The DNA Sports Approach to Coaching Youth Basketball

After being involved for several years in our mission to improve the quality of coaching youth baseball locally and nationally, DNA SPORTS is now branching out to train youth basketball coaches everywhere to develop interested athletes become basketball players by stressing individual performance and understanding of team play and concepts.

Basketball is different from baseball because you HAVE to depend on your teammates to succeed. Therefore you must have sound coaching to communicate that fact. And it has to begin on the first day a kid starts playing organized basketball.

After coaching every level of basketball from youth programs to high school to college, I have realized that the older kids get, especially males, the more resistant they are to coaching unless they've been taught and communicated with correctly when they first started playing basketball.

I currently coach high school basketball and we always have kids that have played on AAU or travel teams and have absolutely no idea how to play fundamental basketball, individually or team-wise. So of course I wonder if anything is taught on the youth level or are coaches just out to win games.

As we have explained in coaching youth baseball, winning games should be the last priority of youth coaches. Have you seen how out of whack our adult society’s focus on winning youth games is? Parents fight with other parents. Coaches and parents blast youth referees. Parents relentlessly criticize volunteer coaches. Coaches fight and argue with other coaches. It goes on and on.

Well it stops now!! What's wrong here is everything!! Get a grip, adults!! I've gone to sixth grade games where the final score is 10 to 8. And, of course, one set of parents is happy and the other is not. Well, they all should be upset. Look at the score! That's what we're talking about. I'd be more upset that there was not enough scoring because of shooting and passing skills deficiencies. I’d want to work together to find solutions.

So, through a series of articles, videos and a new book, DNA Sports will attempt to change the playing court so to speak by teaching basketball coaches what to prioritize. And that will always be to develop childrens’ skills, exactly what is done academically, and not to satisfy parents or coaches' egos, which NEVER matters.

Rather than focusing on specific offenses and defenses (we’ll still have some advice on these), we will focus on how basketball coaches can structure their programs. We’ll also provide advice on how to effectively communicate with youth athletes so they can maximize their innate talent, understand various roles on their teams and become productive and positive contributors to their programs.

Doesn't that sound great!! And sane!!

Learn more about our youth basketball coach training programs and our players clinics. We have also published an e-book to help teach the correct way to shoot: The Do's and Don'ts of Basketball Shooting.

Equal Playing Time in Youth Basketball

Playing time is a frequent source of misunderstanding and conflict among coaches, athletes, and parents. The head coach and/or the athletic/league/program director must develop detailed guidelines for playing time and clearly communicate these guidelines to all parties.

At the youth level, coaches should do the best they can with awarding equal playing time for all participants over the course of the season. There is a significant difference between competitive play at the high school and college level and competitive play at the youth level.

While it can be challenging for coaches to give each player as close to equal playing time as possible, coaches at this level must understand that meaningful playing time is essential to childhood development, confidence building, and overall athletic development. Simply stated, kids who sit benefit less from sports than kids who play.   

Equal playing time is hard for coaches to administer. It forces them to put more effort into practices and player preparation. Most importantly however, it also tests their priorities.

Reasons why equal playing time should be an expected strategy at the youth level:

  • Maximizes team development. How many times have we seen the star player suffer and injury during a critical time and be replaced with a less experienced player who lacks the game experience to compete? Equal playing time will allow a team to be much deeper and talented at the end of the season when the games count more. 
  • Minimizes player fatigue. In tough physical games, coaches will lack skilled players if the top players are exhausted and lesser players have limited game experience.
  • Recognizes equal investments: Players and parents make equal financial and time commitments to the team and program. Players at early ages should be rewarded with having the same equal opportunity to play.
  • Improves team chemistry. When players feel everyone is treated fairly, they are more likely to focus on working together. When players feel they can succeed by making someone else look bad or themselves look better, they are learning the wrong lessons about team play.
  • Wins mean more to everyone. When everyone contributes to a win, there are no lingering resentments that will interfere with the celebration.
  • Better reflects coaching abilities. Winning games with kids who are physically more mature is more a success of enrollment than coaching. Winning games by developing all the kids on the team is a better test of a coach’s abilities.

Equal playing time can be applied in a variety of different ways. Coaches can award equal playing time on a game by game basis, or, perhaps easier, award equal playing time over the duration of a season. For example, coaches can use lopsided games as a great opportunity to get less skilled players in the game.  

Naturally, good coaches should recognize a potential blowout game long before the game becomes lopsided and start kids who normally don’t start or play kids of lesser ability more than usual. If that puts their team in a competitive disadvantage, so much the better for the starters to come into the game behind, having to work hard to catch up. If the blowout is a blowout even with the subs starting, at least the subs know they played when the game was still at stake. 

The Ten Commandments for Teaching Winning Youth Basketball

  1. You will teach players to select quality shots.
  2. You will teach players to execute every type of pass.
  3. You will teach players to be strong with the ball.
  4. You will earn players' respect and attention by being prepared and knowledgeable.
  5. You will demand players to always compete as hard as they can.
  6. Players will be disciplined for criticizing teammates and coaches.
  7. Players will do drills daily on the correct footwork for offensive and defensive positions, both as a team and individually.
  8. You will teach players to be leaders on and off the court.
  9. Players will be in great aerobic and anaerobic condition.
  10. You will stress the importance of individual and team defense, and teach players sound and trusted defensive principles.

Basketball Practice Structure Key for Program Success

The common thread of great basketball programs whether it's youth, high school, college or professional is structure.

When I coached in college, the players knew every type of warm-up and drill so the structure was different than it would be for a youth program. We had a daily practice plan starting with team warm-ups, conditioning and individual ball drills. Players took ownership of that and started practice on their own because they knew the routine and how to get ready for practice.

The coaching staff then proceeded to work on our team offenses and defenses and finished practice with walk-throughs of scouting reports of our next opponent, followed by more conditioning. When we went on road trips we received the itinerary well in advance so there was no confusion among the players or staff.

Priorities change when coaching a youth school basketball program.

Basketball coaches have to introduce structure because kids have no idea what it is. While they may chose to play basketball because it's fun, they usually have never played in organized competition. It is up to coaches to post the practice agenda every day and consider what's the most important thing to cover daily due to time constraints.

Coaches must be patient and learn to be excellent teachers and communicators given kids' lack of knowledge and inexperience. And kids must also know that there is one voice only: the basketball coach.

Given that responsibility, the coach must be prepared, thorough and organized every day.

If there is doubt about how to be structured like that, do research, go to clinics or talk to experienced coaches. It will benefit the program and accelerate individual and team development. It's a lot of time and responsibility, but it's worth it.

The Beauty of the On-Base Percentage

At some point in our time around the game of baseball, all of us have heard a coach use the phrase “the best hitters in baseball make outs 70% of the time.” This is actually incorrect. They are obviously referring to the notion that the best hitters in baseball usually hit around .300, and that is indeed accurate. They do. However, they most certainly do not make outs 70% of the time.

Take for example Andrew McCutchen in 2014. Accounting for all his plate appearances, it would be far more accurate to say that he made an out about 59% of the time (we are not including the number of times he reached on an error for our purposes here).

Want a more extreme example? Barry Bonds in his 2004 season actually only made an out 39.1% of the time!

This notion may be surprising, and we must clarify that we are by no means saying McCutchen hit .410 this year or that Bonds hit .609 in 2004. This actually reinforces the idea we were presenting in our previous article about how the batting average is a misleading statistic.

What we are trying to present however, is a more accurate measurement of just how often players get on base, as well as how often they don’t make outs.

So as we begin discussing the On Base Percentage statistic, keep in mind its actual calculation:

OBP=(Hits+Walks+Hit by Pitches)/(At-Bats+HBP+Walks+Sacrifice Flies)

Simply put, the OBP stat tells us exactly what you probably think it tells us: the rate of how often a hitter actually reaches base. The reason this is important is statistically very simple: base-runners correlate to runs, and runs correlate to wins.

I’m sure every single coach out there can reassure our belief that you do not win games by hitting six or seven solo home runs. On the contrary, you get runners on base to create run scoring opportunities, and then mix in extra base power and speed to your offensive game. That is the very definition of a dynamic offense. Take the ten teams who made the playoffs in 2014: 7 of them were ranked in the top 10 in On Base Percentage, a trend you will find no matter what year you look up.

Many baseball minds who love the OBP statistic love the base on balls. We would like to clarify that we are not discussing a hitter’s ability to take a walk, so much as we are discussing his ability to get on base. There is indeed a slight difference.

If you look into the calculation of the metric, you immediately realize that walks and hits are the two inputs that a hitter is most in control of, as you never want to rely on a player being a valuable offensive weapon because of his ability to get hit by a pitch.

At the end of the day, we advocate that there be separation between the batting average and the OBP. In other words, we never want to undermine a player’s ability to make hard contact and get hits, but we understand walks are most certainly important as well as very projectable (it’s rare to find a hitter whose eye at the plate just disappears).

Beyond just getting on base, walks imply a very patient hitter, which also hints to the fact that the player is swinging at hittable pitches and not pitcher’s pitches. We will look into the importance of this when we discuss the Slugging Percentage statistic.

No matter who you are coaching, your message to your hitters should always be the same at its core: get on base. Some players will have a gifted ability to make hard contact on every swing and hit .325, so they won’t have to walk much to achieve a respectable OBP. Other’s may only hit .260, but still possess an elite OBP (around .400 at the Major League level) because of their keen eye at the plate.

As a coach, you should mainly be concerned with whether or not your hitter is avoiding making outs frequently, and not so much the process of how he does so. A walk isn’t necessarily as good as a hit, but a base runner is a base runner. You can’t score a run if you don’t get on base, and you don’t win games if you don’t score runs.

On that merit alone, the OBP is absolutely one of the most important (yet simple!) offensive measurements in the game today.

The Flaws of the Batting Average Statistic

The batting average has been around baseball forever, and it is a stat that we are all familiar with. Its computation is basic and easy to understand: (Total # of Hits) / (Total # of at Bats). We generally agree that a “good” batting average is somewhere around the .300 range, albeit that can depend on the strength of the competition.

However, as popular as the statistic is, it has very major flaws that I feel most coaches are already beginning to figure out, especially those around the game on an everyday basis.

How many times during a game have we noticed a player hit four rocket line drives, but all right at a defender? Is this player a poor hitter for doing so? Well, his batting average would be .000, but we all know that benching him the next game for this reason would be an atrocious decision.

On the flip side, how many times do we see a player hit a blooper into the outfield and a soft groundball, and end the day 2-3. In your eyes, is the player who hit .667 a better hitter than the one who hit .000 for the day?

The answer is absolutely not.

The first problem that we must expose about the batting average is that it can be very deceiving about a player's hitting performance, especially in a small sample. The reality is 4, 5, or even 25 at bats is hardly a large enough sample to get a good idea on where a player’s batting average will consistently rest.

In short samples, we rely on our eyes; if a hitter is killing the ball and making outs, we know that some of those batted balls will eventually start falling. We will discuss the BABIP statistic in a later article, but harder hit balls get through defenses quicker. On the flip side, those bloopers and soft ground balls are much easier to field, and over a larger sample will likely turn into outs as opposed to hits. At the end of the day, while the batting average statistic can give you some idea of a player's hitting ability, it can most certainly be deceiving. 

Luckily for us, there are much better metrics out there that we as coaches should look much more closely at. An additional flaw that we would like to point out is that the batting average assumes every hit is the same. This is actually a major problem, because we all know a double is more valuable than a single, and a homerun is more valuable than a double.

Unfortunately, the batting average does not account for this, and takes on the “a hit is a hit” philosophy. However, every coach most certainly understands that a 400 foot homerun is very different from a groundball through the 5.5 hole.

As we introduce the On-Base Percentage and Slugging Percentage statistics, we will attempt to show you much more useful (and simple) metrics in assessing a player’s on field performance.