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Creating Successful Practice Plans

This is an excerpt from Survival Guide for Coaching Youth Basketball 2nd Edition by Keith Miniscalco & Greg Kot.

After you've survived the initial practices and have come to know your players better and understand their strengths and weaknesses, you'll need to design practices that make the most of your team's allotted gym time. One of the biggest challenges for a coach is to plan practices that will keep the athletes eager and engaged from start to finish. When's the time to switch drills? When does just enough become too much? You'll know by the distracted looks on the kids' faces and the increased level of chitchat about important nonbasketball matters such as instant messaging.

The last thing you want is a bunch of kids sleepwalking through the drills because they're bored. No two practices will be exactly alike, and the emphasis of the practices should constantly evolve as the season progresses, but the fundamentals that you cover will be the same throughout the season. You'll use some drills at nearly every practice, especially early in the season, but vary the rest. Many of the remaining chapters in this book provide basic drills to teach key fundamentals. Along the way, you will find certain drills that the kids like best, and you can save these to reward them for a job well done or to give them a break.

Here are the key areas to focus on for each practice throughout the season.

  • Warm-ups and stretching. Even young muscles need to be stretched before every workout. The toughest part of every practice will be getting started; getting the players on the floor to stretch can use up 5 to 10 minutes, which is a huge percentage of your 60 minutes. So get going on time, even if kids are still straggling into the gym. Let them join the warm-ups in progress, and send the not-so-subtle message that it's important to show up on time.
  • Ballhandling . In many ways, this is the key to your team's success and your players' development. It should be part of nearly every practice. Chapter 3 provides a variety of drills to choose from.
  • Shooting. Players need to learn to shoot everything from layups to free throws with proper technique, but doing so is an ongoing process. You'll find more on this in chapter 3.
  • Individual defensive skill fundamentals and defensive sets. Here's where you start implementing team concepts. See chapters 4 and 6 for details.
  • Individual offensive skill fundamentals and the pass-cut-replace offense. And here's how your team learns to work together to produce points. See chapters 3 and 5 for specific information.

This is a short list, and it doesn't cover all the ground necessary to shape a team. But it's a place to start, especially with limited practice time. In the first practice, focus on individual skills on offense and defense, but by the second practice, start addressing the team concepts. You'll want to get these in place as early as possible and then refine both the team concepts and the individual skills as the season goes along. Start familiarizing your team with zone defense, man-to-man defense, and the pass-cut-replace offense as soon as possible so you have something to work with during the games. Individual skills and fundamentals should be part of at least every other practice through the end of the season. They not only provide a foundation for defensive and offensive team concepts and make them easier for the kids to understand, but they also help the kids execute those team concepts with greater efficiency.

Figure 2.3 provides a sample plan for a typical 60-minute midseason practice. By this time, the players should have at least a basic knowledge of individual fundamentals and can begin focusing on broader team concepts. By the time you finish this book, you will be able to move a number of drills in and out of this basic template with the goal of working on individual offensive and defensive skills as well as team concepts in each practice. Sixty minutes is not a lot of time, but a well-designed practice should allow a team to run through four or five drills.

Figure 2.3 Sample 60-Minute Midseason Practice Plan

To pull this off, you'll need to stick to a schedule and watch the clock. Wear a watch (or carry a cell phone) so you don't lose track. It's amazing how quickly the minutes can fly when you're introducing a new skill and the players are buzzing with excitement and confusion. Before you know it, practice is nearly over, and you've managed to run only one or two things. So don't linger too long in any one area, but don't rush just to stay on schedule. Know that you will return to each of these areas at later practices; there's no need to cram. Alternate the speed and skill sets required for each section of practice. Don't do similar things back to back, such as working on a defensive set, then an offensive play, where movement is minimal and more explaining needs to be done. Mix in a fast-moving drill to shake up the tempo and burn off some restless energy.

During individual drills, every player will be involved. During team drills, don't use the same five players all the time to demonstrate points. Alternate the players and let everyone have a chance. This reinforces the notion that every player is critical to the team's success. Keep the kids on the sidelines involved by asking them questions as you work on the floor with some of their teammates (Jenny, where do you think Molly should be on this play?).

Sometimes, you will need to take more time to explain an area of special importance if the kids aren't too far along as basketball players. No need to fret; you can always pick up where you left off at the next practice. You may also encounter situations in which some members of your team have locked onto a new skill while others are struggling. Young players rarely learn at the same pace. The better athletes may seem to thrive from the start, so what do you do about the less gifted ones? How can you help them keep pace and feel like a part of the team?

If you aren't working with assistant coaches, ask the players who need more help to come to practice a little early or stay a bit later after practice. Go over one area of the game you would like them to improve and give them a drill to work on at home. Point out to the player that his eagerness to learn is a great start to becoming a good basketball player. For every point you make about improving a player's game, give two compliments: I really like the way you hustle in these drills, and your shot is looking better all the time. Now let's work on your dribbling a little bit. If the player can't work on something at home, for whatever reason, assure the player that if he keeps coming to practice and working hard, good things will happen. He'll get it eventually, and there's no need to worry. Your team has a whole season to improve.

If you do have assistants, allocate individual time for the less-gifted players during practice while the rest of the team is running through drills. Don't have them stray from the main group for too long, but a little one-on-one attention can go a long way in building a new player's game and confidence.

At the end of each practice, tell your players what you'd like them to work on at home and give them some insight about what the team will be working on next. It can be helpful to say things such as, "We're getting better at ballhandling, but it's not enough to just practice once or twice a week. You need to go home and work on these things on your own for 15 minutes a day. If you do, you're going to be terrific ballhandlers in a few months, and we're going to have a lot of fun playing the games."

If you have 90 minutes allotted for practice, you can start to introduce team concepts on offense and defense sooner in the season. As the season progresses, you can alternate individual skill work with team-concept drills on offense and defense. Use the games as a springboard for what needs to be addressed in subsequent practices. If the team is playing well offensively during games, but allowing too many easy layups on defense, spend more time at the next practice working on defensive skills and team defense.

Remember to allow about 10 to 15 minutes per drill; it's difficult to accomplish much in a shorter period of time, and anything longer will test the kids' (and inevitably the coach's) patience. The longer the practice, the more critical it is for the coach to keep an eye on pacing. Be sure to alternate strenuous drills with slower, more cerebral ones so the kids don't get restless. The best way to get the kids' attention is to run them hard in one drill, then hit them with verbal information in a new, slower-paced drill while they're catching their breath.

Again, don't spend too much time in any one area. Once the kids tune out of a drill, they start going through the motions and they stop learning. A coach needs to recognize this and be prepared to move the kids into a new drill before they drift off to never-never land. Once they go there, it's tough to get them back. So reel them in before they drift with a change of pace and a new challenge. Then, at the next practice, return to the drill you abandoned when you have their attention again.

After practice, evaluate in private where players are progressing fastest and slowest and make notes if necessary to remind yourself. Repetition will be the key to learning what you have taught. Now set up your next practice session. Juggle new drills with older ones, making sure to touch on each fundamental (passing, dribbling, shooting, offense, and defense). As the season progresses, you will find that you have to explain less, because the players will become familiar with the different drills and jump into them more rapidly. Encourage the kids who know how to do a particular drill to take the lead and remind the others how it's done. As their confidence grows, your hair should stop falling out.

More Excerpts From Survival Guide for Coaching Youth Basketball 2nd Edition