How to Structure a Youth Basketball Practice

Being a youth basketball coach can be one of the most exciting and fulfilling jobs for a person to have. Coaches get the opportunity to teach young kids how to not only play basketball but more importantly, how to teach kids life lessons that will last a lifetime. 

basketball on court

When structuring a youth basketball practice consider; your team goals, alternative skill development drills that vary from the previous session, your coaching philosophy, rewarding hustle and focusing on the fundamentals whilst not pointing out every mistake. Winning at youth level should not be what drives coaching decisions at practice. 

Not many things in life give you the ability to make positive and long lasting impressions on young kids. Kids love basketball! Many kids live and breathe basketball. They love to learn it, play it and watch it. Read on to see how you continue to grow their love of basketball through practice. 

How Do You Develop a Practice Plan?

A practice plan is essential and will help create a structure for your practices. This ensures that there isn’t wasted time when transitioning into drills.

Once your players get a feel for how practices are structured your practices will run more smoothly. The practice plan should include everything from specific drills with coaching points to even scheduling water breaks.

When planning for practice, the ability and level of the team should determine how long each practice should be.

For beginning players, the practice should not be longer than 60 minutes. Intermediate players should practice for 90 minutes and advanced players should be in the gym for 120 minutes.

These practice time guidelines will allow coaches to be able to maximize player effort without experiencing player burnout as the season progresses.

As coaches, we should promote when kids are playing multiple sports. When deciding on the length of your practice you should be aware of kids that have other obligations.

Try to schedule your practices with that in mind and avoid overworking your players. 

“Trust me, setting things up right from the beginning will avoid a ton of tears and heartache…” – Kobe Bryant

Start with a Team Building Conversation (5%)

To begin practice, coaches should bring the team together to talk about a value or characteristic that the program would like each player to subscribe to.

Have the players engage with one another about different topics of why a team is successful. This is a great chance to teach valuable lessons that align with your coaching philosophy (or developing philosophy!).

Depending on the make-up of the team and player personalities, the coach can choose to lead the conversation or allow the players to lead it themselves. Having this conversation whilst stretching works well. 

Have A Dynamic Warm-Up (5%)

A youth basketball warmup routine should allow the players to warm-up for practice along with learning different aspects of the game.

Coaches may overlook warmups and expect players to show up ready to begin but warmups can be a major learning opportunity for players whilst also preventing injury.

Warm-ups are important because they set the tone of the effort level of the practice. As the coach, you should push your players from the beginning of practice to work hard and this all starts during warm-ups.

Skill Development (60%)

The most important part of a youth practice is skill development. Skill development at the youth level consists of ball handling, passing, shooting and footwork. This part of a youth practice should be physically intensive and focus on creating a game-like atmosphere. 

Coaches should emphasize on their coaching points selected during the development of the practice plan. At this point of practice, players’ mistakes should be corrected more frequently than any other point in practice. 

Work On Defense; NO Zone! (15%)

All practice plans should include a defensive session. Youth players need to learn the concepts of how to play man-to-man defense.

At the youth level, many coaches dedicate a lot of practice time to playing zone defense. If the goal is to win youth basketball games and tournaments then playing a zone defense will probably work. But, the goal of youth sports should always be skill development and being able to play man to man defense at a high level is an essential skill for all basketball players.

Zone defense creates bad habits that are hard to correct when players move up to a more competitive level. Man to man defense principles can transfer into any other type of defense so it is of utmost importance that youth players are able to understand it at a young age. 

Teach Offensive Concepts (10%)

It is important for youth players to learn the basics of a motion offense. Avoid pattern offenses or set plays. Players should learn how to play the game on a deeper level and not just be robotic and go through the motions.

Coaches should introduce new offensive actions that players can utilize while on offense. Short term, it may look chaotic and disorganized but long term, coaches will see progress on offense once players become more comfortable.

Building confidence and basketball IQ is the most important part at this point of practice.

End with Competitive Games (5%)

The end of each practice should include some type of competitive game. Split the teams up and give out a consequence to the losing side. While fun is the focal point of youth sports, a competitive spirit still needs to be instilled within the players.

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Tips for Having a Good Basketball Practice

Bring positive energy to every practice and have fun!

The coach sets the tone of the practice. Youth coaches should work to create a positive image of basketball for all kids.

You will have kids that are less skilled or athletic than others but it is still important to keep the positive energy flowing. Do not be the reason why a kid chooses to quit!

Do not point out every mistake

As a coach, you want all kids to be successful but sometimes we need to take a step back and let them make mistakes in order to learn.

Mistakes are going to happen. Allowing them to correct their own mistakes will help build their confidence and is a more effective tool than stopping practice every time one of your players does something wrong.

Emphasize your coaching philosophy values often

As we talk about later, players pick up on what you decide to emphasize throughout practice. A coach should be pointing times when a player makes a play that aligns with your philosophy. Since your philosophy translates off the court, you are also teaching valuable life lessons.

If you’re coaching philosophy is still developing – that’s okay!

Focus on the fundamentals

Not every drill needs to be this spectacular show that makes players work on multiple skills all at once. Sometimes it is best to keep it simple and work on the fundamentals.

Take time to teach the small things like how to make a proper ball fake or a reverse pivot. As kids get older, the fundamentals are what separates an average player from a great player. 

Always reward hustle

Let a player know when he makes a good hustle play. Coaches need to pay attention to the small details during practice and praise the players that make the extra effort.

For example, when a player dives on the floor for a loose ball, make a big deal out of it. When it comes time to play a game, the moments that separate teams are the small details.

A hustle play that earns them an extra possession could be the difference in a close game. Win or lose, at the youth level you should always reward hustle and hard work.

The most talented player on my team will sit the bench for the one that works the hardest at practice. In many cases the most talented youth players are jumped by the hard-working ones. Players with a good attitude about working hard are the players I want on my team.

Give your team a lot of opportunities to scrimmage

The best learning happens in basketball when players get a chance to play. They learn how to deal with game situations and how to make adjustments on the fly.

Allowing your players to scrimmage uninterrupted by the coach will give the ability to learn how to play the game on a deeper level.

Once the scrimmage is completed, have the players reflect on the things they would have done differently. This allows for great coaching and learning opportunities. 

Create game-like situations

Players need to be able to build their basketball IQ and coaches need to begin the process at the youth level.

Creating game-type situations during practice is going to help players become better all-around. It will help them understand the game on a deeper level.

You don’t have to use a scrimmage-type drill to create a game-like situation. Make players run sprints and shoot free throws. Emphasize that when they are playing they will be tired and the importance of using their legs to get lift on their shot. 

If you do scrimmage, use a score clock and set at time. You can set parameters for the scrimmage and then let the players go. Have them make their own decisions, call time outs and be their own coaches.

This is a great way for them to learn what it is like to manage a game and will give them more insight when they are in the game. 

What Drills Should You Run?

Youth coaches should utilize drills that are time effective and support skill development.

Explaining drills for the first time will take up valuable practice time but coaches need to ensure that the focus and emphasis is communicated to the players.

Some of the most effective drills for youth players are the most simplest and will provide more time for players to focus on their development. 

Some coaches like to run the same drills at each practice to cut down on the time they take to explain each drill. Personally, I like to mix up the drills that my players run. This keeps things fresh and fun for the players. Like I said earlier, we don’t want them to turn into robotic players so changing drills each practice is a positive way to teach them how to stay focused and locked in during practice. 

Touch the Line (Warm-Up):

To start the drill, all players line up on the baseline. The coach then calls out a spot on the floor (ie: “Elbow”, “Block” etc.) and players begin moving towards that spot on the court performing while an action (ie: high knees, butt kicks, defensive slides etc). 

Weave Dribbling:

Line up three cone lines with the first cone starting on the baseline and moving towards half court.

One line of cones should be 1-2 feet apart and other lines have cones that get increasingly spread out.

Players line up behind the first line of cones with a ball. Each player then weaves in and out of the cones while dribbling the ball performing a crossover dribble.

Once each player has dribbled through each line of cones three times.

For more advanced teams and players, the coach can mix in certain ball handling moves (ie: between the legs, in/out dribble etc.). 

Partner Passing:

This drill is performed in pairs with each group having one ball to start.

Each group will stand 5-7 feet apart and pass the ball back and forth performing a different pass each time (chest pass, bounce pass, overhead pass). Coaches should focus on players using a proper passing technique.

As time progresses and the players are getting more advanced. The drill can transition into running while passing and catching. Adding a second ball to the drill will add another level of difficulty to this drill.

Form Shooting:

After being instructed on the proper shooting technique, players each have a ball and find an area in the gym away from each other. The coach will then talk through each step of a proper form shot pausing for each player to perform that step.

This drill will progress each practice to eventually shooting with a partner at a hoop without the coaches verbal prompts. 

SHELL Drill (defense):

For beginning players, this is an essential drill that should be in each practice plan.

The first time players are performing this drill, there should be three offense players and three defensive players on the top of the key and the two wings.

The ball should start at the top of the key and each player should move to the correct defensive position.

One player guarding the ball while the two wing defenders are in a “gap” help position. The coach then instructs the offensive player to pass the ball. The defense should then adjust to the new ball position. The focus of the coach needs to be on correct defensive positioning and making sure the players are jumping towards the ball while it is in the air.

Coaches should focus on building communication during this drill. Players should be taught what to say how to communicate and it should be an expectation every time this drill is on the practice plan.

This video from the Junior NBA is a great example of how the Shell drill works.

Shooting Competition:

Split the players into two equal-sized teams. Players then line up at a spot on the court and take turns shooting while counting all of their makes.

The coach can utilize a timer or the first team to certain number of makes to determine the winner of the drill.

The losing team then performs a conditioning or strength drill.

Proper form should be used and is the coaching emphasis while running this drill. At the youth level, players may try to go as fast as they can and lose focus on using a proper shooting form. Focusing on having players use a proper from will assist them with translating a proper form into a game situation. 

Dribble Relay:

Split the team into two equal sized teams and have them compete in a dribble relay race. Players should be dribbling as fast as they can. Mistakes should be expected but with time you will see an improvement in their ball handling skills. 

Hustle Drill:

This is a good drill to end practice with!

Have the entire team line up on the baseline and one player will go at a time. The coach rolls the ball out and the player must sprint to get the ball before it goes out of bounds on the other baseline. They should dive for the ball if needed.

Once they get the ball, they speed dribble back to the baseline they started at and make a layup. (Have teammates cheer for each other and promote togetherness)

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What Are The Goals of Youth Basketball?

Youth basketball can present a lot of different challenges that coaches must learn to navigate. Coaches are often looked at as heroes and role models that people reflect back on their lessons learned long into their adulthood so it is important for a coach to determine their values and goals when deciding to take on the role of a coach in a youth basketball program. 

The first and most important goal of youth basketball is providing a fun experience for kids! Players should be having fun while practicing and competing with one another. An emphasis on having fun will play a major factor in a players decision of whether or not they choose to proceed to the next level. 

The next goal of youth basketball is developing the skills and fundamentals of the players. Winning at the youth basketball level should not take precedence over the development of skills and fundamentals. 

Parents and coaches need to be able to see the bigger picture and think about the progression of skills rather than the win/loss column during the youth years. When a player leaves practice they should leave with a sense of accomplishment and belonging.

Establish Your Basketball Coaching Philosophy

Before you have your first practice, you will need to establish a coaching philosophy that reflects your priorities and establishes what you will emphasize as a coach. A coaching philosophy will guide your decision making throughout the season.

Kids pick up on the coaches behavior. It is important to always follow through on your coaching philosophy.

If you are prioritizing sportsmanship, but during the first game you get a technical foul for screaming at a referee. You show your players that sportsmanship isn’t actually what you prioritize, thus losing the ability to emphasize it with effectiveness for the rest of the season. 

During my youth basketball career, my coach always emphasized hustle and playing hard. We knew that if we were not giving it our all of the court during practice and then we would be sitting on the bench. The emphasis of hustle and playing hard allowed my teammates and I to understand what was expected of us at all times. 

As the coach, what you decide to emphasize is completely up to you.

All coaches view the game in a different way and not all coaching philosophies are the same. Whatever is decided needs to be reinforced and communicated during practice, drills, games and whenever you are together as a team. After a while, you will see your players hold each other accountable for the values outlined in your coaching philosophy. 

A coach’s philosophy doesn’t always have to be all about basketball. For example, one of my coaching philosophy values is to “never turn one mistake into multiple mistakes”.

This value has just as much meaning on the court as it does off. By instilling this value on the court, players will begin to translate these lessons to their lives off the court

“There are five fundamental qualities that make every team great: communication, trust, collective responsibility, caring and pride. I like to think of each as a separate finger on the fist. Any one individually is important. But all of them together are unbeatable.”

Coach K – Mike Krzyzewski

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In Summary: How to Structure a Youth Basketball Practice?

When structuring practice, coaches should choose drills that make practice fun! Remember, the main goal of youth basketball is not winning but to develop fundamentally sound players. 




I’m sports mad! I’ve been coaching youth sports for over 15 years, with basketball being my primary passion. You can typically find me in the gym, outside on the court or in front of the TV being absorbed by a competitive sporting event. Sharing my knowledge and thoughts with other youth coaches out there gives me the greatest buzz!

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