Youth Basketball: What is Your Purpose?

I’ve found myself in a lot of conversations lately about different philosophies surrounding developing youth basketball players. Some of those have centered around “The HUD,” a new travel basketball team starting here in Hudsonville. Having been at the Ludington Gus Macker this past weekend, I’m always talking hoops with current coaches, past coaches, active parents, and basketball junkies. 

For those of you that might not know much of my past, I’m going to state some of it here.  When you are going to talk about something like this, whatever your “basketball resume” looks like, should matter. The time and effort you’ve put into the kids and the game should matter. I’m not going to comment on football or baseball, as I simply haven’t played or coached the game at a high enough level to comment intelligently.

* I’ve coached basketball at some level for the past 21 seasons.  14 of those years were at the varsity level including 12 seasons as the head coach. I was fortunate enough to be around good enough coaches and players to win over 15 championships and helped to put kids at the D1, D2, D3, NAIA, and JuCo level. I’ve coached both local and club travel teams.  I was responsible for designing the drills, structures, practices, and development of players in our youth program (grades 3-6) for over a decade. As a parent, I’ve had both of my kids (one is 14 and the other is 11) play on all levels of teams in an out of season.

Recently, I’ve heard and observed debates between parents about “what is right” when it comes to different choices they have for their young basketball player. A discussion turns heated when talking about AAU or local travel teams. Strong opinions are shared regarding which summer camp to go to, the organization to play with, tournaments to enter,  and whether or not playing in a Macker is good or bad. When we talk about our kids, it tends to be intense. However, I think people are missing a pressing question that should be discussed before even word one is uttered,

“What is the purpose of youth basketball for your child?”

Before you even get into stating your opinion, to which you are sure you have the “right” answer, be sure to answer that question. Have both parents answer it. My guess is the person you are engaged in this heated conversation with, has a completely different purpose for what youth basketball holds for their child. That doesn’t mean you are right or he is wrong, it’s just a different purpose and end game for you both.images-1.jpg

I think you can break down the purposes that parents have for youth basketball into these 8 things.

1. Get the kid a college scholarship

2. Become a better person through sports

3. Improve their individual skills to become a better player

4. Learn to #PTRW (Play The Right Way)

5. Have fun

6. Compete at the highest level against the best competition

7. Receive the best possible coaching

8. Play with kids from their school to develop a bond/chemistry towards high school


Don’t get me wrong, it can be more than one.  I think it’s near impossible to do all 8 and even parents that I’ve seen try, they have to prioritize some over others.

For my 11-year-old son, I can share my priorities for him very quickly and those are (in order) #2, 3, 7, 4, 8, and 5.  That doesn’t mean that 1 and 6 aren’t important. But it’s very unlikely he will play the next level. If he gets a whole lot better, 1 and 6 increase in importance as he moves into high school. Therefore, a parent who has #1 and #6 at the top of their list, is going to have a different purpose for youth basketball than I am and that’s OK. But we aren’t going to see things the same way. Because of my past experience and where my kids are as players, this is how my list looks.

– #2 is important because nothing is more important than my son becoming a great person. Sports run out at some point and the type of impact you have on the world is what matters most.

– #3 matters because you have to optimize skill development. Players get better at practice and during individual work when no one is looking. Just playing 100 games a year doesn’t make you better. It’s what you do when no one is watching and how you attack the weaknesses to your game that makes you better.

– #7 can make or break the sports experience for young kids. Having a quality coach who teaches, motivates, and inspires kids to be their best, can light that spark. Coaches who don’t measure their acumen by mythical 4th-grade championships but instead the development of their team and individuals, are harder to find than you might think.

– #4 ties directly to 7. Kids who play the right way know what to do when they don’t have the ball, make the extra pass, dive for loose balls, take charges, are coachable, and great teammates. My son needs to be taught what to do when he doesn’t have the ball on offense or defense. He doesn’t need to learn 75 combination dribble moves in 1 on 1 skill sessions with individual trainers. There doesn’t need to be 5 James Harden clones on an 11-year-old team. There is one ball on the court at a time. The other 4 players serve an important purpose when they don’t have it and need to be taught what to do when they don’t. That is tragically missing from today’s youth basketball experience. My son needs to know when to space, when to screen, when to get in position to rebound, when to be down and ready to shoot. He also needs to learn proper shooting form and rep that out so he can make shots. That way, when the kid with 75 dribble moves keeps shooting bricks because all he does is practice 4 different euro steps that he can’t finish instead of repping out jumpers, someone can put the ball in the hole. On defense, he needs to know what to do when his man doesn’t have the ball, when to be in a gap, in deny, how to communicate, all the things that make up great team defense. If he’s going to play the right way he has to give up his body for the team, whether that’s taking a charge or diving for a loose ball.

I also equate “playing the right way” to how a kid is going to be expected to play at the high school level.  I’m not going to teach him to press half the game or play 2-3 zone when you don’t see teams doing that at the high school level.  Could we sit in a 2-3 zone and take advantage of 12-year-old’s not being able to make jumpers? Sure? Could it help us win more games? Probably.  We don’t do that because if you try that 6th-grade 2-3 zone at the high school level kids bang 3’s in your face.  It may work as a change-up, but that’s not a bread and butter defense for successful high school teams. Any minute spent practicing it or using it in a game is a minute we aren’t working on being able to play half court man-to-man, which is the staple of successful high school and college basketball teams.  In addition, we aren’t going to turn the game into a circus with 10 different presses and traps to take advantage of inferior ball-handling when 90% of the time that doesn’t translate to the high school game and isn’t run by the high school teams in the same towns where youth teams are playing it. He better listen to his coach, respect the officials, and understand that the team is always bigger than him. Get out of your selfish individualized bubble and see when your teammates need a pat on the back or a pep talk.  #4 matters a lot.

– #8 carries weight because you are developing a band of brothers with the kids you will play with in high school. There is something special about playing for the name on the FullSizeR.jpgfront of your jersey. You get one chance in your life to play for your hometown but that strong belief likely comes from 30 years around public schools. Developing a trust and camaraderie with those other kids takes thousands of hours in practices, games, and tournaments. That doesn’t mean you can’t play AAU. I believe you can certainly do both.

– #5 means something. Having fun is important. But hard work isn’t always fun. Getting better is fun. Practices and drills, games where you get beat up, let’s not act like it’s all fun.

I think most of the time parents have the best interest of their child in mind. I’m certainly not going to mock, demean, or scrutinize how another parent might prioritize their list. That would be small and narrow-minded. Before you get knee deep in a debate over youth basketball next time, make sure to ask that question first.

“What is the purpose of youth basketball for your child?”

















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