Coaches can be the difference in developing a lifetime love of sports in young athletes or turning young people off to playing forever. There’s a lot to know about being a good coach. Here are some quick hits:
Stay on top of the game. Youth coaches are typically parent volunteers with a child on the team. Yet, less than four in 10 youth coaches are adequately trained in sports skills, motivational techniques and safety needs.1 How to Coach Kids, a free, 30-minute online course for coaches, helps fill this need for training with a unique learning opportunity to make an impact on young players. Learn more here.
Be a game changer. Coaching a youth team as if it is a Division I collegiate program is likely to lead to player frustration and maybe even tears. A basic knowledge of the stages of youth development – physical, cognitive, emotional and social – can help coaches gear practices and game day expectations to the developmental level of the players. Plus, understanding why youth are playing can help a coach make a better connection with them. A 6-year-old may participate in recreational soccer just to be with friends from town. A 13-year-old might be on an elite soccer team in preparation for play in high school.
Start the ball rolling. Before the start of the season, be up front regarding the roles of each member of the coaching staff. This sets boundaries and may help avoid conflicts later on. Make sure all coaches are on the same page at all times, especially in front of players and parents.
Set a level playing field. Setting parent expectations early on can help ensure a successful season. Prior to the season, hold a parent meeting to explain the philosophy of the organization (i.e., recreational, developmental or a high level of elite play) and welcome questions. Clearly explain what parents should expect regarding playing time. Encourage parents to cheer for their child and all children on the team. Discourage parent coaching from the sidelines and poor sportsmanship in the bleachers. Remind parents that these are just youth athletes, and it is just a game.
Have a game plan. Young people are born to run, jump, throw, hit and catch. The key is to keep them moving. Plan ahead for practices. Include stations with drills that are developmentally appropriate. Avoid long lines or lectures. Move players around to different positions to develop their overall skills. Also be prepared for game day. Determine in advance the starters, subs and positions athletes will play. Ensuring equal playing time can be tough. Do what works best for the team and the sport, but make sure everyone has a chance to play.
Call a time out. Students may come straight to practice or a game from a long day at school. Establish rituals for athletes to transition to play. This could be a few minutes of free play prior to practice or a pregame team circle time designed to welcome youth, provide a sense of belonging and support positive team building. Check in with youth often during practice and games. Close the loop with a post-practice or game reflection. Give a shout out to each child for a job well done, and ask teammates to chime in. Invite players to ponder what they learned, which increases their ability to internalize information and transfer new skills to other settings.
Play it safe. Be mindful of the weather. If the heat index is high, consider shortening practice to avoid heat-related illnesses. When adverse weather conditions (snow, sleet, heavy rain, thunder or lightning) are in the forecast, determine if it is safe for play. Remind players to bring lots of water to prevent dehydration. Work with parents to ensure protective gear is worn properly. Make sure there is always a fully stocked first aid kit on hand. Take advantage of any safety training offered through the organization. Most importantly, establish protocols in the event of an injury or other emergency.
Be a good sport. The head coach should be the only individual interacting with the umpire, referee or other game official. The head coach should also take the lead in respecting the rules and the official. At the younger levels of youth sports, officials may be teens. This can quickly lead to tense situations if the adults who are involved become emotional. Do not argue, question or criticize the official in front of players or parents. Focus on coaching, and let the officials officiate.
Out of bounds. Create a supportive environment where young people feel safe, on and off the field. Establish a zero tolerance policy for bullying, hazing or any form of abuse and include athletes, coaches and parents. Develop rules and consequences early on, and clearly communicate them to players and parents.
It’s all fun and games. Playing a sport should be fun. If not, players may quit. In fact, the average child quits by age 11 mostly because it isn’t fun anymore.2 Incorporate fun at every opportunity. Let players help select or design uniforms. Give athletes a voice in choosing the team name. Create special cheers and other rituals. Always celebrate, no matter what the score. Celebrations can be as simple as ice pops after the game or a pizza party at the end of the season. Young athletes may not remember the outcome of every game, but they will recall if they had fun playing. This can make all the difference as to whether a player returns the next season.
Hit it out of the park. Youth sports are full of life lessons that go beyond the field of play. Encourage even the youngest players to carry their own equipment so they learn to be responsible. If a child throws down the bat after striking out, use this as teachable moment regarding good sportsmanship and self-accountability. Win or lose, show young athletes the importance of teamwork at every game. Coaches have an awesome responsibility to lead by example and inspire young players to be their best.
1 Project Play At Five Years: Progress, Next Steps. The Aspen Institute. https://www.aspenprojectplay.org/tom-farrey-sfia-data-column 2018.
2 Study: On Average Child Quits Sports At Age 11. ESPN. https://www.espn.com/espn/story/_/id/27308702/study-average-child-quits-sports-age-11 August 2, 2019.
Cristiane Chiacchio is AIG Americas Head of Accident & Health. AIG’s Accident & Health Specialty Markets Division is a leading provider of customized Accident & Health solutions for youth sports teams and a proud sponsor of USA Football.
For information about the accident & health insurance solutions the AIG companies offer for amateur sports organizations, recreational organizations, and educational institutions, visit www.aig.com/specialty.
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