What are the real problems in youth basketball

Nearly every day, especially during the season, someone criticizes United States basketball for a host of perceived problems. Kobe Bryant has his issues; Stan Van Gundy has his issues; nobody, it seems, is happy with basketball in the United States. Typically, AAU and too many games are the scourges, but others blame a lack of coach education, television, money, millennials, dunking, or the NBA, and in women’s basketball, many blame UConn. The answer is usually to be more like Europe or to follow the Canadian model or mandatory coach education.

Personally, I believe that many are reacting to the wrong question, and therefore proposing an ill-fitting solution. Van Gundy sums up a certain perception quite nicely:

“If you look around we’re failing pretty badly in this country as a whole in teaching people basketball skills…because there’s a huge difference in just the skill level of the players coming from Europe and what we have here….We’re not developing skills here.”

Now, I don’t know where he is looking, or to whom he is referring, but I wrote this in response to Kobe Bryant’s rant last year:

Here is the thing: When Kobe Bryant looks at the skill level of Europe, he looks at the .01%: The Gasol brothers, Dirk, Parker, Noah, etc. are among the best players in their countries’ histories. He compares these greats to his teammates who are borderline NBA players on one of the NBA’s worst teams. If you take the top 5 players from Spain and compare them to the 250th best player from the U.S., I hope Spain’s players are more skilled. Comparing Pau Gasol to Nick Young is an unfair comparison, but if you want to argue that Gasol is more skilled than Durant, I will take Durant thank you very much, even if he did play in the “horrible, terrible” AAU.

If you want to argue that NCAA men’s basketball is unwatchable, or NCAA women’s basketball has nobody to compete with UConn, I will not disagree. However, if the argument is that other countries develop better talent, or better fundamentals in elite players, by what metric? USA women’s basketball obliterated the rest of the world, and the WNBA MVP and Candace freaking Parker were not even selected. USA men’s basketball won another gold medal. The best shooters in the NBA – Curry, Durant, Redick, Korver, etc. – and the best shooters in the WNBA – Moore, Taurusi, Bird, Delle Donne, Tolliver, etc. – managed to develop decent fundamentals in the “horrible, terrible” AAU and the bankrupt basketball system in the U.S.

The problems with basketball in the United States are not, and never have been, about developing the elite talent. When I wrote Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development, many thought it was a reaction to USA Basketball’s (men) losses in 2002 and 2004. It wasn’t. It never had to do with the elite. Instead, it was focused on everyone else, and the problems for the non-elite – those not destined to play in the NBA/WNBA – are growing.

First, and probably most worrying, I see giant decreases in participation rates of girls basketball. I have spoken to two high school ADs this week, both at 2000+ student public high schools, and one did not have enough interest to field a girls’ team last year, and the other may not have enough interest to field a team this year. One team! When I was in high school, girls programs had 3 teams and had to cut girls who tried out. This was before the WNBA!!! which was supposed to increase participation in girls basketball. Even 5 years ago, when I coached girls basketball at a large public school, we had 42 girls spread out on a freshman team, JV team, and varsity. 42 girls were involved in the basketball program at an academic-oriented, volleyball-dominated school. Now, large public schools struggle to draw 7-8 girls!

On the other side, I spoke to an athletic director who has 100 boys trying out for a junior varsity basketball team. No frosh-soph; no freshmen team. The 12-player varsity team has freshmen through seniors, and the junior varsity level is freshmen through juniors. 24-30 players make the teams; 70+ boys are cut.

This situation happened at my high school every year. Over 100 boys tried out for a freshmen team (in addition to 15 playing JV, and 15 playing varsity). My high school started a second freshmen team to allow for 30 of those 100 freshmen to make the team. I believe some similar high schools, and possibly my alma mater, later started a second JV team to include an additional 15 players for an extra season. We also had a lunchtime intramural league for those not playing on a basketball team, and there was open gym throughout the fall and spring (no organized high-school leagues or teams in the fall or spring, as it was against the rules). Of course, we had 4 days of P.E. too.

I offered to run a small program for the players who are cut who may have interest in paying to play in a recreation league to stay active and prepare for next season’s tryouts. There is gym time available on weekday evenings after 7:30 PM, and teams are prohibited from practicing on Sundays. There is available gym time. It would not be as extensive as the high school team, but it would allow the players to play. With 15 players making a freshmen through junior team, and a team where the AD emphasizes winning, how many freshmen and sophomores will make the team? Will it be the ones with the most potential? The ones who are bigger and stronger and able to compete against more physically mature juniors? How do you sustain a program by turning away so many players?

Why is running a league for these students at their own high school prohibited? According to the AD, the principal will not rent out the gym to outside groups, and because it is not school-affiliated, as it is not the school team, I would not be able to rent out the gym, even for a fee and even if I was on staff as a coach. Avoiding any inconvenience is more important to the principal than providing outside recreational opportunities to 70 boys who have shown an interest in playing basketball, despite numerous studies that have shown the positive benefits in terms of health, academics, future success, and staying out of trouble from participating in sports and being physically active.

This resistance is normal. Whether speaking to recreation directors in New Mexico or directors of Jr. NBA programs in Salt Lake City, few administrators appear willing to create new programs or change existing programs, even when the administrators admit that the current programs are run poorly and plagued with problems, including 30+% dropout from year to year. As long as the administrators meet their minimum revenue to appease their supervisors, nothing changes.

These are the major issues in youth basketball that go above and beyond skill development, fundamentals, or quality of play. Why are fewer girls playing basketball? Why are there not more (affordable, accessible, and positive) opportunities at developmental levels for those (boys and girls) who have shown an interest in playing?

Everything is a rush to cut athletes, make the system more competitive, and transition more of the coaching into the private sector, especially in terms of individual training. Training individually is viewed as the solution to the problems suggested by Van Gundy, Kobe, and others, but what about the expense? What about open gyms for players to play, even when they are not destined to be NBA players? What about accessibility to teams, courts, and opportunities? What about playing basketball for the sake of playing the game? What is the purpose of our educational institutions as it pertains to extracurricular activities? How should communities expect the facilities at local schools to be used? Who should have access to those facilities? Only the chosen few who make a team or any of the students in the school?

There is a limit to the possibilities, but we’re not even close to that limit (although in some areas, and with some athletes, we probably exceed the limit of what is necessary and beneficial). When gyms are locked at night or on weekends, who does that benefit? Why not encourage or even demand more access to facilities to increase opportunities for children and adolescents to increase physical activity, motor skill development, play, health, and fun?

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

5 thoughts on “What are the real problems in youth basketball

  • I imagine it is a societal issue as much if not more than a basketball issue. The Education documentary, “The Race to Nowhere” outlined similar issues in education. I believe many of the same causes exist in both.

    1. The over involvement of too many well-meaning adults. Nearly all adults have the children’s short-term best interests in mind. Many of the great basketball players prior to this generation had minimal coaching while growing up. Many great minds at very little or very hands-off schooling as compared to this generation. No one wants to see their child struggle or left behind but learning and development do not progress in a neat, linear fashion

    2. The belief that “life is a competition” and that competition must start as soon as possible. This goes against nearly all child development studies. The best and deepest learning occurs most often in a low stakes, supportive environment that is child driven rather than adult driven. Development is not a zero sum enterprise. Everyone can get better without retarding the development of the elite. There are a few who will thrive in this environment (maybe despite this environment) but most kids simply need time and space.

    3. The belief that ranking and sorting children as early as possible gets the best results. There is no evidence that early (pre-pubescent) acquisition of a skill except in very rare instances has any correlation to the ultimate level of skill attained. Many common held beliefs are met with great resistance no matter how little evidence supports that belief……. Children must be reading by x age or they must play (fill in sport/skill) year round or they will be left behind.

    4. I can’t remember who said this but I agree with the statement, “We often overestimate children academically but underestimate them intellectually.” This is why we feel the need to run plays, call pitches and constantly yell out instructions but can’t understand when they then can’t think for themselves eventually. However when given a preview and a little inspiration, kids teach themselves to play video games and musical instruments, learn how to play sports and games at very high levels. Ex. Messi, Jimi Hendrix, Larry Bird, etc.

  • Mike
    You make good points, but I wonder if you could share info re: paragraph 2, child development studies.

    In para 3 I’d like to see more info on when kids do acquire skills. Recently I read a combo interview of Daniel Pink and Professor Ericksson which indicated that some EARLY skill development does occur and MUST for example for ballerinas. Did you see that?


  • Todd,
    A couple of good places to start would be:
    Peter Grey’s work:Playing in the Zone of Proximal Development: Qualities of Self-Directed Age Mixing Between Adolescents and Young Children at a Democratic School
    Lev Vygotsky a Russian psychologist and his work: Interaction between learning and development. In M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, and E. Souberman (Eds), Mind and society: the development of higher psychological processes

    Grey is an advocate for democratic schools and the unschooling movement which preaches allowing children to learn at their own pace and at their own choosing.

    I believe that kids are alway acquiring skills but what I meant is that the best 8 year old isn’t automatically the best 15 year old. However, we are constantly selecting and ranking kids to grade and rate them when their development is not constant.
    Example, Joe is reading at a 5th grade level even though he is in 3rd grade. Mary is on the U8 Elite travel team.

  • To add, I remember one of the unschooling articles that I have read made the point that although students start reading at a later age, by a certain age (10,11, ?), differences between early starters and late starters have evened out, when the late readers are allowed to learn at their own pace. The problem in school systems is that a late reader is put into remedial classes, and the early reader is placed into advanced classes, and this creates a completely different environment in terms of expectations that directly affect a student’s self-perception, which affects learning.

    As for sports development, there are plenty of studies that show that those who are elite at junior levels often are not elite at older age groups. Ross Tucker has some good presentations on this.

  • I read a stat, can’t recall where, that says that of the elite 14 year old girls basketball players, only 25% become elite 18 year old bb players.

    Thanks for the info Mike…and Brian.

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