Coach, your team needs to know you believe in them. I’m not talking about blind faith, but real belief in their abilities to compete and be successful because you have created an environment of competition, growth mindset, and constant improvement. Set them up for success, then get out of the way!
To find more success in youth sports, simplify your playbook, increase your ability to connect with children, and practice in-game situations. But whatever you do, don’t assume the child has learned how to listen and respond. We are the adults, and we are their models for how to be.
Be a great adult.
As an older coach, how do you stay relevant to the younger generations? I get this question often. Pop culture is constantly evolving and it can be hard to stay knowledgeable about what is going on. A few years ago I took about 30 minutes to figure out what Pokemon go was all about. When I dropped it in a lesson during class, it was instant street cred!
I believe books are the most under-valued and under-appreciated technology in the world. I also believe that teaching leadership is less about the number of books you have read and more about being an open book.
In my experience, most students are unimpressed with titles and accolades. Instead, they want to hear stories and experiences. I get the most positive feedback from my students whenever my sessions have personal anecdotes sprinkled among the lessons.
However, my stories are finite! After a few months I have run out of stories I believe my students would like to hear. So, I read. I take notes. I collect stories from the written word and try to bring them to life for my students. In a book by George R.R. Martin called A Dance with Dragons, I ran across this quote:
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”
My father-in-law is a brilliant man and is always laying wisdom nuggets on me he found in some forgotten book. Last week, I wandered into an antique bookstore and discovered two old tomes that I found extremely fascinating. They reminded me that the rules for living and finding success are the same as they have always been. Here are two passages I plan to share with my older athletes this week.
From Education Through Recreation, 1936 By Lawrence Pearsall Jacks
“A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself he always seems to be doing both. Enough for him that he does it well.”
From Self-Knowledge and Self-Discipline, 1916 By Basil William Maturin
“We do not endure [self-discipline] merely for its own sake, but for what lies beyond it. And we bear those acts of self-denial and self-restraint because we feel and know full well that through such acts alone can we regain the mastery over all our misused powers and learn to use them with a vigor and a joy such as we have never known before…”
“It is as though one who had a great talent for music but had no technical training, and consequently could never produce the best results of his art, were to put himself under a great master. The first lessons he will have to learn will be, for the most part, to correct his mistakes, not to do this and not to do that; it will seem to him that he has lost all his former freedom of expression, that he is held back by all sorts of technical rules, that whenever he seeks to let himself go he is checked and hampered. And it is no doubt true. But he will soon begin to realize that as he learns more and suffers in the learning, possibilities of utterance reveal themselves which he has never dreamed of. He knows, he feels, that he is on the right path, and as the channels are prepared and the barriers against the old bad methods more firmly fixed, he feels the mighty tide of his genius rise and swell, he hears the shout of the gathering waters as they sweep before them every obstacle and pour forth in a mad torrent of glorious sound. All those days of restraint and suffering are crowned with the joy of the full and perfect expression of his art. The restraint and discipline he knew full well in those seemingly unfruitful days were but the means to an end. The end is always before him, and the end is positive expression. The dying to his old untrained and bad methods is but the birth throes of a larger and richer action…”
“Without such an inspiring motive [discipline] is meaningless, it is cruel self-torture. We need—who does not know it—to fill our life, not to empty it. Life is too strong a thing, our nature is too positive, to be content with mere restraint and repression. Many a soul who has given up one thing after another and emptied its life of interest after interest, learns to its dismay that its energies finding no means of expression turn inward and revenge themselves in morbid self-analysis and sickly scruples. They need an outlet; they need interests. You may check the flow of a stream while you are preparing to divert its channel, but you cannot stop it. If you try, it will only gather force behind the barriers that hold it back, beat them down and rush through with a strength and volume all the greater for the restraint. And the stream of life cannot be merely held back. Many a man trying thus to repress himself finds after a time that temptations have only grown stronger and passions more violent, and that he seems to have become worse rather than better through the temporary resistance. What he needed, what might have protected him from failure and despair, was to be taught that all the restraint was but temporary, and in order to turn the stream into its true channel.”
Lastly, I have the following poem hung up on my office door:
No written word, nor spoken plea Can teach the kids what they should be. Nor all the books on all the shelves It's what the teachers are themselves.
It was originally written by Ronald Gallimore, but Coach John Wooden recited it often so it is many times attributed to the Great Coach. I believe it is a great reminder to myself about how to reach and teach my students.
“You are the same today as you’ll be in five years except for two things: the books you read and the people you meet.” - Charlie Tremendous Jones I do not like to read. I find it difficult to quiet my mind long enough to give a page my complete attention. I read slow, and I sometimes have to read a paragraph a few times before I move on. Can you relate?
We a grow and evolve through life experiences. As coaches and teachers, we are in the adult-making business and need to show our students what emotional maturity looks like. We cannot blast refs at games and expect our students to keep their cool in the same situation. They are watching us, they are always watching us, and they are taking notes on our behavior. Is your behavior worth imitating?
Your athletes are a reflection of what you teach and what you allow at practice. If you yell at the ref, they will yell at the ref. If you stomp your feet in disgust, they will emulate that behavior when something doesn't go their way. Speak to the ref with respect and with calmness in your voice. Be encouraging and be classy in victory and defeat. Be the coach you would want your child to have or the coach you would want as a child.
“I have never coached before, what should I do first?” This is a commonly asked question by an adult who suddenly finds themselves at the helm of their first season as a volunteer or grossly underpaid youth coach, often with angst and a feeling of helplessness. There is good news! Whether or not you have played the sport before does not matter as much as your ability to relate to children and be organized. Youth sports need adults who will show up, offer some basic techniques, give general instruction on the rules, and who can be a positive role model in the lives of the children who will remember you as Coach the rest of their lives.
I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some suggestions that may help you silence the voice inside you screaming, “You cannot do this!” Let me assure you, you CAN do this, and you NEED to do this. America’s youth sports programs need volunteers who can serve as a model for learning more than just sports.
Learning to manage emotions after failure, practicing when tired from a long day at school, and working with other children toward a common goal are among the many great lessons youth sports teach a child. It is not as difficult as you may think to be a great youth sports coach. Every league has more than a few, despite what the media will have you believe. Bad coaches get all the press and are not the norm, they are just the most dramatic.
This is part one of a five-part series designed to help the youth coach. Whether you have been coaching youth sports for years or found out yesterday you are now in charge of a handful of kids, my hope Is these lessons I have learned over the last 15 years will get you started on the right foot.
So say yes, take a deep breath, and remember that coaches are often the best (or worst) memory for a youth sports athlete.
Part 1: Get Organized.
I believe being organized is one of the defining factors that have brought on the success I have found as a youth coach. When parents know way ahead of time when and where practices and competitions will be, they are more likely to plan other things around team functions. Keep in mind these kids are part of families and those families may not hold your team as the most important thing in the world, but for most parents, they want their kids to make every practice and competition.
Set the schedule. Get the schedule and put the game dates in a new Google calendar. Add practice dates and if you have picture day dates, put that in there, too. Be as descriptive as you can, adding in locations if you have them. Share this calendar with the parents so they have the most up-to-date information.
Plan your practices. What is the most important lesson that day? What needs to be reviewed? What needs to be improved? Don’t just show up and hope to be inspired. I plan out my practices Sunday night. I write the objectives and drills to achieve those objectives on a 5x7 card I keep in my pocket.
Typically, regardless of the sport, I break practice into four sections. I am often the only coach at practice, so I ask a parent to keep me on schedule. I’ll say things like, “Please tell me when it is 5:28.” 5:28 arrives, and I know I have two minutes to finish the drill, pull out my card, and move to the next section. If formations are part of the sport, I work on those first, before we warm up. If there are certain skills that need to be learned or reinforced, I might spend two blocks of time in one practice on those with drills that build on each other.
Plan the day of competition. Teach your athletes what to do in pre-game. Practice it. If there is time before the second half to warm up, then practice that, too. You never know what problems will arise right before your game and you need to be able to step away and handle it. If your athletes know what is expected of them during pregame, you are free to take care of any last minute preparations. A bonus to doing this is that players get a sense that their coach trusts them, which in turn allows them autonomy, the desire of every burgeoning child.
Is there anything you would add or adjust?
SUBJECT: YMCA Suns Initial Team Information (Please Read)
My name is James Leath and I am your daughter's basketball coach. I will be reaching out with more information about practice and games shortly. Please respond with your best contact information (both parent's names, email and mobile phone).
A little about me…I am originally from Fresno. My bride and I moved here 3 years ago for work. I currently work for [insert company] as [insert title]. I am working on my masters in sports psychology with an emphasis on youth sports. I have coached multiple sports from elementary school to the semi-pro level over the past 20 years. We don't have any kids, though we have fostered in the past. I had a great run as an athlete and love passing on what I have learned through sports to the next generation.
My personal mobile number is (559) XXX-XXXX. Please use it to text me if for some reason your child won’t be at practice so I can plan accordingly. If they are going to miss a game, please, please let me know before our last practice that week so I can prepare the team.
Thank you for trusting me as your daughter’s coach.
PS: If you come to practice (and I hope you do) do not be surprised if I toss you into a drill to join the fun (and help me out a bit).
Subject: Be specific in your email title, and always include the team name in the title so it is easily searchable. Do not use the same email title every time.
A little about me… Talk about things like where you are from, if you played sports, why you are coaching, etc.
My personal phone number: Text messaging is the best way to communicate with parents these days. Save their information in your phone. I usually save the number as “Taylor’s Mom” or something of that nature.
Practice and Games: I use Google gmail and calendar, as it is the most widely used (in my experience). I update it with practice dates, times, and locations then share it with the parents.
Rules : Try and get a PDF copy of the rules, attaching it to this initial email.]
Tip: Be sure to call within a day or two to introduce yourself. Many parents will not have gotten to your email, but at least they will have the information to refer to.
I have coached youth sports since I was in high school. I am now in my mid-thirties. If there is one thing that has not changed, it is the child's dread of the car ride home. One thing almost every athlete had in common was how much they looked forward to hanging out with their friends before and after a game. The team would lose, the child is bummed, but then the excitement comes back when the post-game snack arrives. "Are we going to pizza?" "Can I go to Joey's house?" I find it amusing how some parents actually get upset when their child doesn't take a loss as hard as the parent thinks they should. Most parents seem to take the loss worse than the kids.
As your athlete gets older, the competition becomes better, and the stakes get higher. Losing means close to nothing to most 5th and 6th graders, but as you move into middle school and high school the losses sting a little more. Some teams/coaches/parents put much more pressure on their athletes to win.
If you find your athlete in the dumps because of a defeat, here are some tips on what to say on the way home that will help your athlete cope.
On the way home: shut up. Trust me, I am saving you from a fight with your kid. There will come an age (usually around middle school) that your athlete will be aware of a poor performance. We learned a few years ago during the Super Bowl not to talk to an athlete right after the game (see Richard Sherman's post game interview). The emotions are still too high. Wait until they engage you in a conversation. It may take a few games, but eventually, they will open up and want to talk…as long as they know you will not lecture them. Otherwise, you will just be another source of frustration for them.
Validate their feelings. It’s okay to be upset - it means they care. Anger, frustration, annoyance and fear are common responses to losing. Express empathy and be happy your child is experiencing a little difficulty in their world. They won’t break; they are much stronger than you give them credit for.
Lastly, if it’s a short conversation, let it be short. Just know the best thing for them right now is to figure out this new emotion. You have had 20-plus years to learn how to deal with loss. This is new to them. Trying to force a lesson after a loss is the absolute wrong time to try and be Parent of the Year. It’s counter-productive and will most likely end in an unnecessary fight.