How to Intentionally Create Leaders

“You’re fired!” The Major walked away from the most recent team leader and began looking for the next person to be put in charge. That was the third leader fired for not doing the task appropriately or efficiently enough. “Simmons!” Simmons made his way to the front of the pack.

“Yes, sir.”

“You’re in charge now. Do you understand the task?”

“Yes, sir, I do.”

“Good, show me. The last few knuckleheads can’t seem to get it."

“Yes sir.” Simmons turned to face his brothers.

“Listen up, we need five even lines. Miller, scoot to your right a few inches. Good. Thomas, tuck your shirt in.” Simmons began pacing up and down the lines adjusting the water bottles to make sure they were lined up and facing the correct way. He moved a few notebooks so they were directly in front of their owners.

About a minute passed. “Simmons, you’re fired!”

Simmons acknowledged his demotion and took his place at the back of a line.

“Gonzales, where are you?”

“Here, sir!” Gonzalez made his way to the front of the pack, accidentally knocking over a water bottle. He fixed it immediately and stood directly in front of the Major.

Gonzalez was one of the smallest young men in the group. Because of his size, he rarely got to participate in the game.

“Can you figure this out, Gonzalez?”

“I think so, sir.”

“You think so?”

“I know so, sir.”

“Show me!” The Major yelled at the top of his lungs directly in the face of the young man. Gonzalez flinched, but tried to hide it the best he could. He quickly regained his composure.

“Yes, sir!” Gonzalez turned around and summoned the first person in each line to join him in a small group.

A slight smile crept onto the face of the Major. He became aware of his countenance and it disappeared as quickly as it appeared.

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“Listen up, brothers. It's hot and we are all tired, so let’s get it right this time. I need you to take care of your line. Make sure all the water bottles are full of water and lined up to the right of your feet. Check to make sure your line has their shirts tucked in and socks pulled up. I noticed some pens are missing. Make sure each person has a writing tool. If they don’t, there are more in the box over on the bleachers. If you need one, make sure you hustle there and back. The Major gave us five minutes to complete this task--let’s do it in two.”

Adversity presented an opportunity for this young man to display something he did not know he possessed. In that moment, Gonzalez was elevated in the eyes of his brothers. No longer a sideline bystander, he was now in charge and he seized his moment. It's moments like these that old men share as pivotal moments in their lives.

The small group breaks and gets to work, looking for anything out of place that could ruin the exactness of their line. They take ownership of a job well done, directed by the unassuming teammate that possess the heart of a lion.

“Thirty seconds, brothers. Check your line once more, then fall in once complete.”

Gonzalez made one final check of the work of his brothers and made his way to the Major.

“Task complete, sir.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, sir.”

“How confident are you that you did an acceptable job?”

“Very confident, sir.”

The Major slowly walked up and down each aisle, stopping every few athletes to stare a teammate down. No one flinched or fidgeted. He made his way to the front of the group.

“Well done, Gonzalez. You are a great leader.”

Gonzalez moved his shoulders back and slightly puffed up his chest. His brothers tried to hold back their smiles--some hid it better than others. They were impressed.

“Please tell your brothers to grab their items and report to the shady area for debriefing.”

Gonzales, about two feet taller than 10 minutes before, gave his brothers their next task. The team grabbed their items and sprinted to the shady area without saying a word.

[ctt title="Leadership is caught, not taught." tweet="Leadership is caught, not taught." coverup="5Ndk2"]

It is something that is learned when we see others fail at the arrival of adversity. As children, we learn how to lead by watching our parents, teachers, coaches, politicians, and religious leaders first do it. We see how our brothers and sisters treat us and experience what happens when we treat them certain ways. Later in life, we have people we report to and who report to us. We read books and watch programs and attend seminars that allow for us to learn different ways to motivate and lead others. Then, we start to intentionally pass on the lessons we have learned.

Some ideas are good, most are bad, but it is experience that teaches us the difference. It has been said that experience is the best teacher, but I believe that is an incomplete analysis of the lessons of experience. To truly grow from experience, we must evaluate what we have endured, then extract from what happened the tools to be used in a future situation.

A leader must be a great follower.

Without adversity, leadership and its lessons are absent. Failure is a one-time event, not a life sentence. The leaders before Gonzalez were not so much failures as they were a lesson in how to do the task wrong. By the time Gonzalez was given the chance to lead, he used the lessons he just learned to do the task correctly.

A leader must be able to use the tools he or she has available.

Gonzalez was not an imposing figure who could use height and a baritone voice to influence those around him. Instead, he used logic and teamwork to get done what he could not on his own. His predecessors tried to lead alone. They thought they could do it by themselves because experience had shown them no other way. The Major knew this, as most young men are not intentionally taught the importance of teamwork, and introduced a task that could not be completed until the use of others was part of the equation.

A leader must be able to hold him or herself accountable before holding others accountable.

If Gonzalez had his shirt untucked, he could not have told his teammate to tuck in his own shirt. Many coaches forget this insight. They command their athletes to be on time, but fail to arrive on time. They encourage their athletes to keep their cool on the sidelines, but scream and yell at the referee, calling him or her all sorts of unacceptable names.

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How To Intentionally Create Leaders

A typical practice session offers very few opportunities to grow leaders. Drills are run by coaches, scrimmages are paused for instruction, and rarely does an athlete have the opportunity to call out one of his or her teammates.

Here are some examples of ways you can create opportunities for growth:

The Weight Room

Many college programs have a strength coach dedicated to making sure the athletes are getting stronger and faster. However, most high school programs are lucky if they have enough supervision in the weight room, nevermind an actual strength coach. Create small groups and designate a leader in that group. Before the workout begins, bring together the group leaders and let them know what will be expected of them during that workout. Demonstrate anything that might be cause for confusion and allow for questions. Before these kinds of meetings can take place, the whole team must know what is expected of them when these pre-workout meetings are taking place. Design some sort of warm-up to keep the athletes busy and out of trouble. This will take some extra work on the front end but will make things easier once implemented. If a group is screwing around, the leader of that group is reprimanded after the workout (extra sprints, bear crawls, etc.).

After a few weeks, every group gets a new leader. Meet with leaders periodically and help them work through situations like teammates not giving full effort or messing around too much. Sports are a microcosm for adult life and they will soon find out that high school never ends and many adults never actually grow up.

Practice Field

Create groups that set up and tear down the practice field (cones, bags, ladders, etc.). Once complete, ask the leaders to report to you letting you know the task is complete and reporting on anything that needs attention (a broken piece of equipment, for example).

Let your athlete run the warm-up drills. Give them a clipboard and let them lead how they think is effective. Coach them up on strategies. Point out athletes that are doing it wrong and let them correct their teammates.

Doing these things creates a culture of accountability. Holding a peer accountable or calling a peer out as a young person (or an adult, for that matter!) is a difficult skill and best learned in a safe environment like the practice field.

Study Hall

Some students are better at certain subjects than others. If you have a math whiz, give him or her permission to tutor during study hall. Celebrate their strengths for math, or Spanish, or history, or whatever it is they are good at and give them a platform to help others.

Sometimes age gets in the way of allowing learning to happen. If a sophomore is better at math than a senior, that senior’s pride may get in the way of letting a younger person teach them. This is when you step in and promote the idea that we can learn from anyone, regardless of age or any other differentiating trait.  

Look for ways to allow your athletes to practice leading and use your life experience to promote growth in their leadership ability. At first, you may think you are losing time to practice strategy and technique, but you will soon find that you are gaining a team full of leaders that you can rely on when adversity arrives...and it always arrives.

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How Getting Lost Helped Me to be a Better Coach

“Excuse me, where can I find the batteries?” I’m at Home Depot walking around aimlessly when I find a guy wearing an orange vest. He has a clipboard and is obviously working on something. I feel bad for interrupting him.

“Hi!” He greets me with a smile. ”Batteries…hmmm. You will find them on 18. Follow me, I’ll show you.”

He turns on his heels and begins a fast pace. I’m in my flip-flops and struggling to keep up with his pace.

I am reminded of one of my first heroes, a football coach at Central High School in Fresno, California, named Coach Bog. Walking with him anywhere meant you were going to sweat and be a little out of breath. Years later, when I was hired as a teacher at that school, I asked him about his pace. “You teach people how to treat you by the way you dress, the way you talk, and the way you walk.”

He paused, letting it sink in and allowing for questions. This was his teaching style. I was accustomed to his way of teaching so I kept my mouth shut and waited for him to continue.

“Be intentional about how you dress,” he said. “Master the English language, walk with a purpose, and people will want to hear what you have to say.”

I snap back to reality when the man in the orange vest points to the batteries and says, “Here you go, how can I help?”

How can I help? He just walked 11 rows to show me where the batteries are and now he asks how he can help?

We found what I needed and I thanked him for his time. I reached out my hand and he grabbed it with enthusiasm. A firm handshake. Eye contact. “My pleasure, have a wonderful day, be blessed.”

The man set the example for what youth coaches can do for their athletes.

    • He was busy, but not too busy to help me.
    • He was deep in thought, but okay with the interruption.
    • He told me, but then he showed me.

[ctt title="How Getting Lost Helped Me to be a Better Coach" tweet="How Getting Lost Helped Me to be a Better Coach by @jamesleath" coverup="fGUIf"]

What if we coached the way this man helps strangers?

At the beginning of every season of whatever sport I am coaching (the last few years have been specifically middle school students and younger), I have a meeting with the parents. One of the first things I tell them is that their children are my priority. I say, “If you and I are speaking and any of the students interrupt me, our conversation is over. I am there for the students, not the parents.”

I teach the students how to interrupt me in a similar way and I teach them how to shake hands. I tell them to look for an opportunity to interrupt, for example, during a pause in the conversation, and say, “Excuse me, Coach Leath,” and to wait for me to respond.

Do this. Teach your students the skill of the interruption. I promise you, when it happens, and you take your attention from that parent and fully give it to the student, you will light up your athlete.

Then, whether they need to trust you in the heat of competition or get batteries in a Home Depot, they will follow you at the pace you set for them. You can’t expect to be perfect, but your example as a coach, whether good or bad, has the power to alter the life of the students who call you coach.

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How to Communicate to Youth Sport Athletes

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 recently started helping out coaching with a 7-year-old flag football team. I look around at the other teams and I see coaches trying to give their teams speeches to pump them up that last 5 or 6 minutes. I watch as those same coaches try and do a post-game analysis with the kids and I can see the frustration on the coach’s faces because their athletes are not listening. At that age, they are just there to run around with their friends. They just want the ball and a post-game snack. They want to know you “saw” them play.

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. 

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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-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. Then, let them have some fun and play because that is the real reason they are playing sports.

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The Secret Ingredient of Youth Sport Success

“Hey coach, great game. Would you mind sharing your playbook with me?” The elementary football game was over and the team under my supervision was victorious. While the athletes replay their favorite moments on the field, the opposing coach and I have a private discussion on the sideline.

“Not at all, coach. I’ll give you everything I have. However, it may not do you much good,” I said. “Why do you say that?” he asked. “Is it really complex?”

It wasn’t complex at all. In fact, it was week 4 of the 8-game season, we just recorded our fourth win, and I hadn’t added any new plays in two weeks.

We met the next morning at Uncle Harry’s Bagel shop. He had with him a notebook and, to my delight, he had questions prepared he wanted to ask.

Note: if you ask someone to coffee for the purpose of “picking their brain” you will find the generousness of the person will match your level of preparation for the meeting. I was ready to give this guy all the information I could simply because he showed me he was prepared to “fill his cup.”

I ordered an espresso and we sat down. I handed him a page I printed out the night before. On one side--eight scripted plays, all from one formation. On the other side--an array of squares and circles with lines for the depth chart.

He looked a little confused as he looked over both sides of the page. “Is this your gameplan from yesterday?”

“No,” I replied. “That is my entire playbook.”

“You only have one formation...and eight plays?”

“Yup. I teach that formation on the first day of practice and explain the roles of each position. This gives them an idea of where they might want to play. Then, the next day I teach the huddle and practice going from the huddle to the line of scrimmage.”

The coach breaks eye contact to write down some notes. I continue...

“We start every practice by splitting into groups and going from the huddle to lining up on the line of scrimmage. It is much more productive than running an arbitrary number of sprints, plus they get used to getting to the line of scrimmage fast. I am in teaching mode. They are kids and will respond to yelling and screaming, but it is unnecessary. I use a calm voice and encourage questions.”

We spent three hours at that coffee shop taking his complex playbook and turning it on its head. Two weeks later, that coach and his team recorded their first win. I got a text message, “We won today. Thanks, Coach.”

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Coaches will argue with me that a complex playbook will bring success. My challenge to those coaches is to ask their athletes to raise their right hand. At least ⅓ of the kids will raise the wrong hand. I embrace simplicity and allow athletes to master a few basic concepts with enough cognitive energy to be creative.

Also, while the simple playbook is among the most important things many youth coaches overlook, turning the field into a classroom of learning can also be very productive. Yelling at kids does not increase compliance. If compliance is what you are looking for, here are some things to consider:

Seek the trust of your athletes. Create a safe environment where learning can take place. Once they trust you, you can push them to be uncomfortable.

Seek to teach them in a way they can understand, not defaulting to the way you were coached as a child.

Seek activities that are both fun and are applicable to learning. For example, instead of post-practice sprints, play a game like capture the flag or tree-tag. Games that take the whole field teach lessons like angle of pursuit and spacial awareness. Also, remember that a kid will run faster and harder during a game than during a “sprint” session.

When the losses start piling up, it is easy to think a new play or formation will solve the problem. We forget that these are kids, playing a game, and if we could just get out of the way and let them play, we would more often see that beautiful moment of a child doing something they love.

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Talent Gets You Noticed, Character Gets You Recruited

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“He is going to be shocked we no longer want him.”

“Come again?” I asked the college assistant coach seated across from me at lunch. “You flew across the country to meet him, and now you won’t recruit him anymore?”

The coach had recently stopped for a day in another state to check in on one of their prospects, before arriving at my school in Florida.

“He is a great talent, he certainly has the skills needed to play for us,” said the coach. “Sadly, he just won’t fit in well with our culture. It’s sad how many kids we come across every year that we cannot recruit, and it has nothing to do with their ability.”

As the Head of Leadership at IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL, I have the privilege of having conversations with college recruiters from major universities every week. One of saddest topics we discuss are stories of top high school talent being passed over because of behavior off the field. High talent and low character is a poor combination.

I have heard these stories enough to feel compelled to write this so that it may be passed onto every high school athlete that dreams of playing in college. There are a lot of talented athletes out there, but talent alone will not land you a coveted roster spot. Your talent may get your foot in the door, but it takes a lot more to hit the field at the next level.

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.

Of the countless conversations I have had with college recruiters, here are the most common questions  recruiters are searching for answers to decide whether they should recruit you or not.

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What are you doing when you think no one is watching?

Distance between winning and losing.

Recruiters are not always wearing their school clothing. That guy in the corner of the weight room talking to your coach? He might be a recruiter on an unscheduled visit. That woman in the stands taking notes? She may be writing down the behavior she sees to report back to her head coach. The more talented you are, the more people are watching you to try and see what flaws you are hiding. How do you treat your teammates, coaches, parents, and officials? Do you make eye contact with your coach when she is talking?  What is your body language like when things are not going well? This all matters, a lot!

Are you one thing in person, and another person online?

Social media is the microphone of your character, and whether you agree or not, you will be judged by what you post. Please, pause and think before you post! If you wouldn’t want it on a billboard so your grandma could read it, you probably shouldn’t post it online.

Colleges put a lot of research into your character, especially the high-profile sports such as football and basketball. Most schools have teams of people who use very creative tactics to comb through your social media feeds.

For example, I heard a story recently about a prospect who used a lot of racial slurs on his Twitter account. This recruit was shocked because his Twitter account was set to private. However, a few weeks prior to the recruiter’s visit, this prospect accepted a request to allow an account with a profile picture of a pretty girl. That account was actually owned by a guy named Chris. Once accepted as a follower, Chris was given access to that prospect’s entire feed. Chris also discovered that the recruit had a habit of ridiculing teammates online. The recruiter thought that prospect had the talent to play at the next level, but talent alone gets you nowhere.

Who are your biggest influences?

You will  become like the people you hang out with the most. This includes who you follow on social media. Take a look at who you are following on social media sites, and in life, and unfollow those you do not wish to be associated with or become like.

Last year, I spoke to a coach about a 5-star baseball recruit being watched by all the major universities. That was until a news story came out about all the accounts this recruit was following on Twitter that promoted sexual assault towards women, drug use, and alcohol consumption. This recruit also had a Twitch account where he would play certain games that glorified abuse towards women and was recorded cheering when an explicit event would happen during the game. Not surprisingly, he ended up going to community college and getting kicked off his team halfway through the year.

Ask yourself, “If I were a coach, and I looked at the list of people influencing me, would I recruit me?” Be honest with yourself, because your potential future coach will be looking very closely at your influencers.

Are you a great teammate?

I coached varsity football for a number of years and had some decent talent under my supervision. I remember one recruiter visiting from a big school in Southern California to take a look at our star linebacker, maybe the best at his position I ever coached.

When the recruiter arrived, he was wearing boots, jeans, and a t-shirt. Nothing about what he was wearing gave away where he was from or connected him to his university. As I spoke to him in the corner of the weight room, he watched one particular athlete with great intensity. If he were to tell the story, this is how it would go:

“When I arrived at the school, I was taken directly to the weight room where our number one linebacker prospect was lifting with his team. He did not know who I was because I was wearing regular street clothes. I do this during all my visits because I don’t want to influence their normal routine just because I’m watching. I am sure the amount of weight he was squatting was impressive, but watching him squat was not what I flew 400 miles to observe. One thing I noticed was during every set, he had a spotter standing behind him just in case he needed help. This teammate was yelling encouragement during the prospect’s last few reps and helped him rack the bar.”

“After all three sets, sadly, I watched our recruit sit down and pull out his phone instead of returning the favor of spotting his teammate. His coach asked him to put his phone away after his first set. He did. He then pulled it back out after the second set. I stopped his coach from intervening again. We look for guys who can be trusted to do the things after being told once. During the third set, he finally put his phone down, but only because he saw his teammate struggling to finish his last few reps. This teammate was there for the prospect every rep. The prospect, however, did not spot him or encourage him, putting himself and those around him in danger. I began to question his ability to be a great teammate, and if he would fit in with our team. Then, when the workout was over, the coach blew the whistle to start cleaning up. The prospect headed straight for his cleats and walked out the door, never even making eye contact with me, and leaving his teammates to clean up and rack the weights. Definitely not a good fit for our culture.”

Do you make a good first impression?

One of the first things I teach all my athletes is the art of the handshake. Firm grip, eye contact, be fully present while you introduce yourself. (Click here for an example of how I do it.) I had a group of NBA prospects in my leadership class recently. I had been working with this particular group a few weeks so they knew how to enter a room, command presence, shake hands, make eye contact— all things that will set them apart from the hundreds of other NBA draft prospects.

A new guy showed up to campus and was put in my class. When he walked in, he gave me a handshake that could only be described as “a dead fish.” He mumbled his name and never really made eye contact. The class booed him and told him to “try it again,” pointing towards the door. He was confused and shocked that he was booed when he walked into the room. He came back in, did the same thing, and was again booed by his peers. Here was a phenomenal athlete, tall enough to have to duck when he entered the room, and he was getting booed for how he entered. I walked out with him the second time.

“Why are they booing?” he asked.

“Because you suck at entering a room.” I could see the confusion on his face. Then I saw a smile as he realized class had begun.

“How are you going to stand out if you enter a room like everyone else? And what’s with this handshake? Give me your hand,” I said.

I showed him a proper handshake and I encouraged him to walk across the room with purpose, introduce himself clearly, and look me in the eye when he shook my hand. Then I walked back into the classroom, shutting the door behind me.

The large man destined for the NBA walked in, smiled, and walked across the room with purpose. He shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and introduced himself clearly. The room full of other large men erupted in cheer.

You are always being watched—from the moment you get out of your car to the moment you leave the parking lot. The more talented you are, the more people pay attention. Give them a reason to remember you off the field, court, mat, or pool.

Do you “sweep the shed?”

The most successful sports team in the professional era is not the NY Yankees, or the Boston Celtics, or Real Madrid, but a team from a far less known sport. It is the New Zealand All Blacks in rugby, who have an astonishing 86% winning percentage and numerous championships to their name. In the outstanding book, Legacy, written about the All Blacks (the most winningest professional team in the history of modern sports), author James Kerr discusses one of their core values that epitomizes the selfless attitude.

It’s called “Sweep the Shed.”

Legacy cover

You see the goal of every All Blacks player is to leave the national team shirt in a better place than when he got it. His goal is to contribute to the legacy by doing his part to grow the game and keep the team progressing every single day.

In order to do so, the players realize that you must remain humble, and that no one is too big or too famous to do the little things required each and every day to get better. You must eat right. You must sleep well. You must take care of yourself on and off the field. You must train hard. You must sacrifice your own goals for the greater good and a higher purpose.

You must sweep the shed.

After each match, played in front of 80,000 plus fans, in front of millions on TV, after the camera crews have left, and the coaches are done speaking, when the eyes of the world have turned elsewhere, there is still a locker room to be cleaned. the players!

If the New Zealand All Blacks are sweeping their locker room, then why aren’t you out there helping younger players, picking up cones, arriving first and leaving last, and setting the example for others? Are you leaving the uniform in a better place, or counting the days until they retire your jersey?

I once asked a recruiter what he thought of the prospect he came to watch.

“Remember when they were doing pushups?” he asked. “He led the team by counting, but he missed pushup 13 and pushup 18. He just didn't go down, even though he commanded the team to do so. I am not sure about this guy, honestly. Out of twenty plays, we can’t have him taking off two because he is tired.”

You are always being watched, so sweep the shed.

Do you show a sense gratitude?

How you treat the people who take care of you matters. The coaches, the trainers, the ball boys—they are there to serve, but they are not your servants. True leaders serve those around them. When the trainer shows up, don’t bark, “I need tape!” Instead, ask for it. Say “please.” Say “thank you.” Clean up after yourself. When you are grateful, and treat others with the respect they deserve, people take notice. More importantly, it’s the right thing to do.

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  • Show  gratitude.
  • Be a positive influence.
  • Do the little things.
  • Be a great teammate.
  • Make a great first impression.
  • Sweep the shed.

And always remember, whether you are online, on the field or in the classroom, someone is watching.

As president Calvin Coolidge once said, “nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.”

Your reputation is who people think you are; your character is who you are when you think no one is paying attention. Someone is always paying attention, and every recruiter has countless stories of passing on a talented athlete who failed the character test. You must be the exception. You must be extra-ordinary. That’s how you get recruited.

First Day of Practice

The school bell rings. Class is over for the day.

The halls are now flooded with invitations to “come over and play” and conversations about what happened at recess. Parents stare down at their phones as they sit in cars lined up around the block.

The beehive of activity dissipates into the surrounding neighborhood as kids pair up and walk home.

Twenty-nine 5th and 6th graders shuffle toward the grass field for the first day of practice, eager to be a part of the Saroyan Stallions football team.

Backpacks are thrown in a pile and a game of freeze-tag commences.

I gather up my clipboard and my whistle, tie up the laces on my cleats, and head out to my new team. I am just as giddy and eager to get started as they are, excited for what will happen in the next three months.

My watch beeps, it’s 3:10pm. I blow my whistle three times.

Every athlete is frozen, with their eyes locked on me waiting for instruction.

“When I blow my whistle three times,” I yell, “that means practice has begun. You will stop what you are doing, sprint to this chalked sideline, and line up shoulder to shoulder.”

They begin to run to the line.

“Wait!” I pause until all have stopped running. “Let’s practice. Go back to what you were doing and when you hear three loud whistles, what will you do?”

A melody of random words comes hurling my way and I pick out some keywords like sprint, line, shoulder, and I am satisfied.

I let them play for about ten seconds. I notice some pretend not to look at me and I notice some slowly start walking toward the line.

I take a deep breath. “BRRRrrr, BRRRrrr, BRRRrrr!”

The team prints to the line facing the field and awaits instruction. 

There are no cones on the field.

There are no footballs.

There is just an empty field with lines of chalk, the same chalk that now covers my shoes and shorts from when I lined the fields 30 minutes ago.

“Welcome to your first day of football practice.”

I pause for effect, and take a deep breath as I take a long look at the young minds eager to please their new coach.

“You did an okay job sprinting to the line. Can you do it faster?”

“YES!” They smile, and I smile. This is going to be a fun group.

“Good, let’s try it again.”

I let them go for about 20 seconds, then blow the whistle three times. They are back at the line ready to go.

“My name is James Leath. Please address me as Coach Leath, or Sir. I will be your coach for the next three months.

Please hold out your right hand with your thumb up and fingers spread.

Now, rotate your right hand about one inch.”

I demonstrate with my hand how I want them to do it.

“When you see me at school or around town, I would like for you to hold out your hand like this, aim the web of your thumb and index finger at the web of my thumb and index finger, then wrap your hand around my hand. It looks like this—“

I call up one of the athletes I believe will be one of the leaders on the team and show him the right way to give a handshake.

“What is your name?”

“Isaac, sir.”

“Who taught you to call me sir, Isaac?

“My dad, sir.”

“Your dad is a smart man.” I hold out my hand and Isaac shakes it firmly.

I turn to look at the team and ask, “Where should you be looking when you do this?”

A hand raises about 10 feet from me. “You, in the red shirt. What is your name?”

“Callum.” He says.

“Hi, Callum. Glad to meet you.”

I walk over to him with an outstretched hand. He puts his hand out, as well, and gives me a fine handshake—two in a row. (I later meet the men these boys call father and it is obvious both take fatherhood very seriously).

“Should you look me in the eye when you shake my hand?” I ask.


“Yes, what?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well done, Callum.”

I tell the team they have one minute to shake hands with four people and remember their names. I encourage them to take their time and give a great handshake, and give them permission to try it again if they “miss” and instead give the dead fish, a term for when someone shakes your hand with little effort.

When they line back up, I ask them at random to introduce their friend. This is how I start to learn the names of the athletes.

It is now 3:30pm on the first day of practice.

I spend the next hour teaching them how to line up for warm ups and spending time explaining how to do the exercises. Then there is a small break for water.

I take a deep breath. “BRRRrrr, BRRRrrr, BRRRrrr!”

They sprint to the line.

“We have 30 minutes left. Are you ready to learn about football?

They scream in unison, “Yeeesss!”

“Yes, what?


For the next 20 minutes, I line up the athletes in our base offensive formation, explaining what a linemen does, what a running back does, and what is expected of our receivers, tight ends, and quarterbacks.

For the last 10 minutes, we play sharks and minnows, because when kids are playing, they will run faster, harder, and longer than if they are lining up for sprints.

We get a team break, “Stallions, hu, hu, hu!” I tell them no one can leave until they shake my hand.

Every, single, kid, shakes my hand, looks me in the eye, and says, “Thank you, sir.”

How catching a Pokemon can help you win more games.

Yesterday, I was teaching a group of 10 14-year-olds about leadership and I told a story about the first time I learned about leadership. I was their age, and someone I looked up to handed me three cassette tapes by John C. Maxwell. Then a hand slowly went up. “Yes?” I asked. With a confused look on his face, he thought for a second and said, “cassette tape?” That’s right...I had to literally draw a picture of a cassette tape on the board. But, why should they know what a cassette tape is? Side note, I told them what a mix tape was. “Oh, like when you make a playlist for your girlfriend on Spotify?” Yes, like that, except they will never know the pain of sitting through a Keith Sweat song when the radio DJ starts talking over the last part of the song! I taught them a little bit about the past, and we moved on.

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.

Last week, while teaching a bunch of college athletes, I used Harry Potter as an example of how a great leader accepts help when it is needed and knows how to delegate tasks to those with the proper skills to get the job done. I knew they would understand because seven years ago, when they were in grade school, Harry Potter was all the little kids talked about. I read the books then, and now I catch Pokémon.

A few months ago, a few of my teams found out I was the guy on the Farmer’s Only commercial and it gave me instant street cred. I don’t know why it had that effect, but I used it as a way to connect to them. So now, when I am in the lunchroom and I hear, “Hey coach, you don’t have to be lonely…” instead of being annoyed, I smile and finish the song with them. They laugh, and in class I am that much more connected to them.

Connect with them and let them teach you something.

Find ways to connect to your team. Kids have not changed, but the world they live in is different than yours and mine. They don’t know about John Wooden and his pyramid, so asking them to be more Industrious will leave you frustrated. Your story about Joe Montana doesn’t resonate with kids the way it did 10 or 15 years ago. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was replaced by Jordan, who has been replaced by Lebron, who will someday be replaced by someone else (save your arguments about who I should have written, and just see the point I am trying to make).

Something I have done for years is to make sure I know what fiction books my athletes are reading in school. I especially enjoy it when they are books I read in high school, like The Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye. They are already learning about that, so use it to your advantage.

Lastly, if you don’t understand the latest craze/technology/time waster, ask your athletes to teach you. Having an athlete teach you something they are passionate about (no matter how stupid you think it is) is a great way to build rapport with your athletes. Best part about doing this is you will be alone, because most other coaches would rather spend time on Xs and Os than learning about what is important to their athletes.

First Impression as a Coach

[ctt title="First Impressions as a Coach" tweet="First Impressions as a Coach via @jamesleath" coverup="fq9CD"] As a teacher and coach, on the first day of class or the first day of practice, I teach the same lesson. It goes like this: I introduce myself, I shake the hand of every student or athlete, and I don’t let go until they squeeze back and introduce themselves. More often than not, I get a smile out of the student when they realize they have not given me a good handshake. We laugh about it, and a relationship has begun.

This lesson is not confined to young students and athletes. In my day job, I am blessed to work with company executives and future NFL/NBA athletes getting ready for their combine tryouts. I am a 5’10-and-a-half white guy. I have no problem pulling a 6’10 center down to my level as I encourage him to introduce himself to me. It always catching them off-guard, and it is in that moment I am able to begin teaching.

In the movie Avatar, the Na'vi tribe say, “I see you,” instead of “I love you.” When a student or athlete knows you see them, they tend to pay attention to you. If you have their attention, you can soon have their respect. Once you have earned their respect, you can accomplish amazing things together.

As teachers and coaches, we are constantly fighting for the attention of our students. We cannot make the mistake so many coaches make and assume they care about what we are saying because we have letters behind our name or trophies in our office. What happened last year is in the past, and in five years it’s like it never happened. That being said, it is up to us to make our message relevant to them and to meet them where they are, now, not where our former students were, 5 years ago. Learn new stories, take an interest in what the students do on their spend time. Or my favorite, have them explain the game they are playing on their phone without passing judgment. Show interest in them, and they will eventually return the favor with their attention.

Back to the handshake. I teach my students and athletes to have a firm handshake because it is the one thing that can set the tone for what a person thinks of you, and also, it is a skill they will use the rest of their life. If you offer me your hand in a sign of respect and in return I give you “the dead fish” you automatically assume I am weak, or unworthy of your respect. To my female students, I tell them the story of when I met my bride. Over 10 years ago, I shook her hand and knew in an instant I wanted to be with that woman. A strong, but not overbearing handshake shows confidence, and confidence is attractive. Look them in the eye, introduce yourself clearly, and you will make an impression because so few people do that anymore. You have one shot to make a first impression as a teacher and a coach. Teaching a handshake on the first day sends the message that you are interested in that student as a human first, everything else second.

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.

God, I love being a coach.

[ctt title="First Impressions as a Coach" tweet="First Impressions as a Coach via @jamesleath" coverup="fq9CD"]

What Are you Reading? Here is my list...

“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?

Still, on average I read approximately a book a month. I have done this for almost 10 years now. If you want to increase your ability to communicate, your intake must exceed your output. However, there are people out there who set the bar really high IMO, like reading 50-100 books in a year. Kudos to their reading prowess, but I find that many people see that as intimidating and thus, decide reading just isn’t for them. Then again, reading that many books in a year would be great if one could recall the information gained through such an endeavor. Here is what I do - take it or leave it.

I find a book I want to read and I dive in, usually as a free sample on my Kindle. It can be recently published or 100 years old. The point is, I have not read it before. If I think I am going to like it and it will be the kind of book I will want to mark up, then order the book via amazon. If it is a book I will read for enjoyment, then I get the Kindle version. I read it as slow or as fast as I need to. If it takes me two months to complete, that is okay. The number of books read is not the point; it’s the material on the pages that is important to digest. I mark up my copy with a red pen and use post-it notes to record thoughts. When I am done, I write a short summary of the book on a 5x7 card and put the book on my shelf. Also, because I write in my books, I don’t loan or borrow them.

My next book is one I have previously read -- maybe five or six years ago. My favorite part of re-reading a book is that I get to see the notes I wrote the last time I read it. I find it fascinating to see how I have evolved since last reading that book. I am different since I last saw those pages and I always see something the second or third time reading it that I missed during previous read-throughs.

I repeat this process every month. That means every year, I have six or seven new books on my shelves and have revisited just as many previously read books. Some years I read more, some years less, but it's the habit that keeps me growing. I don’t like the process (reading) but I love the result (new and evolved thoughts).

A tip: You do not have to finish a book. If the book is bad, then stop reading it. You owe the author nothing and who has time to waste these days? If you see no value in continuing, then do yourself a favor and stop reading it. Perhaps it is not for you right now, but might be later in life.

Here is a list of books I have read recently or plan on reading in the next few months. I mostly read fiction, non-fiction, and biographies in no particular order.

List of books I have read recently or will read for the first time:


List of books previously read books I will or already have reread this year:

What book or books are on your summer reading list?

Freedom of Speech

[ctt title="Freedom of Speech is not Freedom of Consequences. " tweet="'Freedom of Speech is not Freedom of Consequences.' @jamesleath" coverup="q7tBa"] As part of the leadership curriculum at IMG Academy, I teach about social media awareness. In preparation for presenting to a team, I scour our athletes' social media profiles looking for things that may hinder their future opportunities. Inevitably, I find racial slurs, sexist remarks, hate speech, and incriminating photos. I take screen shots of these comments and grab the photos so I can show them to the athletes.

There are always one or two athletes who object, citing freedom of speech. They are 100% right – they are allowed to do and post whatever they want. I tell them I am not here to judge their actions and remind them I was once in high school and made many mistakes. The difference is there are no photos to prove what I did and no statements online to show my ignorant thoughts toward other people.

(Caution – I don’t recommend doing this for your teams unless you have created a relationship of trust with your athletes and they honestly believe you have their best interests at heart. This type of conversation can easily be interpreted as “the adult coming down hard on the child” and that is a hard identity to shake once earned by a coach).

Freedom of speech is not freedom of consequences. What is said online is searchable and incriminating. As a hiring manager, the first thing I do when receiving a resume is look up their social media profiles. Google, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook help me decide if a candidate would fit the culture at IMG Academy. College coaches do the same thing with prospective athletes, except they hire agencies to do their searching – agencies with tools much greater than what I have at my own disposal.

PARENTS- Here is a tip I have learned from talking to the recruiters who come through IMG Academy (Over 30 schools have been on campus in the last few weeks for our football team alone). These recruiters are looking YOU up, too. If you have a tendency to demean your child’s coaches and fill up your social media feeds with negativity, that goes into the report. There was no shortage of stories of athletes passed up by colleges because mom and dad had a history of causing problems. Do not, I repeat, do not tell a recruiter how much you hate your child’s coach or how terrible that organization is. You wouldn’t go into a job interview and throw your last boss under the bus (at least, you shouldn’t if you want that job), so keep your mouth shut before you taint your child’s reputation with your observations.

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?


[ctt title="Freedom of Speech is not Freedom of Consequences. " tweet="'Freedom of Speech is not Freedom of Consequences.' @jamesleath" coverup="q7tBa"]

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

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.

This is the final part of a five-part series based on some things I believe will help new youth coaches find success. This week, I discuss creating a great culture.

Part 5: Sweep the Shed.

My favorite book read in 2015 was Legacy, by James Kerr. It is a book about the New Zealand All-Blacks and how they have sustained the highest winning percentage of any professional sports team. Simply, it is a book about creating a great culture in sports. Among the many great ideas, one in particular I like is called “Sweep the Shed.” It entails the habit of leaving every locker room, home or away, better than when they got there. There is no need to leave trash in the dugout/locker room or on your side of the field/court and no reason why your team shouldn’t pick it up, even if it isn’t theirs.

Another version of this is cleaning up after practice. Kids want to help, so give them a 30-second countdown at the end of practice to put away cones, balls, and other equipment. Not only does this help you, but it gives players a sense of ownership and service to the team.

What is your team known for? Aside from the result of the contest, what does the other team think or say about your team? Are you setting the example for your athletes who will one day be adults?

[ctt title="Never forget, we are in the adult making business. " tweet="Never forget, we are in the adult making business." coverup="aHeL3"]

No written word or spoken plea Can teach the kids what they can be. Nor all the books on all the shelves, It's what the teachers are themselves. -John Wooden

Part 1: Getting Organized Part 2: Setting Expectations Part 3: Defining Success Part 4: Think like a Teacher Part 5: Sweep the Shed

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

“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.ChFW-rYUYAEAGhk.jpg-large

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.

Part 1: Getting Organized Part 2: Setting Expectations Part 3: Defining Success Part 4: Think like a Teacher

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

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.

Part 1: Getting Organized Part 2: Setting Expectations Part 3: Defining Success Part 4: Think like a Teacher

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

“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.

[ctt title="Setting Expectations with Your New Team" tweet="Setting Expectations with Your New Team by @jamesleath #youthsports" coverup="36U9n"]

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.”

Next week, in part three of "The New Coach" series, I discuss how to coach like a teacher.

Part 1: Getting Organized Part 2: Setting Expectations Part 3: Defining Success Part 4: Think like a Teacher

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

“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? Let me know on my Facebook Page.

[ctt title="Getting Organized as a Youth Sports Coach " tweet="Getting Organized as a Youth Sports Coach by @jamesleath" coverup="4y8Fb"]

Part 1: Getting Organized Part 2: Setting Expectations Part 3: Defining Success Part 4: Think like a Teacher

Template - Initial Email to Parents

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

“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.

Coach Note: Take Your Glasses Off

[ctt title="5 Ways to Increase Coach to Athlete Communication" tweet="5 Ways to Increase Coach to Athlete Communication by @jamesleath" coverup="ahHYW"] 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.

[ctt title="5 Ways to Increase Coach to Athlete Communication" tweet="5 Ways to Increase Coach to Athlete Communication by @jamesleath" coverup="ahHYW"]

Dear Athlete - Here is how you build confidence.

Dear Athlete,

First of all, let’s decide something right now. 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 to yours. You won’t stop until the final whistle blows; you’ll go all out until the time runs out. If you believe you can commit to all that in practice and in competition, please keep reading.

I want to talk to you about building confidence. Confidence is the feeling you have when you prepare to win. Confidence is knowing you are prepared to compete to the best of your ability. Confidence means if anyone is going to beat you, they will be in for the fight of their life.

Confidence is not arrogance. Arrogance is an exaggerated belief in one’s ability to perform. Don’t be arrogant. In the movies, the arrogant guy always has a short career because his mouth and his lack of preparation writes a check his body can’t cash. Like the fourth firecracker in a 4th of July finale, he was loud and bright for a moment but now… what was his name again?

[ctt title="Dear Athlete: How to Build Confidence" tweet="Dear Athlete: How to Build Confidence by @jamesleath" coverup="31MAD"]

How do you build confidence? One word: Daily. When you show up to practice early, when you do drills all out, and when you stay after to do a little extra, your skills improve. With improvement comes better performance. When you perform well, you become more confident and take more risks. When you take risks, some of them fail, but some of them succeed. This cycle continues, all the while building up your confidence bank and increasing the belief in yourself that you are improving. I call it a bank because you get to spend that confidence on the unlucky sap across from you who did not prepare as well as you did.

The Olympics have a saying, “Not every four years, every day.” Confidence is the byproduct of constant intentional improvement. There is no such thing as a perfect practice, but you can give a perfect effort. A few days of perfect effort (eating healthy, resting adequately, and spending energy wisely) will give you a sense of confidence that will affect how much you trust yourself on the court, field, track, mat, or in the pool.

Like I said before, when you have confidence, you take risks. Do not be afraid of taking risks. In fact, fear is the number one way to deplete confidence in yourself or an opponent. When you are fearful, there is no room in your brain for confidence. Confidence is the absence of fear. Fear is removed by committing to and following through with proper preparation.

In After Earth (2013), Will Smith’s character says this about fear:

"Fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist. That is near insanity. Now do not misunderstand me. Danger is very real. But fear is a choice. We are all telling ourselves a story."

A former coach of mine used to say, “Fear stands for Future Events Already Realized.” A confident athlete lives in this moment, right now. When a pitcher is asked to throw a fastball in the lower left corner, it doesn’t matter if it’s at practice, in a preseason game, or in the final inning of the championship game. The mechanics are exactly the same. Nothing has changed except who is watching. A confident pitcher will take that situation and throw that strike perfectly. What happens next is unknown – you -- you can deal with that when it happens. Besides, you prepared for it in practice, right?

Confidence comes from taking responsibility for the only three things you can control as an athlete: your preparation, your effort, and your attitude. That’s it. Outside of those three things you do not have much say. Confidence is a frame of mind that comes from proper preparation and through the use of some simple tools. I am happy to share these tools with any young athlete who cares to learn. Fortunately for you, many young athletes believe they know it all, so if you decide to step up your game and use these tools you will have the mental edge. Professional athletes use these types of tools to build unshakable confidence and find immeasurable enjoyment in their sport.

1. Goals: Set Process Goals.

An outcome goal measures what happens at the end. Once you get to an outcome goal there is nothing left to do. An outcome goal is built on process goals. A process goal is a goal that you can work on every day. It’s measurable and if it’s not working out or improving your game as much as you had hoped, you can modify the goal. For a basketball player it would be something like, “Stay after practice and don’t go home until I hit 7 out of 10 free throws.” Maybe you are a softball player and your goal at the batting cage is to, "Hit three balls to the left and three balls to the right in 10 pitches.” Write these goals down, talk to your coach about it, and ask for feedback.

2. Rituals: Create a Mistake Recovery Ritual.

You will make mistakes. All athletes make mistakes. If you never make a mistake you are not trying hard enough. The difference between the good athletes and the great ones is the amount of time it takes them to get over that mistake. The great ones exude confidence and take risks and some of those risks end up in failure. Create a mistake recovery ritual. A baseball player I work with makes a mistake on the field and literally holds his hand out, flushes a make-believe toilet, and then moves on. This is silly, yes, but it always puts a smile on his face, and the mistake is gone and he has moved on. I know a basketball player who, after he misses a shot he pretends to wash his hands of the missed shot, if the other team makes the rebound (one of his process goals is to always follow the shot to get the rebound so he can shoot again). Do this physical recovery ritual in practice and let it help you keep your confidence high in competition. You have to practice it or you won’t remember it in the game.

3. Create a confidence journal. 

There is an old story about two monks walking along a river, one old and one young. One of their sacred vows included never touching a woman. An old woman appears and requests assistance to cross the river. To the surprise of the young monk, the old monk smiles, picks her up, and carries her across the river. He sets her down, nods his head, and then continues his journey. After a few miles the young monk cannot hold his tongue any longer. “You carried that woman and we are not suppose to touch women,” said the young monk. “Yes, my son. That is true,” the old monk responded. "I carried that woman, then put her down. You, however, have carried her this whole time.” The point of the story is that when we make a mistake we must not dwell on that mistake. Our brains want to remember what we did wrong because it wants to protect us. However, this means we forget about what we did right. Get a small journal (I use the moleskin cahier journals) and after every practice write down three things you did good, or a positive moment you want to remember. I call it a confidence journal because it reminds you of the work you have put in and when you get to that competition you can pull it out and “prime the pump” of confidence. You did the work, you are ready for this moment, and it is okay that you may need to be reminded.

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!

The Difference Between Price and Cost

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.”