This post is specific to our 4-on-4 and 5-on-5 (w/ shot clock) leagues, which typically involved players from Grades 5-9.
Learning while at play is the most powerful kind of learning. But in order to learn well, it is essential to keep it simple. Too often we overload kids with too much information then wonder why they don’t play so well. Or worse, we yell at them for not playing so well! Or even worse, we yell at them instruction after instruction while they are playing!
But if we are seeing clearly, we should yell at ourselves! It’s our fault for giving them too much to think about. The action is enough, so it is wise to keep it simple.
In light of this, I find it helpful to highlight a maximum of one to two specific things each quarter or half of basketball during summer league. I also find it helpful in the winter with my college team. By emphasizing two things, kids are still free to play, but they are learning something specific at the same time. Indeed, such a simple emphasis typically helps them play even better.
Here are two ideas I often start with.
First, emphasize offensive spacing.
In teaching spacing, I often play 4 box 4-on-4. It’s quite simple. You draw an imaginary line down the middle of the court and side-to-side along the free throw line to create your four boxes. Players can then do whatever they want as long as they are not standing in the same box for more than 2 seconds.
Playing this way isn’t complicated, but it does introduce a key concept to good offense: get out of each other’s way!
Players of all ages are like magnets attracted to a piece of metal (the ball). They gravitate to the ball. Giving them boxes and making sure they move away from each other helps them learn where to best move on the court. It puts them in tune to each other and even gives them permission to stand still (an undervalued emphasis actually). It helps them overcome their tendency to run to the ball. This, in turn, makes them more fun to play with and more effective players. It’s a simple piece of information that yields great offensive fruit.
Second, force defensive rotations.
This one may surprise you, but I have found that the most effective way to teach defense is to purposefully put the defense at a disadvantage. There are different ways of doing so, but the simplest is trapping the ball.
By trapping the ball in the full court or half court, you force every defender to learn that he is not just defending “his man.” He is defending the other team with his teammates. And at any moment, he has to be ready to leave his man in order to scramble and contest another player.
This is so simple, but so neglected because of all the zone kids play today (way too much…I absolutely hate it). By forcing them to trap and operate at a disadvantage, they must communicate more and work together in a purposeful way. They also must made defensive ‘reads’ that are constantly changing. Doing so empowers them to make defensive decisions, which in turn, enables them to gain a feel for when to help and how to help and how much, etc. This is a soft skill that takes thousands of situations to do well.
Playing 4-on-4 or 5-on-5 with a shot-clock simplifies these situations and enables kids to learn more in a shorter period of times, at least, when you trap. This is not to mention that it radically helps the offense by forcing more attack decisions. It also increases pace and possessions by presenting the offense with more shots. Win win! So go for it and trap. They will figure it out quicker than you think!