Teaching non-Basketball skills

A coach of young people is in an almost unique position to influence each child’s overall development, not just their athletic development. A coach of young people teaches:

  1. Sport competences:
    Technical, tactical and physical requirements for participation at various levels. These competencies form the traditional core of sport and are the specific skills needed to play the game – both individual and team skills;
  2. Personal competences:
    Capabilities that relate to the development of the whole person and may be supported and developed through participation in sport. These have been further grouped into social, cognitive and emotional outcomes;
  3. Life course competences:
    The combination of sport and personal competences and experiences that positively contribute to the individual life course. For example, the ability to apply effort to undertake practice and achieve a goal can also be applied to study at school.10

Physical development and health

A person’s health is perhaps one of the more obvious aspects that may be enhanced through participating in basketball. This includes:

  • Physical development of the players, including coordination.
  • Healthy life habits related to the practice of sports, such as nutrition, hygiene and self-care habits.

However, coaches must also be aware that participation in inappropriate activities could pose serious and significant risks to athletes:

  • Risk to the physical development of players (for instance, a training strategy based on lifting weights as a means of developing strength would be damaging for players of mini-basketball).
  • Risk of major or chronic injuries that in some cases may affect the long term physical development of young players.
  • If the activity is very stressful or discouraging, it is very probable that the players will not enjoy it and therefore will not develop a “habit” of enjoyment from participation in physical activity.
  • Risk that in order to improve their performance and control the pain of their injuries, the players could end up taking doping substances, thus seriously harming their health. This behaviour could give rise to an addiction to drugs, given the high vulnerability of people at this young age.

Accordingly, coaches must prepare their plans taking into account the particular athletes they are working with. Activities must be suitable to
each athlete and any complaint by an athlete that “something hurts” should be treated seriously.

Coaches should not hesitate to inform parents of feedback that an activity “hurts” and the parents may then seek a medical opinion.

Particularly at various stages of growth, young children may be susceptible to problems from an activity that otherwise would not be problematic.

But first we look at some of the personal competences that participation in sport, and in particular a team sport like basketball, can develop. Each of these competences will have a much wider application in the lives of a player than simply their playing basketball.


Coaches should be clear on the commitment they require from players and hold athletes accountable for fulfilling this commitment to the team.

Making a commitment requires that sometimes the player will have to give up certain personal wishes or make certain sacrifices for the group. This requires players to think about others and not just about themselves, and it takes some personal discipline to be able to do this.

The coach must emphasize the importance of the commitment the players are making. If a player does not attend practice sessions, their court time in games may be reduced. Even though there will often be good reason why a player cannot attend a practice (such as family or school commitments), the coach should reward those players that make the commitment and attend training.

It is important that the coach communicate their expectations (and the consequences if they are not met) at the beginning of the season.

It may be that the coach decides not to impose a penalty when a player has a good reason to miss training. However, the coach should still have rules about how the player communicates their absence.

Young people are at a stage of their personal development where focusing on their own needs is often the highest priority – typically they act based on what they want or feel at that particular time. They may prefer to go to the movies with friends rather than attend team practice. By clearly stating the expected commitment and then requiring players to abide by that commitment, the coach will assist players to develop this important skill.


Young people are often characterized as following short-term wishes - when they do not like something, or it turns out to be uncomfortable for them, they give it up and if something is too complex or requires a continuous effort, they do not do it.

This characterization of teenagers is perhaps even more applicable than when it was originally written 20 years ago with the modern generation that have grown up in a computer age where communication is instant and the pace of life is quicker than ever before.

Skill development takes time. Whether an individual or team-based skill, players will (and must) fail many times while attempting a skill before they develop the confidence and ability to execute it. Perseverance is especially important when the players go through hard times: for example, if they make mistakes, play poorly or try things but do not immediately obtain the results they wanted.

Coaches must give the players the confidence to persevere by identifying their improvement and not just praise the outcome or berate the failure to achieve the outcome.

Each player develops at their own rate and some will pick up skills quicker than others, and this can be a source of frustration for players if they are not progressing as quickly as their team mates.

The coach must be careful not to compare the progress of one player to another (e.g. “Jane can do this, why can’t you?”).


Taking responsibility within a group is another important competence that players need to develop.

Within the context of a team sport, players regularly face situations where they have a responsibility to the group. For example, a player has to defend 1 on 1 against an opponent and must take the personal responsibility in order to carry out the task successfully. The whole team relies on them.

A team’s defensive structure relies upon each player assuming the responsibility for executing a task. If a team is trapping the ball handler, but only one defender moves to the position, the trap fails.

It is very important that young people learn to take on personal responsibilities for the benefit of the group. It is equally important that they learn to hold their team mates accountable, which can be as simple as players telling team mates that they are not happy that a teammate is always late to practice.

Inevitably, mistakes will be made by players (for example, a defender will be beaten by an offensive player). Each player must accept their responsibility and acknowledge that they were beaten (rather than blaming other factors).

However, players should not dwell on any mistake that they have made.

The coach should equally be mindful to ensure that the players are not being negative in their relationships with each other. It is not appropriate, for example, for a teammate to blame a loss on a teammate who missed a shot or had a turnover. In this example, team mates should (led by the coach) show support.

It will help develop players to take responsibility if the coach avoids placing focus on the end result of a game and the coach should focus on what to do – the process.

For example, don’t say “you must make this shot or we lose” but instead direct the players on where they are each to go and what to do to create the shot that you want taken.

In this example, whether or not the shot is made, and the game won, is the team’s responsibility. As Duke University and USA coach Mike Krzyzewski reminds us:

Players have to understand the importance of their own contribution to the team.

It is very important to reinforce personal behaviours that make a significant contribution to the group but may not necessarily result in the player getting the ball, making the score etc.

For example: a coach may emphasize the importance of “blocking out” in the rebound contest in order for the team to get hold of the ball. This is a personal responsibility (each player must take the responsibility of blocking out an opponent) which will result in a favourable result for the whole team (getting the ball).

Some players will undertake the task of blocking out, allowing another teammate to catch the ball. The official statistics credit the rebounder, so the coach must make sure to also give credit to the other players.

By recognizing those players who blocked out successfully the coach is encouraging all players to continue taking personal responsibility for the benefit of the group.

Perhaps even more important is how this will contribute to developing the acceptance of personal responsibility, in the personality of the players and the team.

If the coach simply applauded the player that took the rebound, players will stop blocking out and will instead try to get the ball as their number one priority. Ultimately, this will hurt the performance of the team.

We are all accountable for the actions of the group. If something goes wrong or we lose a game, we do not blame anyone. We take responsibility for it and try to ensure that it does not happen again.

Team Work

Team work requires players to take personal responsibility, however learning to work as a team is a separate competence.

Consider, for example, a simple 2 on 2 activity where offensive players cannot dribble and can only pass the ball and must get the ball from one base- line to the other. To do this, they must collaborate with each other.

This activity teaches the importance of collaboration and team work - one player cannot win the game on their own. The point of “team work” is understanding the value of working together to achieve a common result.

However, a player will not learn to collaborate just because they play basketball. An example of this is the player that will try to beat an opposing player one on one (and may succeed) but opts to do this instead of passing to an open teammate.

Coaches need to highlight the importance of collaboration, and to organize the practice in a way that will encourage players to cooperate.

It is important that the coach does not just recognize or reward the score but instead emphasizes rules of team play.

Another aspect of team work that must be emphasized is that players on a team do not have to be close friends. They need to share a common goal (to which the coach leads them) and players need to appreciate working toward that goal with someone, even someone they do not consider a friend.

Accepting and Following Rules

Obviously, playing basketball (indeed playing any sport) means having to know and respect the rules of the game. Most players understand this but a coach should not assume that players do know the rules and should take the time to explain the rules to them.

It is also important that players (and coaches) learn to accept how rules are interpreted or applied. Referees do not set out to deliberately make a mistakes, but mistakes will happen.

A referee may apply a rule incorrectly (e.g. call a “block” when it should be a “charge”), or may get a rule wrong. Regardless of how an error occurs, respecting the rules means accepting that such mistakes will happen.

The coach may seek an explanation from the referee, but once it is given (even if the coach disagrees with it) the coach should move on and have their players focus on the next play.

To contribute to a team, players must also respect team rules such as off-court uniform, training rules and perhaps even behaviour outside of the team (e.g. not going out late the night before a game).

Thus, by playing in a team, young people can get used to not being able to do exactly what they want and having to respect certain rules that foster their coexistence with others and the achievement of goals.

Respecting Others

To be able to perform as a team, players must learn to respect the individual differences that exist within their team. Players must accept and coexist with teammates who, in some cases, may belong to a different social group, race, religion, ethnic group, country, city, etc., and who may have different ideas and customs.

A key element of respecting team mates is not to do something that adversely impacts upon a teammate.

For example, every player will have their own pre-game routine. One player may like to listen to music, another may want to pray, some players will be very nervous and want to talk a lot whilst others may want to sit quietly. In adopting whatever routine suits them, each player must make sure that routine doesn’t impact others. For example, the player listening to music should use headphones so others don’t hear it.

Players will also have to respect differences that come about while playing basketball, because some play better than others, some master certain skills better or quicker than others, some play more minutes than others, etc.

Coaches must foster a culture of mutual respect and an attitude of solidarity among players through their own behaviour and the coach must be a role model to them, respecting all players in spite of their differences.

Whatever behaviour the coach accepts from the players will define the culture of the team and this can be either positive or negative. The coach must therefore emphasize standards of behaviour that promote respect and solidarity and not accept those that promote anything to the contrary.

For example, players may tease one of their team mates who is not as skilled and drops the ball. Such banter may not be intended to hurt, however it can have a negative effect on the self-esteem and performance of the player.

If the coach accepts such behaviour, it can not only affect that individual player, it also negatively affects the team because it indicates that being disrespectful to a teammate is OK.

If the coach does nothing, they are accepting the behaviour. It does not mean the coach is joining in on the banter, but by not stopping it, the coach is effectively endorsing the behaviour, and this can foster a culture of disrespect.

Coaches should similarly avoid using sarcasm in their comments to players as this can easily be misconstrued or taken negatively by players, or players may act the same way.

In the situation above, the coach must stop such comments being made and make it clear that they will not be tolerated. The coach must also reward those players who contribute to integrating in the group those teammates who are “different”.

Basketball is competitive, which means that the teams are “fighting” against each other - both wanting to attain the same goal. Obviously, only one team can reach that goal (winning the game) and coaches must emphasize that “sportsmanship” is the highest priority, which requires being respectful towards opponents and officials.

The coach must place special emphasis on players being well-mannered towards their rivals: they should not insult them, they should help them to their feet if they fall down, they should speak to them once the game is over, congratulate them if they have won, etc.

Under no circumstances should a coach working with young players try to motivate players by pitting them against their opponents, for instance making comments such as: “they have said we are a bunch of...”, “last time they won because they were playing dirty”, “they said that you are an idiot”, etc.

This kind of strategy is unethical and it does not contribute to developing important values as such as respecting one’s opponents.

The coach must be a positive example and must not insult, ridicule or underrate an opposing team and instead must show the maximum respect towards any rival.

For example: if coaching a team that has clearly won the game, the coach should not a timeout out in the last minute of a game. It is disrespectful to do so as there is nothing that needs to be said.

A coach may be tempted to call a timeout in order to substitute in a player - if that is the case they should immediately send the team back onto
the court, making it clear why the timeout was called.

Coaches must always shake hands with their opposing coach and should not make comments about other players that are not relevant to the game.

Coaches must also not let players, or, to the extent they can control them, spectators, cheer when an opponent makes a mistake.

Along the same lines, the coach must always act respectfully towards the referees, thus encouraging their players to learn to respect them.

This is probably an area where coaches perform the worst. For instance, it is often noticeable that coaches insult, underrate and ridicule referees, and that they blame defeats on referees’ decisions in front of their young players. This example, together with similar ones set by parents, makes it very difficult for children and teenagers to learn to respect the figure of the referee.

Coaches and players, particularly at junior level, must accept that referees will make mistakes. They are often learning and developing their skills just as the players are, but even the most experienced referee will sometimes make a mistake – just as players and coaches do. Coaches or players that blame referees are not taking responsibility for their own actions or the performance of the team.

For example, a referee may incorrectly rule that a shot taken at the end of the game was not released before the game ended, and this may mean that that team loses the game (but would have won if the shot was counted).

However, this does not mean that the referees have cost that team the game. Throughout the game, the team will have made mistakes and missed other shots and if any of those things had not happened they would not have been in the situation of needing to make the last shot.

The responsibility for the result of the game rests with the players and coaches, not the referees.

Learning to Compete

Life presents many competitive situations and we must be prepared to confront them. Competitive basketball is an excellent opportunity to learn to compete in a way that is both healthy and efficient, adopting a working method that can be very valuable for young players in sport and in daily life, and that can help them now and in the future.

All the values previously highlighted help young players to learn to compete. It is also important that they learn to accept victories and defeats, success and failure, good and bad performances, rights and wrongs all in the same way.

For this reason, it is highly relevant to teams of young players that they confront different experiences during the season: winning, losing, playing well, playing poorly, etc., and that these will be learning experiences for them.

Obviously, the players will tend to be happier if they win than if they lose. However, a team can perform well and lose or perform badly and win. Neither victory nor defeat should be highlighted by the coach. The coach should congratulate players for their effort and reflect upon success by how they played, not whether they won or lost.

When teams lose, players will naturally feel that they have failed. Indeed, they have failed to reach their objective of winning but this does not mean they are a failure. Part of learning to compete is understanding that in competition there must always be a losing team, just as there must be a winning team.

In reflecting upon a defeat, the coach should confine their comments to behaviour related only to the game. It is appropriate to say: “We didn’t block out well because we didn’t move toward our opponent.” It is highly inappropriate for a coach to say: ‘’You’re hopeless. You can’t even do something simple like blocking out.” The latter comment is making a statement broader than the game.

It is also important for coaches (and parents) to take a long-term perspective on the development of players.

Learning to compete is important once players are in their mid-teens. Prior to that, the focus should initially be on:

  • getting them to enjoy being physically active and to develop basic movement competencies;
  • having FUN, starting to learn the skills that make up games (e.g. passing, catching);
  • learning how to train and how to be a member of a team.

Placing too much focus on competing at too young an age is detrimental both to the enjoyment that players derive from participation (making it less likely that they will continue to participate) and to the development of skills (as they will be reluctant to fully explore how to perform skills).

This is not to say that winning is unimportant, just that its important needs to be emphasized in the context of the age of the children.

Young players can and do enjoy playing, whether or not they win, and it is importance that coaches give positive feedback on improvements the player and the team have made, as this is a more relevant measure of success for young players.