I shared the message below with all our summer league participants. It’s a good insight into our goals for the summer and our general philosophy.

Thank you for signing your young player up for our 2019 3-on-3 or 4-on-4 Summer League. Our mission for these leagues is the same as it is for all our programs:  to help players of all ages and abilities play the game better and enjoy the game more. 

I will be sending you an email each week in order to help you better understand why we run these summer games as we do. As many of you are aware, they are not the norm. But they work. They really work to help kids play better and engage with the game in a positive way. These emails will help you better understand why they work and, I hope, help you enjoy things more as well. 

Because we are at the start of this league, it is best for me to give you some background of how all this started. 

Just six years ago, I was a semi-retired professional basketball player who had only one season of exposure to the youth basketball scene. During my short time back in the states, most of what I saw being done on the youth level (to put it frankly) made little to no sense to me. The kids did not seem to have a ton of fun, nor did they seem to max out their opportunities. (This is not to mention that the parents seemed to be losing their minds.) 

So during the spring of 2013, Bob Fisicaro and I sat down to put together a league for our young 6-7 year-old sons. We began with two simple questions: 

  1. What do they want? 
  2. What do we want for them? 

Question #1 was easily answered. All we had to do was ask. We were told they wanted to just play and have fun. 

Naturally we pressed further. What needs to happen for you to have fun? 

Answers:  To touch the ball. To dribble the ball. To shoot the ball. To steal the ball. To be on the court. To try new things. 

All great answers. And all the answers you would expect from every single player in the world. Notice they did not mention passing or good officiating or amazing coaching or Dad and Mom yelling at them from the sidelines. They just wanted to engage with the game as much as possible in the time they had. So we settled on “full court” 3-on-3. More action. More touches. More time. More shots. More kids doing what kids want to do. Everyone wins. 

Question #2 took a little longer, but we settled on two primary things. 

First, we wanted them to think basketball is fun! 

This is the most obvious of answers, but I think we all can agree that the most obvious things are often the most neglected. We love the game and we want them to love the game too. Maximizing their fun, we determined, was more important than training them in skills and drills and enforcing every little rule they don’t really care about! Fun is the means and the goal. Indeed, if they think it is fun, they will probably ask to get better! 

Second, in the long-term, we want them to be the kind of kids who just know how to play. 

You may or may not realize this, but one of the greatest compliments someone can give you as a basketball player is to say, “He (or she) just knows how to play.” (Incidentally, it is also what I am looking for as a college basketball coach.)

What goes into that “just knows how to play?” A million things. But for starters, the opportunity to play is foundational. You cannot become one of those players simply by doing drills. You need to play. You need to play often and in a variety of settings against a variety of people in a variety of games. You just need to play! 

An artist doesn’t become an artist by completing a bunch of “paint-by-numbers” sheets. Real artists tinker. They take a ton of blank sheets and seek to copy the best with a box of colored pencils or paints. So it is with the game. The best players are artists who were given the freedom to tinker with the game itself. They watch and try things out. They fail. And fail again. Until they get it. Then they fail some more. Until they really get it. 

The vast majority of the youth sports’ scene in America today (and throughout the world it seems) does not encourage this “tinkering.” In fact, it does the exact opposite by putting our young kids in situations where they risk less in order to win. The competitive environment leads to a conservative stye of play that is not overly fun in the short-term and certainly detrimental in the long-term. As a result, only the best are able to become those kids who “just know how to play.” 

That is not the way it should be! Knowing how to play should be something every kid is able to enjoy. It is my belief that more kids have the capability to “just know how to play” than we might ever imagine. But most lack the space. Most lack the blank sheets of paper and the box of colored pencils. Their only basketball experience is the equivalent of “paint by numbers.” 

Our summer leagues are designed to let kids play. They are designed to be the blank sheets of paper where kids can draw whatever they want. It sounds crazy (and if you are new, you might think it is crazy at first!), but it works, because it gives kids what they really want and empowers them to test their limits, to take new risks, and to really seek to be the kind of kid who “just knows how to play.” 

We do things differently, but there is a simple method to the madness. One referee without a uniform communicates to kids that it’s not a “real game.” It’s a safe-environment where you can take risks. The lack of score (or the lack of standings) communicates the same. Less players on the court makes action easier and possessions plentiful. You missed a shot with a terrible airball? No one cares. You had a turnover? No one cares. Try it again next time or let your teammate do the same. 

In the 4-on-4 league, I will also be introducing some specific actions you can encourage your players to use during a particular quarter (no switching on D, or slip screen, ball screens, etc.) This is the equivalent of highlighting a particular colored pencil, so they learn what it looks like! It’s not a rule or anything. It’s just an option. It’s another opportunity to “tinker” with the game, so you can play it better and enjoy it more. 

This is not what most of us are used to, but I would argue that most of what we are used to in youth sports is ridiculous nonsense that needs to change. Creating environments where kids can actually engage in the game is what is best for them—and for us! 

So I can’t encourage you enough to start this league with an open mind and a firm conviction to let your kids play! Teach them along the way or after the game. But if you are going to lean one way, lean towards letting them go! I assure you, it does not come easy for me, but I know it is most important. 

Thank you again for joining us. And thank you for reading if you have made it this far! 

Seeking more of those kids who “just know how to play”…

Joe Crispin

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