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Youth Basketball: Things Parents Need To Know

Is there anything cuter than a three-year-old running full-speed down a basketball court toward the opposing team’s basket? When, with her tongue out and face sprinkled with sweat, she shoots and scores two points for the other team? Parents, like sardines packed against a cold concrete gymnasium wall holding tumblers filled with coffee (or something), begin to emphatically yell, “The other way!” while a referee gently pivots the child toward the hoop on the other side of the court. The kid doesn’t care. She scored. In her world, the basket was legit. And that’s all that matters.  

Welcome to the sport of youth basketball.

Watching our kids weave up and down a giant hardwood court reminds us basketball season is in full swing. Even the non-basketball person can’t help but know ’tis the season, because Spurs, Warriors, and other professional and college basketball games and post-game scores completely take over our TVs and Twitter feeds. (I love basketball, but, really, why do they play so many games a week?!) If you are a parent and have a child who plays youth basketball, you know it’s go-time because your home away from home becomes that sardine-packed and usually smelly gymnasium every single Saturday between January and March.

This year will mark my family’s ninth year playing youth basketball. My oldest, our twin boys, were four when they first suited up in those little reversible pinnies. Honestly, we started out as “those” parents who thought that their kids would be naturally good at basketball.  Not even close. During their first season our coach approached my husband and me after a game saying, “Can you either make sure your son wears shorts without pockets or please sew them shut? He can’t play basketball with his hands in his pockets!”

Our nervous little hands-in-his-pockets kid and his twin brother have come a long way since then in both their skill level and love for basketball. At 13, they now play for their middle school and a club team, competing nearly year round. Their sister began playing basketball at age three. (Because younger siblings always do things a little earlier, right?) She, too, loves the game—and it’s easy to see why. First, the game of basketball moves fast—a plus for both kids and parents! Also, games are often excitedly won and lost in the last few seconds. And, basketball can be a social pick-up game almost anywhere. On most days my sons would rather meet their friends at the park to shoot hoops than play video games. To me, that’s a parent win.

But the game of youth basketball can be serious business too, especially as kids get older. For example, at my sons’ San Antonio middle school this year, nearly 87 boys tried out for the basketball team. Ten made the “A” team. Twelve kids made the “B” team. The remaining 60+ kids had the opportunity to play on a more developmental team. Most kids who made the so-called “A” or “B” team (I don’t like classifying the teams as such, but that’s a whole other blog post) play club or AAU basketball, which can be expensive, might require travel, and calls for a substantial time commitment on both the kid’s and parents’ part. At the same time, these more serious levels of basketball can be the key to a starting position on your child’s high school team, a college scholarship, or even a future in professional basketball.

Whether you’re just starting out in the sport or well on your way to playing club ball, a basketball parent comes to realize that basketball, like some other sports, is one that has a culture all its own.  Some of these things you will no doubt be familiar with – others, perhaps, not so much.  Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years as a basketball mom:

  1. It is perfectly normal for your first youth basketball game, especially if your kids are younger than five, to resemble that of circus or farm. There are wandering cattle, lost sheep, and lots of whistles. 
  2. Finding the right league for your family may find you leaving social media messages to people you don’t even know asking if they might be looking for additional players.  Or, you might frantically go dumpster diving in your garbage for that one half sheet flyer you think you saw come home rolled into a ball laying at the bottom of your child’s backpack advertising basketball.  A basketball mom will quickly learn that leagues can vary on rules, ages, and competitive levels. We started our kids at our local YMCA. As they got better, we moved along with a team and parent coach who had experience to another league, SOA. Today, they play with a club team.  Over time, I have found that more important than the league is a coach (or team) with experience. At some point if you do need to enter a league blindly, call the league and ask to have your child placed on a team with a coach who has the experience you might be looking for. Keep in mind that most coaches at the beginner level are volunteers.
  3. Oh, fellow basketball mom, you will be asked to be the team parent at some point. As Team Mom, you will likely be asked to set up the snack schedule, organize team photo day, and collect orders for additional items such as team shirts and bags. Warning: Once you volunteer for this position, you will be asked to do it again (and again).  
  4. Size matters! Basketballs come in sizes, usually dependent upon your child’s age. Before you buy one, I learned it is wise to ask the coach what size ball he or she prefers. 
  5. Stock up on black shorts. Like, buy out the store when you see them, because come December, they will be difficult to find. If a store is running a sale, buy several in sizes that your child will grow into for future seasons. Most youth leagues supply players with tee-shirts or pinnies to be worn with black shorts. Any shorts will do; however, basketball shorts are usually longer-style shorts and worn by both boys and girls.
  6. As a parent of a little dribbler, you might feel you need to purchase “the best” basketball shoes so that your child’s ankles are fully supported. This mom didn’t. Our daughter wore her typical athletic sneakers her first season. For our child’s second basketball season, we bought the least expensive basketball shoe at our local sports store. Our young kids were delighted with their Shaq shoes. We were delighted that they cost us less than twenty bucks.
  7. At some point your kids will begin asking for basketball shoes that cost more than your first car. Kobes, Currys, and the latest LeBrons are just a few of the big name shoes that they’ll tell you “everybody” wears and will, without question, improve their game. 
  8. Socks! Whoever thought socks would top our kids’ Christmas lists? Nike Elite (crew socks) will become a household name for the basketball family. This year, my son actually requested Nike socks with a picture of bacon and eggs running down the calf (gag).
  9. It is almost inevitable that your little dribbler oh-so-new on that basketball court, will run down that court ball tucked under his arm like a football.  Yes, that is considered a travel. No, the refs probably will not call it, but rather gently correct your over-zealous scorer. Have your camera ready! 
  10. Whether you know basketball or not, you will find yourself yelling, “Hands up!” constantly, probably even when it’s not necessary. Our first youth coach called this basketball defense “Monster Arms.”  
  11.  Don’t be shocked when you enter the gym at your child’s first basketball game to find low rims. Typically, kids age eight and under use eight-foot rims. Nine and ten-year-olds use nine-foot rims. Kids who are 11 and older play with regulation rim height. 
  12. The early bird catches the worm—or, at least at a youth basketball game, a chair. Many beginner basketball leagues use elementary school gyms. In my experience, most of these gyms do not have bleachers. We learned to bring our own folding chairs in case the seats provided were already taken. 
  13. Terms such as “airball,” “floater,” “broken ankles,” and “brick” will likely become part of your child’s basketball lingo. When your baller sees that you know what he/she means—or better yet, you use them in conversation—you will earn cool mom points.  
  14. One-on-one training can help. Significantly. If your child develops a passion for basketball and becomes determined to play club or AAU ball, training with a professional will help him/her fine-tune his/her shot. Today, you don’t even have to live in the same town as the trainer for help.  Our twin’s San Antonio club coach for example, David “DJ” Jones, offers virtual training which enables kids, elite players, and professionals from as far away as Germany and China to connect with a pro.
  15. Sneaker balls.  These fragrant little tools are a must-have for any basketball parent. No matter your kid’s age, his basketball shoes will stink to high heaven. Tip: Sneaker balls make fabulous stocking stuffers.
  16. Label, label, label.  Most coaches expect you to bring your own ball to practice, and, balls will be everywhere. We have returned home only to find we accidentally picked up someone else’s ball.  Our family simply uses a good ‘ole Sharpie to label every shirt, ball, and shoe.  
  17.  AAU  is a term you might start hearing from coaches and fellow parents, especially post-season. AAU stands for the Amateur Athletic Union. It is a multi-sports organization based in the United States. AAU comes into play when your son or daughter is involved in basketball off-season, or year-round. Coaches are often paid, and therefore, dues can add up. There are arguments on both sides of the court when it comes to AAU ball. Some parents and coaches will tell you that, in a competitive area, your child must play club ball if he or she wants to make the middle school or high school team. However, former LA Laker Kobe Bryant once called AAU “horrible”, as can be read here
  18. Caution: You may notice that your basketball player becomes unable to speak to you outside of basketball practice or games without simultaneously doing some sort of basketball movement or shot form. Picture this for just a minute.  There you are trying to discuss what movie to see with your child when he twists or turns while crouching low.  Or, it is as if to hold a conversation he must also hold his hands high above his head about to shoot a three-pointer.  If your son or daughter is a football quarterback or baseball pitcher you might also know of this odd and seemingly involuntary movement.
  19. You will find that, as a basketball parent, you become very fond of your basketball team. You celebrate birthdays together.  Over post game dinners you savor the taste of victory together and comfort one another in times of defeat. You become like family with your fellow basketball parents, your child’s coaches and her teammates.  You sometimes even wonder if you have adopted another child or two. 

As an avid sports mom, youth basketball has probably become my favorite sport to watch my children play, overall.  Basketball is fun.  It is exciting.  It is mostly worry-free as far as injury goes.  We even love to play basketball together as a family.  And yes, two of us usually leave the court out of breath and unable to walk.  If you have a striving basketball player in your house, I hope my tips can help you and your child to prepare for the court and many, many memorable moments together.   

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7 Responses to Youth Basketball: Things Parents Need To Know

  1. Debbie Deming January 13, 2017 at 2:37 pm #

    *busy*…not buys.

  2. Jo P January 12, 2017 at 6:34 pm #

    LOVE this article! We too are a basketball family and look forward to putting our daughter in a league when she’s older. I played basketball from a young age and the SPURS are like a religion in our home! Really great info, how fun! thanks so much for sharing Erin. GO SPURS GO!

    • Erin Kirwan
      Erin Kirwan January 16, 2017 at 12:01 pm #

      Thanks, Jo P! I have found it is tougher for finding good girls teams compared to boys which has been frustrating. Because what you find too is that those boys – same age – will be more advanced than the girls. Sometimes I feel frustrated in that it is like the coaches expect less from the girls? You do find club teams for girls starting around 5th-6th grade and especially at private schools it seems. Yet, my daughter really doesn’t want to play co-ed anymore or against boys and I don’t blame her. Since you played, I hope maybe you’ll consider coaching your daughter’s team 🙂 Can make all the difference. Best of luck to you!

  3. Selena J. January 11, 2017 at 11:03 pm #

    What a timely article. In the last month, these very points have consumed my mind. I have a 7 year old that is passionate about basketball. He sets up his own drills at home(yes we have put a basketball goal in our foyer), constantly dribbling a ball, and is consumed with the Spurs. Along with this passion, comes our role… where to find the time and the $$ with 2 working parents and 4 other children to allow my 7 yr old to master his talent and drive? Watched him play his first game ever this past Saturday, with an ideal set up.. Saturday practice and game all in one. He was a natural and so comfortable with the ball, but is this 30 minute practice enough? I’ve never seen this drive or ability with any of my other 4 kids? Guilt consumes me. This is the age where he has a chance to develop the skills and have a chance at team sports as he gets older. Nevertheless, my 7 yr old at this point doesn’t know any better and is enjoying his self appointed time with the ball and more creative for it. Thanks for the article. It really hit home. I was asking myself, what size ball should he be using? What height goal? What will it take if this becomes serious for him?