Mental training helps young athletes play sports with less tension and anxiety. What athletes think affects how they feel and perform, the mind guides action. If athletes succeed in regulating their thoughts, then this will help their behavior. As a result, young athletes can perform and play with more joy and at higher levels.
Mental training is deliberate, intentional, and hard training. Like physical skills, mental skills only improve if you do the work. The coaching staff has to support this work and continue the mental development of its players. It is a competitive advantage to do so.
Vision and Goals
You must have dreams and goals if you are ever going to achieve anything in this world. - Lou Holtz
Goal setting is a skill for growth and peak performance. Goals keep everyone on target. Seek progress, not perfection. Be mindful of being present, it can take longer if one eye is always on the goal, as you only have one eye for the journey.
What does your athlete want to accomplish in basketball? Have your athletes make a list of three goals and write them down on an index card. They should then post this index card where they will see it frequently throughout the week. The goals should be specific, measurable, actionable (use a verb), relevant, and time specific.
An example of a well written goal: I will complete my finishing at the rim and five minute off hand ball handling routine three times per week over the next month or I will play one on one against a stronger player two times per week over the next month. These goals would be different for in-season and off-season training.
Process Over Results
At the youth level, success is measured not in wins and losses but in the growth and development of your young athletes. Basketball is not a measure of your athlete’s self worth. Your athlete’s value comes from who they are, not from what they do. Judging success by wins and losses is tragically flawed, and pursuing it will leave you and your team completely unfulfilled. By focusing on improvement, work ethic, and the process the wins will take care of themselves and your player’s will play present.
The steps of mastery are not constant, but move in steps. There may be discouragement with a plateau in growth but in time this will eventually lead to another growth spurt. Tell your players they know they are going in the right direction if they are saying that this is hard.
Lastly, remind your players not to judge themselves by results. Fixed mindset players rarely seek out opportunities to learn or challenge themselves as their self-belief is tied to results. These players shut down against more talented opponents for self-preservation. As coaches, we want our players to be fiercely competitive, play in the present moment, and not tie their self-worth to results. This will lead to improved performance, joy, and outcomes.
Proper breathing helps expel tension and stress and can bring players into the present moment. The act of prolonging exhalation, regardless of inhalation length, promotes the relaxation response and can have a calming effect. Your players’ minds will become more powerful as it becomes calmer and clearer.
There are many different rhythmic breathing strategies that are effective. One we find easy to teach is breathing through your nose for a five count, holding for a two count, and then exhaling through your mouth for an eight count. Optimal and practical times for practicing this may be before a team meeting to improve focus or during times of high anxiety when the intensity and tension needs to be turned down.
There is vast research to support the power of visualization. Visualization sharpens and strengthens the muscle memory for the physical activity at hand. It works as the brain does not always differentiate between real and vividly imagined experiences because the same systems in the brain are used for both experiences. You do not have to have a PhD to use visualization activities with your team.
To perform simply have your athletes relax by taking a few deep breaths and then have them close their eyes. Have them, from the first-person point of view (through their own eyes versus the eyes of spectators) experience making great plays, talking confidently on the defensive end and in a stance, making shots, over coming a poor call with great body language, and creating plays for their teammates via a pass or solid screen. Really encourage your athletes to feel it, see it, and enjoy it like it was real. Visualization could be done the night before the game, during short bursts during the day, or for 10 minutes two to three times per week.
Another way to assist with visualization and strengthening muscle memory is to have your athletes watch video of themselves performing at their best. The imagery can be more instructive than words. This allows the athlete to absorb the images and positive feelings.
Self-Talk and Affirmations
Your athletes may not have control over how other people talk to them but they do have control over how they talk to themselves. Words put pictures in your mind, which impacts how you feel, which impacts what you do. Most people have been conditioned to tell negative stories about themselves and their performance to appear humble. Negativity is not humility.
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You are a Youth Basketball Coach. Now What?
The reason why we volunteer to start coaching our son or daughter’s youth basketball team is because we love our child, we enjoy the game of basketball, or sometimes because no one else volunteered for the position. As a volunteer youth basketball coach we come from all occupations and experiences and typically not one of us is a professional basketball coach by trade let alone a head coach at the high school or college levels. Even if you were a star basketball player in high school or college it may have been ten to fifteen years since you were last involved in basketball for a full season. With the vast wealth of information out there it can be overwhelming for anybody. So now what?
This book is designed to help you navigate what is important to teach as well as what’s not important in regard to long term development of your team and child. We strongly feel that positive core values, skill development, and having fun are far more important to long term success than any strategy or plays and having fun does not happen without positive core values, working hard, and skill development. To illustrate this there are tons of successful ways to play the game of basketball offensively and defensively but there is one thing that never changes. For these offensive and defensive strategies to be successful, you need good players.
If your players cannot shoot, pass, pivot, or dribble well your perfect play or offensive system will not work. If your players struggle to listen, lack a work ethic, are not good teammates, and are not motivated to improve skill level does not grow. Good players listen, work hard, are good teammates, and are skilled. So how do you get good players? As a youth basketball coach you must develop core values and skill. Additionally, the offensive and defensive strategy you do end up choosing must be simple, easy to teach, allow some player freedom for decision making offensively, and ideally incorporate skill development within your system so practices are more efficient. We will get into this all in greater detail later. For right now it is important to know that youth basketball coaching and development is a marathon and not a sprint. Slow long term improvement versus short term gains from strategy is paramount.
Pete Carroll in his book Win Forever: Live, Work, and Play Like a Champion says, “The simple act of making thoughtful, affirmative statements about who we are and what we want to achieve can be an incredibly powerful tool for getting the best possible performance out of ourselves.” He also notes that if we change who we are from year to year we will never be great at anything. As a youth basketball coach it is extremely important that you have three to five core values that you have written down and strongly believe in with your whole heart and that you can be genuine about. These core values will become the foundation of your culture and will help shape positive behavior within your team both on and off the court. They should be so clear that everyone on your team knows what we are about and what is important to us. Your current youth association you belong to or high school coaching staff may have these values clearly defined that they want taught and emphasized throughout the year. You may have to define them yourself based on what you feel is important to the group you are coaching.
Some examples of teams successfully defining their core values and living them are the United States Military Academy West Point’s core values of duty, honor, and country and the University of Virginia men’s basketball team values of humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness. These two groups have clearly defined who they are and what they want to be about. They have a strong identity that helps guide behavior in a positive way. West Point is one of the most highly regarded leadership institutions in the world and Tony Bennett’s team at the University of Virginia has been one of the top basketball programs in the United States with a National Championship won in 2019.
You may be thinking that hey this is just coaching a fifth grade youth basketball team. We are not a college or professional program and this core values thing seems a little over the top. We completely understand this and it is human nature to think this way. However, by defining what core values you want emphasized and taught, you are taking a big step toward becoming above average and not the normal team or program. You are taking a big step in shaping your team and child in a positive way both on and off the court.
As an example for youth basketball ages five through eight years old, this may simply be stating to your group that we are emphasizing listening, working hard, and having fun and then defining what these values look like. As a coach we know our players are listening when they are not bouncing the ball or talking to teammates and have their eyes on you while talking. Working hard is giving your best effort and not comparing yourselves to others. When we listen and work hard we will have fun. After defining these core values ask your team if they agree so they have a sense of ownership. Also, when you see these core values demonstrated it is important to celebrate them in front of the group.
Daniel Coyle, in his book The Talent Code, does an unbelievable job of discussing the many factors of motivation, which he terms ignition, and how, “Ignition supplies the energy, while deep practice translates that energy over time into forward progress.” As a coach you will be involved in creating the desire and energy of your team to work hard, improve, and follow your team’s core values. You will be involved with creating the vision and habits for your team. In this chapter we will discuss how motivation can be created and sustained and why long-term commitment, language, and physical environment are important. We will also discuss how to improve intrinsic motivation and when to use extrinsic motivation.
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Strength and conditioning for youth athletes has been shown to have many positive benefits which include: improved gross motor skills and performance, injury prevention, reduced body fat, and increased muscle mass, psychosocial well-being, and bone mineral density. Most parents are not certified strength and conditioning specialists and tend to have many questions in regard to when is a strength and conditioning program safe to start for their child, how often should it be done, what type of exercises are appropriate, and should I hire a trained strength and conditioning specialist? This article will attempt to answer these normal questions that most parents and youth coaches may have.
Who is appropriate:
Who is not appropriate:
There is no evidence that strength training stunts growth. Additionally, injuries to the growth plates can occur but this is usually due to improper technique and too much weight. When injury did occur to the growth plate it rarely affected growth. To prevent injury children should never attempt a one-repetition maximum.
Stages and Progression
The Long-Term Athletic Development Model (LTAD) and the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) Optimum Performance Training (OPT) model are two sound pathways for youth strength and conditioning progression. The LTAD has useful information in regard realistic progressions specific to age and skill level to keep physical activity fun and safe, along with maximizing performance level as children age. There are three stages of the LTAD which we will go into more detail on for ages 6-14 years old. The NASM OPT model for young athletes progresses through three levels: stabilization, strength, and power training. This model also provides general guidelines for youth resistance training in regard to sets, reps, intensity, and recovery.
Fundamental Stage (Males 6-9 and Females 6-8)
Per the LTAD, in this stage children participate in less-structured activity with a focus on physical literacy and multiple sports that include running, jumping, and kicking that challenge balance, coordination, and speed. It is not necessary to have formal strength and conditioning training during this phase that is separate from multiple sport participation.
Learn to Train Stage (Males 9-12 and Females 8-11)
In this stage there is low to moderate structure and focus on technical competency. Again, multiple sports are strongly encouraged (three or more) and in this stage children can learn proper body weight training. These exercises would include push-ups, bodyweight squats, pull-ups, planks, lunges, and external resistance with medicine and stability balls or rubber tubing. Per the NASM OPT model this stage of training would start with foundational stabilization exercises with a dosage of 1-3 sets, 12-15 reps, at low intensity, with a recovery of 0-30 seconds between sets. Children can improve strength by 30-50% after 8 to 12 weeks at two times per week of a well designed strength training program.
Click for Sample Training Routine
Train to Train Stage (Males 12-16 and Females 11-15)
This stage involves moderate structure with the focus on technical skills and the secondary focus on performance outcomes. Aerobic training becomes a little more important, but the focus is still on skill, speed, and strength. Periodization can be incorporated slowly with multiple phases and foci and focus may shift to only two sports. Once young athletes have demonstrated great exercise technique with bodyweight and stabilization training they may progress to strength resistance training and eventually power exercises..
Free weights, weight machines, rubber tubing, and medicine balls can be incorporated for a variety of resistance types. Each training session would consist of 6 to 8 exercises that train the major muscle groups with a balanced effort between flexors and extensors and between upper and lower body. Sample exercises could include dumbbell squat and lunges, seated tubing row, staggered stance tubing chest press, and seated dumbbell overhead press on bench. Per the NASM OPT model a dosage of 1-3 sets, 6-15 reps, at moderate intensity, with a recovery of 30-90 seconds between sets is recommended for strength training. The initial load selected for children would be 10 to 15 repetitions that can be completed with some fatigue but no muscle failure. In general, resistance can be increased by 5-10% when the child easily performs 15 repetitions. If the child fails to complete at least 6 repetitions per set or is unable to maintain proper form, then the weight is too heavy and should be reduced.
Power exercises use explosive movements, so to progress to these exercises young athletes need to show great exercise technique and resistance training skill. Examples of power exercises include medicine ball soccer throw, medicine ball chest press, squat jumps, speed squat to overhead press, and eventually olympic lifts starting with just bar weight.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children and adolescents avoid competitive Olympic-style weight lifting and power lifting until they reach physical and skeletal maturity. The snatch and clean and jerk are complex movements that require skilled coaching and such lifts should never be performed without proper training and supervision. Therefore, we recommend that during the later stages of strength training and onset of power training your child train under the supervision of a strength and conditioning specialist. Many experts have recommended that there should be an appropriate athlete-to-coach ratio of one coach per 10 youth athletes to minimize risk. The NASM OPT model also recommends 1-3 sets, 3-6 reps, at high intensity, with 1.5-3 minutes rest between sets for power training.
Click for Sample Strength Training Routine
Written by: Katie Larson, PT, SCS, CSCS
This is a great 5-10 minute off hand ball handling workout for players 9 and up put together by Phil Beckner, an NBA skill development coach. It will improve your off hand control and feel for the ball.
Great footwork can allow you to create space, improve decision making, and finish at the rim against more athletic competition. Watch this video on the stride stop finish which includes game edits, teaching progression, and a mini-workout that can be done at home.
This is a free 10 to 15 minute ball handling workout that addresses ball quickness, changing speeds, and creating space. It can be done in your basement, garage, or driveway areas as part of your home physical education class! We are also now offering home individual instruction classes one time per week for 30 minutes. Go to our home page at youthbasketballdevelopment.com to find out more.
We will get right to the point. For ages twelve and under no zone defense should be played as a player to player or man to man defense better develops the individual skills related to guarding a player both off and on the ball. By playing zone at such young ages the coach has made the decision to emphasize winning a tournament or game versus long-term development. Most eight through twelve years old naturally struggle with perimeter shooting from the three point line, throwing skip passes, looking defenders off and throwing the pass the other way, and being comfortable with the ball in the middle of the zone all of which makes a zone defense effective at the youth level. Fight any urge you may have to take advantage of these natural deficiencies at these young ages to win a game or keep your team in a game. In fact, FIBA (International Basketball Federation) has a “no zone defense” rule for players under the age of fourteen with the stated intent to help the development of young players both offensively and defensively.
We do recommend that you teach a player to player or man to man defense for ages fourteen and under. In our defensive team concepts section we have a progressive teaching program with appropriate drills and games specific to each age level of development. These drills and games address the core defensive concepts of proper stance, vision, anticipation, communication, and togetherness. It is important as you develop your defensive philosophy to know how you will guard the post (play behind, three-quarter deny, or full dead front), guard one pass away from the ball (be in the gap or denying), and guard ball screens (help and recover, trap, or switch) for clarity and decisiveness. Jack Bennett, the former head coach at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and two time NCAA Division III National Champion said that if your team is more athletic than most teams that you will play you can get out and deny one pass away, otherwise play in the gap.
We highly recommend playing one on one each practice as able to improve on the ball defense and incorporate transition defensive work within your practice plan. If your team struggles guarding the ball or fails to make the offense go against a set defense you will struggle to defend anybody. Rebounding can be emphasized by finishing each drill with a rebound throughout your practice. Lastly, defensive breakdown drills (one on one, two on two, three on three, and four on four) are highly recommend as it forces the defense to have to cover more space.
As we reach February many youth basketball programs have been practicing consistently for up to three to four months and practices may have become somewhat monotonous for both players and coaches. Below are five potential strategies to breathe some life into your practices.
Situation Games: Add a 10 minute block to your practice where you play out various situations in one to three minute mini-games. These tend to be focused and intense segments that your players really enjoy. Examples can include:
Shorten Practice Time: Keep practices intense and crisp but shorten them to one hour. You will be able to keep your players attention better along with keeping the intensity high. Sometimes less is more especially at this time of the year. Additionally, by ending practice sooner it may allow you or your staff to work more individually with certain players on specific skills areas following the scheduled team practice time. Your players will appreciate this individual or small group time.
New Drill, Game, or Set: Add a new finishing at the rim game, a different competitive shooting game, or set which the players have a say in to give them ownership. There are hundreds of different drills and games in our library at youthbasketballdevelopment.com or simply go online and search.
End Practice on a Fun Note: John Wooden, in his book They Call Me Coach says, “End practice on a happy note.” This could be done by doing your team’s favorite drill or playing some type of game. For this reason we do not recommend running conditioning drills at the end of practice. If conditioning is an issue there are a lot of transition drills to get your players up and down the floor with a ball in their hand along with working on team defensive concepts.
Cancel Practice: Instead of having practice, cancel it and go as a team to your local high school or college game. Emphasizing fun, life-long participation in basketball is important. Having your team find a positive role model or group in basketball that they identify with and makes them say, “I want to be like them or I want to be a part of this group.” can be a very powerful motivator for long-term commitment and improvement.