For this week’s challenge, I invite you to breathe new life into the established genre of the end-of-year countdown list. – Daily Post Weekly Challenge
The weekly writing challenge was to come up with some sort of list or count down. I decided to make a list of 10 lessons I have learned from coaching youth sports.
I’m in my third year of coaching youth sports at our local Y. I started with baseball when my daughter was 4 years old. Since then I have also coached soccer, basketball, and flag football. Often times multiple age groups at the same time. I have found that even now there are often times where I learn new things during each round. Sometimes about myself, sometimes about the sport, sometimes about the kids. It’s one of the things that makes it so much fun.
So without further delay, here is my list in no particular order.
- Soccer is a fun game – When I was a kid I played baseball every summer and football every fall. I would of played basketball during the winter if I could but it was pretty obvious early on that basketball was not my game. I was good early on because I grew tall quicker than all the other kids my age but once I lost the height advantage that was it. I always considered soccer to be the game that girls and boys who were not tough enough to play football played. Now that I have had a few years of coaching soccer I have learned otherwise and it has turned out to be my favorite sport to coach. Almost anyone can play soccer regardless of skill level. In other sports you are almost always at some point the sole center of attention. In soccer you can always blend in with all the other players unless you are the goalie. You aren’t up at bat showing off how terrible you are at hitting or taking a wide open shot in basketball showing how terrible you aim is. It’s also the easiest game to come up with fun practice games and drills which keep the kids continually active and having fun. That is important if you want to keep order and keep them enjoying the game.
- You don’t have to be an expert to coach – When I first coached my daughter’s 3&4 year old soccer team I knew absolutely nothing about the game of soccer outside of the goal being to kick the ball into the other team’s net without using your hands. Beyond that the rules were foreign to me. I had no clue what drills to use to try and teach the game. So I did what anyone would do. I went to the library and got the book Coaching Soccer for Dummies. I looked over the book but found many of the drills and skills in the book were way beyond what I could possibly expect 3&4 year olds to be able to comprehend. Later I found lots of helpful websites and blogs via Google searching but that wasn’t in time for the first season. But it turned out it didn’t matter. I found that as long as you go out there and have fun the kids love it. And that is the important thing. Obviously, I would probably have needed more knowledge for the older kids but that came with time and many google searches. Even in sports I felt qualified to coach I found the first season through I still felt like I was missing something or not doing a good job.
- Baseball can truly be a boring game – I always pictured baseball being my favorite sport to coach. I love the game and all the strategy behind it. But I learned it’s a truly boring game for young kids. I have taken to calling it the “hurry up and wait” sport. We get the kids out to their positions on the field then they have to patiently wait for the ball to be hit to them. In the young ages, this hardly ever happens unless you are the pitcher or the first baseman who everyone throws to when they get the ball. Young kids have a short attention span and get restless very quickly and that’s when trouble can begin! I still love watching the game and playing softball but it can be very challenging for the younger kids to play in the field.
- Kind words can truly make a difference – After the first season of coaching 3&4 year old baseball I was truly discouraged by the experience. I had signed up to be an assistant coach so I could see what the coaches did and know what to expect for future sports. At the first practice there was another assistant coach and a head coach. Second practice suddenly I was the only one. I felt lost and like I had no clue what to do out there. By the end of the season I felt like I hadn’t taught the kids anything more than what they already knew. Several of the kids had issues with getting restless while in the field and at that point I felt that was a reflection on how I was not doing a good job. My daughter told me she didn’t want me to coach because after a few games of the season she still had not been named Player of the Week when other kids had. I went to the last game of the season not knowing if I would coach another sport and thinking maybe icoaching just wasn’t for me. Yet after the game was over and the kids had gotten their medals they all were so happy and excited to have played. And more importantly almost all the parents came up and thanked me for coaching and told me what a great job I had done. I’m sure that was just them being kind but I will never know. One of the parents even said I had done such a good job they were going to look to see if I was coaching the following year and have their kid on my team again. That kid did not return to my team the following year but all the kind words and happy faces on the children made my decision for me. I was hooked.
- Parents can get upset with their child based on what they think other parents think – I include myself in this category. Coming from the non-competitive arena such as the Y this is not so much about talent or competitiveness but more about how they participate or don’t take the game seriously. Especially in the younger ages, kids may not want to play or decide to play ring around the rosie instead of soccer or baseball. Parents think this makes them look like they lack control or discipline over their child and get embarassed by that, therefore threatening or yelling at their kid. This make a less then fun experience for the child. I felt this embarassment with my own daughter because I was afraid parents would think I was forcing her to play because I wanted her to or because I wanted to coach a sport just to feel good about myself. She has since grown out of this for the most part (although being almost 7 now she still is a kid and has her moments) so it’s no longer an issue for me but it certainly helps me understand where other parents are coming from in the same situation. It is common place on the younger teams that it’s going to happen with a player or two, sometimes more. Doesn’t mean they lack discipline or that the kid doesn’t want to be there. They just are still learning and adjusting to realizing they need to pay attention to the task at hand. As long as they are not putting themselves or others in danger it’s not the end of the world. They are just trying to have fun while being out there.
- Not every practice is going to go smoothly – As a coach I always go into a practice with a pretty good idea of what I want to do. Sometimes this goes according to plan. Sometimes it does not. I’ve found that not every drill or game I’ve done works well with every team or even with the same team at two different practices. I’ve also learned that just because kids want to do a certain drill it doesn’t mean it’s going to work well. Monkey in the middle is a great example. Every soccer team always wants to do the drill but I think I have only done it once where I felt it accomplished anything productive so I avoid it for the most part. I’ve found the key is to have a backup plan and not be afraid to quickly and calmly abandon a drill if it seems obvious it’s not working well. This happens mostly when I try new drills but sometimes even with established drills I have done in the past. Even with a plan in place, there are times where I have ended a practice and felt like I had not had a good practice. Felt that the kids had not learned anything. That I looked unprepared or like I had no clue what I was doing out there. But I always remember it’s the result as a whole that matters, not an individual game or practice.
- Kids may not necessarily need to win but they need to feel competitive – Coming from a Y setting we don’t keep standings or award championships and trophies. Most games we don’t even keep an actual score but starting at about 5 or 6 years old the kids usually know at the end of the game who won and by how much. While they are okay at losing as long as they had fun there is a point where they realize when they are truly on the losing end by a lot that they no longer have fun. I think this was probably most evident for me after one of my older teams basketball games. The first question I always ask after each game is did you have fun? Usually kids all enthusiastically respond with yes and mean it. After one particular basketball game where we only scored 2 points the whole game I asked the question and got a very forced and unenthusiastic yes from a couple of the players and silence from the rest. Being a competitive personality myself I was already feeling bad for them but this made a large impact. It led me to be more aware of not just making sure each kid is getting equal playing time but also trying to group them in a way that allows us to have the best chance at working together. This can be difficult at times but the reward for it is well worth it. It has also provided me with the insight that when on the other end of a large winning margin to make sure to not keep letting the strongest players play in a position where they can continue to increase the margin and therefore make the other team feel bad.
- Practices can be fun – Most ideas of practice are of laps being ran, whistles being blown, terse orders being barked, etc. Endless mundane dribbling around and through cones. Teams scrimmaging against each other. While scrimmaging can be fun for the better players, the less skilled players have less fun because just like in games they don’t get as many touches as the more skilled players. I will still scrimmage if another coach asks me to help them out in that way but otherwise I try to avoid it. I think fun practices where each kid gets to touch the ball multiple times are more beneficial to the whole group. Keeping the kids active and engaged with touches on the ball is a better benefit towards allowing them to improve their skills. So many childhood games can be converted to soccer practice games to help accomplish this. Freeze tag, simon says, red light green light, relay races, and more. Doesn’t mean there isn’t dribbling around cones in practice, but it can be far from boring and mundane. I generally enjoy practices more than games and I think some of the kids would agree. I see kids who never miss a practice and are always upbeat and excited at practice. However once game time comes along they miss 2 or 3 games or never really seem to have the same excitement and fun during the game as they do during practice. Granted, some of this comes from the lesser skilled players who don’t get as much time and touches with the ball during the game as they do in practice. Bottom line – you have to make practice fun in order for the max improvement of skills for everyone.
- Always try to coach to the individual, not necessarily to the group as a whole – Sure, there are certain things you have to teach as a whole to a team. But don’t automatically assume all players should be at the same level just because they are the same age or have the same amount of experience. Some players you simply want to be happy to encourage to successfully dribble the ball. Others have that mastered and you want to encourage them to add a little hustle to it successfully without losing control. Then even others have that down and you want to encourage them to dribble without looking at the ball. If you try to coach to the same level for all you run the risk of losing some kids because the drill is too easy and others because it is too hard. If you lose the kids then they aren’t improving on their skills and you are doing a disservice to them. It can be challenging to keep all players in a place where they constantly are improving but the most rewarding processes are usually the more challenging ones.
- Show them love – This is probably the most important lesson. When I ended up as the sole coach on that first baseball team I posted on Facebook about how I was afraid I didn’t know what I was doing. One simple comment from a friend summed it all up: “Show them love and you’ll be fine.” And it turned out to be so true. It’s about more than teaching them a sport. It’s about showing each individual they are special. Taking the time to get to know them for who they are. Sure, you want to teach the fundamentals and basics of the sport. You want them to have fun and improve. But to really make an impression I think you have to make the individual connection. I always take the time at each practice to ask what fun thing that have done since the last time I saw them. Encourage them and cheer them on, not only in the sport but in life in general. They love to share what is going on in their lives, they are just simply looking for someone who is willing to listen! I like when I feel like they have opened up and decided I am one of those people they want to share with. Some kids it happens almost immediately, some it takes a week or two, and occasionally it just doesn’t happen. But it certainly isn’t because I haven’t made the effort or taken the time to try and establish the connection.
These are just a few of the many lessons. I am sure there will be many more. It is a continuing, evolving process. And also a very rewarding process.