If your players do it a lot, it should matter to you. It’s always surprised me how many programs don’t take their pick-up games seriously. If your kids do it 3-4 times per week for over 5 months, it has to matter. Either that or you are just accepting bad habits. Too many coaches take the “Well, we aren’t allowed in the gym, so what we can do about it?” But we don’t take that approach with conditioning, individual development or training in the summer, so why would we do it with pick-up.
For the record, I’m not a fan of coaches being in the gym and coaching during pick-up. I don’t think poking your head in and yelling at someone for not running hard enough is very effective. Part of the value of pick-up is that the kids aren’t being coached – they have to figure it out themselves, in what should be a competitive environment. So many crucial situations for your team – such as shot selection, trust defensively, conditioning, mental toughness, unselfishness – are sorted out during pick-up games. I think you can show your kids how to play pick-up and then let them run the show.
I’m certain that the way we played pick-up at RIC was a huge part of our championship culture. The first thing we did when we first got to RIC was show our guys how to play pick-up. We did the same thing at Maine. Is it worth 30-45 minutes of your practice time or individual development time to show them the best way to do something they are going to do for at least 5 months together? It is to me.
This is the pick-up program we set up at Rhode Island College and brought with us to Maine.
Every week, the players pick teams – hopefully 3 teams if you have enough guys. You play with the same teams all week, and every win counts. Subs check in every when one team gets to 3 points, and then in between games. Players keep track of the wins. The team with the fewest number of wins gets up before class on Monday morning and runs a mile. Put something on the games. Winning should matter. When a game is 5-1 right out of the gate, there will be no give-in. And kids will take pride in going the entire pre-season without running on Monday morning.
Play to 7
Straight to 7, every basket is worth a point. You don’t have to win by 2 – that can take forever. And no one is going to argue over a foot on the 3-point line. We are going to encourage guys to take it to the rim instead of settling for 3s. You want the games to move along quickly, and the baskets to really matter. Games past 7 can drag on and get very lazy. Make the games quicker and they’ll be more competitive. You should be able to get at least 7 games in in a 60-75 minutes.
Free Throw To Win
When one team gets to 7, the player who scored the last basket has to hit a free throw to win the game. Everyone lines up like a regular game free throw (working on free throw block outs often gets overlooked in practice), and if he makes it his team gets the win. If he misses it, it’s life, and his teams score goes back to 6. Play on.
Defense Calls The Fouls
This is the big one. It sounds a little controversial, but trust me. The offense is not allowed to call fouls. They have to learn to play through contact. It’s simple. On defense, if you foul someone, call it. If there is no call, play on. If a foul is called and the ball goes in, it counts and we head the other way.
This is crucial to developing trust. Are there going to be some disputes over calls? Yes, there always will be. But I will submit that you will have significantly less stoppages of play and disputes over foul calls than you do when the offense calls the fouls. You know that play on game point where a guy takes it to the rack, draws some contact, puts the shot up, and then everyone stops? He just stops playing, assuming he’ll get a foul call, but covering himself so that he can say he never called anything? Yeah, that drives me nuts too. And it never happens if the defense calls the fouls.
The defense calls all the fouls. If you fouls someone, call it. Believe me when I tell you this is a big-time way to start developing trust on your team. And it will make your players stronger with the ball.
Run The Floor
Two rules – 1) If the offense scores a basket and all 5 of the defense players haven’t crossed half court, the basket counts and the offense keeps the ball. 2) If the offense scores a basket and all 5 of the offensive players haven’t crossed half court, the basket doesn’t count and the ball is turned over to the defense.
Are there occasional situations where a steal is made in the backcourt and you can’t score because the rest of your team is running back on defense? Yes. But they are pretty rare, and well worth the trade off of creating a mentality with your players that they have to run the floor on every possession, no matter what. You will see guys yelling at their teammates as soon as a turnover is made to make sure they get to half court, for both teams. It helps develop great habits.
I promise you the way we played pick-up was a huge part of the championship culture we developed. Our pick-up games helped develop great habits. Shot selection got figured out before practice even started – do you think kids are going to stand for someone forcing bad shots when getting up at 6 AM on Monday morning is on the line? Trust developed, and a competitive edge was formed. Guys learned to compete to win, but also that they were teammates. If they were constantly hacking someone and not giving them the foul call, believe me, they heard about it. They learned to be unselfish in pick-up (think about that statement for a second) because it was about winning, not about what I can show you.
And glue guys, walk-ons and toughness emerged – those role players that maybe weren’t as talented coming in, but who did a lot of things to help their team win. Those players were valued in pick-up games, and proved to their teammates that they could help them win. I had at least 5 kids I can think of at RIC who were not on our radar screen heading into the fall, who ended up starting for us, who my veteran players constantly told me about how great they were to have as teammates in pick-up.
Your players are going to play pick-up, and play it a lot. If they do it a lot, it should matter to you. Rather than dismiss it as street ball, make it an important part of your program. It can have a huge impact.