Over the past several years, I have spent a great deal of time thinking through and researching basketball development for every age and ability. Through my camps and clinics, I have also had the opportunity to experiment with various drills and forms of play. And though I have come to many conclusions, I consistently return to two key convictions about how to best develop young basketball players.
First, work on specific skills in fun and engaging ways.
Second, give kids ample opportunity to play the game with minimal structure.
The first point is self-explanatory and, I suspect, universally agreed upon. It is not put into practice to the degree that I think is wise, but on the whole, few coaches would disagree with specific skill development.
The second point, however, is far too rare in today's youth basketball climate. This is overwhelmingly and disturbingly true. The vast majority of kids I have seen have not had ample opportunity to play the game of basketball with minimal structure. Oftentimes, these kids have played basketball for years, sometimes all-year-round, but they lack the necessary creativity to play the game at a higher level and, more importantly, to enjoy the game the way they really want to. A primary reason this is the case is because the vast majority of their basketball experience has come in over-structured environments. Or in games that were poorly designed for their age and ability.
The way we structure our childrens' games matters immensely. The rules we decide upon will determine what our kids learn and, most importantly, whether or not they find the game of basketball fun enough to continue playing. It is because of this reality that I love 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 basketball. For all ages, but especially for elementary and middle-school aged kids. Four primary reasons come to mind.
1) It's simple.
In order to play the game of basketball effectively at any level, you must clarify your decision-making process to make it as simple and straightforward as possible. On defense and offense. To do this well with ten players on the floor requires years of training and a great deal of current practice. But to do so in a 3-on-3 game is not very complex. Your decisions are much simpler and straightforward. Rather than concerning yourself with what 9 other players are doing, you have 5 to concern yourself with. Finding the open man or the open space is now much easier. And finding an opportunity to drive to the basket or make a pass is about as simple as can be.
So for kids in grades 1-6 (and every other), doesn't it make sense to make the game as simple as can be? I think so. For the sake of fun and development, a simple game is good for any player at any stage of their development, but it especially wise for players just learning how to play.
2) It maximizes time and opportunity.
This simple game also maximizes time and opportunity. This is true because gym space is limited and because court space is limited. 3-on-3 enables us to run two games crosscourt. That means 12 players are on the court at a time, but only 3 are on offense and 3 on defense at any given moment. So the chances of a particular player being involved in the actual action of the game increases exponentially! Not only that, but the opportunities they have to make meaningful basketball plays increase exponentially because though the court is smaller, we have actually given them more space to play and create.
I often tell people that just because you play on a big court does not mean your team can actually use the big court. Spacing on offense, for example, is more or less determined by how far your can consistently make jumpshots. And if you are dealing with kids grades 1-6, how far away can they really shoot? The biggest thing they need is space. So the best thing you can do is to actually decrease the amount of players and the size of the court. It may seem crazy, but less players and less court space leads to move basketball opportunities.
3) It's great for overall development.
This is especially true for the point I made above, but it is important to point out that it is also true because in 3-on-3 basketball, there are no real positions. Or at least, there shouldn't be. Bigger players have to learn how to handle the basketball and to pass around the perimeter. Guards have to help rebound and have ample opportunity to get inside for lay-ups, etc. This is particularly true when we encourage "fullcourt" man-to-man defense. There is no zone. No packing it in, because our rules are about developing skills and making the game more enjoyable. Our 3-on-3 rules force kids to develop those skills without all the drills to teach certain offenses or defense, etc. The game becomes the best teacher.
As parents, we are all much too concerned about winning and losing. It is because of this that the rules of our games should minimize the amount of influence coaches have over the outcome of the game. From what I have seen at the youth level, however, 5-on-5 games become much too strategic. Yes, you can sit in a zone and force the other 3rd-4th grade team to shoot long-distance shots all game. And they can do the same to you. But who wins? The answer is no one. Every kid loses in that situation, because the game did not help them develop the necessary basketball skills they need to progress and enjoy the game more. Implement this winning-mentality over the course of 4-5 years and what you end up with is a kid who really can't play. At least, he can't play without being told exactly what to do. And how much fun is that?
4) It puts players in consistent basketball situations that they can handle.
In teaching the game to college and professional players, I often tell them that when you learn how to play the game best, the game boils down to 3 on 2 or 2 on 1 situations. The players I am going to recruit are the players who can make action basketball plays in these situations. But if we put 10 8 year-olds on the court, how many of those situations will they find themselves in? Few, at best. But when we make the game 3-on-3, we give them more possessions and many more situations in which they can make an action basketball play. Not only that, but because we minimize the amount of players, we give them an action play that they can handle at their age and development. And those action plays are better than any drill you or I could come up with. The game again is the best teacher.
5) It's fun.
I could say more, but I leave you with this: If a young kid improves without having fun, his improvement is worth little to nothing, because he probably won't come back. Naturally, not every kid will enjoy every kind of game, but you have to admit that the more opportunities any player has to be involved in the action of the game, the better the chances that he will find the game enjoyable. Let's face it, when it comes to basketball, having the ball in your hands is easily the most important factor to enjoying the game. Fun requires touching the ball as much as possible. With a rebound. An in-bounds pass. A shot. A few dribbles. So why not play 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 in order to increase those chances? The answer is plain.