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Managing the Game Positively

This is an excerpt from Survival Guide for Coaching Youth Basketball 2nd Edition by Keith Miniscalco & Greg Kot.

Managing Pregame Details

Before you talk to your team about the specifics of playing the game, take care of a few essential tasks. These may seem mundane, even distracting, but they're critical for ensuring that the game is played in an orderly and, above all, safe manner.

  • Add your player roster and player numbers to the scorebook. Keep a copy of the roster with you so you can quickly copy it for all games.
  • Check that all players are wearing kneepads and that their jerseys are tucked in. Players who forget their kneepads should not play without knee protection. As a last resort, have them borrow pads from a player on the bench and return them when they come out of the game.
  • Look to see that no one is wearing jewelry, bracelets, or metal hair clips. Use tape to cover up pierced-ear studs if they can't be removed easily.
  • Ensure that every child has brought water for the game. Always have a few extra dollars in your wallet to buy a drink from a beverage machine or concession stand for a player who has forgotten to bring water. Locate any nearby drinking fountains that the players can use.
  • Remind all players to take a bathroom break in plenty of time before the opening tip-off.
  • Greet the opposing coach and referees. Identify yourself and wish everyone a good game. A brief, friendly icebreaker conversation with the adults supervising the game will help create an atmosphere of cooperation. Yes, you're there to compete, but not at the expense of sportsmanship and safety. If a dispute arises in the game, you'll all be better equipped to deal with it in a civil manner.
  • Ensure the scorer's table is staffed. The referees may ask you to enlist a parent to run the scoreboard or keep the scorebook (keeping track of the individual scoring and team fouls). These are relatively simple tasks, but they may require a minute or two of training. The referees usually handle these little primers before the game with the volunteer scorekeepers, but coaches should familiarize themselves with these tasks as well.
  • Ask the scorekeeper to inform you about individual and team fouls so that you can better manage your substitutions.

Managing the Game Positively

Coaches arrive at the gym on game day full of anticipation and anxiety. What are you going to say to your team? How are you going to keep them focused once the game gets rolling and the nerves kick in? It's best to think before you get to the gym about what you want to tell your team. Plot out the things you want to convey and how, so that you can keep things simple and to the point. Weed out everything that isn't absolutely necessary to convey.

The following list provides the essentials of what you'll need to communicate to the team before the game:

  • The starting lineup. You'll want to prepare the lineup ahead of time so you aren't fumbling for names seconds before tip-off. Coaches will be tempted to start their best players and sub in the weaker players all the time. But in youth basketball, it's much more important to give every player a chance to experience being a starter, so rotate the lineup every game.
  • Defensive set and court direction. If you're playing man-to-man, make sure each player knows which opponent he's going to cover. If you're playing zone, make sure players know the zone set and what area they are to cover. Remember to use your dry-erase board. In addition, be sure your players know which way they are going on offense and which basket they will be defending. It's not as easy as it looks.
  • Out-of-bounds plays. Review the out-of-bounds plays with the team on your board. Remind them that the player inbounding the basketball is responsible for calling the play, but that you will help them out during the game with timely reminders
  • Pep talk. It's always a good idea to remind the players what's coming up. It's a game. The object is to have fun. There's no reason to be nervous or scared. But there is one requirement: Play hard. Mistakes will be made, but every player, no matter what her ability, needs to play with energy and passion. That means hustling back on defense, diving on the floor for loose balls (while wearing kneepads, of course), scrapping for rebounds, and loudly encouraging teammates.
  • Question-and-answer time. Give the players a chance to ask questions. Inevitably, one of the kids will ask, What's the postgame snack? Reveal this top-secret information if you feel it will give your team more incentive to play well, then encourage questions related to the actual game itself. If your players are new to the game, chances are they won't even know what to ask. All you can do at this point is to offer the most timeless advice available: All right, then, go out there, play hard, and have fun!

Remember, the players will also be nervous and excited, so the more you talk, the less they will actually hear. Parents know that glazed-eye look their own kids give them mid-speech. At a certain point, the little rascals just tune out. So don't expect your players to be riveted on your every profound thought, especially when they've got a game to play. In as succinct a fashion as possible, give the players the minimum information they need to do a good job. Keep it simple. Keep it brief.

During the game, the coach's primary job is to encourage and support the players. Keep smiling, and dish out compliments like Halloween candy. Enjoy the effort, even if it's misguided. Applaud the hustle, even when ineptitude breaks out like a bad rash. Don't raise your voice unless it's to be heard above the noise in the gym, and then only to say something positive. When a player comes out of the game hanging her head after a bad play, take each negative and turn it into a positive teaching opportunity: "Good try, Melissa! That was a great effort. Just be sure next time to move your feet instead of reaching for the ball, and you'll stop them every time."

Winning is always a welcome outcome, but it shouldn't override the coach's main concerns. It's easy to lose sight of what's important as the game progresses and the competitive juices start flowing. But most of your team won't lose any sleep later that night over who won or lost, and neither should you. Instead, put your energy into three must-do tasks during the game:

  1. Keep it fun. It's not about winning at all costs. If all the kids aren't having fun, we all lose. The key to this is making sure everyone plays and everyone has an opportunity to contribute, no matter what their level of talent. You can do this by focusing on effort, hustle, and teamwork, and de-emphasizing the score. If the kids are trying hard, that's all you can ask. Even as the mistakes pile up, keep smiling and keep teaching. Don't wag a finger and scold the kids for messing up plays and concepts they've only just begun to learn. Always reward effort with applause, high fives, and pats on the back. Not only is it OK to crack a smile and even tell a joke occasionally, it is a must-do.
  2. Put players in positions to succeed. Know your players' abilities, and coach accordingly. For example, don't put your slowest player in a game to guard the other team's best ballhandler. Don't expect a small guard to score against a much bigger defender. Don't make players throw 40-foot passes when their bodies can produce only 10-foot passes.

    Emphasize to your team that a player who gets open near the basket should get the ball. Set goals that the players can reach individually and as a team. Challenge weaker players to do something as simple as trying to drive to the basket with their off hand or moving to the help line quickly as a help-side defender. Conversely, challenge your stronger players, without naming names, to include all their teammates when they pass the ball. Reward them when they get the ball to a player near the basket for a layup, even if the layup is missed. Encourage small achievements that can be built on over a season.

  3. Make substitutions and keep track of playing time. Coaches will be tempted to play their best players most of the time, but it's critical to get the entire bench involved. Work the substitutes in one by one so that the weaker players aren't on the floor all at once without any support from the stronger players. By playing the best players at key moments of the game (the beginning and end of each half), a team can remain competitive without leaving out its bench players. Work in substitutes during the middle section of each half, and take players out every three to five minutes. This will keep the players on the bench focused on the game, because they will know they're going to play soon.

    It can be a daunting task figuring out when to substitute. Share this responsibility with an assistant if one is available. Playing time should be as equal as you can possibly make it, but it's difficult, if not impossible, to precisely monitor the minutes of 10 to 12 players. Despite a coach's best efforts, some players will still be shortchanged. If so, coaches should acknowledge the oversight to the player (and to the players' parents if they're in attendance) and try to redress the balance in subsequent games.

Good sportsmanship should prevail from the beginning of the game to the end. After the game, no matter what the outcome, line up and shake hands with the other team and coaches. Then meet with the team in private and explain what they did well and what they need to work on. Encourage them to work at home on areas of the game they may be struggling to master, such as free throws, layups, and ballhandling. Do not single out individual players, except for praise. Keep the focus on the team. Set times for the next practices and games.

Learn more about Survival Guide for Coaching Youth Basketball 2E.

More Excerpts From Survival Guide for Coaching Youth Basketball 2nd Edition