One of the most beautiful movies I have ever seen is the movie Avatar. In that film, they express their affection for each other not by saying, "I love you," but by saying, “I see you.” A child thrives on simply being noticed. “Do you see me?” and “Watch me do this,” are child speak for, “I want to show you I’m worthy of your affection.”
I have coached against youth teams that were physically and strategically better than my team but beat them simply because of the ability to communicate clearly during a competition. I remember on one occasion showing up to a youth football game with my team and hearing the opposing coach yell at his players before the game. I could see the nervousness of those players and so could my players. They were a stronger team, but my kids were relaxed and confident. By halftime, we were up 28-0.
Here are five tips for coaches (and parents) on communicating with your young athlete.
1. Take your glasses off. In college, I worked at an elementary school as a yard duty teacher. There was an autistic student who was notorious for being a troublemaker on the playground. He once told me I was the only teacher he would listen to. When I asked him why, he pointed at the hand on my side holding my sunglasses. He said, “Because when you talk to me to take your sunglasses off so I can see your eyes - you’re the only teacher who can see me.”
2. Take note of the sun. After a long practice in the heat, my team took a knee but wouldn’t look at me. I began to get agitated and raised my voice. One of my athletes stood up and said, “Coach, I want to look at you, but right next to your head is the sun and we are staring directly into it.” Whoops, my bad. Bonus: try to have a wall behind you so there is less activity to distract them.
3. Take a knee. All day long children are quite literally looking up to their parents and teachers. Taking a knee or bending over to get on their level will allow them to make a better connection with you. Most likely you will be the only adult who did that all day and kids remember that stuff.
4. Take a breath. Kids are not mini-adults. Let me repeat, kids are not mini adults. They don’t have years of experience on how to deal with emotions and how to behave. It is your job and the job of the other adults in their lives to teach them the strategies they need to deal with these new emotions and how to act. You are there to teach them. Remember: Your behaviors are louder than your words.
5. Take two minutes or less. How many times did your focus waiver in reading these tips? Remember that next time you get mad at a child for not paying attention. We live in a world full of distractions. Focus takes energy and practice. This article written in 2004 about how John Wooden coaches is worth a read. It is a revision of original research done in 1976. What they found was Coach Wooden rarely spoke to a player for more than 30 seconds and usually for only five-seven seconds. He would teach, show, and then have them do it.
These are strategies I have found help get the most out of my young students and athletes. The lesson here is that kids are in school all day and they come to you to play. Don’t lecture from high above. Instead, take your glasses off, find a shady area, take a knee, take a deep breath, and then talk a bit. But then let them have some fun and play because that is the real reason they are playing sports.