Here are five things I consistently see from the teams that seem to win the most each weekend at the youth level. They are not universally true, but they are pretty close.
1) Physical superiority.
2) The best player.
3) Zone defense.
4) Bad transition defense.
5) Way too much adult ownership.
If I really wanted to win at the youth level each weekend, I would probably use this formula. But I have so many problems with these things, because I am focused on winning a different game. I'll explain by taking each one in turn.
Physical superiority: Of course, basketball is a game where physicality matters. As you get older, you must have a certain amount of physical athletic ability and size to compete. But the size and physicality really start to even out after kids hit puberty. And in order to take the next step -- no matter what that next step may be (high school, college, or professional basketball) -- you must develop a high-level basketball IQ and high-level basketball skills.
Physical superiority will win right now. It will. But often the most physically advanced players are hurt by their very strength. Why? Because they rely on that strength to have success now and fail to develop the necessary skills to take the next step when everyone begins to physically catch up. The games they play don't force them to develop the skills they desperately need.
Less physically developed players, on the other hand, are forced to develop those skills. The game forces them to. Or good coaches force them to. But we know how rare that is, because in order to develop new skills, you need to fail. And failing means losing. Which most don't want to do.
The Best Player: there is nothing wrong with this. This is usually how basketball works. The best player on the court usually wins. The issue you have to ask yourself is why is he the best player?
Is he the best player because of his skill or because of his physicality? It's not always an easy answer, but you see where this is headed. He may have good skills, but even those good skills are often related to his physical development. There are exceptions, but those who start the race in first rarely finish in first.
Zone Defense: This requires it's own series. The more I look at youth basketball, the more I hate zone defense at the youth level. From a teaching and development perspective, I would make zone defense illegal until maybe 7th grade. You learn too much by playing man to man. The International game understands this. We need to follow their lead.
Zone defenses think for you. And they put players in the same situations over and over again. Move here, do this, that's it. They force teams to solve one puzzle. Man-to-man forces you to solve an ever-changing puzzle. But to learn this way you must make mistakes. And why would you want that if you want to win?
Bad Transition Defense: The physically superior team can jump the rebounder and get away with it at the youth level. Try that against my college team and we will burn you for over 100 points. Any high-level coach will tell you how important transition defense is. And yet, the games we play on the weekend do not reward or encourage it. This is dumb. Just plain dumb. No other way to put it.
Too much Adult Ownership: This is last but by no means the least. It is a cancer in youth sports. Adults constantly in the face of kids trying to get more out of them so they can win the weekends.
Don't get me wrong, our kids need to learn how to compete. They need to be pushed and often want to be pushed. But we better be careful. I am of the opinion that kids can only handle so much. They either become numb to it or they just plain quit on you. And then they end up in high school and college and don't have enough emotional ownership to want to play.
Not only that, but they don't even know how to own their own game or their own team. We all love to talk about how kids don't know how to lead or talk or fail to compete hard enough. And yet, we spend the weekend yelling at them from the sidelines or from the bench. Huh? We are the reason why they don't own the game. Adults are directing too much. Controlling too much.
I am a college basketball coach and I spend a great deal of energy trying to help my players own the team. Own their relationships with each other. The way I coach my college team is not the same way I coach my 6th grade team. There are a ton of reasons for that, but at the foundation is player ownership. It won't win you the weekend, but it will win in life and in the future. In this respect, we are killing our kids' development and we don't want to own up to it. We just want to win.
I could say more, but that is plenty. I have to shoot straight: I often hate what I see on the weekends. I often look around and wonder to myself: who will I be able to recruit in the future?
I watch the game and see it's limitations for development. I then watch the sidelines, the parents, and think to myself: "I won't recruit your kids."
Consider carefully who you really want them to be and what that means for what you value and how you act this weekend.