Games approach to teaching basketball


Games approach to teaching basketball


Can you recall learning a sport by playing with a group of your friends in the neighborhood? You didn’t learn the basic skills first; there was no time for that. You began playing immediately. If you didn’t know the basic things to do, your friends told you quickly during the game so they could keep playing. On the surface, teaching basketball by first teaching the basic skills of the sport and then the tactics of the game would seem to make sense, but we’ve discovered that this approach has two serious shortcomings.

First, it teaches the skills of the sport out of the context of the game. Kids learn to pass and dribble the ball, but they find it difficult to learn how to use these skills within the game because they don’t understand the tactics of the game. Second, learning skills by doing drills outside of the context of the game is very boring. The single biggest turnoff about adults teaching kids sports is that we over-organize the instruction and deprive kids of their intrinsic desire to play the game.

With the games approach, all teaching of basketball skills begins by playing the game, usually a modified version of the game for younger children. As the children play the game, you help them learn what to do, what we call tactical awareness. When your players understand what they must do in the game, they are then eager to develop the skills to play the game. Now that players are motivated to learn the skills, you can demonstrate the skills of the game, have players practice using game-like drills, and provide individual instruction by identifying players’ errors and helping to correct them.

In the past we have placed too much emphasis on learning the skills and not enough on learning how to play skillfully—that is, how to use those skills during play. The games approach, in contrast, emphasizes learning what to do first, then how to do it. Moreover—and this is important—the games approach lets children discover what to do in the game, not by you telling them, but by them experiencing it. What you do as an effective coach is help them discover what they’ve experienced. In contrast to the “skill-drill-kill the enthusiasm” approach, the games approach is a guided discovery method of teaching. It empowers your children to solve the problems that arise in the game, and that’s a big part of the fun in learning a game.

Now let’s look more closely at the games approach to see the four-step process for teaching basketball:

  1. Play a modified basketball game.
  2. Help the players discover what they need to do to play the game successfully.
  3. Teach the skills of the game.
  4. Practice the skills in another game.


It’s the first day of practice. Some of the kids are eager to get started; others are obviously apprehensive. Some have rarely dribbled a ball, most don’t know the rules, and none know the positions in basketball. What do you do? If you teach using the traditional approach, you start with a little warm-up activity, and then line them up for a simple dribbling drill and go from there. With the games approach, you begin by playing a modified game that is developmentally appropriate for the level of the players and also designed to focus on learning a specific part of the game.

Modifying the game to place emphasis on a limited number of situations in the game is one way you guide your players to discover certain tactics in the game. For instance, you have your players play a two-versus-one basketball game, making the objective of the game learning to play with a teammate. Players can dribble only three times before passing the ball. Playing the game this way forces players to think about what they have to do to pass and receive accurately.


As your players are playing the game, look for the right spot to “freeze” the action, step in, and hold a brief question-and-answer session to discuss problems they were having in carrying out the goal of the game. You don’t need to pop in on the first miscue, but if they repeat the same types of mental or physical mistakes a few times in a row, step in and ask them questions that relate to the goal of the game and the necessary skills required.

The best time to interrupt the game is when you notice that they are having trouble carrying out the main goal, or aim, of the game. By stopping the game, freezing action, and asking questions, you’ll help them understand

  • what the aim of the game is;
  • what they must do to achieve that aim; and
  • what skills they must use to achieve that aim.

After you’ve discussed the aim, you can begin the skill practice. Here’s an example of how to use questions in the games approach, continuing the example of the modified game we used earlier.

Your players just played a game in which the objective was to play with a teammate. You see that they are having trouble doing this, so you interrupt the action and ask the following questions:

Coach: What would you do with the ball if you had a teammate?

Players: Pass to him or her.

Coach: What do you have to do to be successful at passing?

Players: Catch the ball and pass the ball right to my partner or teammate.

Coach: Why don’t we try practicing passing and receiving?

Through the modified game and skillful questioning on your part, your players realize that accurate passing and receiving are essential to their success. Just as important, rather than telling them that these skills are critical, you led them to that discovery through a well-designed modified game and through questions.

This questioning, which leads to players’ discovery, is a crucial part of the games approach. Essentially you’ll be asking your players—usually literally—”What do you need to do to succeed in this situation?” Asking the right questions is a very important part of your teaching.

At first, asking questions will be difficult because your players have so little experience with the game. If you’ve learned sports through the traditional approach, you’ll be tempted to tell your players how to play the game and not waste time asking them questions. Resist this powerful temptation to tell them what to do, and especially, don’t tell them before they begin to play the game. If your players have trouble understanding what to do, phrase your questions to let them choose between one option versus another. For example, if you ask them “What’s the fastest way to get the ball down the court?” and get answers such as “Run with it” or “Toss it,” then ask “Is it passing or dribbling?” Sometimes players need to have more time playing the game, or you may need to make a further modification to the game so that it is even easier for them to discover what they are to do.

Using this discovery method takes more patience on your part, but it’s a powerful way to learn. Don’t be reluctant to change the numbers in the teams or some aspect of the structure of the game to aid this discovery. In fact, we advocate playing “lopsided” games (such as 3 v 1 or 3 v 2) in the second game of each practice.


Only when your players recognize the skills they need to execute the tactics they have come to learn from playing the game, do you want to teach the specific skills through focused drills. Now you can use a more traditional approach to teaching sports skills, called IDEA:

  • I Introduce the skill.
  • D Demonstrate the skill.
  • E Explain the skill.
  • A Attend to players practicing the skill.

Let’s take a look at each part of the approach. Introduce the Skill Your players will already have some idea of what the skill is you want to teach because they’ve already tried it during a game and talked about it. Use this opportunity to get them focused on the specific skill. You can do this in three ways:

First, get their attention. Make sure your players are positioned where they all should be able to see and hear you, and ask them if they can before you begin. Be sure that they are not facing the sun, a bright light, or some other distraction. When you speak, be enthusiastic, talk slightly louder than normal, and look your players in the eye.

Next, name the skill. If the skill is referred to by more than one name, choose one and stick with it. Using consistent names for skills helps prevent confusion and makes it easier for you and your players to communicate.

Finally, briefly review how the skill will help them in the game. They should have some idea from your earlier questioning, but make sure they see how it fits in the game and describe how the skill relates to more advanced skills.

Demonstrate the Skill Players, especially younger ones, can learn a lot more from seeing the skill performed rather than just hearing about it. The skill must be shown correctly, so if you don’t feel you can demonstrate it well, have another adult or a skilled player do it. Keep these tips in mind when demonstrating a skill:

  • Use correct form.
  • Demonstrate the skill several times.
  • During one or two performances, slow down the action so players can see every movement involved in the skill.
  • Perform the skill at different angles so your players can get a full perspective on it.
  • Demonstrate the skill with both the right and the left hands.
  • Explain the Skill

Help your players understand what they see in the demonstration by giving them a short and simple explanation. Relate the skill to previously learned ones, when possible. To see whether your explanation is working, ask your players whether they understand it. A good way to do this is to have them repeat the explanation back to you. Ask questions such as “What are you going to do first?” “Then what?” and watch for players who look confused or uncertain. Try to explain the skill using different words, which may give players a different perspective. Because you are working with young children, who have short attention spans, take no more than 3 minutes to do the introduction, demonstration, and explanation.

Follow it immediately with practice. As your players practice, watch them closely to see which ones can use additional help. Some players will need you to physically guide them through the skill; this guidance will help them gain the confidence they need to try. Most will just need some feedback from you, and they’ll be glad to get it—if you do it the right way. Nobody likes to be yelled at, especially when they’re supposed to be having fun! The young children you are working with have little or no prior experience with basketball or even sports in general. They also have not fully developed their motor skills, so you should expect to see more incorrect than correct movements during practice.

If you lose your cool when a player makes a mistake, you’re just teaching that player to stop trying or to get upset about errors—not exactly what you had in mind. Let your players know that making mistakes isn’t the end of the world. If you have to correct a player, be sure not to follow a positive statement with the word but. For example, don’t say “Alesha, your dribbling is great, but you need to pass the ball more often.” Saying it this way causes many kids to ignore the positive statement and focus on the negative one. Instead of the word but, use the word and. Say something such as “Alesha, your dribbling is great, and now let’s work on passing.” Remember that praise from you is very motivational for your players.

Be sure to tell them what they are doing right and help them correct what they are doing wrong.


Once the players have practiced the skill, you then put them in another game situation—this time a lopsided game (such as 3 v 1 or 3 v 2). Why use lopsided teams? It’s simple: As a coach, you want your players to experience sucess as they’re learning skills. The best way to experience success early on is to create an advantage for the players. This makes it more likely that, for instance, in a 3 v 1 game, your three offensive players will be able to make four passes before attempting to score.

The key is to set up situations where your players experience success, yet are challenged in doing so. This will take careful monitoring on your part, but having kids play lopsided games as they are learning skills is a very effective way of helping them learn and improve. So, that’s the games approach. Your players will get to play more in practice, and once they learn how skills fits in with their performance and enjoyment of the game, they’ll be more motivated to work on those skills, which will help them to be successful.

Source: Basketball Coaching Resource Book.pdf

Tags: Teaching Games for Understanding