Youth Coaching: Do Drills Need to Be Fun?

Coaching: is it teaching? Or is it babysitting? Rarely are teachers criticized because their classes are boring, uninteresting or not stimulating. Children are told they must learn so they have a bright future, regardless of the teacher’s disregard for the students’ learning styles, interests, etc. Babysitters worry very little about teaching children anything; instead, they keep children safe and entertained until the parents return.

Youth basketball coaches fall somewhere in the middle; many parents criticize coaches whose players have fun because the practices are not hard enough, while others criticize coaches who teach because the practices are boring. It appears some just want babysitters to watch after their children while they run an errand, while others actually want a true sporting experience. Teaching is problematic because there is always the certain percentage of players and parents concerned with immediate gratification.

Fun, to me, is the opposite of boredom; fun differs from situation to situation. Reading a good book can be fun, while reading a bad book is drudgery; playing basketball at recess is fun, but basketball practice may be boring. However, I do not believe fun and improvement/teaching are mutually exclusive. Improvement does not have to be work in the boring, monotonous, repetitive sense; instead, improvement requires a stimulus which challenges players. And, children often find challenges fun, especially when there is a realistic opportunity to accomplish the task: a challenging puzzle is fun, while deciphering hieroglyphics, while a definite challenge, likely is not (however, a great teacher could present the challenge in a manner to make it interesting, such as asking the students to come up with their own stories based on what they see, rather than attempting to decipher the hieroglyphics word for word, which is an impossible task).

Learning new basketball skills requires repetitions; even at a youth/beginner level, players need a certain faculty with their weak-hand, something which does not happen naturally. Young players need proper shooting form instruction and repetitions or they may develop bad habits which plague their playing careers for years. However, players also need to play and enjoy the activity and get some exercise. So, how does a coach make the drills fun? Or, does one approach them as a necessary evil to enhance the playing experience much like the learning of one’s ABC’s eventually leads to reading Shakespeare?

The key is the approach; children respond to challenges. Children enjoy learning new skills, especially when the skills have relevance. If the player is not likely to use the skill in a game, the coach should focus on something else, as a youth coach has hundreds of things to teach young athletes about basketball.

I just concluded three basketball camps for 5th and 6th graders. By far the best teaching tool was three-on-three. In the first camp, I tried to teach everything before scrimmaging. We worked on cuts, screens, options, movement, etc. Then, when we played 3v3, they ignored almost everything. By the last camp, I almost completely ignored instruction. Instead, we played more. We played an hour of 3v3 half court with no dribble; the intensity was high and the effort good.

Afterward, we added the dribble. However, basic concepts which I had instructed became violations. So, every time a player caught a pass, he had to square to the basket; every time he passed, he had to cut; if he put the ball over his head, it was a violation. And, if a player scored directly off a screen, the basket counted as two points, while all others counted as one. Rather than drilling on each of these concepts and hoping the lessons transfer to games, the game play provided the emphasis and basic instruction to teach and practice the concepts.

I work with a 10 year old twice a week. The format is essentially the same every time. However, he remains motivated. How? The challenges change. The moves or drills have a different emphasis. When he masters something, we tweak it or add another challenge. Kids like challenges. They like learning.

I worked with a kid on left-handed lay-ups for a half hour yesterday. Whenever I sensed frustration, we went back to the right hand (something he was good at) and added another stimulus (making a move) to add another small challenge (didn’t worry as much about the precision of the move). Then, we returned to the left-hand and did a slightly different left-hand lay-up drill. It’s a challenge and kids enjoy it; it’s only when kids get frustrated or bored (unchallenged) that they dislike drills.

How do you define fun? These workouts might not be “fun” like playing on the jungle gym is “fun,” but if fun is the opposite of boring, well done drills are fun. I don’t think fun means dumbing down the process so everyone is smiling and happy. However, I also do not believe that practice must be work. Improvement and fun are not mutually exclusive.

Of course, everything depends greatly on the players’ goals, aptitude and maturity. But, I think practice/workouts should be fun (challenging) not work (boring). Technical skills like shooting require repetitions to master the optimal execution of the skill. For tactical skills like getting open, teaching through the game and modifying the game rules offers the optimal training balance between too many drills and not enough instruction. Either way, use challenges to motivate players to learn and master new skills and concepts.

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