How to Coach Basketball

The quick and easy guide to coaching youth basketball


| 8 min read

Basketball is (allegedly!) a simple game, but that doesn’t make it any easier to coach — especially youth basketball. So where to start? We’ve gathered up helpful overviews, useful advice, and our most popular drills to help you succeed. 

Don’t forget, success looks different for different teams. You could take your team to the finals or out to ice cream after the end of the season. Count both as coaching wins. 

First things first

Start the season off right with good communication — specifically with the parents of your players. 

Send a detailed email or hold an in-person meeting before the first practice. Establish your goals for the season and emphasize positive sideline behavior. You might even be able to recruit some volunteer help at the same time. Setting your expectations up front will help you avoid any conflict down the road. 

The basics

Chances are you’re going to have to go over the rules of the game with your youth team. You might need to start way back at the beginning, like explaining the lines on the court and the areas around those lines. 

As a coach, you might need to brush up on your basics, too. Did you know there are different game rules for different age groups? For example: No jump balls or 3-pointers for players under 12. The focus for the younger players is always on skill development and to have fun playing basketball. 

Don’t pigeonhole young players into specific positions on the court. Ideally, youth basketball should be positionless.  Your focus should be on developing all the skills in all your players. That way they’ll be ready to play any position by the time they’re in high school.

The gear

Luckily, the equipment needed to play basketball is pretty simple compared to other sports. 

First, find a court with a hoop — one with adjustable hoop height is ideal. If you’re coaching 8-year-olds, they’re going to have a hard time hitting that 10-foot rim. The NBA set lower hoop height guidelines for younger age groups. If adjustable rims aren’t available, consider getting lower portable hoops to set your players up for success.  

Once the court is booked, you really just need balls, pinnies and some cones for drills. Like soccer balls, basketballs vary in size, starting small for the youngest players. Playing with a correctly-sized ball is the best way to get the fundamental skills down right. By the time a player hits high school, they’ll be playing with a full-size ball. 

Make sure all your players have basketball shoes. They’re going to need a good grip on the court for that fast break! If parents turn to you for advice on what to buy, steer them toward shoes that are stable and have solid ankle support. And make sure they’re comfortable. 

Practice 101

Feeling overwhelmed by all those skills you want your basketball team to learn? Just stick to the basics. A good coach teaches fundamentals at every practice, no matter the age group. 

9 and under. For players around 9 and under, your main goal should be helping the kids become better athletes. After all, an athletic kid can get clear to take a shot. Remember that younger players, especially, learn best by doing. The activities on MOJO teach both individual skills and team concepts through games.

Don’t choose drills that are overly technical for this age group. Movement games like Freeze Tag or Red Light, Green Light develop speed and agility skills that are golden on the court. A kid-favorite, Snake has kids working together around the court in a drill that improves movement and communication. 

One basic basic to teach your newest players is the triple-threat position. This ready position – feet shoulder-width apart, knees bent, weight on the balls of the feet – sets a player up to complete three key moves: shoot, dribble or pass. 

10 and up. For most kids over 10, competition equals fun. As a coach, you can still keep the focus on having a good time while introducing technical skills. At this age, kids learn by playing.  

Playing 3 on 3 is a fun way to build game skills. The small numbers let players have more touches, more chances to score, and the opportunity to make decisions in a low-pressure environment. Play on half court for a quicker game and so 12 players can be moving. 

All ages. Show up to practice with a plan. It will help you use your time efficiently and limit downtime. Keep it simple. Don’t overload practice with too many complicated drills. Pick three or four skills you want to work on and take it from there. 

Make sure every one of your players has a ball to use at practice. It may seem obvious, but it doesn’t always happen. When every kid has a ball, there’s no waiting around. It’s easier to keep all your players active – in the way that you want. 

Drills for days

Practice makes perfect, especially when it comes to the core skills of youth basketball. Remember: you can always adjust drills to fit the needs of individual players. Make them more challenging or more simple, when needed.

Dribbling. Without dribbling, basketball would be, well, rugby? Ball handling is indeed fundamental to the sport, and one of the first things coaches should be teaching their young players. Even the youngest players should work on dribbling with both hands – not at once, of course, but with the right and left equally – as well as protecting the ball. 

Passing. It’s the name of the game when it comes to teamwork. Not only do young players need to learn the basic types of passes — the bounce pass, the overhead pass, the chest pass — they need to understand how to create space and get open to help their teammates.

Once passing becomes second nature, make sure it’s a focus during scrimmages. Challenge each player to catch and make a pass before they can shoot. 

Shooting. The key to shooting is great form and loads of repetition, which can get tedious. Keep it fun, coach! There are many ways to keep kids moving and engaged while aiming for the basket again and again. 

Good form starts with balanced feet. Make sure players have tucked elbows to start and eyes on the basket. 

And you can’t coach shooting without teaching layups. Start the youngest players close to the basket – preferably a low one – without dribbling and focus on the correct footwork. As kids get comfortable, add more steps and dribbling. Ideally, players should be able to do a layup with their right and left hands equally. 

Defense.  When it comes to teaching defense, start with man to man. There are simply not enough practices in one season of youth basketball to teach the complexities of zone defense. Save it for high school. 

Man to man gives players the opportunity to defend all kinds of situations – screens, shooters and skilled ball handlers. Simply put – man to man defense creates smarter players. 

Added bonus of teaching man to man: the defensive skills learned through man to man defense can easily be transferred to zone defense. 

Go time

Game day: Time to put all that hard work from practice into action. 

If you’ve done your job as a youth coach, your team will know what to do. Often, a game isn’t too different from a practice scrimmage. It’s fun to see what decisions your young players make in the heat of the moment. Your role today is to keep the experience positive. There are important lessons to be learned through competition – whether you win or lose.  

Leave it on a high note

It can’t be said enough: Keep it positive. And by “it” we mean everything — positive attitude, positive feedback, positive season. The goal is development, not winning. 

At the season’s end, whether you throw a party or wrap it up with a good huddle at the end of the last game, choose your words carefully. Highlight the growth that happened over the past months. Share your favorite moments. And remember, you have the power to inspire your basketball players to keep playing. Don’t take that lightly. 

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