This is the second year that I’ve helped coach my daughter’s youth basketball team. 6th grade girls! It’s a fun age to coach, without a ton of non-basketball drama or on-court tension.
It can also be a little frustrating. The girls are simply too inexperienced or too small to do some of the things that I’ve taken for granted for so long. It’s not that I’ve forgotten what it was like to be new at basketball. I remember a lot about my first year of playing and learning basketball, but I was (1) in 7th grade and (2) a boy. I was bigger and stronger than a 6th grade girl. So, starting to coach them last year when they were all 5th graders, it’s been a learning experience for me to get a feel for what I COULD expect of them and what I SHOULD NOT expect of them.
Here are my recommendations for what 6th grade girls basketball teams should focus on. At all of these young ages, basketball fundamentals are the most important. But some fundamentals are more “fundamental” than others.
Five Basketball Skills That 6th Graders Should Focus On
- Defense. 30%. Basketball takes a lot of skill, but it doesn’t take skill to simply stay on the “man” that you’re guarding. It’s something that requires constant emphasis and teaching by a coach, and hustle by the players. All kids need to constantly be told: stay between your man and the basket, always knowing where they are and where the ball is. If you go for a steal and miss, you HAVE to get back in position. And if someone does get beaten by their opponent, the other defenders need to “help out” by stopping the opponent. The first priority of everyone on the court is to stop someone from getting to the basket, even if you have to leave your man to do it.
- Passing (and Catching). 20%. Two-handed chest pass, two-handed bounce pass, stepping toward where you’re passing AND catching. Catching with the hands, not letting the ball bounce off your chest, and stepping toward the ball to catch it. There are WAY too many turnovers at this age because the girls aren’t always strong enough to pass the ball hard (fast), because they try to pass too far, because they telegraph their passes (everyone in the gym knows where they’re going to throw it), and because they don’t pass it until about a second after their teammate gets open (and now is NOT open).
- Layups. Layups. Layups. 20%. Why bother practicing shooting beyond five feet if a girl can’t even make a layup, both on the run and from under the basket? At all ages, for girls and boys, the ability to make a layup needs to be a given. Working on shooting layups with your weak hand is good, but it less important than being able to do a proper layup with the strong hand. Running plays to get the ball inside for an easy shot is all for naught if the kids can’t make layups consistently. Working hard for offensive rebounds only to miss the follow-up shot is frustrating to players, coaches, and the fans. Getting a fastbreak but not being able to finish it with a simple running layup shows that the kids aren’t being coached in the true fundamentals of basketball.
- Protecting the Ball. 15%. By this I don’t mean holding the ball to your stomach and not letting someone steal it. A “jump ball” (dual possession) is often as good as a steal, and there are way too many of them in girls basketball, even at the JV and varsity levels. Girls need to learn at a young age how to keep the ball moving so that their opponent cannot simply tie them up. At this age, being able to get the ball and either dribble (with a purpose) or pass quickly and accurately to a teammate are the primary ways to keep the ball away from your opponent. Many girls get the ball, hold it out for a second, and make it really easy for their opponent to grab it.
- Boxing Out. 15%. This isn’t just for the taller girls. And this frustrates me even as an adult when I play in pick-up games. Seeing an opponent get an offensive rebound simply because your teammate didn’t get the inside position and box them out is extremely frustrating for those that do box out.
Other Skills To Work On
- Dribbling. Everyone needs to know how to dribble to some extent, but it’s primarily point guards, and to a lesser extent other guards, that need to do most of the dribbling. Dribbling is important, but I’ll be a heretic and say that most girls (and boys) don’t need to be able to dribble very well to make an impact. And they can easily work on that on their own. The other skills listed above are more important for 80% of players. I’m a terrible point guard. Most of the dribbling I’ve done in my life involves two or three bounces as I move toward the basket, move to get an open jump shot, or move to make a pass. With 6th grade girls, the more they dribble, the more likely the ball will be stolen.
- Shooting. Shooting from beyond five feet is an important skill, and it becomes more important as kids get older. But at all scholastic levels, I’d trade outside jumpers for passing the ball inside for a layup or short bank shot every day of the week. Every team should have a couple people that focus on outside shooting, but most kids should focus on getting the ball inside, making the short shots, and getting rebounds. And as mentioned below under “Jumping,” it’s important to work on getting off the ground to take a shot, to rise above the defender’s outstretched arm to avoid a blocked shot. Another aspect of the jump shot that should be worked on is the technique of the shot itself. The goal for when the kids are strong enough is for the shot to have arc and backspin and to NOT be a shotput or chuck toward the hoop.
- Foul Shots (Free Throws). Most 6th grade girls simply don’t have the strength to shoot a proper, fluid, standing free throw. I wish the foul line would be moved in a little for 6th graders and younger. I’d rather these young girls learn the proper foul-shooting technique than to have to jump and push the ball with all their might, which is entirely the wrong technique. As with most skills training, it’s best to learn how to do things properly right from the start. We do a disservice to these young girls by having them heave the ball 15 feet at the cost of their form and technique. When kids are this young, I’d rather see them shoot a free throw that is on target in terms of being straight at the hoop (even if it ends up being one or two feet short of the hoop), than for a kid to continue using the wrong technique. The strength will come with time and then the ball will make it all the way to the basket.
- Plays. Having two or three simple plays is good for young kids. It gives them some concrete guidelines of what to do until they have a better sense of the game of basketball. But don’t get too caught up in teaching plays without also teaching the basics of basketball flow. Young kids can get so focused on running a play that they never notice that they themselves, or a teammate, are wide open for a shot. Teach some plays, but make sure the kids know that plays are for creating opportunities to score, and that taking advantage of an open shot or open teammate takes precedence over running a play.
- Jumping. I’m beginning to get the impression that this may be an historic issue with girls in general, that they’re never really taught how to jump for jump shots or for getting up in the air for an easier layout, rebound, or jump ball. They learn how to shoot little jumping “set shots,” which are pretty easy to block. When the girls are in 6th grade, a true jump shot may be difficult for them, but it’s a good thing to start teaching so that they have the technique down as they get stronger and can do it properly. One of the girls on our team was watching me shoot last night and commented on how I have a “weird shot.” She said it looked strange that I shoot the ball from above my head. Girls need to be taught to shoot the ball from above their heads!
That’s my list. Are there any other youth basketball coaches out there that would like to share your experiences?