Basketball Cheat Sheet for Parents

My kids play basketball. A lot of it. My wife is a coach and I even get to run the show from time to time.

Recently, I was asked to write a little cheat sheet for some of the parents who are new to the game. They have kids who are brand-new into basketball and are in a “catch-up” mode compared to some of us that grew up with the game and understand basketball a little differently.

As a coach, in many sports, I have found it to be extremely helpful when the parents understand the game. It speeds up the learning curve for their kids as well as makes the game much more enjoyable to watch.

Much like when I wrote the soccer cheat sheet for parents, the one thing I find even as frustrating as a kid not understanding is when parents in the stands really don’t understand what is going on.  “Good Job Junior!!!” (as they whisper to their friend, “What just happened??!”)

Basketball is probably my favorite sport to watch. This is probably kind of weird because it wasn’t one of my main sports through High School. I did every sport you can think of but some sports just overlap and I was a wrestler.  These sports were at the same time. That didn’t change my love for the game, however.  I think probably because I didn’t play the game, I might be the perfect person to write your cheat sheet, as I’ll keep it basic- which is what you need.

First.  It’s one of the greatest sports on the planet for a few different reasons.

  1. All you need is a ball and a hoop.    

Because the sport was invented in the US, you can find basketball courts nearly anywhere throughout the country. They are at parks, playgrounds, people’s driveways, courtyards, and even hanging on barns out in the countryside. You can play this game and have fun at any age.

  1. You can watch your kids develop in super speed.

What makes Hoops so fantastic is the fact that I get to see my kids develop at such a high level. I don’t think there’s any other sport where you see mistakes being fixed and changes in strategy being adopted in real time.

Because of the sheer number of attempts up and down the court, as long as your kids are paying attention to the coaching, your athlete can improve his or her game from one time up the court to the second. As a coach, I love this. I care about a young athlete’s development much more than I care about wins and losses. If I see an athlete out of position and doing something wrong and during the course of 1 time out or even just yelling instructions while the athlete is running down the court, I see them fix their mistake and improve their game in a matter of seconds, it’s a highlight of coaching. It happens in basketball faster than any other sport.

  1. It’s mentally as well as physically tough and therefore rewarding.  

This game isn’t perfect. Your kid will miss a game-winner. She will miss a free throw or possibly even miss the entire backboard on a shot. A pass will go off her nose and the ball will dribble off her foot into the stands.

But, They will also make a shot when it really counts. You will witness your kid’s confidence swell and EXPLODE when they get something right. They will block a shot and make a steal at a critical time. They will be a part of a team that makes an amazing comeback and wins it in the last second with tears of joy involuntarily pouring out.

Oftentimes, many of these emotions and growth factors will happen in the same weekend! It’s such a great learning tool and microcosm for life. It’s Fun, heartbreaking, inspiring, motivating.

It’s LIFE. As a game. All the ups and downs, roller coasters, emotions and learning. It’s growing, Learning, teamwork, individuality, resilience and FUN. Sports are such a true reflection as well as practice for life. I love it!

Ok. You know my angle. So let’s use these ideas as our backdrop for your own basic “cheat sheet.”

Because parents, you need to be shouting the right information. Basketball, as much as any other sport, is built to be loud and have crowd involvement. Please yell for your kids!  Please cheer for your team!  Feel free to jump up and down when your kid makes their first buckets!  Please be positive!   But, make sure you’re yelling the right stuff so you don’t look like a fool.

Cheat sheet:

Basketball has two teams. There are five players on each team and they are going in opposite directions.   Your team is trying to score while at the same time stop the opposition from returning the favor.

It’s one of the easiest sports to understand ever built because the team with the most points at the end of the game wins.

That’s basically it.

Ok, there’s more to it.  But that’s the basic idea.

 Points are scored by putting the ball through the hoop.

There are a couple of different ways to score but typically a basket that goes in the hoop is worth two points.  

There is a large arc in an outside area (the “Arc”) of the basket and shots behind this arc are worth 3 points.

3 pointers are a really cool thing for kids so you’ll see even the youngest players, as they get into the game, try them.   But understand, even at the pro levels the 2 pointers, especially easy baskets on the edges called “Lay-ups” are what scores most of the points in a game.   When your kid gets the lay-ups idea down, they’ll score much more often.  

A really basic coaching strategy that never stops even at the highest levels is, find a way to get more “lay-ups.”   Passes, mismatches, drives, screens, fakes…Get more lay-ups! 

There’s a third way to score and that’s off “free-throws.”

These are the shots you see with no pressure.  Kids stand on each side and let a player shoot uncontested.    Free throws happen when a player was fouled in the act of shooting and also after a team has reached a certain number of fouls.  If a team commits 7 fouls in a half, the other team is awarded a “bonus.”    Now they get to shoot free throws after each and every foul.

Speaking of “Fouls” let’s stay with this.  Kids new to the game seem to think these are worse than they really are.

Fouls aren’t by themselves, a bad thing.  They happen.  Each player is even allotted five fouls to use up.   5 Fouls though and you’re done for the game.    So don’t get mad if your kid gets a couple of fouls.  Sometimes a foul is even appropriate and you’ll hear a coach say, “that was a good foul.”

Some of these are kind of wimpy.  Slapping an opponent’s hand when you’re trying to steal the ball.  Blocking not done correctly.  Setting a screen wrong.

But, they are made to keep the game moving and to keep it fair.  It’s just the rules. 

If a foul happens on the court while someone is dribbling or passing it’s no big deal.  The ref just blows a whistle to stop the game, tells the scorer to mark it down, and then inbounds the ball again.  

If the foul happens when a player is shooting, she gets “free throws” in an attempt to make up for points she would have got with a clean shot.

It’s just a neat part of the game that adds for time stoppage, substitutions, drama and pressure.  It’s only 1 point!   But you’ll be blown away how many times even just a few of these one-pointers count in the final score.  Free throws are important!    

Even better?  An “AND ONE.”   This is where your kid gets fouled while attempting to shoot and the ball still goes in!   Even though it went in, your kid gets a bonus free throw for a chance to make that 2 points, count as 3 points.   It’s a huge play and a dynamic part of what makes this game so exciting!

Fouls are no biggie, what drives coaches so crazy is dumb fouls.   Overly aggressive, revenge, poor timing, critical parts of the game, and not learning from past mistakes.    It’s often tough teaching young players what is appropriate and what is not with basketball. It’s just not a sport where you can get mad, press harder, and expect success.   You have to be able to keep your cool and press on.

Moving the ball.

In basketball, there is a lot of running and direction change  This is great for your kid and their body. 

But, you can’t just run when you have the ball as you can in football.  

You have to “Dribble” Bounce the ball up and down every time you move. You have to keep dribbling too. Once you stop dribbling, you’re stuck. You either have to PASS or SHOOT at this point. That’s why the kids that can dribble the ball well are so much more successful, especially when they are younger. So teach that to your kid. They don’t even need a hoop. Just a ball and they can work on their dribbling. The ability to dribble well especially change of direction, behind the back, and between legs is called, “Handles” Basketball has a “cool factor” to it that is just part of it’s vibe. Handles is definitely cool. More on this later.

Common problems that happen EVERY game.:

If you take off running, that is called, “TRAVELING.”   It’s not a foul, but the other team gets the ball. It’s a TURNOVER.   Turnovers change a game and what’s really cool about this is the defensive team can do certain strategies and plays to “create” more turnovers. It’s a HUGE part of the game and one of the things you’ll see coaches, parents, and fans get excited about.

If you are dribbling down the court and STOP and then start again that is called a “DOUBLE DRIBBLE.” The same rules apply, the other team gets the ball. It’s a turnover. 

There are other turnover nuances such as “carrying, charges, moving screens, 3 seconds, and not getting the ball across midcourt within 10 seconds.” These are things that you will start to get more adept at noticing the more you watch and understand the game. You don’t have to know all of this innately.    Listen, Ask around. Don’t be afraid to learn.  You’ll soon pick up the game and be yelling at the ref like a champ. Speaking of that.

Nobody is perfect.

 In little kids’ games, often there is only one referee for the entire court and it’s plain impossible to watch all ten kids at once.  Be cool to the refs.

Also, in the younger kids’ games, there is a huge push for referees to allow for the development of players that haven’t had a lot of court time. You may see one little girl getting called for traveling yet another girl on the same team gets away with three or four steps. This is just my reminder to you that the referee is not out to screw your kid and make them hate the game.

For younger players often the simple skills of dribbling and passing are very tough. I’ve often noticed referees offering some advice to young players or being a little bit more lenient on their calls. Especially if the game is a blowout one way or another. Some parents can’t stand this. They feel it is unfair and it is a black-and-white issue. “Call it consistently every time.” 

 My personal take is, I just want kids out there having fun and I will promise you that these games mean much more to the parents than they do to a lot of the kids. 

But, Basketball is much like many sports, it is streaky. A kid may have 10 shots go in a row! They can hit from anywhere and then something flips and they get ice cold and nothing seems to fall correctly. It’s true of the game itself. It runs in streaks where one team will score ten in a row or go on a “17-5 run” meaning they scored 17 and the opposition scored only 5. I think this happens to refs too. It’s just a part of the game.

Ok, you’ve got dribbling down, streaks, fouls, turnovers. 

Let’s get to some strategy.

Understand, that PASSING is a much better way to move the ball. I think this is an underutilized skill in young basketball players and is something that gets very important the farther they get into the game. Some kids get really good at basketball before their friends.  

Just like any sports, there are coaches out there that just simply give the ball to their best player and let that player do the majority of the work. This happens in soccer, football, hockey, and is incredibly obvious in basketball. Some kids just develop faster and have a feel for the game. Some kids practice a lot more because they love the game. But the discrepancy between great players and very low ability players is obvious in nearly every game. And, they are on the court at the same time!

The thing that really levels out the playing fields is the ability to pass. Keep the ball moving and look for better, higher percentage shots.   If your own kid is still gun shy with shooting the ball, make sure he understands he can become the best passer and change the game!

Basketball gets extremely exciting.  My son once told me, “Holding a basketball is like holding lightning.”

Because of this, while In the action and chaos of playing the game, sometimes players first thought is to shoot. Even if it’s not the best idea. 

 It doesn’t take the opposing team long to realize that certain players don’t even have the ability to pass the ball because the game is just moving so fast for them. This leads to poor percentage shots.   It’s like a bad foul. 

I love kids to shoot, I don’t care if they miss, shoot again.  But, take good shots.  

Set your feet correctly, move the right way, don’t just “chuck it up there and hope.

Understand that basketball is a unique sport in that the percentages don’t lie.  It’s not a “zero error” sport.  You do not have to be perfect to excel.  Even the million-dollar players in the NBA are making about half of their shots. So don’t get upset if your kid misses a few shots and make sure that your kid understands to keep taking good shots.   “Keep shooting” from your coach is a good lesson to hear.

My own kids are in a very unique part of their development with basketball.   We often talk about what plays allow for a higher percentage shot.

Take this example. The best player on the team can dribble down the court and despite being guarded by three players can still put up a shot. If they are really good, which often they are, the shot may still go in.  2 points and the kid looks like a superstar. 

But, Recall -there are only five players on each team. If 3 players guard the guy with the ball that means at least two players are wide open. If they know what they are doing, the player dribbling the ball down the court should be able to pass to an open player. The open player should have a much higher percentage shot.

Basketball is very much about percentages.  The rules for hoops are the same for ten-year-olds as thirty-year-olds.  The strategies, execution, stats, are what change.  The players mature as they progress.

 Stats are kept for Points obviously,  but key factors like “assists”, “turnovers” and “rebounds” despite not scoring, are every bit as important in the outcome of the game and are recorded.  Oftentimes, the most valuable player on the team is not the person that scores the most, but the player with the most rebounds and assists.

There is a quote in basketball that goes back nearly 100 years. “Buckets (points) win games, but rebounds win championships!”

One of the other huge mistakes I see, especially as kids are just starting the game, is they get nervous. When they get the ball they take one dribble and immediately stop. Now, as we talked about before the only options are pass or shoot. Most of the time however, they will just get the ball stolen. “One dribble and stop” is probably the worst player in basketball.

Newbies..get this. There are different positions in basketball just like all sports. Only in hoops, they just don’t all line up in regular places like softball, baseball and other sports and I think that gets confusing for parents and fans new to the game. Basketball is always fluid and moving and each player needs to have the ability to shift and play anywhere.

There typically are the kids that can dribble the ball better and get the ball down the court easily. They tend to be smaller, shiftier, quicker and have better skills. “Guards”

There are also taller/bigger kids, sometimes more physical and these abilities tend to allow for more rebounds -they play “down low” toward the basket.  “Posts”

Sometimes there are kids that are crazy tall so the coach may even play a true “Center.”

The idea that basketball is only for tall kids however is a terrible one.  It’s for everyone.   True, as you move up the ladder into college and pro’s, especially in the men’s game, height has an advantage. In the kid’s game and even through high school it’s important but isn’t as much of a factor as you’d think.  

Certain players will be better shooters, certain players will be better rebounders and certain players are scrappers, steal passes, and make amazing passes.  Each of these traits makes for great basketball players and that’s why you’ll see fans and coaches getting so excited when they see these traits in young players despite there being no score.

Basketball also has it’s own persona.   Anyone can play, as I said before. But there is a certain “Cool Factor” to basketball that really adds to the game,    Getting excited about big blocks, cool “ankle breaker’ moves and 5 passes for a basket where the ball never even touches the floor is all about what gives this game such a great flavor.  It’s cool.  It’s Fun. It’s Loud and Dynamic.    Everyone contributes and because the game often comes down to the final seconds there is no telling what play makes the game-winning difference.   A shot, a block, a stolen pass, a foul, teamwork, a layup, a 3 pointer all can impact the game.   Nothing could be more exciting!

You don’t have to know me very well to understand that I love sports. I think it is a microcosm of real-life and teaches kids all kinds of fantastic lessons as well as provides great physical stimulation. That being said, I’m a coach and an athlete and I love to win as well. I think that’s a good thing for kids to strive for. But take wins in other categories than the scoreboard when your team doesn’t win. If your team got beat 40-10 and the next time the score was 20-15, that’s an improvement. If the new boy that can’t tie his shoes without falling off his chair just made his first basket, that’s a WIN! Even in losses, wins can be had.

Enjoy the sport.   Cheer, Ask, Learn and Grab the ball and go play with your kids.

3 thoughts on “Basketball Cheat Sheet for Parents

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