Our youth basketball program involves grades K-4 (we call it Hoop Troop). We try to incorporate a number of innovative techniques to build the same culture we want with our high school and middle school programs. Here are a few of the techniques we use to enhance player development and grow our culture. Although we gear it to our basketball program, these could be easily applied to other sports as well.
Positive communication and being an awesome teammate are part of our core beliefs in our culture. We want our players to grow up in our program knowing that if they pour into their teammates, it will help the team be successful. The same is true in life: if you pour into others, you will most likely be successful and happy. One way we foster this idea is by having our players “Find 5” multiple times during a session. “Find 5” means to find 5 high-fives from other teammates. All we do is say “Find 5” and they start moving around and giving great high-fives. (We actually practice giving good high-fives and share all the great intel like how to look at the other person’s elbow to ensure excellent contact). After a few times of “ordering” high-fives, they start to spread like crazy on their own. As coaches we give feedback that tends to perpetuate more high-five like…
“You guys are so great at giving high-fives!”
“Wow! We never even said to give high-fives in your line, but you guys are doing it! That is some high-level stuff”
“It is so awesome you keep giving energy to your teammates!”
...the players and parents all love the atmosphere of our youth sessions. The energy that can be created is outstanding.
(We do offer some time for high-five creativity. We have seen some fancy handshakes and positive touches over the years from elementary students).
Each day, we encourage the players to find whoever brought them to our “Hoop Troop” session and thank them. We ask them to come up with ideas of how they can show they are thankful. They usually offer “High Fives” of course, but hugs, words, and notes are some other great ways to show gratitude. After the session, we see kids interacting with their parents and grandparents in very positive ways. We know our culture is spreading.
It may sound crazy, but we do a number of drills without a basketball. By choosing to put down the ball, we can focus on body mechanics and footwork. For example, we have a “no ball” passing progression that involves learning to have eyes locked on the target, step into the pass, snap thumbs down, and communicate on the pass...and the receiver doesn’t initially have to worry about catching. We have the receiver visualize the ball leaving the hands of his partner and watching it all the way into his hands. (What a great way to introduce visualization to kids!) Shooting, layups, and dribbling are also done initially without a ball. This initial progression allows players to lock-in to what their body needs to do, and they see themselves doing it all with confidence. We later add the ball, but we will take the ball away at times to continue to build body-awareness and confidence.
After being at a PGC Basketball summer session, I was able to see an amazing culture that was created in just a few hours. I took a lot back to use in our entire basketball program. One idea we have implemented is asking players to be “locked in” while a coach or another player is talking. We have all been to a practice or training session where a coach is talking or demonstrating and kids are flipping balls around, dribbling, shooting the ball in the air, whispering, or looking all over the gym except at the person who is talking to them. It can drive a coach crazy. However, teaching players to “lock- in” can be a game-changer. When we blow one long whistle to the players, that tells them to freeze and get locked in.
Here’s what it means to be “locked in:”
- Eyes locked in on the coach
- Hands locked in front or behind
- Ball on floor locked between ankles
- Feet locked double wide
- Ears locked in on coach talking & head is nodding
We have found that not only do the players soak in more information this way, but they are proud of how well they do it as a group. Parents like it, too. They can now have their child lock-in at home.
Model being locked in as a staff. If another coach is talking, but sure you are locked in.
If a player is not locked in, model being locked in and look at the player until he figures out what he needs to do. They usually get it pretty fast. I even like to lock-in on the player and smile. :)
Leadership & Communication
Youth players often grow up in programs that set everything up for them. How does this hurt them? They don’t get a chance to communicate as much or develop leadership skills. It is actually very beneficial for players to be able to do some things on their own...especially at a young age like first grade. One way we foster this is by making the kids talk and form their own lines for our warm-up. A typical session may start like this:
[whistle to get locked in]...”Alright guys. We need 6 even lines (we change the number of lines every now and then) on the baseline that are pretty equally spread across the court. You will need to talk to each to get organized. Try to be next to different people than last week. You have 45 seconds.”
Typically, the first time (and occasionally down the road), the kids mill around and just look at each other or make very uneven lines...at first. However, we help them by asking them questions like: “Are all the lines even?” “How can you ask other lines to give you more people in a nice way...and as a good teammate?” “Cody, it looks like you are thinking about something. Do you want to ask your teammates for anything?”
We then encourage them to celebrate their success with those high-fives again. :)
In essence, you need to identify what type of culture you want to have at your highest level. Then, work backwards and see how you can grow it from the ground up. Plant the seeds, nurture them, and watch your program’s culture flourish!