5 “Musts” of Coaching Youth Basketball

I have been coaching basketball for the past ten years at a variety of levels. I’ve coached almost every age imaginable. One of the biggest things that I’ve noticed in my coaching career is how important the youth level of basketball is for developing of strong habits and proper play. It is so vital for kids to learn to play the right way early. If players are coached with these coaching “musts” in mind, I feel that they will develop more quickly and not have to play catch up on skills that should’ve been introduced earlier. Here is a list of some important coaching “musts” in youth basketball.  

  1. You MUST teach man-to-man defense: I have talked to a lot of coaches about defense at the youth level and it seems like most of them agree with my assessment that at the youth level we should only be teaching man defense. I think that when a player starts playing competitive basketball in fourth or fifth grade that the defense should be man all of the time. Some youth tournaments aid this cause by having “man-only” tournaments.  I think that it is a great idea and should be adopted more. In my opinion, players should be playing man defense primarily through middle school. Maybe in middle school some zone can start to be taught and played but I truly think that man should still be drilled daily. I have seen many teams dominate at the youth level with a 2-3 or 1-2-2 zone because nobody could shoot the ball from outside. Then they are expected to play man defense in high school and the high school coaching staff has to start from scratch with 16 year old kids.
  2. You MUST develop skills: Basketball in general should have much more skill development than we are seeing across the country. Many words have been written about there being too many games and not enough skill sessions happening. I agree completely with that. The question that stands out to me is, how many times a game does a player shoot? That number is clearly not high enough to get any better at shooting. The same thing goes for dribbling, passing, defending, rebounding, etc.
  3. You MUST develop skills in a way that is fun for the players: Let’s face it, kids these days do need to have fun to stay engaged. I feel that players can develop their skills and have fun! I have learned many amazing ideas about this from Brian McCormick of 180shooter.com. Brian does tons of awesome stuff like having young kids play simple games of tag with the ball. I would recommend looking into some of his stuff. The kids are clearly engaged, having a blast, but they are also learning realistic skills! It is important to protect the ball and that can be learned in a fun way. Brian also uses a lot of small sided games (SSGs) which are games played in smaller groups than traditional 5 vs. 5, such as 3 vs. 3, 2 vs. 2, etc. These SSGs help players get more shots, passes dribbles, etc. You can do tons of stuff to make your practice more fun for the players! Get creative!
  4. You MUST be on the same page as the local high school coach: Obviously this is your team and should be run the way you see fit. However, try to start teaching some of the things being worked on at the high school level. Obviously things won’t be as complex but try to work on the basics. If the high school teams run a motion offense, you start slow by teaching pass and screen away, pass and cut, etc. I feel that for a basketball program to be successful, it has to start at the youth level. One of the most successful youth football programs in my area has been running the wing-t offense since the kids were in 2nd grade. Of course, they run it amazingly well every single year! Why can’t this type of collaboration be done in basketball? Get with your area coaches and talk things out!
  5. You MUST instill a love of the game in your players: To me, this might be the most important one. If you go out and yell and scream at a player for every mistake, the odds are she is not going to love the game. If you are coaching at the youth level then you probably love basketball. Show the kids what makes the game great: teamwork, togetherness, work ethic, and everything else. Instead of stopping everything every time a mistake is made, let them learn from mistakes. Ask questions to gauge understanding. If you tell them what they did wrong, are they really learning? Make sure that they are having fun and want to keep playing!

Hopefully these coaching musts will help you develop your youth team. We get to coach the world’s greatest game and we are in charge of coaching our game’s future! Have fun, play hard, develop skills and your kids will become better and love the game at the same time!

For more, follow Jeff Niemi on Twitter @coachjniemi


  1. We see teams use zones at 4th grade and up – I fully agree teaching proper help side man to man is more important. We end up needing to coach enough zone to be able to practice against it.

    I heard a good quote from a parent from another program say “the coach didn’t emphasis skills just plays and our kids didn’t have the skills to run the plays”.

    We try to emphasis fundamentals first and keep the offense simple – just quick starters into a motion to teach the kids to move

    Good read – thanks!

    PS. Now we just need parents to stay off our backs 🙂

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