Running a Summer Basketball Camp

In Alan G. Launder’s Play Practice, he breaks sports teaching into two major components: Technical and Games Sense, while mentioning agility and conditioning as other aspects of sports. Technical skills are the fundamental skills of the game, skills such as shooting, ball handling, passing, etc, while Games Sense comprises the knowledge of rules, strategy, tactics, etc. In other words, shooting a basketball is a Technical skill, while knowing when to shoot during the course of a game is Games Sense.

When preparing for a summer basketball camp, the camp director decides the purpose and direction of the camp. Too many camps attempt to be all things for all players and fail. A week long camp is insufficient time to teach everything. Therefore, the camp director decides on a direction and acknowledges the incomplete nature of the camp, while focusing on excelling in one or two areas.

In one week, a player will not make significant progress in technical ability, agility or conditioning. Teaching a player to shoot correctly, and engraining the proper mechanics into the motor learning at an autonomous or even advanced level, takes significant repetitions (research generally places the number at 3,000-5,000), and a week-long camp does not offer enough time to get each player thousands of repetitions, unless the camp is a shooting camp, where the entire focus is shooting, shooting instruction and repetitions.

For this reason, a camp director limits the focus of the camp. Most camps attempt to expose young players to a variety of technical skills and game sense, enabling the dedicated players to take what they learned home and to use it to get better on their own, while allowing the other campers to have a fun experience without doing too many drills without pay-off.

As a basketball trainer, I run workouts and clinics where the entire focus is technical proficiency. Players attend the workouts to improve on shooting mechanics, game shooting, ball handling control and open court moves. That is all I do for two hours in these clinics. They are not intended to be fun; the clinics are a classroom, a learning environment where players must be prepared to deal with critical evaluations and implement changes to improve their games.

These workouts would not work as a model for a summer camp. First, most players who attend summer camps are less serious than those who attend my workouts. Second, a player learns best when he is fresh, not fatigued, and most youths and adolescents tire each day and progressively through a week of basketball camp. Third, camps have a wider age and skill range. Fourth, the attention span of youths and adolescents is not long enough to stay focused through an entire day of teaching.

For this reason, Game Sense is a major focus of summer camps, as a player can progress more rapidly by understanding the strategy, which takes less time than teaching a technical skill. For instance, if working with a perimeter player, it is easier to teach a player to attack the defender’s top foot than to teach the player to shoot with correct form. In a game of one-on-one, the coach can explain the use of a jab step and players can immediately put the jab step to use, improving their game. However, if working on shooting mechanics, the player needs hours to learn proper form and build confidence using the form in a game.

A camp environment is a good learning environment for players of all ages and skills. However, it cannot teach everything to everybody. Parents send players to camps to learn to master the fundamentals. However, a week-long camp offers insufficient time to master fundamentals-it takes years to master fundamentals like shooting and ball handling, as evidenced by common mistakes in NBA games. Camp directors must acknowledge the inherent weaknesses of the camp structure and strive to do one to two things well. The camp’s focus must be entirely technical, as with a shooting camp, or it must focus on Game Sense, while giving some technical instruction and drills for players to use on their own.

For this reason, three-on-three is the best teaching tool in a camp environment. Three-on-three is better than five-on-five because it gives more touches to all players and every player is involved on every possession. In most offenses, one can isolate the ball and two other players and these three are typically the only players actively involved in the play; the three players involved may change throughout a possession, as the ball skips from side to side, but most basketball actions depend on three players, typically some combination of a passer/ball handler, screener and cutter.

In a camp setting, coaches teach the give-and-go, screen-and-roll, screen away, basket cut and other basic moves through the use of three-on-three play. By using a game setting, the practice is real. In other words, there is transfer between the three-on-three game and a “real” basketball game. “To become an effective performer, a learner needs plenty of practice under conditions as similar as possible to the environment in which new learning will subsequently be applied,” (Launder, 22).

Otherwise, the coaches run drill after drill attempting to teach players how to play. However, as mentioned above, a camp setting does not provide enough repetitions, time or learning opportunities for a player to gain proficiency in technical skills. Therefore, the player does not see significant improvement when he returns to his team and he likely is bored doing continuous drills without any transfer to real action. While I prefer to teach technical skills all day, this is a recipe for a bad camp experience.

Below is a generic structure for a three-hour day camp. It is not the end-all, be-all, but it is an attempt to teach a technical skill while spending the majority of time in games and competitions.

Dynamic Warm-up: 15 minutes
While camp does not provide enough time to improve a player’s agility, speed and quickness, a dynamic warm-up, as opposed to static stretching, teaches the player drills he can use before practice that will increase his range of motion in his joints and prepare the body for the actions to follow. A warm-up including skips, bounds, hops, form running, lateral slides, carioca, etc teaches the athletes general movement patterns used in basketball and builds a better foundation of movement skills.

Group Shooting Progression: 30 minutes
Group size will depend on number of players and baskets, but ideally no more than 8 players per basket. Use at least three balls per basket. Start with one hand form shooting; each player shoots, rebounds his shot, returns it to his line and moves to the back of the next line. Progress from one-hand to two-hand shots, remaining close to the basket. At least one coach per basket instructs players as others continue shooting. Each day starts with the same one-hand and two-hand warm-up and adds an additional element; shooting off the catch running straight to the basket; shooting off the dribble; shooting off a curl, etc.

Shooting Contest: 5 minutes
End every shooting progression with a shooting contest, even if it is as simple as a basket vs. basket group challenge from a certain spot. Give the losers a token penalty like five push-ups, while the winners get to go to the drinking fountain first.

Skill Session: 15 minutes
Each day, introduce one new skill. For instance, do several ball handling drills and teach a proper crossover move.

Skill Competition: 10 minutes
Use contests or competitions to reinforce the skills learned. For instance, a ball handling competition could be Dribble Tag, where each player has a ball in a confined area and attempts to knock the others out, or for older players, a game of Gauntlet, where one player attempts to dribble through a gauntlet of defenders.

Three-on-Three Instruction: 15 minutes
Divide players into teams and work at one basket. Start by playing three-on-three and adding basic skills. For instance, Day 1 may focus on the give-and-go, while Day 2 focuses on the screen-and-roll. It is important players understand the basic concepts and can execute against defense; perfection is not the goal.

Three-on-Three LEAGUE: 30 minutes
Most camps have some time of mini-league or tournament. Invariably, it is five-on-five. The problem is teams want to win, and suddenly only the best player shoots the ball, or the best team is the team with the fastest player who gets steals and easy lay-ups. A three-on-three league, with team names and a board to track wins and losses, keeps everyone involved and quenches the competitive juices. And, it is more space economical than five-on-five. Nothing is worse than having five teams with 10 players on each team and only two courts, meaning 20 players actively play, while 30 players either sit on the bench or “rest” for their game. The three-on-three games can be officiated and teams can play, though coaches should recommend teams use skills they have learned and try to reinforce those skills through praise and congratulations when they turn into baskets.

Full Court Drills: 20 minutes
Kids want to feel like they are playing the real game. They want to run up and down the court. And, many parents just care that their son or daughter got a good workout. Full Court Drills can emphasize a skill from an earlier session, like full court shooting competitions, or teach something new, like fast break drills/competitions.

Full Court Cut Throat: 30 minutes
In order to play full court games, keep the games competitive and keep everyone involved, play cut throat. If you score, you stay on the court and sprint back on defense; new team enters on offense. If you get scored on, you exit and a new team enters to play offense in your place. Provided some players can put the ball in the basket, teams should not be out longer than 2-3 possessions, giving them time to catch their breath and return to the action. This is much better than a 20 minute game with players on the bench and teams sitting out. And, the winners can get some token reward while losers do push-ups.

Wrap-up: 10 minute

Again, this is a generic three-hour camp. The time allotment will change daily, as the first day will require more talk about rules and expectations, while the last day might require a wrap-up at the end.

The important element is to understand (and not be disappointed) that a camp can only do so much. It is important to keep it fun, while teaching the players something that will make them better at their next practice and teaching Game Sense is easier in a short amount of time than teaching technical ability.

McCormick is the 2005 Director of the Nike Basketball Camp in Elk Grove, CA and ABC Camps in Greece.

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