3 reasons junior high basketball coaches are ruining the game

Terry Jensen  • Blog Author • Founder of   Let’s Go Ball

Terry Jensen
• Blog Author
• Founder of Let’s Go Ball

3 reasons junior high basketball coaches are ruining the game

Being a basketball coach at any level can be highly rewarding. It is not easy, however. If it were, then many of the back seat driving parents and fans in the stands would be standing in line for an opportunity to coach a local basketball team and bask in the glory. But, as we know, that is simply not the case.

At the youth, junior high, and high school age levels, being a basketball coach means tons of volunteer hours and in most cases, no pay. We are Phil Jackson or Pat Summitt in mind and spirit, but absent are the championship rings, statues, and gymnasiums named in our honor.

Considering the nature of coaching basketball at the junior high level, it would come off as mean to discredit the noble men and women willing to step in and guide these young basketball players right? Well, as one of my former basketball coaches liked to say, “Tough s**t.” I have something to say.

THE PROBLEM IN BASKETBALL NOW, AS I SEE IT

I have been around the game of basketball for a long, long time. At the time of this article, the overall experience works out to something like 35 years of playing basketball competitively, 25 years of coaching the game, and less than 5 years as a basketball referee. Suffice to say, I have experienced the game from many angles (player, coach, parent, referee, and even now, as an entrepreneur).

All that fluffy resume filler may not establish that I am some sort of expert per se, but this isn’t my first barbecue folks.

Also, before I put anyone on blast, let me state clearly just how much I respect all the men and women who selflessly volunteer their time as basketball coaches and referees. Even though many actively working in these roles are paid, I still consider them volunteers. The stipends and game fees barely cover the gas to drive to the games, so forget about moving up in tax brackets because of the excess cash rolling in.

Nope, these people largely do it for the love of the game. Or, at least they should.

Good intentions aside, there is another large majority of junior high basketball coaches who are blowing it (for lack of a better term). They are ruining young basketball players and the game of basketball itself.

Whoa! Harsh words, right? Well, I didn’t say they were intentionally trying to ruin the game. But their actions are creating a damaging ripple effect that we need to talk about.

Agree or disagree, I know most of you will immediately recognize my list of grievances when you read them here (feel free to comment below). Let’s get into it.

3 REASONS JUNIOR HIGH BASKETBALL COACHES ARE RUINING THE GAME

My list is in no particular order, I didn’t feel the need to rank what I believe are fundamental errors in coaching judgment. Rather, I will attempt to explain the issues, along with the short and long term effects, and some potential solutions.

To be clear, I consider junior high basketball to generally include 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students (sometimes 5th graders in small school leagues).

Before I set sail on my rant, let’s all agree that no single person can know everything and no one is perfect. These are my opinions. Good? Good.

1. NOT WILLING TO TEACH FUNDAMENTAL OFFENSIVE SKILLS

Oh my goodness, this is a big one. Let’s start by making one point very clear. No level of competitive basketball exists where fundamental skills are skipped over. And yes, that includes the NBA, Division 1 NCAA Basketball, and everything in between, all the way down to those tiny tot kindergarten basketball leagues.

At least that’s how it is supposed to work. Unfortunately, the fundamentals are often being overlooked.

You may have also taken note of my phrasing on this issue. I stated coaches are ‘not willing’ to work on fundamentals, I didn’t say they are ‘not capable’. In this day and age, a coach can simply search YouTube for basketball practice related videos to develop a practice plan. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, all coaches steal from other coaches. Find something you like and value, copy it, implement it, run with it.

In my experience, ‘real’ basketball doesn’t even exist for youth players until usually 7th and 8th grade at which time the rules of the game most resemble that of the high school game. This is the time where teams can and will utilize a defensive press for much of the game, and actual game time (by quarter or half) is at or near the traditional 32 minute high school basketball game.

So why in the world would coaches pass over fundamental skill development at this age?

Before any player can effectively run a half court offense, they must first understand and be somewhat proficient in individual skills like triple threat, pivoting, passing, dribbling, and moving without the ball.

Did you notice I forgot to mention shooting? I didn’t forget. Who cares about knocking down jump shots when a player is incapable of moving around a basketball court without traveling every time?

Then come the team skills needed to run the same half court offense. These are often more complex than individual skills and require a certain basketball IQ refined only by time on the floor. Things like transition fast break offense, setting screens, getting open under defensive pressure, rebounding, and maintaining proper spacing on the floor are just a handful of skills that all players should consider mandatory learning.

My Solution To This Problem (For What It’s Worth);

  1. Devote at least 40-50% of every single practice to the development of basic, fundamental skills. In a typical 90 minute junior high basketball practice, a 50% time allotment allows for up to 45 minutes to work on dribbling, passing, triple threat, pivoting, and many other footwork drills.

  2. Get creative. Drills are not required to be boring or hard for the players. Make a contest out of certain skill drills, rank your players each time your run it, and crown a champion for that drill on that day. The kids are playing basketball because they want to compete. What better place and time to teach your players how to effectively compete than at practice daily?

  3. Each day, fashion your fundamental skill exercises so they match the offensive sets you plan to review. For example, if you will be running a spread, perimeter style, give-and-go offense, then cater your drills to the exact skills needed like; catching the ball and snapping into triple threat, back cutting, floor spacing, and the basic principles of strong side versus weak side.

2. TAKING THE EASY WAY OUT ON TEAM DEFENSIVE STRATEGY

Warning! If you are a junior high basketball coach who relies solely on a 2-3 zone defense, prepare for friendly fire!

I have one word for 2-3 zone defense at the junior high level. LAZY!

Yes, you heard me. Not only is the 2-3 zone a lazy defense, coaches are being lazy in their efforts to teach young basketball players how to effectively play the game.

Now, for all of you Jim Boeheim wannabes who are screaming right now - let me set the record straight. I have not personally witnessed a single junior high basketball team run anything remotely close to Coach Boeheim’s 2-3 match-up zone defense… ever. That includes 25 years of coaching in Northern California, much of which was devoted to junior high basketball teams.

So if you are the one coach who is teaching your 6th, 7th, and 8th grade players an extremely active, floor extending, match-up zone… then please accept my apologies (I want to see it with my own eyes though).

To understand why I think coaches who consistently run a 2-3 zone in junior high basketball are ruining the game, let’s talk about the reason it’s happening in the first place.

The 2-3 zone defense was originally designed to stop bigs (power forwards and centers) from dominating in the paint, effectively exploiting mismatches in man-to-man coverage. In the zone set, more defenders ‘pack the paint’ and it shuts down the lanes to the basket.

In junior high, it serves another purpose. Players at this level very rarely possess the ability to shoot the ball well from distance, and I’m not only referring to long range 3-point shooting from 20’ and beyond. Even the 17’ jump shot can be a challenge for young basketball players. Their shooting mechanics and strength are not wholly developed and these are two things that will change dramatically from age 10 to age 15 usually.

So, the light bulb went off over these coach’s heads in an epiphany. They said to themselves, “If I drop my players into the 2-3, I will eliminate the mismatches against tall offensive players AND take advantage of the opponent’s poor jump shooting!” Huzzah! Right? Wrong.

Sure, it will help you win a few games but guess who loses in the long run? Your players, their future coaches, and you too - coach. But why?

[The Player] I have personally witnessed so many freshman either get cut from the high school team, or make it, and play extremely limited game time minutes (if any at all) solely based on their poor defensive skill. As a high school coach myself, I would ask players if they had ever played man-to-man defense in junior high - and to my horror - they would say, “No, Coach.” Chalk this up to a huge loss for the player. All he or she can do is play in the system they are in, but unfortunately it does more to dismantle their basketball career than support it.

[Future Coach] High school coaches suffer here as well. Each level of play is supposed to introduce new and more complex skills, both for the team and the individual. But when players are lacking in the basics (skills that should be taught in K-5 youth leagues), coaches are forced to strip their high level teaching down to the basics. In turn, this can hurt the program and limit the team’s success.

[Junior High Coach] If you have any aspirations of coaching successfully at a higher level, whether it be high school, AAU, city league, college, or beyond, then it’s time to study up and build solid practice plans for your players and teams. If your excuse for skipping out on teaching man-to-man defense is ‘lack of time’ then let me assure you high school programs will not give you the time to coach in their system either.

It all comes back to fundamental skill development (again). In order for players to run a solid zone defense, they must first possess basic defensive skills including but not limited to; defensive sliding, passing lane denial, post defense, perimeter defense, sagging, rotations, spacing, help defense, hedging screens, drawing a charge, and rebounding.

Any guesses as to how you can teach all those skills? By teaching man-to-man defense.

Every high level coach will tell you the same thing. If your players can’t play defense, then they will have very little use for them in high school, college, or beyond. And trust me when I tell you, they are not referring to how well they can plant their butts on the block and twirl around in circles as the ball moves.

High level coaches want down and dirty defenders. More importantly, they want fundamentally sound defenders.

Man-to-man defense breaks each player down to their core, there is nowhere to hide. It requires superior physical conditioning which is good for all phases of the game, and high level basketball IQ which is great for all phases of the game.

My Solution To This Problem (For What It’s Worth);

  1. Teach individual and team man-to-man defense. That’s it, period, end of story. No excuses, just make it happen. If you don’t know where to start, then read a book, watch videos on YouTube, attend a coaching seminar, or call me (I’m happy to help).

  2. Incorporate man-to-man defense into your strategy. Listen, I’m not telling you to avoid zone defense - not at all. But I am imploring you to diversify your defensive strategy so it includes a healthy dose of man-to-man, gadget zones, and some combination of full court and half court press. You will come to find that your team will benefit greatly from the strategy. Plus, your opponents will never know what’s coming next, leaving them confused and more often than not - defeated.

  3. Devote time in every single practice to man-to-man defense skill development. Remember the offensive drills I mentioned above? Guess what works great along with a dribbling drill? Defense. You can accomplish two goals at once by pairing up offense and defense into the same drills.

3. WASTING TIME AND ENERGY ON COMPLEX NBA SETS & SCHEMES

This one is laughable. To be fair though, I am willing to laugh at myself too. That’s because, I have made this mistake a number of times.

Sometimes we are simply too smart for our own good. As basketball coaches, we overthink, over analyze, and go overboard.

Legendary Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson is one of my idols. I have a large canvas picture of him in my office. I have read every single book he’s ever written. But I’m not Phil Jackson. My teams were never anything resembling the 90’s Bulls or the Lakers of the 2000’s.

So why on earth would I try to incorporate the famous Triangle Offense so expertly used by Phil Jackson and Tex Winters into my junior high basketball practices?

Pure insanity.

NBA teams play 82 games in the regular season, with another potential 28 games in the playoffs if they advance to the NBA Finals. To prepare for that grueling schedule, they play in summer leagues and preseason games. All this spans an entire calendar year, with practice sprinkled throughout.

Before Phil Jackson embarked on his journey to win championship rings with both the Bulls and the Lakers, he, his coaching staff, and team management all debated ad nauseam whether or not there was enough time available and player willingness to incorporate the Triangle. There were never unanimous decisions, they usually agreed to disagree.

Of course, history tells us that Coach Jackson’s use of the Triangle along with his superstar rosters led to 11 NBA championships. Oh ya, and he also got fired - more than once.

My point is simple. You and I are not Phil Jackson, Grep Popovich, or Pat Riley. Let’s stop kidding ourselves.

Further, most junior high basketball seasons are roughly 3 months long. If you add in a spring AAU basketball season with many of the same players, you can extend that by another 3-4 months.

There is absolutely no way to incorporate complex NBA schemes into your practices and make it work. We already addressed the lack of fundamental basketball skills being taught, so what makes you think running a crazy NBA offense is going to actually work? It won’t.

Don’t try to outsmart the game. It’s a waste of time and energy. Instead, focus on one simple set and work to perfect it. After all, if your players can run a clean set of actions in offense to perfection - who’s going to stop them? Sometimes the basics are all you need.

My Solution To This Problem (For What It’s Worth);

  1. Take a look in the mirror once in awhile. Unless you see John Wooden peering back at you, then odds are you probably won’t have a statue in the basketball hall of fame any time soon. Coaching basketball is certainly an ego position, you have to be brash and confident. But that should never take away from your respect of the game, its rules, the players, the opponents, and your willingness to continually learn how to improve as a coach.

  2. Use small pieces of your favorite NBA sets rather than going whole hog. At the time of the writing of this article, most teams want to emulate the Golden State Warriors style of basketball. Head Coach Steve Kerr is a disciple of both Phil Jackson and Greg Popovich, and his roster includes some of the greatest long range shooters who have ever played the game. But that doesn’t mean Steph Curry is on your 7th grade basketball team, because he isn’t. So, use a couple of simple actions from a Warriors set for your offense. All teams will benefit from using good on-ball screens or learning how and when to cut back door.

  3. Don’t fall for trends. We are what we see, or at least, we hope to be what we see. So, when 3-point shooting from 28’ away and beyond is the hot, new trend in the NBA - junior high coaches and young players go crazy trying to emulate it. Nothing will ruin a player faster. It also ruins the game. No one wants to watch 12 year olds heave bricks from half court over and over again, trust me. You want to get some cheers from the crowd? Run a 3 pass, full court transition offense where the ball never touches the floor and ends with a beautiful, 2 step layup. That’s basketball, and that’s forever.

FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME

Right, wrong, or indifferent, that’s how I coach basketball… for the love of the game. My voluminous mistakes were exactly what helped me succeed, by learning from them. I listen to mentors, and study their strategy both in games and during practices.

If your a new junior high coach looking for some pointers, don’t be afraid to visit your local high school or college and ask the top level coach if you can sit in the stands during a few of their practices. My guess is, they will be happy to pass along some of their knowledge of the game.

And most of all, think about the impact to your players. Basketball is a metaphor for life. I truly believe that. Everything I learned on the basketball court, both from great coaches and not-so-great coaches, helped me cope with issues in daily life. By teaching your players how to work hard, set goals, and overcome challenges, you are teaching them how to succeed in basketball - and life.