Thursday, September 28, 2023

Making a Point

Bernalillo Youth Basketball Program puts emphasis on developing skills, not winning


After 32 minutes of end-to-end action, a youth basketball game in Bernalillo between the Monarchs and the Bulldogs ended in a scoreless tie.

It’s not that the teams made up of 5- and 6-year-old boys and girls didn’t score baskets. It’s because the Bernalillo Youth Basketball Program doesn’t keep score.

“With this group, we want them to focus on what they are supposed to do, rather than winning,” said Jason Soto, the town’s recreation director. “It’s all about developing skills and fundamentals and making sure every child gets the attention they need.”

There are 230 kids in the youth basketball program, making up 24 teams who play across four age divisions.

The peewee division is for 5- and 6-year-olds. Kids 7 and 8 play in the junior division, while those 9 and 10 make up the minor division. Kids 11-13 play in the senior division.

“The rules and the way the game is played changes as they move up divisions,” Soto said.

For instance, fouls aren’t called in peewee games. Traveling rules are more liberal than the NBA, and there’s no such thing as a double dribble violation – or even triple dribble or quadruple dribble. For kids that age, just learning the concept that the ball has to be inbounded from behind the baseline is an achievement.

By the time they make the senior division, they play under the same rules they use in high school. They do keep score, but they still try to keep the emphasis off winning.

 “Developing character is a lot more important than worrying about winning and losing,” Soto said.

No winners, no losers

They used to keep score in the youngest age divisions, but they found that adding the competitive element was counterproductive to what they were trying to achieve.

The more skilled players took over the games, Soto said. Parents of other children would complain their kid was being left out of the action. A lot of the kids weren’t having fun.

Then there were the super-competitive parents who would yell and the coaches and referees, creating tension and occasional displays of unsportsmanlike behavior. 

“You’re always going to have problems with parents,” said Soto, who suspects there are some parents who do keep track of the score. “We got some backlash when we first (stopped keeping score), but it really has benefited the program.”

Emphasis on “program.”

Soto said they don’t call it a “league” anymore, because it’s not. It’s a basketball skills development program and not meant to determine winners and losers. So they changed the name to program, “just to make sure everyone remembers why we do this.”

“We don’t crown winners, even in the older divisions,” he said, adding that every child gets a participation trophy at the end of the season.

Getting with the program

Like a lot of towns in New Mexico, basketball is big in Bernalillo.

“This is a basketball town, for sure,” Soto said. “There’s a long, rich history of basketball in this town. They love their Spartans.”

The Bernalillo High School Spartans became one of the state’s top basketball schools in the late 1960s and ‘70s under coach Henry Sanchez. They made four trips to the state championship game over a 10-year period from 1968 to 1977 but lost them all. Finally, in 1979, the Spartans broke through and won their first Class 3A title.

BHS made it to the championship game in 1986 and ‘87 under coach Clarence Griego, winning on the second try. 

After a drought, the Spartans won back-to-back 3A championships in 2004 and 2005 under coach Terry Darnell, but that was the last blue trophy for Bernalillo.

BHS’s girls teams haven’t been as successful. They’ve never won a championship but came close last season, finishing as Class 4A runner up under coach Raymond Aragon.

Darnell, now deputy superintendent for operations with the school district, no longer coaches the high school team. But he does coach one of the peewee division teams.

Darnell, who coached the Spartans for 28 seasons, said he and then-town recreation director Jim Viera started the youth basketball program in 1997.

“We needed a feeder program for our (high school) basketball teams,” he said. “I credit the town for keeping it going.”

Now, the youth program develops players until they are old enough for middle school teams.

The coach said the decision to stop keeping score in the lower divisions makes it easier on everyone – referees, coaches, and the players.

“We found that parents seem to be more competitive than the kids, sometimes,” he said.

The program is now feeding off itself. One of Darnell’s former players, Isaac Dozal, is now the boys coach at BHS. 

The end game

Soto, the recreation director, said they have few issues with unruly parents and ultra-competitive coaches now.

Coaches, referees and everyone involved in the program are reminded that the purpose of the program is to develop the child. They strive to give players equal playing time and meet them at their level of development.

“It feeds off the coaches, to the kids, and then the parents. The whole goal is to support all of the kids,” he said.

Soto said the problem they used to have was the more skilled players taking over the game.

“Some kids are a lot more skilled,” he said. “We’ve come to discover that the last thing we want is those kids handling the ball all the time. With the 7- and 8-year-olds, we used to keep score until we saw what was happening.

“That does nothing for the other kids. You can’t learn to be a team player if you’re being excluded.”


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