Let Us Re-imagine Basketball

We should re-imagine basketball.

The current equipment and rules are designed to suit men’s top level. Elite players can go coast-to-coast in a flash, palm the ball, throw end-to-end passes, dunk the ball thunderously, hit threes as if they were lay-ups. You know, do all kinds of cool stuff.

The rest – kids, women, recreational male players – are left with a ball game that’s not really suited for them. This could be changed. We could modify the rules so that players of all levels would get to really enjoy the game.

If baskets were lowered, dunks could be as common in women’s games as they are in men’s. If the 3-point line was closer, recreational players could hit threes at the same rate the NBA players do. If small enough balls were used, U8 kids could throw behind-the-back passes.

In short, we could modify basketball and make it more fun for a lot of people. In the process, we might draw a lot more people to the sport. How could be this be made to happen?

Make the Game Easier and More Fun

The basic idea is simple: the size of the equipment should be modified to match the size and physical capabilities of the participants. This is a straight-forward and often-repeated claim. But the amount of modifying that has actually taken place has been limited.

Modifying  the basketball equipment in a proper manner would allow two positive effects to emerge:

  1. It would be physically possible for players to do some fun and spectacular things that are elementary parts of today’s elite basketball (e.g. dunk).
  2. Kids could use movement patterns similar to the ones used by top adult players. This would enhance their enjoyment and improvement.

Point 2 is important regarding player development. As players grow, they  should be able to continuously use the same approximate motor patterns while e.g. shooting, passing and dribbling. Otherwise children learn motor patterns that are beneficial under the current rules but are not transferable to later contexts.

That is what is currently happening in youth basketball. Because of the equipment, players spend huge amounts of time learning techniques that become useless or even harmful as they grow. The most obvious example is the shooting technique(s).

If a 7-seven-year old kid is shooting at a regular basket, he is not going to use a pure jump shooting technique. Rather, he will sling the ball – or whatever he needs to do to solve his primary problem of getting the ball to fly high enough and far enough.

As the kid grows, his primary shooting problem  will change. It will probably be accuracy. To that problem, slinging the ball will no longer be the answer. To solve the accuracy problem, the kid must now start from square one. Or maybe even from further behind, since he must learn to shoot and unlearn to sling. It is a waste of time and effort – waste caused by the current basketball rules.

Let Players’ Size Determine the Size of the Equipment

So, kids should have baskets lower than 305cm and smaller and lighter balls than size 7. But exactly how much should the baskets be lowered? How small should the balls be in youth basketball?

This question could be tentatively answered by looking at kids’ average height and weight. The baseline setting would be the proportion between the regular equipment’s size and adults’ average size.  Then in each age group, the proportion between the equipment’s size and the kids’ average size would be made to match the aforementioned baseline setting.

According to the Finnish data, men are fully grown, when they are 19 years old. Then they are on the average 181cm tall. So, the proportion between the regular basket height and adult men’s average (stanging) height is

305cm / 181cm = 1.69.

Given that 7-year-old boys (U8) are on the average 128cm tall, their basket height should be:

128cm x 1.69 = 216cm

Using commensurate equations, we may claim that U8 boys should use a ball that has the circumference of 54cm. 19-year-old boys weigh 71kg, 7-year-old 26kg. Given those numbers and the weight of the regular men’s basketball (609g), the U8 ball should weigh a mere 223g.

In a similar vein, we may calculate the optimal equipment size for all age groups. These calculations can be found here.  They implicate for example that U16 Boys should use women’s ball (size 6).

Start Experimenting

As mentioned, some modifications have been made. In fact, quite a lot of them. Women use a smaller ball than men do. The mini-basketball rules of FIBA state that in the U10 age groups a 260cm basket is used, and that “it is possible to have lower baskets for very young children”. Also, there have been numerous kinds of age-group-related modifications made by e.g. national federations.

Yet globally and on the average, there still tends to be a huge discrepancy between kids’ size and physical capabilities and the rules of the game. The ball is too big and heavy, the baskets are too high, the court is too large, there may be too many players on the floor. Partly, the same goes for recreational and masters players.

This is quite evident, but things are changing slowly. What is missing, is global development of proper modified rules. FIBA does not seem too interested, though, so maybe basketball people all over just need to start experimenting with different rules and equipment.

Finding proper solutions might be give clubs and other organizations a substantial competitive advantage. Imagine how effective your player development might become should you be the first find the optimal basket height and ball size to enhance each age group’s motor learning. And imagine how popular your masters league might become if you lowered the baskets so that you had women dunking in the 50+ division.

Research Must Be Done

My calculations mentioned above prove that the youth basketball equipment should be modified. They could be used as a starting point for experiments but they do not provide ready answers as to exactly how the modifications should be done. There are multiple reasons for that.

  1. Only male players are considered in the calculations. Considering female players, too, will complicate the issue further.
  2. The equations may be misleading, because some of the variables may have been chosen inappropriately. For example, maybe we should not use the average standing height as a variable but replace it with the average reaching height.
  3. Numerous practical constraints must be taken into account. For example, we can not use  balls of ten different sizes, but we must settle for a smaller number. The same goes for the basket heights.

Often rule changes are made “intuitively and subjectively”. Hence the intended goals are often missed. That is why research should be done on how to modify basketball rules in order to enhance participation and motor learning.

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