Part 1: Best Practices for Running a Successful Youth Basketball Program
I listen to a lot of podcasts. Podcasts on basketball, business, leadership, random stories, and more. About a year ago, I was listening to one of my favorite business podcasts called Startup by Gimlet Media.
In particular, I was listening to Season 2 that was following around 2 young ladies who founded “Dating Ring”, an online dating service.
I can’t remember the exact episode, but at one point in the show, one of the co-founders said something to the effect of online dating as a business being inherently difficult from a customer satisfaction standpoint because dating is, simply put, imperfect and a hard thing.
Very few dates and/or potential partners are a perfect experience. Some dates or partners are good while many are not, but you naturally have to take the good with the bad in order to end up with the person you want to ultimately be with.
This is just how dating works for the majority of people. It just so happens that, often times, customers of dating services don’t quite understand this fact and blame the service for a bad date.
You’re probably wondering at this point what the heck online dating companies have to do with youth basketball?
Well, it struck me then, as I listened to that podcast, that this scenario was very similar to the landscape of competitive youth basketball, and competitive youth sports in general.
Competitive basketball is inherently a really difficult business to be in, especially from a customer service perspective.
It is an imperfect business. It’s not like we’re manufacturing a single product that is expected to be the same thing every single time, like an iPhone.
We’re dealing with kids and parents and coaching, and we all know coaching is an imperfect art-form.
On top of that, mix in the competition piece, and it gets even harder!
By the nature of competitive basketball, players are not always going to have a great experience. There are going to be things that happen that are often times out of an organization’s control. For instance, blow out losses … sometimes you’re the bug and sometimes you’re the windshield. This is competitive sports.
Other examples include injuries, criticism from coaches, frustration with playing time, subpar reffing, forfeiture of games, and many more obstacles to be overcome. Moreover, parents (aka the customer) are oftentimes not going to be happy about these things and will blame the organization.
Now I’m not saying that youth organizations are never to blame, but the point is, like dating, sometimes there are things that happen that are out of our control.
So what, if anything, can be done about this to improve the experience of players, parents, and coaches?
Well, to take something that is often said in basketball, and sports, we at Pro Skills Basketball focus intently on trying to control the things that we actually have control over.
We actually obsess over the things that we have complete control over and simply focus on those things to try and make it the best possible experience for the customers.
Again, we’re not perfect, and we make plenty of mistakes, but we do strive for perfection!
So that’s what this blog is all about … the best practices of our organization, Pro Skills Basketball. Moreover, the practices that we have control over that can improve the experience of coaches, players, and parents.
These practices are not complicated and are things that any youth basketball organization can do if they choose to make the investment, but they aren’t easy. They’re simple, but somewhat difficult to actually implement.
So why am I sharing this?
We feel this is one of the best ways we can try to help make the world of youth basketball a better place, so this is part of our contribution.
We want to share our best information that can help others!
#2 – I am scheduled to give a presentation on this subject at the USA Basketball Youth Coach Academy in Las Vegas in July, so I wanted to collect all of my thoughts and attempt to clarify them by writing them down (more on this later).
By the way, we recently did a podcast on this “best practices” subject and you can watch it here on video or listen to it here. See I told you we share everything haha!
#3 – These best practices are hard!
As previously said, they’re simple, but they are difficult to implement. They take a big investment of time, energy, patience, and yes, sometimes even money, but really anyone can do them if they choose to focus on them.
Now, I obviously can’t cover all of our best practices, but I’m going to attempt to cover the main ones, and the way I’ve broken them down is into 4 parts: 1. General, 2. Parents, 3. Coaches, and 4. Players.
For each section, I’ll outline my general thoughts and then at the end of each, I’ll wrap up with some more specific action steps you can do if you want.
And to be clear, these best practices have very little, if anything, to do with X’s and O’s, basketball strategy, on-court practices and policies, etc.
If you want that sort of stuff, USA Basketball Youth and the Jr. NBA have together released a set of guidelines on top of the fantastic resources they already provide, so I would encourage you to check those out if you’re looking for that type of stuff!
6 Youth Basketball Organization Best Practice Tips
To begin with, we’ll start with general best practices for youth sports organizations as these are, or at least should be, the pillars of your organization. I’ll just cover the 5 specific ones that we believe are vital to our success at Pro Skills Basketball.
#1 Clarify Your Mission and Vision
Clarifying your organization mission and vision is perhaps the most important thing that an organization can do. In simpler terms, this is your “why”.
Why are you interested in coaching youth basketball? Passion? Positive impact on kids? Money? Power? Obviously, not all reasons are good or positive. Coaching for money and power will lead you astray at the end of the day as seen in the recent NCAA basketball scandal.
Why are you interested in starting your own youth basketball organization? Control? Power? Freedom?
Again, not all reasons are necessarily good, so by clarifying your why you’ll be able to examine the reasons behind operating a youth basketball organization.
For us at Pro Skills Basketball, our “why” was/is because:
“We want to positively impact youth by teaching them life lessons through basketball, and especially change some of the negatives that have come to dominate the landscape of youth basketball over that last number of years.”
Negatives, in our mind, such as the win-at-all-costs mentality, the lack of focus on fundamentals, trophy-chasing by coaches and parents, the everyone-gets-a-trophy mentality, the decrease in fun for many kids, etc. Moreover, we felt like we could do this best ourselves by creating our own youth basketball organization.
Our original tag-line, that we still use today, was “Skills for basketball. Skills for life. Skills for success.”
Later on, we actually sat down and spent almost 3 hours crafting an actual mission statement to go with our big vision.
What we came up with was our mission is:
“To empower young athletes through a culture defined by the tenacious pursuit of self-improvement and the genuine desire to motivate players and improve kids’ lives.”
Our vision at PSB is to “positively impact the youth basketball culture around the world”.
We found that this process of intentionally crafting and writing down our mission and vision statement was a really important process as it forced us to clearly verbalize our “why” and attempt to truly live up to those words.
#2 Don’t Try to Be Something for Everyone
There’s a saying I love, that goes something like, “If you try to be something for everyone, you’ll end up being nothing to no one.” Now I’m not sure that actually makes sense grammatically, but you get the point haha.
You cannot try to be all things to all people!
Piggybacking off the first point about clarifying your mission and vision, you need to decide what your organization is going to offer in terms of events/programming, and furthermore within those events and programs, what you are going to stand for (aka. “fit”) and stick with it.
Originally, Pro Skills started off as a summer camp during Logan and I’s offseason from playing pro basketball overseas. Our original vision was to be a year-round skill development organization through training, clinics, and camps, and that’s it.
We soon realized that the kids and parents wanted the team/game piece, so we decided to add AAU club teams and just fit our skill development within that programming.
Before you knew it, we even started running some tournaments and leagues, and honestly, it just became too much. There was/is also somewhat of a conflict of interest in running every single type of event and program.
We pretty quickly decided we needed to narrow our focus and cut some of those programs and events out, so we dropped tournaments and leagues, and even eventually the training piece in order to focus mostly on teams and camps.
But you even need to take it a step further once you figure out what programs and events you want to offer. Within this programming, you’ve got to decide what types of people you want and don’t want.
You need to be okay knowing and communicating that your youth organization isn’t going to be a “fit” for certain types of players, parents, and coaches.
For example, we make it very clear from the start of our AAU team tryout process that we are not a cut-throat, win-at-all-costs organization. We will not be traveling across the country trying to win national championships in 4th grade.
When parents, players, or coaches come to us looking for that, we straight up tell them that we are not what they are looking for and they should go look elsewhere.
The converse is true though too … if we have a parent, player, or coach come to us looking for a recreational, everyone-gets-a-trophy team, we tell them the same thing: “Sorry, it’s not a fit and you’re better off looking elsewhere for a team.”
We are a club for parents, players, and coaches who are somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. We’ll even recommend other programs that would be a fit in either of the opposing scenarios!
By not trying to be something for everyone we are comfortable turning away certain players and parents and heading off problems that would be sure to arise in the future.
#3 Set Expectations Early
Now that you’ve clarified your mission, vision, and decided who your organization and programs are for and not for, you MUST set these and other expectations early and often … it’s like communication on the defensive end on the basketball court haha!
For us, there are a few main ways we set expectations. The first is, similar to our mission and vision statement, we actually wrote down our policies, procedures, and guidelines and created handbooks for parents and coaches to read, understand, and follow.
These handbooks were an absolute pain to create as they’re extremely detailed and cover pretty much everything, but they’ve proven more than worth it. They have been an amazing resource for us to share with our parents and coaches and have reduced the chances for future issues drastically.
You can see an example of our Charlotte Club Teams Handbook on our Charlotte AAU teams page here, and we make one for each one of the cities we have teams in, including Denver CO, Greensboro NC, Raleigh NC, Winston-Salem NC, and Chattanooga TN.
Another way we do set expectations is by having coaches and parent meetings. In these meetings, we go through the handbooks page by page and explain things in more detail and/or answer any questions.
These meetings really help as they verbally reinforce our policies, procedures, and guidelines after coaches and parents have already read them. And if they haven’t read them, well, now they’re at least hearing about them.
Lastly, we reinforce the need to read and understand these handbooks at every step along the way. With our AAU teams, for instance, we link to the handbooks in the online registration and have a parent meeting about the policies and procedures at tryouts.
Then if they make the team, we again ask them to make sure they’ve read and understood it. Finally, we have a big parent meeting for all players who have made teams and go over it page by page with the parents.
Repeat, repeat, repeat!
It wasn’t until recently on the Pick and Pop series of our PSB Podcast when we were talking about youth basketball organization best practices that my co-founder, Logan Kosmalski, brought up this point about “empathy” as a best practice.
Since we began PSB in 2009, we’ve tried to be empathetic in everything we did … we just didn’t realize it at the time. But being empathetic as an organization can help you in so many areas.
You want to rent a gym or facility?
Be empathetic to the probable hesitancy that they may have in allowing you to rent it. As a facility, they probably run into groups all the time who trash their facility, don’t pay on time, don’t communicate well, etc.
Put yourself in their shoes and get out ahead of their fears by relaying to them that you understand these fears and you’ll make sure they don’t happen with you.
Have a mom or dad upset with your organization about something?
Again, put yourself in their shoes for a second and try to see it from their side. You won’t always agree with how they feel, but the fact of the matter is they’re upset with something, so you at least need to recognize their feelings.
Having clear and established policies and procedures can often help you deal with some of these issues from the start.
You want the best coaches?
Ok, well be empathetic to the fact that their time is not unlimited. They might have families and they probably have another full-time job. So maybe you can pay them a stipend for their time? Maybe you can do some of the admin work for them?
At PSB, we do both of these things. We pay our coaches a small monthly salary and we handle the majority of administrative and logistical work for them. All they have to do is coach and communicate with their players and parents … we do the rest!
To be clear though, having empathy doesn’t mean you automatically agree with any disgruntled coach, parent, or player. No. It means you consider their stance and don’t automatically write it off.
If you don’t agree with them, you hold your ground and explain your position and why. If they don’t agree and want to go elsewhere, you politely hold the door for them on their way out so to speak.
#5 Communication & Organization
Every single year we have more than a handful of players leave other youth basketball groups and come to us for the simple reason that the communication and organization at the previous group was sorely lacking.
This is mostly a time issue, but it’s also an empathy and attention to details issue.
Firstly, do you have enough time to properly communicate with your coaches and parents?
If not, you probably shouldn’t start your own company.
Are you empathetic to the fact that coaches and parents want to have their questions answered, fears alleviated, etc. in a timely manner? If not, don’t start your own organization.
Are detail oriented and responsible enough to make sure details rarely fall through the cracks?
Can you handle multiple things at once? Can you put out fires while still juggling a few other things? If not, it’s probably not best to have your own organization.
#6 Constant Improvement & Learning
As I’ve already said, I don’t want this blog to come off like we are perfect and we don’t make mistakes … because we’re not and we do! For those reasons, we constantly look to other individuals and organizations on how we can improve and learn.
One of the great perks of running a youth basketball organization is that we get to connect with a lot of parents, coaches, directors, etc. We meet people from all walks of life that do various jobs and are often times experts in their field or craft.
And often when we meet these people, we ask them to help us! We’ve sought out and received advice on everything from leadership, to finances to basketball to marketing and more.
We also do a lot of research on other youth basketball organizations around the world and see if there’s anything we can borrow from them and implement into Pro Skills. But it’s not limited to just youth basketball organizations. Sometimes we borrow ideas, processes, tactics from outside of basketball and outside of sports in general.
Lastly, we listen to a ton of podcasts, read a lot of books, magazines, articles, and even take classes to get better. The point is, if you want to get better, then be humble, accept that you’re not perfect and you don’t know everything, that there are other people and organizations out there that know more than you, and intentionally seek them out!
Ok, so enough of my babbling for now. Time for some actionable steps!
#1 Verbalize Your “Why”
Spend time thinking about your “why”. Take time to clearly write down your mission and vision.
#2 Verbalize Your “Fit”
Consider your organization and your individual programs/events. Write down who your organization is for and who each one of your programs and events are for as well as who they are not for.
#3 Create an Outline
Take numbers 1 and 2 above and create a document that outlines these thoughts. Think about the other policies, procedures, guidelines that you believe are right and important to you and your organization. Consider coaches, parents, and players.
Put them in this document as well. You have now started an outline for your handbooks.
#4 Practice Empathy
Put yourselves in the shoes of facility managers, coaches, parents, and players. Consider the common issues that they’re likely to bring up with you or your organization.
Do they make sense? Do you agree with them? Why or why not?
Adjust #3 accordingly.
#5 Communication & Organization
Consider your communication and organization skills.
Are the solid or lacking?
Regardless, think about some ways you can improve in these areas. Consider implementing some of these into your communication policies (ie. all emails and phone calls will be returned within 36 hours).
#6 Learn & Improve
Pick one other youth basketball organization that you’d like to emulate and take some time to study what, how, and why they do. Pick one basketball book or podcast to read or listen to.
Pick one business book or podcast to read or listen to. Take notes on each and consider how you might implement anything you like into your organization.
Adjust #3 accordingly.
Are you not interested in investing the time and energy into items such as #1-3 above – creating policies, procedures, guidelines, etc.? Not interested in constantly having to answer phone calls and emails? Not interested in building and updating a website and setting up online registration?
Are you more interested in simply coaching and interacting with players, parents, and coaches … aka. the “fun” stuff?
Well, that’s ok! There’s absolutely no judgment here.
Founding and operating a youth basketball organization is not for everyone, which is why we offer to partner with great coaches/people to take the not fun stuff (ie. everything above) out of their hands and allow great coaches to simply coach.
We call it our “Assist Program” and you can read more about it here, and if interested, you can apply.
However, if you think you can implement the above best practices on your own then, by all means, go right ahead. But don’t wait! Start now!
Make sure to continue to check back for part 2 where I cover best practices regarding parents, coaches, and players!