I have spent over twenty years speaking around the country on ways to improve sports for kids, and have conducted literally hundreds of basketball clinics for youth coaches and players over this same period. Through my own experience, I have learned what ways I think are most important to improve youth sports, suggestions that I include in my talks to communities.
Four years ago, I decided to conduct my own research to find out what people involved in youth basketball think are the best approaches. I developed an online survey on my website at www.bobbigelow.com to gather the opinions of coaches, administrators and parents and received nearly 170 responses.
I got responses from a wide variety of people involved in youth basketball:
- More than 8 out of 10 of the respondents were youth basketball coaches and referees with intimate knowledge of the youth game. Others include (percentages add to more than 100% as some people have multiple roles):
- 6 out 10 were team parents or parents
- 4 out of 10 were volunteers other than coaches or referees=
- About the same number were league administrators and/or board members
- 3 out of 10 were members of an organization dedicated to improving youth sports
Here are the results in order from top down, with the percent of people rating each item as either "important" or "very important":
Most important ways to improve youth basketball
- Ways to keep more kids playing as they get older - 95%
- Ways to make the program more fun - 94%
- Promote sports as education and not just competition - 93%
- Better training for coaches in child development needs - 93%
- Better training for coaches in teaching sports skills - 90%
- Rules to enforce better parent and coach behavior at games - 90%
- Rules to promote fairer teams - 86%
- Rules to ensure equitable playing time - 80%
- Ways to make travel programs better and/or less stressful - 68%
- Make programs easier for board members to manage - 63%
- Approaches to de-emphasize winning - 56%
- Changes that de-emphasize or even eliminate travel programs - 43%
Keeping kids in the game
Looking for ways to keep kids playing, along with making programs more fun, topped the list with over 90% rating them as either important or very important approaches.
Too many kids drop out of youth sports by the time they hit middle school, often because they were no longer having fun. This also ties in to the next items on the list, namely the need for kids to learn new skills to stay engaged, and for coaches to be well trained in promoting skills and also understanding that they are coaching kids, not little adults. In my experience, many programs only provide minimal training for youth coaches, especially at recreational levels for younger kids.
Training is available from many sources and organizations, even if the local program is not a member of a national youth sports organization (YSO) such as the Y. There are plenty of online resources for how to teach kids basketball, with handy booklets and videos, as well as free resources. For example, just type in Google "youth basketball coaching" and quite a number of websites with excellent resources will come up on the first page alone! In addition, there are organizations such as the Positive Coaching Alliance that provide youth coaches training programs at reasonable cost.
Bill of Rights for Youth Athletes
In addition to promoting fun, learning and coaching education, all of which help increase player retention, it is important to monitor and instill positive behavior by parents and coaches alike during games. This often comes down to league administrators being diligent in publishing and promoting rules that call for positive standards of behavior, and enforcing the rules when adults get out of line at the expense of the kids.
NASPE (The National Association for Sport and Physical Education) has published a "Bill of Rights for Young Athletes"1 that gets to the heart of the matter:
- Right to have fun.
- Right to participate in sports
- Right to participate at a level commensurate with each child's maturity and ability.
- Right to have qualified coaches and administrators.
- Right to play in developmentally appropriate forms of activities, not adult versions.
- Right to share in leadership and decision making about their sport participation.
- Right to participate in safe and healthy environments.
- Right to proper preparation and conditioning for participation in sports.
- Right to an equal opportunity to strive for success in sports.
- Right to be treated with dignity by players, coaches, spectators and parents.
Fair team selection/playing time
In addition to listing the most important ways to improve youth sports, the survey also showed that people rate creating fair teams and providing equitable playing time as important considerations. This means we should not allow coaches to hand-pick teams and should provide minimum play rules that ensure all children get meaningful playing time in every game. Kids do not have fun sitting on the bench watching other kids play or watching their coaches coach. They all want to play!
Kids need to play as close to 50% of a game as a minimum in order to ensure they learn how to play. Just a few minutes won't do it and won't make it fun. At younger ages, play time should be as evenly distributed as possible.
Fair teams make for more exciting games. While coaches may like to win by wide margins, close games are more fun for the kids. What kids aren't excited by the game coming down to the buzzer beater, whether they win or lose?
Travel teams/importance of winning
Several other suggestions for improving youth basketball garnered less support, but are still worth considering. These include how travel programs are managed as part of the mix, how programs are organized so adult volunteers can focus on the things that matter most (i.e. the kids), and how winning and losing is presented to coaches and parents alike. Kids will always try to win their game, so we never need to worry they won't try their best. That said, one of the bigger land mines in youth sports is adults who compete with each other through their players.
Questions to ask
My research is ongoing, and I will discuss other topics in future articles. For now, though, please look at your local program and ask these important questions in order to assess where you are at, and your opportunities for improvement:
- Are the vast majority of kids having fun and coming back for another season?
- Are your coaches receiving at least some level of education and training, not only in sports skills but also about how kids' needs in sports are not the same as adults?
- Is learning skills a higher priority than competition, keeping track of the standings and/or wins and losses?
- Are coaches and parents well behaved at games most of the time (hopefully the vast majority)?
- Are teams as balanced as possible and playing time meaningful for all kids in the program?
If your answer to these questions is "yes", then your program is very likely doing a good job. If you answer "no" to one or more of the questions, there are things you need to look at to improve the program.
Remember: youth sports is about the kids, and we all must always strive to meet their needs as the number one priority!