate being a 6’8 post, a 6’5 wing or a 6’3 guard. Those are just expected departures; what happens when other players retire or go to college or join the military or have to move to a bigger city to find a better paying job?

    I also think the comparisons between soccer and basketball are tough because soccer is so much more popular throughout most European countries and there is more wealth in the game, even in the smaller, less wealthy countries.

    There are some basketball clubs known for their player development, like FMP Zeleznik in Belgrade and Ricky Rubio’s old club, Joventut Badalona. But, they are also in countries where basketball is much, much more popular, not to mention bigger cities. I remember an old article about Maccabi Tel Aviv having a network of 30+ feeder clubs throughout Tel Aviv. That’s amazing and awesome, but unrealistic for smaller towns (though I have tried to get the club to start Playmakers Leagues as introductory leagues for multi-sport athletes at the schools in neighboring areas, but it takes time to start things like that, and the club has been unwilling to adopt the PBDL model, and instead are sticking with a weekly clinic model at 2 schools).

    I’d direct you to to see another perspective of basketball in Spain from last season. The coach from the U.K. worked with one of the big clubs, but coached u15s, I think. In a bigger city, where basketball is bigger, the situation is dramatically different. This is why when Americans say that we need to do things the “European Way,” I ask what they are talking about because there are many differences from country to country.

  • You are faced with some challenges. You are not trying to develop players you are trying to get them to start playing. Out of curiosity how big is the town/city that you coach in? When do most players start playing basketball and how do they come to it. What is the motivation in a Norway to play basketball. I think you mentioned it in a previous blog that the game needs to be fun so kids are attracted to play basketball and bring along some friends. Sounds like you need to do this at your higher levels as well.

    How do the other clubs in your area or league make out as well. Do they have the same challenges – how do they get players?

    Just curious.


  • AT:
    I am pretty sure that we represent the smallest town by a huge margin at the level at which we compete. Most of the clubs that we play are from suburbs of big cities; I think our town has 7,000 people and is fairly isolated. It’s a 25-minute drive to anything resembling a city (train station) and even further to a real city (hospital). However, because we play at a higher level, I have two players who drive from a city an hour away and another player who drives from 25 minutes away. A major problem is there is no university here, so once teenagers finish high school at 18/19, they either have to find a job (work in a cafe, work at a factory) or go away to school. In the small city 25 minutes away, there is a school for physios, so 3-4 of the women’s players are in school there, which helps to build numbers for the senior teams.

    Our biggest age group is 10-11. I know we have at least one u16 who started for the first time this season. We go to schools and work with 9-13 year olds to try and get them to join the club. We ran a big school’s tournament and tried to recruit new players there. In our town, most join basketball after trying handball or soccer. There are very few second generation basketball players here – in the cities, it is much different. From what I am told, the country is almost divided in half; in our half, handball is king and soccer is close behind; in the other half, soccer is king, and basketball is more popular than handball. I’ve talked to coaches in other clubs who have over 250 children in the club; we probably have less than 50.

    One big issue for us is the lack of opponents. There isn’t another youth girls club closer than 2.5 hours (we have a girl from an hour away who had always played with boys until she moved here). Our u16 girls drove 2 hours for games last weekend and had to play u13 boys. Some parents won’t sign up for basketball because they believe that they have to travel four hours for games (somewhat true). So, it’s not just a failure by our club, but the entire region. The club in the next closest city has only boys programs. That not only affects that city, but it also means we have nobody to play, and it also means our senior teams do not have a club from which to draw (3 of our top 12 senior team men are from this city and started with this club as children, as an example).

    In a sense, in our area, the answer would be that most clubs do have the same problems in terms of attracting children because handball and soccer are much more popular. However, in the cities, basketball has a lot more success attracting players into the clubs.

    Yes, the tradition is to make the club into a social club. For instance, our youth teams practice twice per week until u16. I wanted to create a skills clinic for one of the practices and separate children by skill level, and then leave one team practice for age group. The disparity between players on the same team is so big, and beginners at every age group need the same things, I figured it would be a better use of time. The club manager – who has a 15 year-old daughter – said her friends wouldn’t come to the skill practice – they only come to be with their friends. The u16s practice at the same time as our second team of women (mostly u18s), and most of the u16s skip that practice because they don’t want to practice together with the older group. They’re there for their friends far more than to improve.

    That leaves a very inefficient set up when you have novices and potential national team players practicing together, as we do with at least 3 teams. The novices tend to sit out because they know they slow things down, especially scrimmages, so they’re not improving as quickly, whereas the best players are slowed down by the new players and unchallenged. But, the club worries that change may scare off players, and we cannot afford to lose anyone who expresses an interest.

    We run a program for high school players that attracts players from out of town (out of the country) to live here, work out, go to school, and play with our senior teams. There are 5 girls, only one from our town, and 4 boys, only one from our town. A couple more guys come to the workouts even though they are not technically a part of the program – young players from the senior team – and I have invited the best 12 year-old boy and best 14-year-old boy too. Therefore, they’re getting some extra practice with a greater challenge. The 14 year-old held his own, so now he plays on our 3rd Division men’s team (really our u20 team), even though he is probably about 5’6 and 110 lbs. It’s harder to get the young girls to come.

  • Hey Brian

    Do the elementary schools or high schools offer any type of program or are sports delivered via a club model.

    Many of your ideas may take some time to take hold. They may buy into some of your ideas over time.

    Good luck.


  • Albert:

    Sports are primarily through clubs. However, there are some boarding schools that offer sports – two of our players attended boarding schools last year and returned here. The boarding schools practice every day from what I have been told.

    In the local schools, there is P.E., but not organized sports teams. When our club held the school tournament, teachers acted as the coaches (basically to substitute), and some of them did not know how many players played at a time or any of the other rules. It’s just an annual tournament that is like a fun day for all the children because they get out of school and get to run around a big gym with other children from other schools.

    The club is partnering with schools to do clinics. Usually, these are one-time clinics that the club does to try and encourage new players to sign up. The school allows us to come to a P.E. class and run the clinic. The club also has partnered with 2 schools to do after-school clinics in towns outside our town where the children may not be able to get to practice at our gym. These are the schools where I thought the PBDL would be perfect, as it would provide some organization and purpose to the clinics, and the schools could come to our gym on the weekend or every other weekend to play with other schools for the games, as no school has enough players by itself to have its own PBDL or even a full scrimmage.

    Beyond those, sports are run by the clubs.

  • Thanks for all your answers to my questions – I appreciate your thoroughness. Best of luck this season.


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