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Divisions, even teams and trials: Stratifying structures at Harbour Basketball

How do you decide who plays with (and against) who?

In youth sport, this is a core question which underpins many of the quintessential youth sport structures – trials, selections, grading, divisions, promotion, relegation, etc.

One way to think about these structures is as stratifying structures. They are structures which facilitate the classification or grouping of young athletes based on factors such as ability and age. These stratifying structures can be viewed as a double-edged sword. On one hand they play an important role in creating a positive and enjoyable experience for young athletes, by helping to ensure that athletes are matched with other peers of similar technical, tactical and physical ability, which in turn makes the experience of sport more likely to be fair and competitive. On the other hand, these structures can have negative effects if they underpin and reinforce narrow views of talent and success, and limit young athletes’ opportunities.

Change in motion: Harbour Basketball youth programme

In this blog, we will explore two key stratifying structures that were changed at Harbour Basketball, with the aim of providing insights that may be useful for other sports administrators and leaders in their work leading sports programs.

These two key changes were:

  1. Introduction of a division structure within age band brackets
  2. Improvements to trial and selection processes

Some context first

Harbour Basketball is a regional sport organisation with a remit for growing the game of basketball in the North Harbour region of Auckland. From a programme delivery standpoint, core functions include:

  • The managing, support and coaching of representative teams that play in inter-regional and national competitions
  • The managing, support and coaching of in-house or club teams that play in local competition, facilitated by Harbour Basketball (they also allow other clubs to enter teams into their inhouse competitions). The most well-known form of this competition is called TGIF Leagues (as in Thank God it’s Friday).

Harbour Basketball also take a leadership role in supporting basketball development in the Harbour region, and not too dissimilar to other New Zealand regional sport organisations. For example by:

  • Supporting and facilitating school competitions
  • Referee development
  • Coach development

Unique to the Harbour Basketball youth programme is that it’s a hybrid programme. As Harbour Basketball’s outgoing Basketball Development Officer Vince Minjares explains:

Harbour Basketball is a hybrid programme and we’re unique across the country in that we don’t have a traditional club model in our community. We are sort of the club. But we’re also the association and the representative program.

What I mean by club programme is that if you want to play basketball outside of school for an organisation that offers you that space, we are the primary provider of that on the North Shore. There are some clubs in our community, but not that many. And some of that is a function of lack of facility. Harbour Basketball is the primary tenant for Event Finder Stadium on the North Shore. That’s a four-court facility, so we have more facility access. Given the fact that we also have more staff and facility access, we have the ability to run teams, in a way that no other club could. And so, when we say club, we really mean local competition among players who live in our community as opposed to regional competition and national competition, which our club teams are not eligible for effectively.

The Coach and Player Pathway diagram provides a useful snapshot of the programmes that Harbour Basketball lead (as well as support) against the backdrop of wider basketball programmes and structures.

Coach and Player Pathway as presented in North Harbour Basketball 2021 Annual Report

Divisions and even teams

To set the scene for establishing a division structure in-house at Harbour Basketball, Vince explained some of the challenges he observed on his arrival at Harbour Basketball:

One of the initial things that I observed was some concerns around kids dropping out if they weren’t on the A team. Those on the B team, or C team and particularly at under-13s, under-15s, under-17s – they felt that if they weren’t on the A team, they didn’t matter.

There were kids playing.  There were teams even winning. But I think past that top end you had a lot of tension.  There were more conversations with parents who felt inflamed by disagreements over where their kids sat and where things were at.

We had a lot of traditional, A, B, C, D E structure.

In response to this, Vince established a division structure within the age brackets at Harbour Basketball.

Within our elevens, thirteens, fifteens and seventeens, we have a tiered structure. Sort of a division one, a division two.

For the 11s grade, there is no inter-regional competition. They only play locally as a club team.

Rep teams begin at 13s specifically, 13 division one. Which is effectively the first exposure to interregional competition. But all of these 11s and 13s teams, within their divisions are even teams.

So, we’ve got to a point now where we have effectively four even teams in each of these tiers from 11 D i, 11 D ii, 13 D i, 13 D ii. And those tiers of even teams, are all formed through the same trialing process. So, everybody trials together with everybody.

So, we don’t have an A team until 15s division one, and that’s effectively a top age 15s team. So that’s when we sort of say, it’s okay to have a traditional representative model. And even with that, we only have one A team, but two even B teams.

We retain some element of that model into seventeens, where we do have a second division and a first division. First division still has an A team and two B teams. So, fifteens and seventeens are effectively the same.

When they get out of high school, a lot of it changes and the way in which the structure has been changed by Basketball NZ has had an impact on our numbers a little bit in part, because 19s is actually school-leavers or university students. And so now it becomes as much a financial issue for players. They all continue to play basketball, but they may or may not play for us when they get to 19s.

One benefit of using this division structure was that it improved the level of competitiveness and closeness of competition between Harbour Basketball teams. Harbour Basketball realised that any given Harbour Basketball team played more games against other Harbour Basketball teams than external competition (when you factor in in-house competition i.e. training and club games).

And so, the first notion of an even-teams model was, we know that we’re going to play each other a lot in competitions because it’s a club model. We know that they’re going to train a lot together because our facilities are so bare that all those teams need to train against each other. So, if you look across our program, 11 D ii, 11 D i, 13 D ii, 13 D i, 15 D ii, all those teams train together at the same time on two court facilities and they each get a half court.

So, they’re training against each other multiple times a week. They’re playing against each other in the same competition, so might as well make those games close. So, let’s make the teams even.

Trials and selection

For Harbour Basketball, trials and selection processes are centered around a key premise:

Trialing meant engaging in a trial process where we could identify players based on divisions first, team second.

In terms of process Vince outlines that there were a number of tactical considerations.

Timing and number of trials

Vince discussed how his preference was to run three trials, with a break over summer between trial 2 and 3.

To give people a chance to show their level, we like to trial three times. We have three separate sessions before we select these teams. And normally what we like to do for our older grades is do two initial assessments in November, give them the summer off, give everybody generic feedback, and then see who comes back, who’s grown a bit, or recovered from that injury. Then in the New Year in late-January, we make our final selections for division and then assign them to teams based on what division they’re in.

We like that little gap because you are dealing with young people. Their bodies are growing, sometimes a couple inches over the summer. And if you give young people feedback, you also give them a chance to work on their game over the summer, or maybe some people need rest and they didn’t trial well, you know. They’re burnt out when you run your first sessions in November. There’s a debate back and forth on doing trials too early, but we are not really picking teams in November. We’re just giving people a chance to show us where they’re currently at. And then we give them feedback and we want to make it more of a conversation where we interact with young players on where their game is at and less about high stake selection.

Assessing for division

As mentioned earlier, trials at Harbour Basketball were about assessing for division first, teams second. There was obviously a multitude of factors Vince, and coaches would look to weigh up. To begin trials, they would group players by chronological order and then biological maturity (i.e. age and height), so that in terms of development, like were trialing against like.

One thing that’s really important is when we do those two initial trials is thinking about relative age effect. And if you look at our division one / division two structure, the biggest difference broadly speaking, is division one is more top age and division two is more bottom age.

That’s a natural biological and chronological age piece.

Those division structures are not a hard line. So bottom age kids can play division one and top age kids can play division two. But one of the things that we try to do is obviously account for biological maturity in the construction of our divisions.

One of the things that I have done for years now is in our very first trial session we do two things.

We don’t play the full version of the game.

And, in our first evaluation, we actually organise participants by birth year and then within the birth year trial, we organize them by height. And so, what that does is we create four groups and you basically stay with that group.

So, everyone who’s trialing the very first week, their evaluation is a trial against people who are the same height and birth year. Because knowing that thirteens is a band with two years. But when we trial, we trial you in one birth year and that physical element of height grouping gives us a bit of a proxy for relative age effect.

And so, then we can see small bottom-age kids against each other and tall top-age kids against each other. That gives us a bit more of like-verse-like comparison. That’s been extremely helpful over the last few years.

It’s important to note that setting up trials so that young people were grouped with people of similar chronological and biological maturity was just a starting point. Vince and the other coaches would take into account various other factors as part of their evaluation, including prior knowledge of young people.

Our trialing process, roughly speaking, has tiers within the division that we create, right? So, we have an idea of who our stronger players are, who our role players are and who is a little bit behind but is deserving of being in the grade for a variety of reasons.

It could be they have a great attitude. They have some particular skills that we know will translate. We think they’ve got great potential and just need experience, whatever it may be. Whatever the real reasoning is, every division and every team has a hierarchy, you know, and you’ve got to negotiate that hierarchy in some way.

Allocating players into teams

Once players have been grouped by division, allocation into teams was based on a mixture of some key factors

  • Ensuring key playing roles are fulfilled on each team
  • There is an evenness between teams within a division (with exceptions in older age brackets where there were some ‘A’ teams)
  • Teams have good chemistry between player and player, and coach and player

In terms of process, Vince took a lead in collating and sharing feedback from coaches with other coaches, as well as providing his own thoughts to coaches. This would help to inform collective thinking about allocating teams based on the above factors. Vince would then present to coaches a recommended roster allocation.

Part of what I do is create these tiers of players. And then we work through it with the coaches, where I effectively make recommended rosters based on conversations with coaches. My understanding of the players, the longer you’re in the system, the more you understand the players.

And those coaches will then feedback. We’ll kind of get into a little bit of “I really like this player at trial” or whatever it may be. But effectively I am the sort of commissioner general who makes the final call, but I want the coaches to like their teams. And so, it’s important that coaches have players in their team who they really want to have in their team, but it’s also important for me to have a sense for who is a good fit between player and coach and also player and player. So, there’s a lot of culture and chemistry. It’s a bit of an alchemy, right?

You don’t totally know, but we’ve sort of managed to figure it out by guaranteeing a few fundamentals. In basketball, your team needs to have a very good ball handler. It needs to have someone who can create their own shot. And it needs to have someone who can get rebounds. As long as every team has one player who can do those things, you’re then able to fill in the rest after the fact.

My job when it comes to selections is to make sure that each team has those core things.

Otherwise, games won’t be even, because games are not even if you can’t bring the ball up to court, you can’t figure out ways to get a shot and you can’t get rebounds. And so those are three ways that games can easily be blown out.

If every team has that, then good.

For the younger age brackets, Vince would have the final say on who was allocated to each team. This is a novel in a sense. In many youth sports settings, it’s the coach who has the final say on who is selected for their team. Having a programme lead, such as Vince at Harbour Basketball, who can hold the pen on selection decisions means that there is a better connection between selection process and the overall objectives of the programme. In contrast, coaches are more inclined to make selection decisions based on what serves them best (which often leads to an overemphasis on winning in the short term).

That’s not to say that Vince didn’t want coach input, or coaches to like their teams. For some age brackets, he would facilitate the coaches to undertake a reverse draft to pick their teams, ensuring that the factors mentioned above were met.

There was an exception to the above process, where selection decisions of the U15A and U17A teams were a joint decision between Vince and the respective coach.

With our U13 teams, we do a draft. We bring the coaches together; we have all the players, and we have a conversation about it. I created a sort of tiered model where these players are available in this tier. Then we do a reverse-order draft but keeping with the principles I mentioned earlier. 

When it comes to assessment at trials, I collate the coaches’ evaluations with mine. Then I come up with a rough tier of players. I’ll then send that out to coaches for feedback to ask if they agree with these tiers.

The only exception to this is probably the A teams in the 15s and 17s grade where it’s really an initial conversation with the head coach of those teams, where together, we kind of form the roster, based on the players who we think are deserving.

Messaging to parents and players

Vince talked about the importance of good messaging to parents around trials to explain both the rationale for trial set up, as well as more broadly the division structure within Harbour Basketball’s programme.

A couple of the key messages that Vince focused on were:

‘A’ team

Vince stressed to parents and players that the selection of the older age A team was based on who they thought would make the best team, not the best collection of individual players.

One of the things we’ve told parents, and I think is really crucial, is that the A team is not the 12 best players. It’s the 12 players who make the best team. Sometimes this can leave people feeling a bit confused because I’m on this team at school or whatever it may be. But it’s a team sport. You guys have got to have good chemistry. 

Stage and age-appropriate experiences

Vince conveyed the importance of helping parents and players understand the value of the division and team allocation structures. That is, Harbour Basketball’s youth programme was structured in a way to encourage players to have the best experience possible, by ensuring their experience best matched their age and stage of ability.

This meant he often had to help parents understand notions of biological and chronological development as they relate to youth sport, including relative age effect. Vince also had to be proactive in managing initial disappointment by some players and parents when they or their child were placed in a ‘lower’ division.

There was one particular scenario where we had a player who was a late birthday and was division ii fifteens. There was a desire for him to move down to U13s because they felt that they didn’t have a chance of making division one as a bottom age player in U15s. And the conversation was, well, that’s okay. It’s okay to not be with your age group, you don’t have to always advance into the next age group. 

And in fact, every year this player was in our programme. They were div ii bottom age, then div i one top age, then div ii bottom age, then div I top age. And that journey meant that every single year they were roughly with their birth year cohort. And they weren’t behind in any way.

Even if being in div ii as a top-aged player means you’re behind – I would argue it doesn’t mean you’re behind. It means that you’re playing with players who have a physical level that is similar to you or a skill level that is similar to you. That means that you’ll have more appropriate opponents to guard you and for you to guard. You won’t be overwhelmed physically by someone way bigger and stronger than you. That conversation takes time to develop because they have to see that actually the status that comes with being on X team or what have you is not as important as you think it is when trials happen.

And actually, we find every year we have kids who get selected into division I and their friend is in a division ii team. And maybe they like that coach a little bit more, so they ask: “Can I go down into this division ii team?” And down is not really down – we use the terminology up and down. It’s not down. It’s where you are right now. And that’s okay. I think there is an honesty that we need to have that this is a marathon. It’s not a sprint. It doesn’t matter what your selections are in the junior grades. Don’t be so black and white with it.

I have this chat with parents and ask them to just trust us. We have a good idea of who fits where, and what we want is for your son or daughter to have a good experience playing against players of a similar age and stage of ability.

It is sometimes a challenge when a player’s friends who maybe they even train with are in a “higher team or higher division”. There’s a social thing that they feel they might be missing out on, but again, make some new friends, meet some new people. I think that’s a conversation we often have to have. You know, when you’re in this space, you have an opportunity to work on these skills, which you won’t on another team or a higher team. You’ll have a chance to dribble the ball more. You’ll have a chance to be a bit more of a playmaker with the ball, because these are your skill sets for this level, and it’s actually good for that.

In summary

Harbour Basketball introduced a number of changes to their youth programme which has seen the programme go from strength to strength over a period of four years.

Vince Minjares, who led the Harbour Basketball programme for four years, introduced and evolved two key stratifying structures into the programme. On review, these structures were critical for the programme growth. They were:

  1. A division structure, which would come to be seen as the “hallmark of the programme”, where teams within each division of each age bracket were relatively even, in order to enhance “healthy competition”.
  2. Effective trials and selection processes, that assessed players on division first, team second.

As Vince puts it, these stratifying structures underpinned a “model of trialing and team organisation [which] basically creates a situation where people are just more excited to play basketball against people who are of a similar age and stage in close games”.

Read more series of articles below:

Image Source: Harbour Basketball

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