Three Rules to Being a Great Athlete / by James Leath

On Sunday, March 9th of last year, I cried for a few hours. A man passed away unexpectedly doing what he loved most- proudly coaching his daughter to the finish line at what would be his final swim meet.

Mike Snyder

Mike Snyder

His name was Mike Snyder. He was one of the coaches from my childhood and I loved him very much. I first met him as a day camper at the YMCA in Fresno, CA, as a 10-year-old. I can still picture him squatting thousands of pounds (it was probably a few hundred, but how was I to know?), doing pushups with my brother and I standing on his back, and doing countless sit-ups while encouraging me to join him.

As I write this article I think about my own life, 25 years later. I currently volunteer as a coach for the YMCA and last year I did my first bodybuilding competition. Remember that the next time you feel like your lifestyle choices don’t effect the future of your athletes.

A quick story to honor the memory of Mike Snyder. I had lost touch with Coach Mike when I started high school. I was a junior playing football as a running back for Central High school in Fresno, CA. We were playing Hoover High School on their turf. I was having a pretty good when my number was called to gain four yards for a first down. I gained 9 yards, the first down, and was tackled out of bounds on the Hoover sideline. A man grabbed my jersey to help me up and pulled me close. I tried to get away but he didn’t let go. Then I heard, “I am so proud of you.” It was Coach Mike, coaching for Hoover. As I write this, tears fill my eyes. Again, as a coach you have more influence over your players than you will ever realize.

Among many other things, Coach Mike taught me three very simple rules to being a great athlete:

  1. Head down, eyes up.

  2. Hands out, palms up.

  3. Knees bent, feet wide.

I have echoed those words for 15 years as a coach. Between the months of August and November, I will repeat those words hundreds of times. I’ll use the loudest shout or the quietest whisper, depending on what is appropriate for the situation. Sometimes my words fall on deaf ears so I say them again. Sometimes my pitch brings on laughter. Sometimes my tone brings on tears. I repeat them over and over because I have learned that we don't need to be taught as often as we need to be reminded.

I coach youth football. I have coached every age from elementary school to college, but I have the most fun with the youngest warriors. Every Saturday for 10-13 weeks in the fall I march my team of 7, 8, and 9-year-olds on to the field for 2 hours of battle. We have spent hours preparing for this contest and Saturday is the day we put our training to the test. Head down, eyes up, hands out, palms up, knees bent, feet wide, push-ups, sprints, injuries, tears, giggles, triumphs, defeats, this is what myself and the 100% volunteer coaching staff goes through every week. My athletes are ready to compete. Win or lose, we are prepared- we are ready.

We don't win every week. We don't lose every week. But we always prepare for victory. We are always ready, no matter how big or fast or strong the other team is, we work with what we have. We practice the fundamentals of the game. We have a simple playbook with only two formations and 10 plays. There is no need to have a fancy playbook when you ask a group of 30 kids to raise their left hand and half of them raise their right.

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Are they having fun? Are they learning new skills? Are they improving every week? Rarely does the scoreboard in youth sports express the true winners. Often an athlete on the other team can carry that team all the way to a championship without much effort from the rest of the team. Referees, if you are lucky to have one, are often just starting out so they miss many penalties that should have been called but were not. Or maybe a parent plans a vacation in the middle of the season so your quarterback misses a game that was crucial to prolonging your season into the playoffs.

But playoffs should not be the goal, at least not at the lower levels. Development should be the goal. In youth sports, playoffs are a by-product of developing players and managing the game well. I agree with the coaching philosophy of John Wooden that says, “Prepare your athletes, focus on excelling at the fundamentals, and the winning will take care of itself."

We have two formations and 10 plays. We get so good at those formations and plays that by the middle of the season I can call take half of a play and put it with a different play and they can figure it out.  Without a break in the game, I can call a sweep right and turn it into a counter even though we did not actually practice that play during practice. From the sideline, I can yell out a play after they have lined up on the ball and they will all run the new play. How? Simplicity. Well, simplicity and we practice calling audibles during practice. 7-9-year-olds can handle that is you take the time to practice and keep it fairly simple.

I can do this because I keep things simple. “Hey athlete, where is your head? Where are your hands? Where are your feet?” They know what I am talking about because they have heard it a hundred times before. Keep it simple. If a student-athlete has to second guess what they are suppose to do the play will be over before they have had a chance to decide. Simplicity breeds success.

The lesson: keep it fun, keep it simple, teach fundamentals, then get out of the way and let the kids play.