“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 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. It is broken down into these sections:
Think Like a Teacher.
Sweep the Shed.
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 in 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.
PART 2: Setting Expectations
“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.
How to set 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.”
Part 3: Defining Success
“Success is peace 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.
How to 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 4: Think Like a Teacher
“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.
How to 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.
Part 5: Sweep the Shed
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.
How to 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?
Never forget, as coaches, we are in the adult making business.
"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."