I am excited to see kids engaging with the game in our summer leagues next week. With all the “quarantining” we have had, I know mine need to do so!

As we move through the summer leagues, I am going to share 1-2 emails each week with our parents/participants. I won’t be able to cover everything (though by the length of these posts, you might think I will!). But I do want to give a behind-the-scenes look into why we run things the way we do. Though the league is simple, there is a great deal of thought (and trial-and-error) that has gone into this league.

We begin with a simple thought…summertime is a time to experiment and have fun with the game….

One of my biggest issues with our current youth climate is that it does not encourage kids to take risks. From a basketball perspective, this means kids consistently play to their strengths. They play conservatively. But playing conservatively is counter to their development and their own motivation. They need to stretch their boundaries and try new things in order to improve and to enjoy. If they can’t take risks, they can’t become their best basketball selves.

If you are concerned about winning or performance, you will shoot the shot you know you can make. But if you are concerned about development and fun, you will shoot the shot you see on TV. And you will miss and miss and miss until you begin to make it!

The hard part is that this process is difficult for parents and coaches to watch. Let’s be honest, some of us can’t handle it emotionally! 

It used to happen on the playground with no audience to judge their every move. You remember: the place where, though your friends made fun of you, you still moved onto the next play. Or changed teams. Or reset the score. Or lost track of score all together while you fooled around with the game. 

Now the seats are filled with family members and judgments are made. Adults are everywhere, so the risks are harder to make. But they are absolutely, positively, 100% essential if you want your child to improve! So we must encourage those imaginative risks. 

This leads me to my thought for the week.

If we want our kids to play the game better and enjoy the game more we must encourage them to do stuff that they probably shouldn’t do…especially in the summer.

I’ll give you an example. When my oldest son, Elijah, was 6 or 7 years-old, we had just begun our 3-on-3 league. He was a good ball-handler who could create good scoring opportunities for himself. This led to a great deal of open lay-ups. At the time, however, he was completely bored with the normal right-handed lay-up. He was, instead, enamored with shooting a “scoop” right-handed lay-up (and often a reverse!). He saw the big guys do so, so he wanted to imitate them.

Was he good at this “scoop shot” right away? By no means. He drove to the basket time and time again only to miss over and over. He would miss open, right-handed lay-ups of all kinds on both sides—dozens a night (not an exaggeration). 

The only reason he would have stopped is if I would have told him to stop. He didn’t care about the missing. But he would have if I did. Trust me, it wasn’t easy. He would miss time and again and I would chuckle time and time again. My wife, Erin, didn’t always like it, but I would often point out that this was his playground! 

Actually, it got worse, because once he started making a few, all his friends wanted to try it. Most of them were sons of my friends, so now we had half the league missing open “scoop” lay-ups. It wasn’t easy for any of us to keep laughing! It took a great deal of self-control not to put an end to it. 

But as the summer went on, the misses became less and less. Because we stepped back and let them do what they wanted to do, we ended up with a group of 6-8 year-olds who had learned a new skill that was not only useful to their future, but motivating to them. Because they gained confidence in their ability to learn, they found basketball more fun and were prepared to add something new to their game. 

Go a step further. Because they had the chance to miss those shots in actual games (at least actual in their world!), they went home and practiced! Would they have practice those shots if they weren’t allowed to shoot them in the game? Absolutely not! No one does. The motivation to practice flowed from the freedom to miss in a real game. The ability to try the move was the very reason they were motivated to practice the move. 

Do you see the connections? Kids need to be encouraged to take more risks on the court. The summer time is the best time for this. And this is true for all ages. The kid who doesn’t get to shoot 3’s in the winter should be firing away in the summer. The kid who can’t get a reverse lay-up should try it now. The behind-the-back pass, the fadeaway, the floater. Whatever it is, now is the time. 

Will he or she miss? You bet. But if you let them shoot enough and miss enough, they will also be motivated to practice. They will then improve. Eventually, they will be confident enough to shoot them in a real game with a real score and real standings. But remember, it all started with the ability and freedom and encouragement to miss! 

The reason we either don’t keep (except in the older groups where we may keep it, but don’t emphasize it) the score or maintain standings is because kids desperately need more opportunities to fail—on their own terms at whatever they want. I could even make a case that they need the opportunity to goof around a bit with the game. There is, of course, a limit to these risks. You don’t want total chaos. But it is good to walk the line. 

Is it easy? No way. It’s incredibly difficult for everyone in the gym. Kids aren’t used to it today. And adults? Well, geez, as Americans in 2020, we are the worst group in the history at encouraging our kids to take these risks! 

But we are capable! We can encourage the kids to go for it. When they start shooting those “scoop” shots that look ridiculous, we can choose to chuckle. We can laugh it off and encourage them. If we choose to do so, you may be surprised how quickly they figure it out. Even more, you may be surprised how much you and they enjoy it! 

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