Youth basketball State Tournaments and rankings have become widely prevalent over the last 10 years in multiple states. If you have ever been at one of these events, coached in one of these events, or have been a part of a youth association board meeting where State Tournament participation and rankings have been discussed you realize quickly that parents have come to hold these events and rankings with some importance. At Youth Basketball Development we believe these “State Tournaments” and rankings of youth teams ages 9-14 are detrimental to long-term development and participation in sport and have little bearing on future success. We understand this may anger some but feel strongly that it is the truth for multiple reasons.
Current research has shown that overemphasis on results and short-term success in youth sports (State Tournament Championships and rankings) may limit the benefits of participation, and could increase the risk of injury, burnout, and disengagement from physical activity. Additionally, emphasizing short-term results at the youth level has been shown to lead to early single sport specialization and highly intense overtraining during childhood years. State Tournaments and rankings are results and winning oriented. As such, State Tournaments and rankings inherently put results and winning ahead of development and ahead of participation. Research also shows that competitive success at the youth level correlates modestly at best or not at all to success at the senior level.
State tournaments and rankings at the youth level are created by business organizations looking to generate revenue. For a lot of parents we tend to value ourselves by how well our children do and that our children’s behaviors and accomplishments are a reflection of us. Because the results of our children’s actions can sometimes be outside of our control such thoughts and actions can be toxic for ourselves and our children. Additionally, children are very preceptive at picking up on our verbal and non-verbal energy and aim to please their parents. If your energy as a parent or coach is tied to qualifying for or winning a state championship and improving team ratings our children will pick up on these cues and tie their own self worth to these results. This leads to fear of taking on challenges, anxiety, and greater dropout rates.
Is it actually a true State Championship?
The short answer is no. The State Tournament is used to determine the best team in a particular state and by definition is considered to be the top achievement in the state (again, this is heavily results oriented which at the youth level has been shown to lead to multiple negative long-term effects). For a true State Tournament to occur all similar sized schools and associations in the entire state would participate. In the vast majority of cases this is not the case as in order to participate a large entry fee may be needed, which inhibits lower income communities from participating, schools and parents may choose to opt out of participating due to travel and expense concerns, and in some cases your team may have needed to participate in a certain amount of prior tournaments owned by the organization running the State Tournament. A youth State Championship is a championship by title only and not a true State Championship of importance.
Youth sports is about improvement, positive core values and relationships, playing with great effort, and fun. Winning is important but not at the expense of long-term development. Parents and associations that focus on small improvements and developing a work ethic versus results and winning tend to have competitive, growth mindset oriented, and high performing children.
Businesses that are in charge of youth rankings do so in order to promote competitive balance, seed tournaments, and drive traffic to their websites. These rankings are based on winning. As previously noted a heavy emphasis on winning and results at the youth level is to the detriment of development and participation. There are also many other ways to promote competitive balance.
When signing up for youth tournaments there can be different levels of competition of which to participate (A, B, and C or highly competitive, competitive, recreational, etc…) or tournaments based on school size (large school and small school divisions) which would not involve rankings. Also, youth basketball associations have become heavily reliant on outside tournament organizations to run and organize tournaments due to organizational ease. We recommend supplementing a few of these tournaments with “jamborees” by inviting two similar sized or competitive teams to your school and playing two games on a Saturday morning. Parents and kids love it because there are less negative parental and coaching behavior concerns related to outcomes, they do not consume a full day, are cost-effective and easy to organize, and are competitive and developmentally based.
If your youth association does make the decision to participate in a youth State Tournament remind your coaches and parents that it is not a true State Championship, has limited bearing on future success, and we are emphasizing great effort, improvement, our core values, and fun over winning a youth tournament. This should lead to a positive experience for all involved and greater long-term success.
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This is a difficult question that many large youth associations must tackle and and the current evidence out there is poor. After a PubMed search we were unable to find any good-quality articles from peer reviewed journals that directly addressed this issue. The current basis of recommendation for when to start A and B team versus equal level teams is based on expert opinion and customary practice. Below is a list of common arguments for initiating A and B teams as well as arguments against.
Arguments for an A and B team:
Arguments against an A and B team:
Emotional stress and B team stigma. If youth associations, coaches, and parents emphasize that getting the opportunity to play and player improvement is more important than outcomes or what team you were on in middle school the stress or stigma of being placed on an A or B team can be partially mitigated. Additionally, there are countless examples of B team members going on to have successful high school and college sport careers. In fact, several studies have shown that competitive success at the youth level correlates modestly at best, or not at all, with long-term senior success (early success is not a valid predictor of long-term success). Just because your youth team won the so called 6th Grade State Championship does not mean they will automatically have great success in high school.
Early drop out. The main reasons cited for dropping out of basketball is lack of playing time, not having fun, lost ownership of experience, afraid to make mistakes, and feeling disrespected. There was no note of an A and B stigma for dropout reasons reported.
Equal coaching quality. It is extremely important that the quality of coaching and practice opportunities be equal at the youth levels for ages 14 and below for proper development. By doing this you are just not focusing on early maturing kids who are more advanced compared to their peers and thus are developing potential late bloomers as well.
So what age should we start an A and B team? It is important that whatever age your youth association decides to form an A and B team that your reasons are in alignment with your youth association philosophy and that the youth association and high school coaching staff are on the same page. There are many factors that go into this decision such as number of players, gym space, skill level and talent of players in each age class, coaches available, high school staff preference, and what neighboring youth associations have chosen to do for whom you play against. In our opinion and based on our research, it is not necessary to provide A and B teams for children under the age of 12 (elementary aged children) and that A and B teams can be initiated for those 12 and older (middle school age children from 6th grade above) as appropriate.
Other alternative to A and B teams. No set rosters (roster fluidity) and no posting of teams to take the focus away from team assignments. Teams at the different age levels are thus interchangeable to provide opportunities for athletes to gain confidence and at other times, “stretch” their abilities to promote growth. The coaching staff considers the competitive level of each athlete prior to assigning them to league/tournament experiences and practice and game schedules are posted on your youth association website and emailed to families. If adequate gym space and coaches the teams can do fundamental skill work and games together and then break up into separate teams for team offensive and defensive concepts.
References: Bruce Brown, Proactive Coaching and Jack Bennett, Former Men's Head Basketball Coach University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
“Do Simple Better.” -Joe Maddon, Manager Chicago Cubs
“No matter the level, It’s all about basic. There’s no magic bullet. Even in the NBA, especially in the NBA, it’s all about fundamentals”. -Gregg Popovich, Head Coach San Antonio Spurs
“More NBA players need to work on the same things 4th graders are”. -Erik Spoelstra, Head Coach Miami Heat
“Kobe, you are the best player in the world. Why would you spend two hours on some of the most fundamental drills in the game and do them over and over again?” Kobe’s answer: “Why do you think I am the best player in the world?” -Alan Stein after observing a Kobe Bryant workout.
Before becoming advanced, elite, or select, we should master the basics. Fundamentals that are quickly executed in the correct manner with attention to detail. Do the simple things better than anyone else and you’ll develop the ability to be competitive and creative.
Before working on dribble combinations, hip swivels and floats, etc., I’d get great at the following:
1. The ability to go full speed with your off hand and finish.
2. Changing speeds.
3. Get great at one change of direction, either cross over or between the legs. We prefer between the legs. You are balanced, the ball is well protected, and you can still go by people.
4. Never fight pressure, be able to back the ball up and create space, get a new angle and attack.
Do you have a plan to master the above? I’d start building a ball handling program with one and two ball stationary drills. The younger the player the more time you need to spend on these drills. Constantly work to develop the ability to pound and become ball quick. Once you can do a drill ten times in a row, start to take thirty second timings. How quick can you cross the ball over? Get it between your legs? Behind the back? Stationary drills are crucial in building a base that allows you to start moving with the basketball.
I’ve always liked this teaching sequence I got from John Miller, the highly successful coach from Blackhawk High School in Pennsylvania. The offensive skills program he developed led to Blackhawk winning multiple state championships. He would teach a dribble move stationary first, then add one step, then attack on the move. He’d teach inside out by doing it stationary, first teaching players to circle the ball in the correct manner. He’d then add one step, teaching players to step hard with their left foot, selling left as they circled the ball with their right hand.
This allowed players to develop a great feel for the timing of the move. He would then have players work full speed for example, executing the commando drill for thirty seconds.
To become advanced, elite, or select-master the basics first. Do simple better.
Written by Forrest Larson, Take it to the Rim.
We believe that it is extremely important to have a youth program philosophy in order to have sound principles that help guide your decision making processes. This can be done or shaped by your program’s head coach or a collaboration between the head coach and your youth association. As the Bennett coaching family from Wisconsin would say in regards to program philosophy, “Firm in principle but flexible in approach.” Additionally, we recommend no more than three to five core values that shape this philosophy. Below is a sample of a youth association philosophy whose four core values or principles were to develop a work ethic, skill development, compete as a team, and have fun.
We wanted to thank you for supporting our basketball program and entrusting your child in our youth program. The purpose of this letter is to illustrate our program’s values and philosophy. We hope with your help and support this will make your child’s experience and our program a more positive and successful one.
Research has shown students perceive success in two very different ways called “task” and “ego” involved. These two ways influence the way they behave, think, and feel in an achievement setting such as basketball. In our program we do not think of success in terms of winning. Indeed winning is a strong motivating and important factor, however long-term athletic development and performance in successful students is more likely to occur when students evaluate themselves on things they can control rather then winning or losing a contest. These students are task involved.
Task involved students feel successful when they gain skill and knowledge, try hard, perform to the best of their abilities, experience personal improvement, and are focused on what they are doing at the moment. They primarily think about how to accomplish or get better at a task. If they achieve this level of focus and purpose, they feel confident and successful. Task involved students want to win and may be fiercely competitive. On the other end ego involved students tend to be preoccupied with adequacy of abilities compared to others (ratings) and outcome of contests. Success is winning. If this can be achieved with less preparation or effort compared to an opponent, so much the better. These behaviors of ego involved students tend to lead to high anxiety, poor training habits, and loss of interest in sport. By emphasizing outcomes and winning less mature or physically developed students during late childhood may struggle to compete against their bigger, quicker peers and may choose to drop out of sport prematurely because success is defined by winning.
In our program and with your help we will emphasize having fun, the importance of a strong work ethic, skill development/improvement, and competing as a team (task involved). Students and programs that view success with these values tend to have higher self-esteem and improved athletic performance. Drop out rates are much less as well. We hope you can support our philosophy and look forward to sharing a great basketball season with you.
Yours in Hoops,