Teaching through Free Play
During my playing career, I often had to get settled into a new city and/or country. One of the most difficult things about settling into those new cities was finding your way around. I would typically start with someone driving me around and showing me the main roads and the simplest way to get to and from the gym. Then we would add the grocery store and some looks at a large map. After I got comfortable with the big routes, I would start to deviate from the course little by little in order to gain a ‘sense’ of the city.
I rarely had GPS, but I think that was a good thing. If all I had done was follow directions, I would never have gained a feel for where I was and how to get wherever I wanted to go. I had to know the main roads or primary reference points, but then I had to try new routes. Indeed, once I found those main roads, it was often most helpful to get lost.
Going through this process was often stressful, but it was essential to gaining a level of comfort in my new home. If all I did was follow directions, I would have been able to get places quicker, but I would not have felt at home quicker, because I would not have really known my way around. Following directions would have counterintuitively short-circuited the process of settling into my new city.
Here at Crispin Basketball, we want to help kids to become the kind of players who just know how to play. We want them to gain a ‘sense’ of where they should be and what they should do on the court. It is a clumsy process that is similar to learning your way around a new city. You learn the basics and then start to try new things. You may even get lost, but eventually, you learn you way around and are able to find a variety of new ways to get where you want to go.
For many parents and coaches, this process is often uncomfortable (or for some sadly, unbearable). Because of this, organizations and coaches often create rules and structures and give out a litany of directions that we think will help them learn the game more efficiently. The problem, however, is that these structures or rules become the ‘main roads’ of play with little deviation. If players travel them enough, they fail to learn new ways of doing things. Indeed, if they never have the encouragement or freedom to get lost, they never learn their way around the court. They never learn to take risks, but instead, learn that basketball is a game where you follow directions. In short, they never learn how to play.
From a teaching perspective, there is always a balance between letting players play and introducing new concepts for them to implement. So I want to offer you some basic principles to help your child or players during the summer. These are the principles I apply to any team I help at any point in their development. But they are helpful to keep in mind this summer whether you are a parent or a coach.
1) The younger (or more inexperienced) they are, the more freedom they need to get lost.
This is applicable to any age, but it is especially applicable to our 3-on-3 league. Many of you have told me that if you didn’t know me, you would think it is crazy to just let kids play! But then you see the result. You see that if you give them the freedom and limit the amount of input they need to deal with, kids improve. They gain confidence in their navigational abilities. They don’t learn it all right away. They make a ton of mistakes. But if they stick with it, they really do figure it out. The learn how to play.
The younger or more inexperienced the player, the more freedom we should give them to get lost. To just play. They double dribble sometimes. They miss open players. They go to the wrong side on defense. They are open and forget to shoot. So what? It’s all good. Indeed, it is essential to the learning process. We remind them little by little and enforce the rules of the game in a casual way. We don’t bombard them with information. We stick to the main routes and give them the freedom to figure it out.
It doesn’t mean that we fail to teach. It just means we teach them at a pace they can handle. There is no rush to become an expert navigator. It’s more important that they learn how to love driving in the first place.
2) When it’s time to introduce new concepts (or new routes), we introduce them in a way that can be immediately experimented with and applied.
In my experience, if a player isn’t able to immediately apply the information you give them, they probably aren’t ready for it. You are best to take a step back and give them something simpler.
If you try to force the player to learn what you want them to learn when you want them to learn it, you will probably just frustrate yourself and the player (not to mention his teammates). It is best to simplify and to focus on something specific that they can handle.
If you are coaching any group this summer, you are under no obligation to do anything but substitute for equal play and competitive balance. You really don’t need to impose any sort of structure. And if you are going to lean one way or another, I would recommend encouraging your kids to own their own game as much as possible. Sit down and enjoy watching your kids play.
But I think it is helpful to share with you how I will ‘coach’ my team in the 4-on-4 league this summer. Essentially, I will often choose to highlight a specific action or emphasis during a particular quarter or half or game. I won’t mandate it, but I will emphasize it as the primary area of action for a particular time period. It is the equivalent of showing them a new route or two and telling them to go get lost somewhere along that new way.
In a sense, this is how I do all my teaching from the youth to the college level. I determine what matters most to the group I have and find a way to emphasize it during a game. I then let them experiment with it as much as possible in that game. Once they get a feel for it, I then (and only then) begin to refine it. Only then do I get more detailed in my teaching.
We are often in too much of a rush to get to the details. In teaching kids under the age of 15, it is best to highlight some options and to give the freedom to experiment—especially in the summer!
In light of that, here are some things I will highlight during our summer leagues. Feel free to try any one or two of them at a time. (Don’t go past 1 or 2 or you will just end up with confused and unhappy kids!) I have found that playing with 6 or 8 players on the court makes it much easier to implement these concepts. But remember, only introduce what your players can readily apply and understand. Even more importantly, find a way to make these things fun!
Ball clocks – 2-3 seconds with the ball for each player in order to make sure the ball is moving. The clock is better than limiting the dribbles, because it leads to a more natural flow in play. It also helps players become better at making quick passing decisions.
Slip Screens – fake screens on and off the ball.
Ball screens – any player or 1-2 specific players always setting the screen.
Pass and cut – Passer always putting his/her head under the rim.
Pass and screen away – simple enough.
Pass and do anything but stand – Even more simple.
Catch-and-shoot jumpers +1 – encourage kids to shoot when open (keep the secret score).
Assist competition – keep track of who gets the most assists during the quarter or half.
No switching on defense – forces players to help and recover in man-to-man.
Switch everything on defense – forces players to talk and to help one another when there is a mis-match. Also helps the offense recognize mis-matches.
Transition baskets worth +2 – forces your team to get back on defense.
Double team first pass – forces rotations and better help.
Double team PG at half court and rotate – same as above.
Steals or deflection competition (but -1 for fouling on the reach) – encourages risk-taking and the development of better defensive instincts.