The heart of the basketball season always seems to get away from me a bit! I love to get lost in the game-to-game rhythm of the season. But I am back on track here for a quick thought regarding the youth season.

Actually, I suppose it isn’t a thought about the season, but a thought about why the way we view seasons today should be different than we did in the past.

I have often told people that my father was an incredible youth coach for my brother and I (and our friends) during our formative years. He began a lot of programs that are still in place. But as I have often mentioned to him, there were things he used to assume about us that we can no longer assume about young players today. In fact, there was one central thing he assumed: that we spent plenty of time playing ourselves.

This may not seem like much, but this simple assumption has driven youth basketball teaching for decades. At least, it has driven how we teach the game during the season. Because we assume players are playing on their own, we use the season to develop strategies and to refine skills and introduce new concepts. We drilled and organized more while we played less.

But here’s the problem: We can’t assume that anymore!

Great basketball players are not created by drills. They aren’t developed by organization and control and telling kids what to do and when to do it. At least, not from the very beginning. Or not only by those things. The foundation for all those things is play. Free play. Player-controlled play. Kid-directed play. No parents. No coaches. No trainers. Just play.

This doesn’t mean kids don’t need coaching. Or seasons. Or organized games. But what it does mean is that if all they get is the coaching and seasons and organized games, they are missing out on something essential. Indeed, go a step further, they aren’t getting the full benefit of all the coaching, seasons, and organized games. After all, the season is the time to refine the feel you get from the play. But if you never get the play, what are you refining?

If play is not the foundation, you can create nice basketball robots that look real good on the surface. But they lack soul. They lack feel. They aren’t true ballers. They don’t really know how to play. They are fragile. They need a certain kind of order and structure to look good. They are often too-reliant on coaching and order. And though they look good on the surface and think they should be recruited, they don’t get it. They don’t have it. Trust me, I see it all the time.

But if play is the foundation, you can refine certain skills. You can teach new situations and see them applied. You have something to build upon. Now you can really coach.

So what’s all this mean for you?

First, it means we do have to adjust how we do things in season. This is very difficult for people. I get it. It’s often difficult for youth coaches. Not everyone does it well. Many don’t seem to be convinced that this is the issue. But it is. We have to adjust and leave more room for play. Sure, we want to win. And sure, we can and should still organize. But we must be careful not to over-organize. We must leave room for players to experiment and grow, especially in practice, but also in games.

(And of course, the younger the age, the less organized and controlled it should be! I have heard some nightmarish, foolish stories this winter about all the rules we put in place at young ages to control the game. When we do this we are killing basketball development (and fun), but that is for another post.)

Second, it means we must adjust how we do things in the offseason. One of the central reasons we run a 3 on 3 and 4 on 4 league in the summer is because I believe summer is the best and ultimate time for free play. I loved my summers as a kid. I probably would have enjoyed a summer league or two, but after a while I also would have hated it. I loved the playground where I could do what I wished. No coaches telling me what to do. No parents either. Just our game our way.

If your kids don’t have the chance to really play, you can make them look good on the surface. At least for a while. But sooner or later they will be exposed. Play is the foundation for all true skill and game development. The right kind of play. The free kind of play. The unorganized, loose kind of play. Which is to say, the kind of play parents can handle watching!

It’s season time, so it can be tough to give this play. I am encouraging coaches to do their best to do so. Some will do it better than others. Either way, know it should be a priority this offseason and in the years ahead. It is much more important than you think.

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