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Coach's Guide: Teaching the Fundamentals of the Game

  • Date:
    Feb 2, 2010

The first fundamental to instill in young players is that basketball is a team game. If there’s one lesson you want to leave with them, it is this — no team is going to win unless each player contributes. Everybody has to learn how to dribble, pass, defend, rebound, and hustle if the team is to play well and succeed. Make it clear that unless everybody does their part, the team has very little chance of winning consistently.

This is the first step in building a team mentality. Let your players know the team always comes ahead of the individual. Stress the idea every player is important, and that everyone must contribute to the team’s effort. Most importantly, you have to mean those words. Don’t fall into the trap of playing the same five players and then pushing the others off to the side. Let every player know that he or she is going to be called upon to play and perform during every game.

And remember, if you show confidence in your team, they will rise to the challenge. Praise not only makes a player feel good, but it also results in bringing their game to a higher level.


As with all basketball skills, the only way to get better at dribbling is by practicing. Practice dribbling so players become equally adept with either hand. With younger players the earlier you encourage them to use both hands, the better off they'll be.

Let the kids know that practicing dribbling only during practice is not enough. If they really want to become proficient at this basic basketball skill, they will have to practice on their own. They can learn to dribble while standing around with their friends at home, in the backyard, at the playground, or even while watching television.

The more they become accustomed to the feel of the ball the better they will become dribbling without looking down at the ball. Remind players that this takes time — and not to be discouraged with the initial frustrations of dribbling a basketball.


Set up four or five chairs or cones down the middle of the court. One player at a time attempts to dribble as fast as possible up court while weaving around the chairs. This drill forces players to use both hands while keeping their head up and eyes off the ball.


Rebounding is all about positioning. The defensive player’s job is to immediately turn around and “box out” the opposing player as soon as a shot goes up. After all, if the defensive player is positioned between the basket and the opponent, logic suggests that player will have a better chance of collecting the rebound.

As soon as a shot goes up, the defensive player turns his or her entire body around facing the basket. At the same time, the player should “feel” where the shooter is so the defender can keep the offensive player away from the ball. Rebounding position should be reinforced in every scrimmage. After all, the top coaches will tell you defense and rebounding win games.


Three players — one on the left corner of the free-throw line, one in the middle of the free-throw line and the other at the right corner — assume a defensive position. Three other players take a position opposite the defenders. The coach shoots the ball and the defensive players practice boxing out the offensive players while all six go for the rebound.


Like dribbling, shooting a basketball takes practice, practice, and more practice. For young players, trying to hoist a standard size basketball into a 10-foot high hoop can be daunting.

You might want to consider having your younger players learn the proper shooting techniques by using a smaller-sized ball. Also, consider letting them practice shooting at an adjustable hoop that is only 7 or 8 feet high.

In terms of technique, emphasize resting the ball on the fingers, and not in the palm. The ball should roll off the fingertips when released. The ball should be loaded into the shooting position by the dominant hand. The other hand should be used to balance the ball.

there, the shooter should focus on the basket, and aim at the back of the rim. The ball should be hoisted in a soft trajectory at the basket, not in a straight line. The shooter should follow through by flicking the fingers and wrist toward the basket. If the ball doesn’t go in, remind players to break for the basket for the rebound. Players should always “follow the shot” in case the ball does not go in. This way they can be in a position to contend for a rebound.


Divide the team into two groups at either end of the court. Similar to H-O-R-S-E, in this drill one player takes a shot from anywhere on the court. If he makes the shot, then every other player must take the same shot. A free-throw counts as one point, all other baskets count as two. The idea is to get to 21 points as fast as possible. As players reach 21, they leave the game. The drill is over when one player remains.


There are two kinds of passes — the chest pass and the bounce pass — that every player has to master. But before players can advance to that stage, they have to master the basics.

The chest pass should be a practice staple. Teach players to hold the ball in both hands, and to direct the ball towards their teammate by pushing the ball from the chest with both hands. The teammate should catch the ball in the air with both hands.

The bounce pass is fundamentally similar to the chest pass. The ball is still thrown with both hands, and it is directed at a teammate. This time, however, the ball is bounced once before being received. What makes this pass a little tricky is that the bounce pass usually is thrown to a player who is on the move. Hence, the player making the pass has to accurately anticipate how quickly his or her teammate is moving.


Have two lines of players set up at one end of the court. On your whistle, they both start running down the court, parallel to each other, while passing the ball back and forth. It’s important that they mix up their passes (chest and bounce) and they move quickly. As they get close to the other end of the court, the last one with the ball should put up a lay-up. The key is quick passing.


There are two basic defensive strategies in basketball: man-to-man, and zone. Each has a different advantage that is easily explained to young players. For example, in the man-to-man defense each of player is assigned to guard a player on the other team. This assignment usually occurs spontaneously at the start of the game where each player matches up with the player closest to him or her. If a mismatch is obvious, change up the assignments at your first opportunity.

The best way to teach younger players to keep track of who they are guarding is by memorizing the opposing player’s jersey number. When substitutions begin, the player leaving the floor should tell the incoming teammate “I’m guarding number 20” so there is no confusion as to who’s guarding whom on the ensuing play.

In man-to-man defense, the defensive player simply roams wherever his or her offensive player goes. That means a lot of movement. The real key for the defender is to stay between the offensive player and the basket. Otherwise, the offensive player will have a relatively easy time shooting, rebounding and passing.


Denying the Ball

Form a single line at the top of the key (the circle above the free-throw line). The first player in line is the defensive player. The next player becomes the offensive player. The coach holds the ball as the offensive player tries to break free and get open. The defensive player is practicing proper defensive positioning while keeping one hand up to deny a pass from the coach.

Teach your players that man-to-man defense demands maximum effort. In addition to staying with the offensive player, the defender needs to be in the proper defensive position — knees slightly bent, hands in the air, ready to swipe at, or steal the ball. To move properly, the defender must learn how to slide from side to side as well as backwards and forwards.

For younger players, this slide step maneuver could take a little time to learn. Make working on the slide step a regular part of practice sessions. Players should take the ready defensive position with their hands and arms up, and then move right, left, backward and forward. Take a moment to demonstrate the drill properly, and remind them to stay in the ready position. After awhile, it will become a regular habit.

Coaches usually employ a zone defense when they want to force the opposing team to shoot the ball from the outside, or away from the basket. In effect, the coach is saying, “Here, try shooting the ball over our defending players. Because if you miss your shot, we’ll be in an excellent position to grab the rebound.”

In a zone, each defender is assigned to defend a certain portion, or zone as opposed to following an individual player. Against a zone defense, the offensive players are forced to pass the ball around the perimeter of the defense. Teach your players to have their hands up at all times, so they can block and intercept passes thrown by the offensive team.

When the ball comes into a defender’s particular zone, the defender immediately steps up and tries to make it difficult for the offensive player to shoot or pass the ball. Sometimes, depending on the kind of zone being used, two defensive players can actually surround, or trap, the opposing player with the ball. With two sets of arms and hands swirling in the offensive player’s face, making a good pass, or to taking a shot can become virtually impossible.

Zones emphasize solid rebounding skills, and force the opposing team to take lower percentage shots from the perimeter.

Keep in mind that in many youth leagues zone defenses are not allowed because so few players have developed an outside shot. They do, however, become very popular by the time kids reach middle school age. (By the way, sometimes coaches will have their team alternate between playing a man-to-man with a zone defense during the course of a game. This is done in an attempt to momentarily confuse and stall the opposing team.)


1-3-1 One player, usually the team’s quickest player, is at the top of the key. Three others are across the foul line extended with a quick, but taller player in the lane. The player out front tries to force the ball handler to the right or left where another defensive player comes over to create a trap.

2-1-2 Two players — usually guards — are above the free-throw line, one in the middle of the lane, usually the center, and two players are down low on either side of the lane, these players are usually the forwards. The goal, as with all zones, is to double team the player with the ball by driving him into a zone where two defensive players converge.

2-3 Two players — usually guards — are out front above the free-throw line with the other three players spread out across the middle of the lane.


With younger players, you are better off teaching the two basic approaches: the fast break and the patterned, half-court offense. Each system has its advantages as well as its drawbacks.

The Fast Break Offense

To put an effective fast break offense in place, you need a team that has great foot speed, is in tremendous shape, and is very good at gathering defensive rebounds and throwing outlet passes to your guards. In this traditional “run-and-gun” offense, the idea is to be so quick off the boards that your team literally out races the opponent down the floor for easy baskets.

Of course, all this is predicated on your team’s ability to run, pass, and get rebounds. In practice, you must work on these fundamentals as well as outlet passing and stamina. Unfortunately, a fast break offense falls apart very quickly if the other team hustles back on defense, and forces your team into a half-court offense. Teams that train exclusively for the fast-break game often have a hard time setting up a patterned, slow down offense, and that can cause problems.

The Patterned Half-Court Offense If you decide to work on set plays, then you can devote a good chunk of practice to explaining how each play works. Let them walk through the plays at first, and then practice those plays over and over again until they become automatic. Your point guard controls the offense. He or she should call out a play designed to get one of your players an open shot or keep the ball moving from player to player until a high percentage shot is available.

Of course, smart coaches teach their kids the fast break and the half-court offenses. They’ll let their kids run a fast break offense if they get the chance, but they’ll also be schooled in setting up a play if the fast break doesn’t materialize.

Knowing When To Call a Time-Out Here’s a little tip. The best time to call a time-out is before the opposing team has gained momentum and scored a bunch of points to either tie the score or move ahead. Too many coaches wait until the damage has already been done and then they call time-out.

If your coaching instincts tell you the other team is beginning to catch fire, don’t wait! That’s the precise moment to call a time-out — to let your kids rest, to slow down the other team, and to let your team regain its poise. Remember that a time-out is a coaching device designed to allow your team to catch its breath, maintain its own momentum, and give you a chance to keep them pumped up.

If you’re in a situation where the game is coming down to a last shot and a time-out must be called, explain what kind of play you want to run, and let them execute. Be sure your instructions are clear, to the point, and well understood by the players. Hopefully, you’ve had a chance to practice some last-second plays in practice.

Creating Your Line-Up

If you are going to coach basketball, you must position your players appropriately. Here’s a quick overview of the five positions on the court:

1 The Point Guard: This player handles the ball as the team moves up the court and into its offensive plays. The point guard is much like the quarterback of a football team. Point guards must be excellent ball handlers who are able to see the whole court — that means being able to dribble without looking at the ball. A talented point guard who can also make a jump shot and drive to the basket is essential to a team’s success.

2 The Shooting Guard: While this player has solid ball handling skills, he or she is usually the team’s best shooter and top scorer. This player is also referred to at times as the “off guard.” The shooting guard is normally the team’s most athletic player on the floor.

3 The Small Forward: The small forward is usually the most versatile player on the court. This person plays both an “inside” and “outside” game. He or she must have the skills to shoot and dribble the ball well, while using his or her size and strength to battle near the basket for rebounds. Don’t be fooled by the name, small forwards need to be big.

4 The Power Forward: This player is known as the team’s primary rebounder at both ends of the court. On defense, power forwards can start a fast break by grabbing a rebound and making a quick outlet pass to one of the guards. Big and strong, the power forward may not be the most graceful player on the team, but his or her presence is always felt.

5 The Center: To be successful at any level, a team usually needs a talented big man in the middle. Traditionally, the center is the tallest player on the team. The center’s job is to anchor the team’s defense and rebound the ball at both ends of the court. Additionally, the center is the team’s primary low post scorer on offense.

In addition to working on basketball fundamentals always try to teach a few basic plays during practice. Bring the players around the clipboard and diagram specific offensive plays. For example, the traditional “give-and-go” play can be explained with a diagram and then with you and your assistant coaches demonstrating. Then let the kids practice the play.

Show them how a screen works. First, with a diagram, then with your assistants demonstrating. Once the kids have mastered these basic plays, you can introduce a play or two in succeeding practice sessions. Block out time in each practice so players can walk through the play before executing the play at full speed. Make sure every player learns how to run the plays. You can even have some fun by letting your players decide what they want to call the plays.


The Back Door is particularly effective against aggressive man-to-man defenses. It is specifically designed to exploit the aggressive tactics of defenders guarding players without the ball.

The Back Door can be executed by any two offensive players just about anywhere on the court and is even effective against a full-court press.

1. As the point guard 1 crosses the center line and attempts to set up the offense, a teammate 2 takes two quick steps to the left. (Diagram 1)

2. The teammate 2 takes these two quick steps knowing the aggressive defender trying to deny the ball will go with him. (Diagram 1)

3. As soon as the defender catches up, the offensive player 2 breaks for the basket. (Diagram 2)

4. A split second after the offensive player 2 breaks, the point guard 1 fires a pass to him. Since the play can unfold quickly, use a bounce or a chest pass, whichever gets the ball to the breaking man 2 quicker. (Diagram 2)


John Stockton and Karl Malone, teammates on the Utah Jazz, are famous for executing the pick-and-roll to near perfection. The play can be so effective that even when defenders know it’s coming, the pick-and-roll can still be difficult to stop.

Keep in mind that the pick-and-roll is used almost exclusively against aggressive man-to-man defenses. The play can be executed by any two offensive players. There are three options off the pick-and-roll and each are designed to create a high percentage shot for the offense by “picking” one of the two defensive players.

Pick and Roll to Jump Shot

1. The point guard 1 dribbles the ball to the side of the court where another offensive player 4 is isolated, or alone with his or her defender. In each of these options the player isolated on the left side of the court is the power forward 4 .

2. The guard 1 drives his man to the left. As he does so, his teammate 4 heads in the same direction to set the pick.

3. As the pick is set, the guard 1 dribbles close to and around his teammate 4 in an attempt to drive the defensive player into the pick.

4. As soon as the offensive player 4 feels the guard’s defender run into him, the offensive player 4 rolls to the corner. The guard 1 , who appears headed to have either a clear lane to the basket or an open jump shot, attracts the attention of both defenders x1 x4and quickly passes to his teammate 4 for an open jump shot.

Pick and Roll to Man

Steps 1 + 2+ 3 (Same as above)

4. Instead of rolling into the corner for a jump shot, the offensive player 4 setting the pick rolls to the basket. Defenders are usually caught watching the player with the ball, in this case the point guard 1 .

5. The point guard passes through the defenders — usually a bounce pass — to his teammate 4 for an easy basket.

Pick and Roll to Drive

1. The guard 1 and his teammate 4 head to the same spot on the floor.

2. The guard 1 waits for the pick to be set, then drives his defender into the pick. The guard 1 simply needs his defender x1 slowed down by the pick. Even the briefest hesitation by the defender can open a lane to the basket for the guard 1 .

3. The guard keeps his dribble and moves as close as possible to his teammate 4 setting the pick. If the guard’s defender x1 gets caught by the pick, the guard 1 heads straight to the basket.

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