Coach: Youth sports coaches, this one's for you
Sometimes it takes a little gentle arm twisting. Sometimes, maybe a little bit more.
But for those who do take the plunge and volunteer to coach a youth sports team, it can be a truly rewarding experience.
There are multiple reason adults take on the coaching venture. Many do it for the "love of the game" and working with kids; others because it is a good way to spend quality time with their child; and still others maybe had to have their aforementioned arm twisted slightly uncomfortably to be convinced to take on the job.
But here is one thing I have found: Almost without exception, the ones who had to be coerced into coaching, who took a little "gentle" convincing, find it very rewarding and often even fall in love with the experience.
I can't tell you how many times in my early years running park district programs that I had to do my best "sell job" on a mom or dad to convince them to coach a team that none of the other parents were volunteering to do.
But once you got them to coach? Once they had a season under their belt? The return rate was better than Macy's the day after Christmas. Many of these same parents who hesitantly jumped into coaching now became enthusiastic repeat coaches, sometimes even trying other sports in other seasons.
There definitely is something addicting about the coaching experience.
So, with that as a table-setter, and a new year of youth sports well under way, let's take a look at the moms, dads, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and miscellaneous non-related volunteers (my favorite kind, by the way), who are trying their hands at coaching this year. The sports included are numerous but could include flag or tackle football, soccer, basketball, volleyball, baseball, softball, lacrosse, hockey and probably a few more forgotten along the way.
Listed below are some simple suggestions, reminders and hints that might be of help to the new youth sport coach. Nothing dramatic here. Just some basic techniques and ideas that have proved successful over the years from some of the best coaches I have observed.
1. At practice always try to keep the kids busy. One long line, with one person going at a time while everybody else waits to hit or kick the ball is a recipe for unrest. And you definitely don't want unrest from a bunch of third graders, as once the bedlam starts it is hard to get things back under control. Best to plan ahead and design your practice keeping the kids moving, busy and productive.
2. Don't stay on any drill too long. Better to cut it short while the drill is still going strong than to extend it too long and have it lose some its juice.
3. Teach to the middle. The better players are going to be automatically motivated; by the same token, you may have a few on your team disinterested or unmotivated. It happens, and you do the best you can with them. But make sure you spend quality time and put lots of emphasis on that large middle group who sometimes get lost in the shuffle. It is often watching these kids develop both in interest and talent that delivers the greatest rewards in coaching.
4. When talking to the kids, make sure you get their full attention. They should be looking at you with their heads up and eyes on you. Along with this is the key hint to make sure there are no distractions behind you when you are talking. If there is another group playing or loud noise behind you or even a bright sun in their eyes, this can distract the already fragile attention span of young kids. Best to turn yourself around so that when you are talking to them they are looking at nothing but trees or a wall or any other kind of boring background.
5. Don't talk too much. Keep the explanations and speeches quick. The less you say, the more powerful it is when you do speak.
6. Compliment publicly, criticize privately. In other words, give plenty of positive reinforcement to as many kids as possible verbally and with enthusiasm. But when it is time to criticize or discuss a problem with one of the kids, it's often best to do so one-on-one and in a quiet, controlled, more private setting.
7. Oreo cookie approach to instruction. Compliment first, then correct, then compliment again. The needed correction and message then becomes easier to tolerate for the young athlete. An example: "Jimmy, you played a great game today, you really made some fine defensive plays. Be careful, though, that when you celebrate those plays, not to embarrass the players on the other team. You don't want to make them feel bad while you are celebrating. But again, great game, and I am proud of the improvement you are making!"
8. Communicate with the parents. With texts and email it is easier than ever. Family schedules are tight, so parents definitely appreciate any information regarding practice times, schedule changes, rainouts, etc.
9. Have the players get to the games early. At least a half-hour before game time. This will allow for pregame warmup, stretching, some mental preparation and a chance for you to talk to the team before you play. Note: many parents, if not told, will drop their kids off right at game time or at best 5 or 10 minutes before.
10. At the end of the game, don't just let the players just wander off, out of the gym or away from the field. After shaking hands with the other team, ALWAYS bring your team together for a quick meeting. Make sure the kids know this and develop the habit. It's best, if possible, to take the group away from the court or field and find a quieter spot. Keep the postgame speech short and positive, but it is definitely a good for team camaraderie -- whether it was a win or a loss.
11. Start your practices with something aerobic right away. Running, sprints, dribbling up and down the field. Anything to get them tired and get all the nervous energy out of the way early.
12. Switch up starting lineups. Don't let your team separate into a group of "starters and substitutes." Instead emphasize the team aspect by switching positions, switching spots in the batting order, switching starters, etc. It is good for the star players to sit once in awhile, and it is equally good to let the less-talented players experience starting or playing a more key position on occasion.
13. During time outs, make sure all the kids are included and paying attention -- not just the ones in the game. Also, it's important to emphasize to the young athletes that when they are sitting on the bench, they should be actively engaged in the game and cheering on and encouraging teammates.
These are just a few items I have observed from coaches that seem to have a good connection with their athletes.
As always in youth sports, desire to succeed and win is part of the experience, but it's not all of it. Too many coaches get lost in the winning and the losing, when the overall experience is what lasts the longest for the kids.
I have heard from many athletes numerous times over the years that when they remember back to a particular team or particular coach from their early years, it is not the winning or losing so much that they remember, but instead what stands the test of time is the overall experience and the feeling they got from being part of that team.
Above all, a thank you to all the volunteer coaches for your time, your commitment and your willingness to make our youth sports programs the best that they can be.
• Jon Cohn of Glenview is a coach, retired PE teacher, sports official and prep sports fan. To contact him with comments or story ideas, email firstname.lastname@example.org.