Disclaimer: This is an opinion piece about why I believe the starting 5 is not an effective strategy at the junior level for development. It may not apply to all circumstances, but I believe the underlying idea behind why it is so, is extremely important for the future of all junior athletes.
At some point during the try-out process when teams are being assembled at the beginning of the season, coaches start to identify who their strongest players are. Whether it be through attributes such as athleticism, scoring ability, ball handling, shooting proficiency, defense, etc. Generally, the top 5 players the team with a combination of those attributes in reference to the 5 positions on the court, will make up a coaches go-to Starting 5. It sometimes takes a bit of trial and error regarding who works well with each other, but all in all, most coaches have this figured out by midway through grading, and stick with it. And this is where the problem begins.
Young athletes these days are more aware and emotionally intelligent than most of us adults realise. They can pick up on how you are feeling not just by what you say, but how you act, the tone of your voice, and your general body language. So when a coach makes his decision on who their "Starting 5" is, and starts to run with it game after game, it leaves the athletes on the bench feeling inadequate, second best, and without realising, self-doubt starts to creep in. This means when some players come off the bench, they feel an immense amount of pressure to perform. They believe that if they don't, they will be subbed off, feel as if they let the team down, and consequently start to fall down a vicious cycle of fear, anxiety, and lower self-worth. This ultimately leads to a game day performance that is not a true representation of the athletes full potential, adding to the emotional self-battering they are already giving themselves, and making it even harder for the coach to want to put them on the floor.
The solution? Scrap the Starting 5. "Scrap the Starting 5?!" you say, "YES!" I say, and the reasoning behind it is pretty straightforward.
In most teams, the strongest player shouldn't be THAT much better than the weakest player at the beginning of the season. After all, that is why we have try-outs. When teams scrimmage 5 on 5 at training, or do any competitive drills for that matter, very rarely have I seen one team dominate a drill so much that they are head and shoulders above the other, which shows that there shouldn't be too much of a gap between the players in a team. So why is it that on game day, coaches decide that a specific 5 players must consistently take the floor to start every game?
I believe that the best teams are the teams that can truly go 10 deep, and here are some reasons why:
- They have more than just one player doing all the scoring, which means you can't just shut them down to win the game.
- They are less tired and fatigued in the dying minutes of the game and therefore make better decisions in pressure situations.
- They are adaptive in their lineups and can find matchups that work in their favour.
- They bring more energy, confidence, and enthusiasm because they are all focused on the same goal and not distracted by anxiety, stress or ranking within the team. The thinking changes from "ME" to "WE."
- If players are injured or sick, it does not leave the team exposed, substantially weaker, and they can remain competitive.
Sounds pretty good right? Well, the only way to truly do this is to make sure that the "weakest" player, has just as much confidence in themselves as the "strongest" player. It means that everyone feels they are of the same worth to the team as each other, and most of all, that they all feel as though they have the coaches trust.
This idea of having the same "Starting 5" week in week out is archaic, and should only really be applied at the professional levels where winning is everything. As junior coaches, our first and foremost role is PLAYER DEVELOPMENT, not winning. Even if you are a 1's team, I still don't believe that winning should be at the top of your list of achievements for the season. It may hold more importance than the lower teams in your age group, but ensuring that each and every player in your team is given the opportunity to learn, grow, and play the sport they love without feeling crushed by expectation, anxiety, and stress, should be a coach's top priority. And the only way to do this, is to prove to your athletes that you trust them. You allow them to make mistakes to learn from them rather than punish them, and you afford them the opportunities to play the game we all love.
So next season when games begin again, give everyone the opportunity to be in the starting 5 and see how much of a difference it will make by the end of the season.
*Obviously, there are circumstances where you can’t start some players; if they are sick, they have missed training or don’t train hard etc.
Some players actually prefer coming off the bench, and that is fine, just make sure its not a confidence issue.
You don't have to change the starting 5 EVERY week, but keeping the players guessing can help improve the confidence of weaker players, and keep the stronger players accountable and "on their toes."
Another way coaches can do this is to ensure court time is spread as even as possible - more on this later.