The Value of 3v3

I coached a high-school varsity girls basketball team this season that was a varsity team in name only. There were more absolute beginners on the team — girls who had not played any sport on an organized team — than players with basketball experience. There was not a single player who played on a high school basketball team last season. 

As one might imagine, playing against varsity competition, we did not fare well competitively. Often, we appeared to have no idea what to do. We dribbled too much, passed to the other team, traveled, missed defensive rotations, etc. We struggled with the simple skills because we were beginners playing against more experienced teams and players.

This happens frequently, although this disparity is more common at younger ages. One team of 10 year-olds is beginners, and they play in a tournament against a team who has played together for 2-3 years. Of course the experienced team will be better, and the beginners will look like, well, beginners.

One season, a friend coached in a recreation league for 10-year-old boys where the previous season’s all-star team signed up together as a team. Did they win? Of course. Take the 8 best players from an average recreation league, put them on the same team, and they are likely to win. What does that prove? Who does that help? What’s the point?

My team struggled with opponents all the way to the final game, despite real improvements during practice. In many ways, the disparity of an experienced varsity player and an absolute beginner is too big to overcome in one short (14 games) season, especially without a preseason, full team, and other impediments.

In practice, when playing 3v3, we looked like we knew how to play basketball by the end of the season. We made mistakes, and missed too many shots, and traveled more than typical varsity players, but we did real basketball things: help defense, cutting, screening, scoring, passing, etc.

In games, the extra players, and their experience, meant that we had little time to make decisions, shoot, or attack. Because of our inexperience, it took us longer to recognize advantages or open teammates. In 3v3, we were afforded more time, and the reduced number of options reduced complexity and sped up the decision making.

Obviously, beginners playing against other beginners in practice is part of the advantage (we have 8 players, so no chance to see what 5v5 looks like in practice; that was another issue with transfer from practice, as we never practiced against 5 defenders). However, to me, it is a combination of facing more similar competition and playing a small-sided game that enabled players to perform better during practice.

These are the primary reasons that I argue for SSGs with beginners. The increased time and space enables players to perform better during the learning or development phase; consequently, they have more opportunities to shoot, pass, and dribble. Also, it is easier to create more equitable teams in 3v3 than in 5v5. The structure of leagues such as Playmakers Basketball Development Leagues allows for easier team modifications in the 3v3 games than is common during 5v5; how many leagues trade players from one team to the next because they find the teams are inequitable? I have never seen it.

Inequitable competition does not help anyone; most teams that faced us did not get much from the game beyond some confidence and extra minutes for subs who rarely play. We did not benefit much because we struggled to execute basic skills against more experienced, more athletic players and teams.

At the varsity level, those are the breaks; varsity high school is the end of organized sport for most, and it should be competitive with teams competing to put banners for league and state championships on their gym walls. At the developmental levels, however, where most beginners enter the game, we should match the game to the players, rather than fitting the players into the adult game. Allow players to learn the game in a developmental environment with more equitable competition to improve learning, improvement, and fun. Once players have learned the basics and added some experience, the players can move to more competitive outlets if they desire. Beginners, and young players, deserve the opportunity to learn and develop first before being pressured to perform.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

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