How Important are Rules to Skill Development?

I am working with an after-school program. The children vary day by day and by skill level. We have a couple children who have played in leagues, and many who have never played previously and do not know the rules. Several days per week, the soccer players play basketball, so there is a big mix of size, skill and experience level.

Today, we played 5v5, 6v6, 7v7 and then 4v4 on the side courts. One beginner never plays offense, but is a great and enthusiastic defender. Others cherry pick. Rarely is everyone on one end of the court at the same time.

As I watched them play today – I am not really coaching, but leading an activity – I had a thought: do rules really matter for beginners?

As I watched, players traveled, double-dribbled and fouled. The best players, however, encouraged the weaker players, even when they traveled or double-dribbled. The better players did not take advantage of the slack rules. Instead, players essentially played with rules that allowed them to compete. Good players played by a strict interpretations of the rules; average players played with a loose interpretation; and bad or beginner players played with almost no rules or violations.

From a developmental perspective, is that a bad thing? As I recall, that is how we played on the playground when I was a child. We accommodated the lesser players and allowed them a little more freedom to balance the competitive levels.

In two weeks, I certainly notice improvement from some of the beginners. Players who shied away from the ball last week now ask for the ball and attempt shots. One player asked about the proper shooting technique. Another pivoted out of a trap and made a good pass.

Ironically, the best player played his best game today. I don’t think he has improved his skills, but his attitude toward others has softened and his leadership and passing increased. Also, I play some of the time to give him a small challenge and to keep him from getting bored.

From a player development standpoint, more experienced or better players should not stay in this environment for too long, as they need challenges to continue their development. However, for beginner and recreational players, is it bad to ignore or ease the rules to give beginners an opportunity to learn the game by playing the game without constant interruptions for violations?

By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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