Youth Basketball Blues

I walked into a junior high gym for a scrimmage between an average Jr. High school AAU team (the Blues) and a high school AAU team (the Reds). My first thought was obvious-why is a high school team playing a Jr. High team? As I watched, it got worse.

The Blues’ coach insisted the Reds were a good shooting team. Apparently so good that warm-ups were unnecessary, as they heaved half-court shots with their assistant coach. About five minutes before tip-off, the Reds organized into two lines at the three-point line. They took 2-3 dribbles and shot half-speed lay-ups. After one or two lay-up attempts, they shot jump shots with atrocious form and footwork, and most traveled before shooting. When the game started, the Reds took advantage of their maturity and dominated the Blues; they were more coordinated than the Blues’ post players and quicker than the Blues’ guards and turned their press into numerous lay-ups.

Their coach was quite impressed. At one point, one of the Reds’ players stole the ball at half-court on the left side of the floor, dribbled to the basket with her right hand and made a right-handed lay-up. Just to prove it wasn’t a fluke, she did the same thing moments later, which prompted her coach to turn toward me and say, “Wow, she’s pretty good.”

Dumbfounded, I said, “Who?”

“That girl,” he said pointing. “Dropped 21 points this weekend in a tournament. We play in tourneys every weekend,” he boasted proudly.

Now I was shocked, dismayed, disheartened. Every weekend. One might think that much basketball might make players better, but here was his “star,” a high school player, playing with only one hand, and not because of a limiting physical handicap, just skill deficiencies. My girlfriend had to cover my mouth before I pontificated on the subject to the coach.

The adventure continued. Later, he told another player to shoot a three-pointer, despite their 1 for 15 effort to that point. When she shot it, he made a sound like it was going in (I forgot the expression as I was doubled over laughing at this point; he really was very animated). The shot airballed to the right by a good two feet. Honestly, I can’t make this stuff up.

This is the root of all basketball playing problems. First, players wasting twenty-five minutes of pre-game time by shooting half court shots rather than practicing form shooting, or game-type shots. Second, teams playing hundreds of games every summer with little to no practice. Third, coaches encouraging poor fundamentals.

Late in the game, the Reds’ coach instructed his team to have every player touch the ball before shooting. We put the over/under at two passes before a turnover was committed, and sure enough, the first player who touched the ball traveled before dribbling. This was in the backcourt, so we started in the front court. The second player to receive the ball traveled before making her pass. On the next possession, they actually completed three passes before that person traveled (twice no less) and knocked down a jump shot (oh yeah, they played without officials).

When players lack fundamental ability, they do not need to play tournaments every weekend. They need to be in a gym or at a park by themselves working on their game. They need instruction. In an average game, each player possesses the ball for fewer than 2:00. Over a weekend, where the team plays between 3-5 games, each player gets 6:00-10:00 with the ball, especially since they demonstrated warm-up time is wasted. So, how much better is one going to improve in 6:00-10:00 a weekend? Will they learn to shoot better? To dribble? To use their left hand?These games count for nothing, as it is the same high school-based AAU teams playing against each other every weekend.

It’s befuddling how coaches see this experience as a positive: driving all over town to play in sweltering gymnasiums with bad officials providing very little possibility that players will improve individually or as a team. It’s insane. Summer is when players are made. It is not the time for cramming as many games as possible onto the schedule. Players need to work on fundamentals like shooting, footwork, ball handling, passing, movement without the ball, help defense, on-ball defense, etc. They need time to work on their athleticism with plyo-metrics, resistance training, and running. And, they need to incorporate rest into the schedule to allow still developing bodies to recover. These constant games impede improvement; they do not promote development.

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