The keys to a succesfull youth basketball program are age-appropriate rim height, and ball, court and team size following recommendations by the American Sport Education Program (ASEP), which I have long advocated.
ASEP and I have been recommending the following rim heights for years:
- 6-foot rims for kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grades;
- 8-foot rims for 3rd and 4th grades (8 to 10 year olds);
- 9-foot rims for 5th graders;
- 10-foot rims for 6th grade and above. Ten feet is what the bulk of the international and American kids shoot at, especially once they get to middle school.
In setting the height of the rim, the primarily consideration is teaching kids proper shooting form. A key question, depending on age, is can a child actually get the ball up near the rim with something resembling proper shooting mechanics? Unfortunately, younger children who may are capable of better shooting form oftentimes just do not have the strength to get the ball up to a rim that is too high for them. As a result, in order to attempt to make a basket, they resort to essentially heaving the ball, as that's the only way they can possibly reach a rim that's simply too high.
Unfortunately, in this country, and in other countries too, youth basketball programs don't do a very good job at matching rim height to the size and strength of the kids. At the 3rd and 4th grade level, for example, I simply see far too many programs with 10-foot hoops. I am constantly cautioning the adults who run these programs that they can try to teach kids how to shoot at baskets that are too high up, but their shooting mechanics will not be actual shooting mechanics, they will be "heaving mechanics".
So, if a youth basketball program really wants to try to adapt the game to the children's physical abilities (or physical inabilities, as the case may be), I strongly recommend that it follow my recommendations, and those of ASEP, on rim height.
Basketballs come in different sizes and weights, most with the size number written on them:
- A regulation basketball (Men's International Size 7), used in the professional, college and high school game, and even in middle school, is between 29.5 and 30 inches in circumference and weighs between 20 and 22 ounces.
- The Women's New International Size 6 regulation basketball has a circumference between 28.5 and 29 inches and weighs 18-20 ounces to accommodate the smaller size of female hands.
- The Intermediate Size girls' youth basketball (the original International Size 6) has a circumference between 27.75-28.5 inches. It weighs 16-18 ounces.
The Junior International Size 5 basketball has a circumference between 27.25 to 27.75 inches. It weighs 14-16 ounces. It is recommended for boys and girls ages 8-12.
- The Mini International Size 3 basketball has a circumference between 22 to 22.5 inches. It weighs 10.5-11.25 ounces. It is recommended for younger children ages 5-8.
The counter-intuitive problem with basketballs is that when you're teaching kids how to dribble, bigger balls may actually be better because they give a player with smaller hands more contact surface. The challenge, however, is that when they shoot and pass, they need a smaller and lighter ball, so I tend to favor the smaller balls for the smaller kids for those reasons.
There are a lot of youth-size basketballs on the market, and they are easily purchased at sporting goods stores and on various websites. In selecting the right size basketball, as a general rule of thumb, the smaller the kid the smaller the ball; so, if you're talking about kindergarten, 1st and 2nd graders (5, 6, and 7 year olds), some of whom are no more than 3 foot 3 inches tall and weigh only 50 pounds, even the little Fisher-Price balls that bounce well are not a bad choice because they is easier for them to handle, and certainly to begin to try to shoot and pass.
I love what soccer has done over the years in this country in matching the size of their fields to the size of the players, so that soccer fields can be anywhere from full size,110 yards long and 70 yards wide, all the way down to 30 by 15 yards in dimension for younger players.
Basketball courts are a little harder to shape because you don't have flexibility within gymnasiums. Usually, the courts are marked and lined, so it's hard to shrink the size of the court. As a result, what I recommend is, depending on the size of the gym a program is using (a standard American high school or middle school gym, for example, generally contains an 84 by 50 foot main court), is to mark out two smaller courts side by side that could be anywhere from 50 to 80 feet long by 30 to 50 feet wide, depending on the gym.
I consistently advocate to youth basketball programmers and administrators that they try to make sure that they fit the younger kids on to these smaller courts: they do not need to play 5-on-5, or even 3-on-3, on the full size court that the high school kids play on. Even a 5-on-5 middle school game on a 60 by 40 court is okay; it will be a little more crowded, but playing on a court like that is a good way for players to learn, as there is less time to roam around empty space and the opportunity for more touches on the ball.
I see a lot of games where kids are very young and they are playing on 84 by 50 foot courts (and every now and then you run into a 94 by 50 foot court which is college or pro size). This is like 8 or 9 year old soccer players being asked to play on a regulation 110 yard by 70 yard soccer field! You just don't want to do it because you're not adapting the game to the kids; instead, you are trying to adapt the kids to the game.
When adults ask kids to play basketball on a court that is too large, they are simply taking the dimensions appropriate for an adult game and jamming it down the throats of younger kids, negatively impacting their learning opportunities in the process.
Number of players
Again, soccer is a good example of how to adjust a sport for younger players: not only do most youth soccer programs use smaller fields, but they play small-sided games with fewer players to increase the number of times players come in contact with (e.g. touch) the ball, and thereby increasing skill development and making the game more fun. Kids standing around and not being able to play the ball much doesn't help them learn basic skills and it certainly isn't very much fun for them.
Unfortunately, most of the youth basketball programs in this country are still living in a 5-on-5 world. Coaches feel they need to have "the real game" played at younger ages. Yet, in the case of elementary school age kids, 3-on-3 play on smaller-size courts allows many more touches on the ball with far less confusion and more learning. Watch a typical 5-on-5 game played by younger kids and it's usually a nightmare of kids stumbling around, bunching together, not making many good passes, and creating just too many turnovers for them to learn basic offensive skills. 3-on-3 still allows kids to set up triangles to learn width and depth of play, and provides almost twice as many touches, on average, per player. (I'll have much more to say about the benefits of 3-on-3 vs. 5-on-5 for younger kids in a future article).
So to summarize, the younger the child:
- The smaller the ball;
- The lower the rim; and
- The smaller the court size.
It sometimes requires ingenuity to shrink the size of the court and lower the rims. The local YMCA where I have belonged for years has actually taken the rims down to 4 and 5 feet by nailing a little structure on the wall to which a removable rim can be attached. I think that's a great idea because sometimes they have 3, 4, and 5 year olds that are shooting. That's a perfect height for them and gives them a chance to shoot with those little balls. In fact, it's not a bad thing for 5, 6, and 7 years old either. So with a little creativity, you can certainly do some things within even our very youngest kids' programs that help the kids learn better and to enjoy the game more.
Increasing the fun
I am often asked how much of an increase I have observed over the year in the level of satisfaction of kids and the coaches when my recommendations for lower baskets, smaller balls, smaller courts and less players on the floor are followed.
My answer is that it really comes down to this: children in a game of basketball who are running around dribbling, passing and shooting are not going to be as frustrated shooting at a lower hoop than if they are shooting at a rim that is, for example, 2 feet too high. This is because they enjoy getting the ball up to the hoop, and seeing, every now and then, the ball actually going through the net! I know from watching kids play that children sink more shots with lower rims. We may be talking about 3 out of 10 shots made instead of 1 out of 10, but the kids are going to say "gee this is kind of a fun game as I can actually make some shots".
This is something adults can relate to as well. I'll use the game of golf as an example. When I play golf (and I play it very poorly when I do), if I hit one good shot out of 10, I tell myself, "Hey, this isn't a bad game and I could probably do this." However, if I'm an adult shooting baskets and I hit only one shot out of 10, I might get very frustrated.
Meanwhile the child that hits that one shot out of 10 says, "Hey, mom, I made some shots today." Granted he only made one, but he enjoys the fact that he made that one, and if he can make 3 out of 10, or even more, then obviously there is going to be greater satisfaction and enjoyment.
I think a lot of the time the fun in basketball, as in any team sport, comes from a child being with her friends, and being able to shoot a ball, steal a ball, and dribble a ball. Kids generally have a high opinion of their own abilities, which is great, and that's one of the things we love about them. If they make a shot, that's fine, if they can make 2 shots, more than fine, and if they make 3 shots or more, then heck, the holidays have come early, and they like that!
Bob Bigelow is MomsTeam's youth basketball expert. A former professional and collegiate player, Bob is one of the most popular youth sports speakers and youth coach trainers in the country, and the co-author of the groundbreaking book advocating reform of youth sports, Just Let the Kids Play.
Created June 19, 2010