The Best Youth Basketball Coaches are Great Teachers

Best coaches are great teachers

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Republished with permission of

We all know the type of youth basketball coach that stands up the entire game — every game. They shout instructions and feedback to their players constantly and at a high volume. They question just about every referee’s call that doesn’t go their way. At any AAU tournament across the country, this type of coach is a dime-a-dozen.

It’s as if they’ve watched NBA games or ESPN’s Sports Center and taken their cues on how to coach by listening to the broadcasters and by watching the sideline antics of some coaches.

What’s not shown during games and highlights is that there’s so much more to coaching than what happens during game time. The success of a coach at any level of play isn’t as dependent on their coaching from the bench and how well they can work over the referees during a game, but rather how they prepare and teach their players before the game begins.

In the same way that the most critical factor in determining the quality of an education is the quality of the teacher, the most critical factor in determining the success of a season is the quality of the coach. Being a great youth basketball coach is all about being a great teacher.

What can youth basketball coaches learn from great teachers?

Best Youth Basketball Coaches are Great Teachers

Great teachers understand the big picture. My wife works at a wonderful school where the motto is “Not for school, but for life.” The school’s founders clearly understood that students’ time in school was really preparation for something much bigger. Great teachers and coaches know that certain times throughout the year will present great teachable moments where life lessons can be taught. The game of basketball presents some wonderful opportunities to teach the value of winning and losing with grace, understanding that hard work and purpose can lead to success, and knowing the value of teamwork – everyone can make a difference. Look for these opportunities and make a real difference in a child’s life.

Great teachers know that preparation is king. There’s a reason that classroom teachers plan out their year, plan out their month, plan out their week and plan out their day. What you teach and the order you teach it in is hugely important. Don’t wing it. Take some time to think it through. Being prepared will give coaches the confidence they need to do their best.

Great teachers are lifetime learners. A school teacher will collect materials for their class from various sources including training materials, other teachers, books, seminars and from materials used in past years. Likewise a coach will use materials from coaching books, websites, other coaches, and clinics. Others have faced many of the challenges that you’ll face. Learn from them. Know what you know; and look for outside resource help on the stuff you don’t know.

Great teachers communicate their expectations effectively. From grade school thru college, it’s not uncommon for teachers on the first day of class to review their expectations with their classes. To get a lot of people moving in the same direction, it helps to have some shared understanding. A successful coach will not only share expectations with players, but also with the players’ parents.

Great teachers don’t motivate students through fear. In another era, it was a popular method to motivate players by using fear. If players were goofing off at practice, the solution was to run killers. If a couple players were out of line, the entire team was punished, thereby creating some peer pressure for the offenders to watch their ways. Better coaches use better methods. Motivate players to be the best they can be. It starts with players respecting the coach. And, that begins with the coach respecting the players. Is the coach prepared? Is the coach fair? Is the coach nice?

Great teachers understand balance. By coming to class with a sense of purpose, some organization that enables them to use time well, and real enthusiasm helps great teachers get a lot out of students. Great teachers stay positive even when dealing with the negative. They understand that people learn in different ways. Telling, demonstrating, reviewing students’ work in action, and repetition can all be keys to learning. Great teachers also read their classrooms. When kids are fidgeting too much or down in spirit, it might be time to try something new or move to an activity that is a class favorite.Best Youth Basketball Coaches are Great Teachers

Great teachers connect with their students. Finding ways to engage students might mean being able to relate on subject matters beyond the intended course. An English teacher might relate to students by sharing her love of movies. I’ve always found it valuable to meet 10 minute before court time for practices in order to not only cover the practice agenda, but also to connect with players on something different than just basketball. Topics of conversation have included what’s going on at school, pop culture and news events. Connecting with players is also a lot about creativity. Teaching some of the fundamental skills with the number of repetitions required can get boring without adding some element of creativity, e.g. a game element with 2 teams competing. Having themed practices ranging from “Hat Day” to “Motown Appreciation Night” helped many players look forward to our next basketball event practices.

Great teachers know the value of reviewing their student’s work. It seems like clockwork in our community that after the first few weeks of school, a parent/teacher night is held enabling parents to get a view as to how their child is adjusting to school. Giving players and parents an early review as to how things are going on the basketball team is also important. Usually, after the first tournament, I’ll send an individual email out to each player’s parent letting them know a few of the good things that their player is contributing to the team. I ask the parent to please communicate this info to their child as well. From a player’s perspective, to receive positive feedback from both the coach and a parent can frequently be a huge boost to their confidence.

Great teachers know the value of reviewing their own work. At certain points in the school year or season; great teachers and coaches reflect on their own work. What does my class or team need right now? What’s working? What’s not? Make adjustments. Sometimes small mid-course adjustments can make a big difference. One of my teams had a hard time dealing with presses. We had lost two close games to teams who pressed hard. In reflecting on the losses, we decided we needed more time spent in practices on breaking presses and better techniques on how to break them. These adjustments made a big difference and we didn’t lose another game the rest of the season.

Great teachers know how to act on test days. Think back to your school days. How many of your teachers shouted instructions at you while you were taking a test? The answer for me, as I think would be for others, is zero. Sure, there were the pre-test instructions, but after the test was handed out, most teachers sat back at their desk and just monitored the test taking. Compare that type of approach to many youth basketball coaches who are screaming instructions at players every 10 seconds during games. Legendary basketball coach John Wooden knew that nearly all of his work was done by the time his players prepared for the tip-off. It was all about preparation. He could think of few games that his on-bench activity made a difference in the outcome. Success on game day is all about preparation and practice days. Today’s youth basketball coaches should be sitting down more and letting their players be the focus of attention.


Just as most great trial lawyers will tell you that cases are won or lost before they reach court in research and preparation, most great basketball coaches know that games are won based on practice and preparation. Great basketball coaches like John Wooden, Dean Smith and Don Meyer were all great teachers. Focus on the preparation and practice; and the games will take care of themselves.

–Michael O’Halloran

Michael O’Halloran is the author of Never Forget They’re Kids – Ideas for Coaching your Daughter’s 4th-8th Grade Basketball Team and The Well-Prepared Coach: 30 Youth Basketball Practice Plans

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