How to Communicate to Youth Sport Athletes by James Leath

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. 

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Talent Gets You Noticed, Character Gets You Recruited by James Leath

The recruiter is not there to see you tackle, throw, bump, spike, pitch, catch, hit, shoot, or pass for the thousandth time. He already knows your stats. He has already watched your highlight film and read all the press clippings. He has likely seen you play. What he is looking for are called intangibles, the things that cannot be easily measured, but make all the difference.

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How catching a Pokemon can help you win more games. by James Leath

Today, I caught a Pokémon. On a walk with one of my summer staff, I pulled out my phone and fired up the PokemonGo app. "What are you doing?" asked Will. "Connecting to my students," I answered." An hour later, after I had a 10-year-old explain to me what I just did, I used it as an example of Followership. I now had 15 uninterested 11-year-olds on the edge of their seats because their teacher understood a little about their world.

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First Impression as a Coach by James Leath

Running into a former student or athlete after 10 or so years is always exciting to me. More often than not, after the “bro-hug” or some version of it, they will offer their hand to their former coach, looking forward to that firm handshake they learned all those years ago.

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What Are you Reading? Here is my list... by James Leath

“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?

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Freedom of Speech by James Leath

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?

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"The New Coach" - Sweep the Shed (5 of 5) by James Leath

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.

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"The New Coach" - Think like a Teacher (4 of 5) by James Leath

“Hey coach, I’ll buy you dinner if you share your playbook with me .” I was in my third year as the head coach of a youth football team who had lost a total of 2 games in the past 3 seasons. We had just finished another contest and beaten our opponent soundly. After the game I went to shake hands with the coach. Imagine my surprise when he offered to buy me dinner in exchange for my playbook. I thought he was joking at first, but I soon realized he was being sincere. I was honored (and a bit humbled) he would ask that. I accepted (why would I turn down a free meal?) and said I am afraid he would be disappointed. He assured me he would not, so I obliged and reached into my pocket, pulled out a 5x7 card and handed it to him. “Here is my entire offense and the strategy I used to today.”

I could see on his face he was shocked. There were eight plays listed on one side in various combinations and the starting lineup with subs on the back. We met the next day and went over my entire playbook, all two pages of it. I gave him my practice plans, a list of drills, and invited him to practice anytime, which he eventually took me up on.

Why would I do that? The answer to that is simple and sometimes gets lost in youth sports: it’s not about me (the coach), it’s about the kids. My way of coaching is nothing special. I have no secret weapons and no private strategy I am unwilling to share with anyone who asks. My kids were no different than his kids, and all those kids deserved a great experience playing sports. If my simple way of coaching can help, fantastic. Word spread fast about my generosity and that was not the last free dinner I was invited to that season.

This is part four of a five-part series based on some things I believe will help new youth coaches find success. This week, I discuss how to plan what you will be teaching.



Part 4: Think like a Teacher.

Determine what fundamental skills should be taught and in what order. Ask yourself, “By the end of the season, what do I want my athletes to be able to do?” Spend most of your time on teaching and reinforcing those skills. For example, a beginner basketball player in elementary school needs to know how to dribble, pass, shoot and rebound. They need to be able to slow down their body, set their feet, and shoot with confidence instead of a prayer. Basic offensive and defensive positions need to be learned, since often times in youth sports, success comes from being in the right spot at the right time. Spending precious hours on complex plays puts an unnecessary focus on winning by strategy, rather than fundamentals. In youth sports, one star player on the other team and victory is a pipe dream.

Here is a test for you if you think you need a complex playbook, or anything more than a basic strategy. Ask your team to respond to the following statement as fast as they can: “Raise your left hand.” The ones who raise their right hand are not stupid; they simply have not developed the cognitive skill to process information at the speed at which sports require. Make it easier for your athletes to be successful by being great at the fundamentals without hesitation. The athlete who hesitates will be left in the dust by the athlete who receives no other instruction but to play fast and use the skills developed in practice.

In youth football, I have one formation. We practice it first thing everyday for five minutes. We have eight plays. As the season progresses, depending on the athletes I have, I add a few wrinkles, maybe a spread formation or a heavy run formation. It infuriates the other coaches that I am able to yell, “Check, check,” say a play in broad daylight for everyone to hear, then they run it successfully. The point is, my players know exactly where to go, while the defense, even though they know the play, cannot react fast enough. Besides, when I yell Sweep Left, the smart defensive players think we are going left. However, we are not going to the defense’s left, but to our left. I have won many games with this strategy, including three championships in a row. Bottom line, don’t overcomplicate a youth sports playbook.

"The New Coach" - Defining Success (3 of 5) by James Leath

Success is piece of mind, which is a direct result of the self-satisfaction of knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming. - John Wooden A few weeks ago I was invited to co-teach an all-day leadership workshop in Arizona based on the Success Pyramid, created by John Wooden. His definition of success is the best I have ever head because it puts the responsibility of judging success on the person instead of the opinion of others.

This is part three of a five part series based on some things I believe will help a new youth coach find success. This week, I discuss defining success.

Part 3: Define Success. 

Establishing what you consider success is personal to you and your circumstance. Regardless of the level of competition, winning is always preferred. I always want to win. However, victory is an outcome determined by many factors, most of them out of yours and your athlete’s control. For example, last year (2015), Eli Manning threw 6 touchdowns against the New Orleans Saints defense, making it the best game of his NFL career. However, Drew Brees threw 7 touchdowns that night, joining only 8 other quarterbacks in the history of the NFL to throw that many touchdowns in one game. The Giants lost 52-49. Only those who deliberately hate on Manning will refuse to see how successful he was that game, despite his team losing.

Your definition of success depends on a few variables. First and foremost, what is the point of the league or club? If you are coaching recreation through a place like the YMCA, the pressure to win is not as intense as, say, a club team that parents are paying a few thousand dollars a year to be a part of. Second, how good is your team currently, and how (realistically) much can they improve in the next few months? If your team is in a tough league and has not done well in the recent past, be mindful to set goals that are actually attainable. I am all for setting goals just out of reach to give my team something to shoot for, but as the coach you need to be cautious not to have a list of goals that go untouched all year long.

I once coached a youth football team that was put in a league with teams larger in size, roster, and experience. We went defeated. Midway through the season I emailed the parents to remind them that despite losing every game by 20 points or more, the players were improving every week. Lucky for me, the parents saw how outmatched we were, so I was given a bit of slack. At the end of the season banquet, having gone 0-10, the players were asked to stand up if they were going to play again the following year. Every player stood up. (I may or may not have teared up at that moment.) The following year, they won every game, including the championship. Overcoming adversity makes for a focused and determined child.

Success should not be confined to the scoreboard and win/loss column. Team goals, position goals, and individual goals give players something to shoot for when a win is out of their control. “”Do your job” is the mantra I preach at practice. If everyone does their job, then our chances of winning increase. In the end, we can only control so much —so what we can control, let’s focus on that.

"The New Coach" - Setting Expectations (2 of 5) by James Leath

“Hey, want to coach this year? We really need you.” The dreaded question that requires you to either lie about how busy you are, or commit to being responsible for a group of other people’s kids. Last week, I launched a five-week series based on some things I believe will help new youth coaches find success. This week, in part two of five, I discuss setting expectations.

Part 2: Setting Expectations.  

Setting expectations with parents at the beginning of the season can save you a lot of negative texts, emails, and phone calls throughout the season. Remind parents what the point of the league is (recreation, school, club) and list the skills they will learn and refine while under your supervision. You will never be able to satisfy 100% of the parents you coach, but stating your coaching philosophy (what you think is important and what you will be focusing on) will put many parents at ease. Also, perhaps a reminder that no scholarships will be given out during any point of the season will make parents smile, but also serve as a reality check in case any parent needs one. If you click here you can see a sample email to send to parents at the beginning of the season. Send the email, then give them a call a day or two later to discuss. A five-minute call at the beginning of the season could be the very thing that puts a parent in your corner when something unexpected happens.

Handing a child a bunch of seemingly arbitrary rules and asking them to follow them is not the most effective strategy to attain athlete compliance. A better way, in my experience, is to give the team three or four expectations and let them come up with consequences, not punishments. For example, ask them what they think would happen if you were late to your full-time job. You’ll get all sorts of answers. Use that moment as a teaching moment to relay the lesson of decisions, choices and consequences. Be careful not to set any expectations and consequences you foresee having to break. Have the athletes sign the paper and keep it with you during practice and games. For an example of something I do at the beginning of each season click this link: “Designing the Ultimate Teammate.”

"The New Coach" - Getting Organized (1 of 5) by James Leath

“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? Leave a comment below.

Template - Initial Email to Parents by James Leath

Click here to check out the New Coach Series

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.


James Leath @jamesleath

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.

Learning Leadership at a Young Age by James Leath

“If your output exceeds your input, your upkeep will be your downfall.”- Thomas Nelson, Pastor of Denton Bible Church

“You are going to have to run practice the next few weeks; I am running for city council. Are you up to it?” No problem, I thought. After all, I had just been voted team captain and felt I had a pretty good grasp on the game. I was in 8th grade.

Of course, inside I was a mess. What did I know about running practice? Why would the team listen to me? Luckily, the former coach was still a teacher on campus and we had a good relationship so the next day I sought out his advice.

After listening to the situation, he leaned back in his chair and smiled. He didn’t say anything for what seemed like an eternity though in reality it was probably only 10 seconds or so. He turned to his computer (the same one I had used to play Oregon Trail during recess the year before) and printed out the playbook from last year. When it was done printing, he handed it to me and gave me great advice I still use to this day.

He said, “Write down what needs to be learned for the week, then break it down into 3 parts, one for each day of practice. Figure out the skills needed to be able to run those plays and create drills around those skills. Put it together at the end of practice, and review the next day.” I was feverishly taking notes as he talked. “Lastly, talk to the team and come up with some expectations everyone agrees on, then as a team decide on consequences for not following those rules. If you all agree, then everyone has the right to enforce.”

At lunch time, I found brought out my notebook and found a tree to sit under as I designed practice. After school came around and the new coach asked the team if they would be okay if I ran practice since he was going to be making phone calls. They agreed, and with that, practice began. I pulled out my notebook and showed them what the goals for today would be, but first, we needed to set some team rules and consequences. I wish I still had that list. That season, we went undefeated, winning the championship and solidifying my future as a coach.

Baseball season rolled around, and we went defeated, but that is another story for another day.

That summer, a man named Paul Babcock gave me three books on tape, all by John C. Maxwell. They all had something to do with leadership, and since I had had a taste of what it was like to lead, I must have listened to those books 4 or 5 times each as I rode my bike throughout the community. Since then, I have continued to improve my ability to lead a team through books and by asking questions to as many coaches who will listen.

Why do I tell this story? I learned the value of leadership at a young age because I was given a challenge beyond what I thought I was capable. Instead of doing it for me, the adults in my life I turned to for help gave me clues but ultimately let me figure it out myself. It wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. I had to set starting lineups and learned very fast that it is difficult to coach and be friends with the players on the team. But I kept reading. I kept learning and asking questions. I am so grateful they let me struggle instead of trying to fix the problem. I think kids these days would do well to struggle a bit more than they are usually allowed to.

As the Head of Leadership Development at IMG Academy, my team and I go throw a book a month. They are usually non-fiction and have something to do with leadership, but sometimes we’ll read a fiction book by Jon Gordon or recently, “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card. Here is a list of the books we have gone through over the past few months:

October: The Way of the Champion, Dr. Jerry Lynch November: Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card December: Legacy, by James Kerr January: Deep Work, by Cal Newport February: The Obstacle is the Way, by Ryan Holiday March: The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, by John Maxwell April: Forces of Character: Conversations About Building A Life Of Impact, by Chad Hennings

I recommend all of these, but there are many others I have written about before.

Take Your Glasses Off by James Leath

Today is the first day of spring. I love spring. The weather gets warmer, the sun gets brighter, and the playing fields get louder. Here are a few tips I teach new coaches on how to increase communication with athletes. These tips will help get your message across to your athletes. And remember, if they keep doing the drill wrong, it means you are doing a poor job of explaining it.

1. Take off your glasses.

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. If you are talking to a group of young men and behind you is a group of young women, your team is not listening to you. Set your team up for success, not failure.

3. Take a knee.

All day long children are 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 all day who met eye to eye with them, and kids remember that stuff because it is human nature to remember how a person made you feel over remembering what a person said.

4. Take a breath.

Kids are not mini-adults. I repeat, kids are NOT mini-adults. They don’t have the years of experience you have learning about emotions and how to control them appropriately. It is your job and the job of other adults who influence them 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 behavior is louder than your words.

5. Take two minutes or less.

How many times did your focus waiver when reading this note? Remember that the next time you get mad at your athlete for not paying attention. We live in a world full of distractions. Focus takes energy and lots of practice. Coach Wooden rarely spoke to a player for more than 30 seconds and more typically for only five to seven seconds. His strategy was to teach, show, then have them do it, not give a 5-minute lecture on the history of that drill.

I hope these help you as much as they have helped me over the years.

How to Build Confidence as an Athlete by James Leath

Confidence does not happen without being intentional about your improvement. Use these strategies and other mental toughness tools to build up your confidence to perform at your best ability. Remember the commitment you made at the beginning of this article, "You are not competing with anyone else, ever again. Starting now your primary strategy is to make everyone else around you play at your level. You won’t make excuses; you’ll cause others to make them. You won’t play down to an opponent’s level, it’s up to them to play at yours. You won’t stop until the final whistle blows, you’ll go all out until the time runs out.” Now it’s your turn…GO!

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The Difference Between Price and Cost by James Leath

Working at a school with students from over 80 different countries brings forth interesting questions about language that often have nothing to do with leadership, the subject they are in my class to learn. A tennis player from Belgium was confused on the difference between the words price and cost. I pulled out a calculator. “You go to the store and buy a television for $399. Let's say you make $21 an hour and you watch 21 hours a week, which amounts to just 3 hours a day. Instead of working during the time you watch television, or creating something of value, you are missing out on $441 a week. That is $1,764 every single month. After 12 months, you have spent $21,168 watching television 3 hours a day."

The price of the television was $399. The cost of watching it instead of creating something of value cost you $21,168.

His response: “Televisions are expensive.”