Tips for Coaches
The Power of Willingness
Willingness means: done, given, or accepted voluntarily or ungrudgingly.
Why is willingness so powerful? Because it means somebody does something without expecting personal gain, notoriety, or anything in return for their action or sacrifice. To illustrate willingness in sports terms, let’s look at what it can mean on your team:
For coaches, willingness might mean:
Willingness to give practice planning ample time
Willingness to open up the gym for players that want extra work
Willingness to give your team your 100% commitment
Willingness to listen to player feedback
Willingness to always be learning
Willingness to make adjustments
Willingness to show your players you care about them as people first
Willingness to hold everyone in your program accountable
Willingness to scout opponents diligently
Willingness to invest in your younger teams
Willingness to serve your community
Willingness to hold your staff to high character standards
Willingness to check on your players’ grades
Willingness to push your players to stay in shape outside of practice
Willingness to sit down with players and discuss their strengths/weaknesses
We could go on and on with what the power of the word willingness’ can do for your program. If you can get players to buy into doing things for the betterment of the team over their personal agendas, it can literally be program-changing for Barnwell School!
Types of Parents
When you’re coaching basketball, there’s no telling what types of parents you’ll run into. Somewhere in the last decade or two, youth sports have developed several problems, and often times parents are at the forefront of the issues.
Don’t get me wrong – coaches with improper motives can be just as bad, but there are sometimes parents that will literally drive people out of coaching.
So without further ado – the eight types of parents you’ll encounter as a basketball coach.
Since parents typically get painted in a negative light when it comes to basketball, we’ll start with the positive one. Positive Patty is the parent that will volunteer to help whenever needed. She’s the loudest one in the gym, but it’s always encouragement. She might even bring a pom-pom or a blowhorn to the games.
You don’t have to worry about the positive pattys when you’re a coach. You know that they are a champion of your program and you won’t hear any gripes from them.
This is another parent that coaches love to have as part of their program. Discipline Dan doesn’t let his kid talk bad about the coaches, and he’s usually the first one to ask “well is there a reason the coach is getting on you?” Discipline Dan usually played sports in the past, or has possibly even coached himself, so he typically will take the coach’s word over his own kid’s.
If Discipline Dan’s kid isn’t getting it done in the classroom or is goofing off during school, he’ll be the first one to sit his kid out of games. You won’t even have to do it as the coach, he’s already handling it as a parent.
You’re not going to hear too many gripes from Referee Rick about playing time, but you will ALWAYS hear him during games. Rick has never met an official that he liked, and he lets them know it. Sometimes you get the urge to turn around and ask Rick to pipe down because you think the referees are subconsciously hurting your team because Rick won’t quit griping at them.
Two-Face Tom is the parent that you can have a great conversation with and he’ll let you know that he’s ‘all in’ with your plans, and then will go behind your back and talk bad about you. No matter what you do, you know that Tom will never be happy, but he’ll never say it to you. You may even call Tom or approach him to ask if he has concerns and he’ll always tell you ‘no’, but it always gets back to you that he’s unhappy and has been bad-mouthing you.
Confrontation Carl thrives on being unhappy and he lets everybody in the gym know it. If you don’t play his son the amount he thinks you should, you can guarantee he’ll approach you about it. You’ll try to talk rationally to Carl, but he doesn’t get it. He usually never played sports growing up and is living through his kid.
The sad thing is usually his kid doesn’t want him to be confrontational, so you have to be able to separate the dad and the kid.
Sam is an easy-going guy that you won’t ever hear from. He doesn’t do much cheering at games, he doesn’t say much more than ‘hello’ to you, and you don’t really hear much else from him. These are easy parents to deal with, as they are quiet and mild-mannered.
This is the parent whose kid does no wrong. If you call to talk about problems their child is having in school, Dana usually blames it on the teacher not liking her child. If you sit their kid out a game because of poor conduct, they’ll respond that it’s out of character for their kid to act like that. These are parents that you’ll typically have trouble getting through to because they have delusional visions of their kid.
These are the parents that you’ll encounter and feel bad for the kid. These parents don’t come to many games, and they’re usually late picking their kid up from practices. On the one hand, they’re easy to deal with because you don’t have to worry about them griping, but on the other, you feel bad for their kid for not having a supportive parent.
Coaches and Parents Working Together
by Brian McCormick
This week, I attended a mandatory coach certification meeting (lecture) for the local school district. The presenter was the athletic director and softball coach at a local high school with years of experience.
The nugget of wisdom from those years of experience that he shared with the coaches – really the only time he deviated from reading the prepared script – was in regards to parent meetings.
He suggested (implored) that coaches have a parent meeting and tell the parents that they refuse to discuss playing time with the parents. He insisted that if the coach is firm in the meeting, he will not have issues with parents. He even said that when a parent comes to talk to him, his first question, in a stern voice, is: “You’re not here to discuss playing time, are you?” He warned coaches not to waffle on this issue.
I could not disagree more. Personally, when coaching high school athletes, I prefer that parents encourage their child to approach me directly so we can discuss any issues that the player may have, as parents rarely attend practices (all my practices are open).
I also use the 24-Hour Rule: I will not discuss playing time issues with parents or players until the next day, as I do not want the emotions of the game to impact the discussion. Once we have a chance to take a deep breath and remove ourselves from the game, I am more than willing to discuss playing time with parents.
Why? Because we want the same thing.
When I listen to coaches like this speak, they make parents (and often the players too) into adversaries. Parents have the same goals for their child as I have for all the players. The difference is that I have to balance the goals and desires of 12 players, while the parents are laser-focused on one player. Sometimes this causes parents to lose some perspective, but we still want the same thing.
What do parents want?
They want their child to have a great experience, and they feel a great experience is one where the child wants to go to practice and games and where the coach emphasizes sportsmanship, keeps it fun, teaches the skills and communicates openly and honestly with the players.
Are a coach’s goals any different? I hope that all players have a good experience, and I hope that all players want to go to practice. The worst thing that I can hear from a player is for a player to say, “I have to go to practice.” I don’t want players to feel that they have to do anything – I want them to play because they enjoy practices and games, like the competition, and want to learn something new.
There is nothing to gain from avoiding conflict by refusing to speak to parents and players. Parents simply want to ensure a positive experience for their child, and coaches should want the same. Nobody wants a player to have a bad experience. By meeting with parents and working together, as opposed to creating adversaries, coaches and parents can enhance the players’ experience.
Stop Using "Drills" in Practice
Even if you do not coach volleyball, I recommend John Kessel’s blog, as it is as good as anything that you will find on the Internet for coaches. In December, he posted an article titled, “No More Drills, Feedback or Technical Training.” Now, to some, this might eliminate the need for a coach, as those are three primary tools of coaches. However, he makes some great points in regards to all three.
Lately…I have come to the drill development chapter and asked those listening…to simply stop saying the word drill, and start saying the word game, for any exercise they have opted to teach their athletes.
I use this strategy with my players. Rather than do a passing drill, we play an advantage passing game like 6v5 with one player as an all-time offensive player and two teams of five. We play to 100 completed passes. Of course, recently I had to explain the purpose of the game because players were starting to play the game rather than develop skills to transfer to the real game. As Kessel writes:
The best way to do this is to simply listen to your kids, and stop doing drills and start doing games. There is a mind shift you will have to make when you step in front of your athletes and say “OK this is a game with a focus on ‘insert skill/skill combo here’ and the scoring is….”
Nearly my entire practice is games. We play ball handling games (tag), passing games, small-sided full court games to practice defensive and offensive transition, small-sided half-court games to practice ball and player movement and 5v5 scrimmages.
The goal, of course, is not to eliminate improvement or deliberate practice, but to make it more meaningful and game-like. After all, we practice to improve game performance, not for the sake of practicing. Again, as Kessel writes:
Deliberate practice is important. Many of you then should continue to do drills, and not make the change – but you still must make them more gamelike, with more scoring and competitive cauldron tracking, and follow the principles of motor learning….so keep saying drills if you want, just do them better so the kids have success in competition.
As for feedback, Kessel stresses proactive rather than reactive coaching. You see this a lot in games, where coaches try to teach and correct things after they happened in the game, rather than during practice or prior to their occurrence. As Kessel writes:
Coaches spend way too much time talking about what cannot be controlled at all – a past skill performance – and nowhere near enough time focusing on the only thing that athlete can control – the point being played right now. This change I am asking in your teaching to take place, is working to guide your players to focus on what is ahead, mentally and physically.
Dead-balls are a great time to coach during the game. Rather than call over a player and discuss or critique the previous play, prepare the player for the next play. For instance, if a player made a bad pass that led to a turnover and a foul on the lay-up attempt, rather than focus on the past mistake, prepare her for the next possession. What does she need to do next?
Kessel explains this in terms of practice, too:
Why can you, the coach, walk out and get the tip, from your spot sitting on the team bench, yet your players who are much closer right there on the court, cannot save the ball? You are seeing the opponent’s actions BEFORE contact, better than your players can is why. You are reading the CONTEXT of the developing play…your expertise starts to shout “SHE IS TIPPING THE BALL” well before the contact…Yet kids, trained by just “tipping drills” with a coach standing on a box, never get the incredibly important prelim information in real time – they just see a coach tipping over and over…So we must get better at teaching the game between contacts, teaching them why you KNEW that was coming, and teaching them to look wider, through the net, and see the flow of the game. Then give them feedforward when appropriate, so they can learn from you experience and make it their own.
This is so important.
I see spaces in opponent’s zones. I also see players on my team preparing to make a pass and know that we are about to commit a turnover and I cannot change the play in the moment. However, in the next practice, we will discuss why I knew that there was going to be a turnover. I need to teach my players to see and exploit the openings that I see. This is a process and one that will not be completed this season. It takes time to teach players to see and think the game, but if the coach never puts them in these situations, this learning gets delayed longer and longer.
This goes along with Kessel’s comments about technical training:
In impact this is “seen” even in the webinars, when I ask for the feedforward you would give a player spiking a ball down by their ear, not reaching at all. Clearly bad technique. The coaches provide these most common feedback comments – “Reach;” “Extend:” “Get on top of the ball:” “Keep your elbow up;” and the negative coaches say “Don’t drop your elbow!” They first forget to check for understanding by asking the player to show them the skill without the ball. If they did, my bet is the athlete would show good technique, reaching high, for they understand the technique. The problem is they are not at the right place and time, and simply will not fully extend and hit the ball off their elbow to show the reach you are expecting. The answer is not more technique, it is to come up with ways to guide them to be in the right place and time – in this case earlier and/or faster, which, by making that timing adjustment, will result in the ball being at a higher point in time for contact.
Basically, he says that the player knows the proper way to hit the ball just like most experienced players understand and can demonstrate the proper shooting technique. Missed shots for experienced players are not caused by lack of knowledge about the proper shooting technique, but by poor timing or shot selection: the player stops and never gets balanced or he is late to find his target or he shoots flat-footed because he isn’t ready to shoot on the catch.
Similarly, many players excel in 1v1 moves when going through drills without defense, but when they have to read the defense and make the correct move, suddenly their handle is not as tight and they are less effective. Rather than spending more time engaged in ball handling drills, they need more practice against defenders in the different situations that they face during a game.
Kessel outlines and evolved approach to coaching which focuses on preparing players for game situations and teaching skills based on the players’ true needs and weaknesses, not the easy instructions. By being more judicious and precise with corrections and feedback and centering practice drills in the game, we can develop more well-rounded and skilled players with a greater awareness on the court.
The Pressure of Perfectionism
How the pressure of perfectionism can be alleviated by coaching strategies that focus on effort not execution, beliefs and behavior
by Bo Hanson
‘The Rise of Perfectionism’ among college students is a significant trend according to an article by the Harvard Business Review. In summary, the article was reporting on research conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO), which surveyed 41,641 American, Canadian, and British college students from 1989 to 2016 and found an increasing tendency towards perfectionism – unrealistically high expectations of achievement.
Most profound and concerning was the WHO’s finding that the expectations society puts on individuals have doubled, when compared with the expectations placed on individuals by themselves and by others. This means the environment created by society is developing unhealthy behaviors in our young people.
The article caused me to reflect on the role that coaches, as figures of influence in young people’s lives and people whose primary role is to create a healthy environment, play in creating realistic expectations. A coach can create a culture that supports growth not unrealistic achievement and perfectionism. Or, and this may be controversial, a coach can also create the expectation that their athletes must perform at their ‘best’ every time. Being ‘your best’ every time is also an example of being perfectionistic and unrealistic. As well, defining what being at your best means is critical. Is it ‘giving best effort’ or ‘technically being mistake free’?
In this article we’ll examine where perfectionism comes from and explore some strategies to ensure your program gets results and supports athletes as people. We look at ways a coach can give feedback to encourage improvement, as opposed to focusing on short-term outcomes, the role of beliefs and how to establish an effective system of self-review. Plus, we look at intrinsic motivation and how it inherently combats the pressure of unrealistic expectation.
Focus on Effort NOT Execution
To jump straight in, coaches who get their culture right talk about effort not execution. They talk about commitment not compliance and they talk about being better not being perfect.
Saying to an athlete, ‘your effort during practice today was outstanding and this was the contributing factor to the great results you achieved for the team’, is very different and far more conducive to improvement than saying, ‘you did a wonderful job today. You’re such a talented player.’
The first round of feedback focuses on effort, the coach’s attention and words are rewarding the athlete for trying hard and applying themselves, the second comment does not encourage effort at all, rather, it’s about execution. Effort is the major aspect of any process.
A coach’s feedback is always important, but when an athlete makes a mistake it’s even more important! If an athlete has perfectionistic expectations of their performance and makes a mistake or falls short of their own standards (which they will), they can focus on the mistake rather than recovering and the negative self-talk is damaging for their self-belief and it can cause them to miss the next moment or the next play. They begin a downward spiral, not recovering.
The WHO identifies that socially prescribed perfectionism also has the most significant association with mental health problems like depression and anxiety.
When an athlete makes a mistake, it’s important that coaches recognize the athlete’s effort and give corrective instruction on what to do right next time. Thus, feedback must be focused on only what the athlete can control (process) and not the outcome. It’s imperative to give athletes a process for improving their performance – a how-to guide. Punishment based on execution will lead to an unhealthy fear of failure which is the kind of mindset we are trying to avoid. Focus on the pure technical or effort element to improve. Also, choose to focus on competing. All athletes make mistakes and competing is about recovering from these errors faster than the opposition.
In addition to recognizing effort, knowing what attributes individual athletes are working on, can help a coach give direct and encouraging feedback. These non-technical focus areas are the key to avoiding an overemphasis on outcomes and performance. They may also be a resource for coaches when performance outcomes are less than ideal. Non-technical elements include giving direction, being the energy in the team, etc.
Empowering Through Behavior
It’s worthwhile to backtrack here to explain that AthleteDISC Profiles empower the athlete and the coach with knowledge about an athlete’s behavioral strengths and areas to work on. Athletes can use this knowledge as a basis to build their list of behaviors they are working on. These behaviors can be assembled and assessed in a self-review. We call this exercise in self-review a Behavioral Scorecard and this can form a part of an athlete’s non-technical focus or role on the team.
Typically, behavioral attributes lead to performance attributes. Some examples of behavioral attributes are; integrity, respect, honesty, compassion and determination, while performance behaviors may include focus, confidence, competitiveness, self-discipline and mental toughness.
With the Behavioral Scorecard, each individual identifies five strengths (Natural Behaviors in their AthleteDISC Profile) that come easily to them and also five areas they need to consciously work on (Adapted Behaviors). They use their DISC Profile report as a tangible way to identify these. Then, on a weekly basis, they score themselves based on how they are performing.
Where they give themselves a low score, they then work on this to improve. The approach is to develop their ‘behavioral muscle’. This requires practice and conscious attention, in the same way we would develop any muscle. We need to exercise it regularly and consistently to become stronger and to be able to rely on it when the pressure is on.
Our focus is on behavior as it is something that’s adaptable and controllable.
Where behaviors are displayed at the highest level and execution is not 100%, then there is room for technical skill development which is what practice is about. When behavior is poor there exists a far greater problem.
Obviously, in high-performance sport, technical execution and high-level personal behaviors have to be present. When everyone does both of these consistently, then teams produce winning results. Another vital piece of the performance equation is the impact of an athlete and coach’s beliefs.
Impact of Beliefs
Beliefs are fundamental programs (like a computer program – and we have all been programmed in some way) which create a ‘map’ of how to navigate through life. A belief is also something we have absolute certainty about. Beliefs are not necessarily true or false, but are simply what you choose to believe about something. Beliefs can and are about all things… we have thousands of beliefs. Some beliefs however are more significant than others. Athletes have beliefs about their sport.
For example, their ability to play well or what the cause of a good performance is. If they say, ‘I practiced so well this week and played well in the game’ they are giving you their belief that great practice equals or leads to great game play. This is neither true or false. It may, for some, but not for others. The most critical aspect of a belief is if it is helping or hurting your performance. Coaches have a responsibility to ensure their athletes’ beliefs are helping them and not hurting their performance.
The belief that one has to be perfect is an example of a belief which does not help.
The WHO’s research concluded that, “the energy behind perfectionism comes largely from a desire to avoid failure”. Wanting to avoid failure is normal and usually pushes us to prepare and focus. However, if failure can only be avoided by being perfect, making no mistakes, then this unrealistic expectation will dramatically hinder performance. Often athletes become hyper-aware and over analyze their movement execution in the hope this will help them. It never works.
Again, these are all examples of beliefs athletes have which are not helping them.
Coaches need to be involved in this mental landscape, because previous generations had the opportunity to learn mental skills from their environment, comparatively, Millennials live in a world which is more heavily managed, and risk averse until parents wanting to shelter their children from negative or challenging experiences. Coaches have to become teachers of critical life and mental skills. Skills which the environment has not taught this generation through exposure or non-scrutinized errors and expectations from ‘too well meaning’ parents and Coaches.
Critical life skills like resilience, communication, leadership, team work, goal setting and decision making can become measurables and success in these areas can give rise to intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivators or internal motivation can’t be denied. Compared to extrinsic motivators like the media’s regards, payment for achievement or hierarchical promotion.
Some examples of intrinsic motivators are the quality of their effort and energy, whether they lived the team’s values, whether they performed in line with the behavioral qualities that make them proud of and whether they experienced personal growth. The feeling and belief that we are growing is an incredible intrinsic motivator. As well, most athletes know that growth is more likely to happen when we feel ‘allowed’ to make mistakes through trial and error.
When athletes do this, they experience strong personal fulfillment and pride in themselves that cannot be taken from them by an external observer’s comments such as media or others outside of the team or even the scoreboard itself. Meeting their own personal intrinsic motivators energizes an athlete to further commit themselves to give full EFFORT.
A belief that I’ve seen work very well is that:
There are no failures, only outcomes—as long as I learn something I’m succeeding.
The Overemphasis on Winning
The Single Biggest Contributor to the Massive Drop Out Rate in Youth Sports
by Duff Gibson
Last winter there were parents on our youngest son’s hockey team who thought of me as the non-competitive guy. They said things like, “I hope we win tonight! Oops, sorry Duff.” As a former World and Olympic Champion, it was an odd thing to hear. I’ve been a Canadian Champion in two different sports and held a provincial title in a third - I'm actually the opposite of the non-competitive guy. In fact, to me, it has always been about the challenge of competition, and this mindset has served me well both in and outside my athletic career.
What the parents were referring to, was my expressed belief that we make winning too important in youth sport. To be clear, I don’t believe kids should get a trophy for showing up. This practice has been shown to backfire in terms of boosting self-esteem and confidence, which presumably is why it exists in the first place. More to the point, if we present sport to kids properly, they don’t need to be bribed. If we help young people maintain perspective with regard to winning and losing, it’s much more likely they’ll develop a love for sport itself. The repercussions are significant if we get it wrong and at the moment we’re getting it wrong much more often than we’re getting it right.
"In a nutshell, the problem is you can't make winning very, very important, without also making losing humiliating."
Last summer, my wife and I were at our son’s baseball game and we witnessed something we hadn’t seen before. The kid at the plate hit it to the second baseman, who threw it to first in time to make the play. The umpire, who wasn't much older than the kids playing, called the runner ‘out’. The call however, was premature in that the first baseman actually dropped the ball. More times than I can count, I’ve seen adult coaches argue with and even bully young officials but I had never seen this - before the umpire could correct himself, the coach began yelling at his team to hustle off the field, as the out would have ended the inning. In essence, the move froze the umpire and the call was never reversed.
Generally, people either see this as acceptable within the realm of “competitive” sport or they see it as poor sportsmanship. Almost universally, people fail to appreciate the bigger picture. What was the coach’s motivation? Why did he also roll his eyes and walk away in disgust when the kids made fielding errors? More to the point, what do kids learn in such an environment? They learn sport is serious and winning is very, very important.
So what’s the problem? It’s a dog-eat-dog world and we want our kids to be successful. In a nutshell, the problem is you can't make winning very, very important, without also making losing humiliating. When you ask kids why they quit, and they quit in huge numbers beginning at around age 11, the number one reason is: it’s not fun anymore. Bullying a referee who’s probably also a kid, or yelling at the players, sends a very clear message that kids’ sport is serious stuff, or at least a lot of grown-ups think it is.
This part of the argument is cut and dry. There’s too much data out there to dispute it. If you take the fun out of sport, kids don’t want to play. But let me be clear about something. I’m not saying youth sport shouldn’t be competitive. I’ve spent a lot of time convincing my own kids that the fun part is the competition. I want them to see how rewarding it can be to face a challenge and perhaps not succeed initially, but keep trying and learn and grow and then maybe succeed the next time. I just don’t want the wins and losses interfering with the great value sport can be to a young person.
So how does it happen? Parents don’t intentionally take the fun out of sport. It happens because we’re really passionate about our kids and we want them to be winners and sometimes we get caught up in the moment. Still, there are those who believe they’re making their kids tougher. They want their kids to hate ‘losing’ as presumably, this is a motivation to win. Unfortunately, for so many kids, this is not what happens at all.
If we make losing humiliating, it doesn’t usually make them try harder. Kids often adapt by avoiding situations in which they might lose! If we want our kids to be successful, we should want them to seek out tougher competition - we should want them to challenge themselves. Of course, by facing a tougher opponent, one is more likely to lose. Placing such an emphasis on winning is actually teaching our kids to avoid the challenge, not seek it out. The work of Carol Dweck is a great reference here.
As mentioned previously, we need to make sure the priority of youth sport is about only two things: fun and learning. Again, I’m all for competition but we need to make sure kids learn and improve and most importantly, want to come back! And for the parents who think that's too soft or not competitive enough, I can say from personal experience as both an athlete and coach at the Olympic level, elite sport is also about fun and learning!
"Placing such an emphasis on winning is actually teaching our kids to avoid the challenge, not seek it out."
If you want to be a champion, sport needs to be fun. For senior athletes, we might substitute the word “passion” for “fun” or refer to “the love of the game”. Regardless, there needs to be something that makes one want to get out there and train and compete and get better every day.
Learning and being a student of your sport is also a critical factor for elite athletes. If you're ranked 50th in the world, you’re very good but you have a lot to learn before you have a chance at winning. It might be how to best adapt your equipment for specific conditions. It might be to learn a new tactic in a certain game situation or it may be how to best recuperate after a new training regimen. These are all individual and personal aspects of elite sport that need to be learned over time.
The bottom line is, if we don’t make sport about fun and learning, if we take it too seriously, if we teach kids that losing is something to be ashamed of, then talent is irrelevant. If they don’t want to come to the arena or field or gym, it’s over! It’s counterintuitive that de-emphasizing winning actually makes one more likely to win, but that’s exactly how it plays out time and again. Even more important are the wellness implications of being turned off sport and competition at a young age as opposed to being a lifelong participant. As a parent or coach, you have the greatest influence on a child’s view of sport and physical activity and this is something that will affect the rest of their lives.
Youth Sports Should Be About 3 Things
- Teaching kids to love the sport
- Teaching kids how to play the sport
- Teaching kids about life through sport
Winning Isn't Everything...
...but making the effort to win is!
The Language of Successful Coaching
1) I believe in you
2) I trust you
3) Your role matters
4) I appreciate your commitment
5) I’m here to help
6) I want your opinion
7) I’m teaching you tools to succeed
8) I believe in our team
9) I was wrong/ I’m sorry
10) Your future is important to me
Three Coaching Superpowers
- The ability to simplify
- The ability to prioritize
- The ability to make analogies
Use Empowering Nicknames
It is amazing what happens when you give young kids powerful nicknames. The kids tend to rise to the name given to them. Imagine dubbing two of your boys the "Super Serve Brothers". Chances are they will be rock solid servers for your volleyball team all season long. Can you think of other great nicknames that will empower your players?
Creating the Caring Climate to Promote Sports Participation
By Brian McCormick
In competitive athletics, caring appears to have a negative connotation. We are not looking for caring coaches, but competitive coaches who can advance a child’s athletic career. Caring tends to be associated with soft, and everyone knows that the tough teams win. Over and over, I witness coaches screaming at children for mistakes, while parents sit idly by in the stands, shaking their heads up and down because their son did make a bad turnover.
Joe Keller was vilified in Play Their Hearts Out by George Dohrmann. I watched Keller coach, and I use that term with the loosest possible meaning, one game. Demetrius Walker, Keller’s famed prodigy, was an 8th grader and his team of southern California All-Stars was playing a local team from Sacramento in a tournament in Portland. Keller stalked the sideline, ranting and raving, yelling at players from his team and the other teams, and turning to talk trash to the crowd. I was astonished. At one point, with the game well in hand, he called a timeout, stormed on the court, grabbed a player around the shoulders and proceeded to scream at him for a bad pass or a missed screen. At another moment, as future UCLA forward Brandon Lane dribbled down court, he yelled at his player to “do him, take the ball from him, he can’t play with you.” When the Sacramento team’s coach, assisted by a California state-championship winning high-school coach, called timeout, Keller turned to the crowd and said, “Who does this guy think he is trying to coach with me?”
I looked around in the stands at the parents of these players on his team. I could not believe that anyone would allow their child to play for a guy like this. I was shocked, but not too surprised, as I had to hold back my assistant coach one time when we were coaching U9s because he wanted to go after the opposing coach who had screamed and belittled his own son so much that he was in tears on the sideline. This coach who had his son in tears is a well-respected AAU coach.
This is the environment that many appear to accept, tolerate, and even embrace. Caring is not an overwhelming concern for most parents caught up in the advancement of their child’s career. However, nothing about caring has to be uncompetitive. Caring includes “the ability to reduce anxiety, willingness to listen, rewarding good behavior, being a friend, and appropriate use of criticism” (Newton et al., 2007). The caring climate was defined as “the extent to which individuals perceive a particular setting to be interpersonally inviting, safe, supportive, and able to provide the experience of being valued and respected” (Newton et al., 2007). Is this climate uncompetitive? Would seeking a coach who creates such a climate negatively impact one’s athletic aspirations? Is such a climate soft?
Our first goal in youth sports should be to create an environment that maintains the child’s interest and enjoyment in the activity. According to Ryan and Deci, the more amateur the level of sport, the more likely it was that the motives for engaging in it were intrinsic. Therefore, young children begin to play with an intrinsic motivation – they participate for their own interest, enjoyment, and the inherent satisfaction from participating (Ryan & Deci, 2000). However, a “controlling coaching climate, contingent reward motivators, and evaluative pressures are all environmental factors that are at serious risk for undermining sports participation” (Ryan & Deci, p. 4).
A caring climate, however, has been shown to correlate positively to a positive attitude toward the coach and teammates, caring behaviors, enjoyment, and commitment in youth soccer players (Fry & Gano-Overway, 2010). Therefore, if the goal is to increase enjoyment and commitment to the sport, a caring climate has a positive effect on the goal. In terms of competitive aspirations, few players will ascend to a high level of sports participation if they do not enjoy the activity, and nobody excels without a commitment to the activity.
According to Fry and Gano-Overway (2010), a coach who emphasizes positive reinforcement, provides appropriate feedback and creates a task-involving climate is more more likely to have players who enjoy the experience and continue participation. A task-involving climate means that success is defined as improvement, value is placed on effort and learning, satisfaction comes from working hard, errors are part of the learning process, and evaluations are absolute and based on progress rather than normative to peers (Ames & Archer, 1988).
Caring is characterized by engrossment and motivational displacement (Fry & Gano-Overway, 2010). One attends to the needs of others by listening and sympathizing. To create a safe, supportive environment, coaches should make every player feel important in some way. This involves talking to the player as a person, and not just a basketball player. It may involve giving lesser players a certain role to give them a feel of belonging with the team rather than feeling like an outcast or afterthought. This means that coaches need to set the tone for acceptable behavior and not allow any negative banter between players. Coaches must create a team where there is mutual trust and respect between coaches and players and players and players.
The easiest way to create this climate is to model it and set the expectations early. To model it, a coach can arrive early and give every player a high five as he or she arrives. While a simple gesture, this shows a sense of caring on the part of the coach. To set the expectations, a coach can discuss respect for others and the environment that he desires (demands).
When coaches scream and yell at players and leave them in tears, the players do not feel safe. This is not a learning experience in toughness or tough love. This is a poor environment for children. Instead, coaches should emphasize a safe, respectful, supportive for all players to enhance feelings of enjoyment and intentions to continue participation. Before a player can excel, he or she must enjoy the activity and commit to it. A caring climate increases these feelings.
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A Letter to My Son's Coach
Last weekend, after the final game of the season, you posed with my son and his seven teammates in front of the goal for some team pictures. There you were, one man towering over eight little boys with their arms linked like a chain, big smiles on each face. You tolerated the parent paparazzi and even humored the boys with a crazy-face picture. You didn’t complain; you just acted like a nine-year-old, too, but I’m pretty sure that you were glad when the photo session was over.
Coach, lots of kids play soccer these days, and many of them have similar pictures on the shelves in their rooms. But to my son, this picture – this team, this experience – it is all so special. This team picture represents so much more than just the hours that he spent kicking a ball around with some friends. It is bigger than his successes and his mistakes on the field. It is more significant than the assists that he made or the points that he defended or the breakaways that he finished. And every time I see that picture, Coach, I wonder if you know, if you really understand, just how much you mean to my kid.
My son is a lucky guy. He has some great men in his life, men of integrity, who are training him to be a great man, too. His dad is always cheering on the sidelines. His grandpas love him more than words. His uncles spoil him with gifts and attention. But there is something about you, the other man in his life, that matters to him so much. There is something there that is hard to explain, something special about the relationship between a boy and his coach. I don’t know if you feel it, Coach, but I know that he does, and I hear that the other boys do, too.
You should know that my son, like most little boys, complains about a lot of things. He complains about homework. He complains about taking care of the dog. He complains about brushing his teeth at night. But one thing that he never complains about is going to practice. Every cell in that kid’s body desires to work hard and play hard with his team. He is hungry to learn and to improve for himself and his friends. If he doesn’t feel well and can’t attend school, no problem, but just the thought of missing a practice or a game can reduce my little man to tears. His team gives him a drive and a purpose, and you set the positive tone for that. You teach him to sweat, to show leadership, and to strive to improve. You teach him to persevere when things aren’t easy. You teach him what the give and take of being a teammate really means. These aren’t just lessons that are important in soccer; these are lessons that will guide him for the rest of his life.
Listen, Coach, I live with two little boys, and I know how frustrating they can be. I’m guessing you’ve already noticed, but sometimes they don’t listen. Okay, let’s be honest:A lot of the time, they don’t listen. They can be looking right into your eyes, nodding in agreement, and still not be paying attention to a single word that you’ve said. I’ve been there, Coach; I get it. I also know that they are easily distracted. SO easily distracted! I imagine that if a squirrel runs by or an airplane flies overhead during practice, you probably lose ten minutes just trying to get eight little boys back on track. Then there’s that little boy thing where they can’t keep their hands off each other. I don’t understand it, but I live with them, and I know that even the simplest, quietest activity always ends in wrestle mania. And let’s not forget that sometimes little boys can be insensitive with their words while at the same time being incredibly sensitive with their feelings. Stir all of this craziness into a pot, and the fact that you accomplish anything in the short amount of time that you spend with these animals is something amazing. And you keep coming back week after week, Coach. I guess, like us parents, you also see their joy, their innocence, their loyalty, their honesty, and their pure, undefiled love of the game. Thanks, Coach, for focusing on the positive when my kid tries your patience, and I know that he and his friends sometimes do.
Your time coaching our son is busy, and our evenings are often a rush, so we don’t have many opportunities to talk to you, but I want you to know that we see what you do. You might think that we parents are judging you by the wins and the scores, but that’s not really true. Sure, we want our team to be competitive, we want to see our children grow, but we have entrusted you with our greatest treasures, so there are lots of other things that matter from the sideline. Like that time you put your arm around my son while he was sitting on the bench. Do you remember? Probably not. But I do, and I promise I won’t forget that moment. It mattered to me more than anything else in that game. I’m telling you, I notice.
Every fist bump that you’ve given him when he runs off the field.
Every pat on the back that you’ve shared when he’s having a rough game.
Every serious, one-on-one consultation on the sidelines.
Every team huddle and chant.
Every time you have stood up for a player on our team.
Every time my son has deserved your frustration but received your caring instruction instead.
And then there were the times when a player was injured and you immediately ran to his aid. Do you have any idea how agonizing it is for a mom to allow someone else to be the first responder when her child is hurt just a few feet away? But I know that my son would find comfort in you if he were suffering, and that matters more to me than the score.
There were highlights this season, moments when my son’s skills shined and his contributions made a huge difference to his team’s success. You were the first one to congratulate him on those occasions, and that meant so much. And there were times, like every player experiences, when he did not play his best. We all saw it, Coach. I don’t know why he was having a bad day, but I do know that he didn’t want to disappoint you. I saw how you treated him when he was already down. You saw him for what he is, a kid with skills that are still developing, a kid who doesn’t always perform on cue. He could have been an easy target for a frustrated coach, but you didn’t even yell at him. You encouraged him. You instructed him. You motivated him to keep trying and to want to improve at the game that he loves.
Here’s the thing, Coach. We aren’t trying to raise a world-class athlete here, although we do encourage our boys to follow their dreams. We are trying to raise a man, a man who works hard and plays fair, a man who learns from his mistakes and always perseveres, a man who encourages others and shows compassion and shares grace. A man like his dad and his granddads. A man like you.
Thank you for showing my kid that soccer, as much as he loves it, is just a game, but being a part of a productive, positive team can be his real life.
Thank you for being a part of OUR team.
A Soccer Mom
Fun is NOT a 4-Letter Word
By John O'Sullivan
When I was a kid, my parents taught me to avoid those bad four-letter words we all have heard. You know the ones I mean, the ones that you would first hear in school and then think it was OK to use them at home until you saw that look on dad’s face! My siblings and I learned pretty quickly that some four-letter words were bad, and to be avoided at all times.
In youth sports these days, there is a new four-letter word in the minds of some competitive sports folks. It is F-U-N. The mere thought that sports can be competitive AND fun makes some people shudder, but it should not.
One of our readers recently shared a story with me about attending a 10-year-old AYSO youth soccer game in New York City. After watching the players struggle for a while, he asked a parent of one of the participants “how often do you practice?”
The response: “We don’t practice. Here we don’t play for competition; we just want the kids to have fun.”
I find this very sad. Not the fun part, because of course, we want our kids to have fun. What is sad is the idea that competition, learning, and fun cannot coexist.
Somehow the negative aspects of hyper-competitive sports - the over the top parents and coaches, excessive costs and commitments, and the often stressful environment – have created a counter culture in sports that has gone so far in the opposite direction that it is not serving the kids either. This is the trophies for everyone crowd, the people who give everyone awards for simply showing up and doing the bare minimum, or do not think kids should keep score (even though they do, but then forget about it as soon as they find out what the post-game snack is). Grrr.
As our reader asked me when sharing this story: “Why do we think that it has to be one or the other? Why do we only associate excellence or competence with the negative aspects of competition? How do we communicate to parents who correctly identify the negative aspects of early competitive play: yelling coaches and parents, short term goals over long-term development, anxiety and pressure of tournaments, etc, that an environment that does not promote competence ultimately undermines the joy of learning and playing well?”
In other words, why is “fun” a four-letter word in competitive sports? Why is the concept of competition an anathema in recreational sports? Can’t competitive sports also be fun, and recreational sports provide a great learning environment?
The answer is a resounding yes.
Unfortunately, this answer is in direct contradiction to what some people might call “conventional youth sports wisdom.” Such conventional wisdom states that a “competitive” youth sports experience is supposed to happen at the expense of an “enjoyable” one.
The problem is that such wisdom, especially when combined with the push to specialize early, the emphasis on winning over development, the mythology surrounding 10,000 Hours of deliberate practice, and the unrealistic pursuit of scholarships, is very hard to combat. It has become the status quo, not to be argued nor questioned, regardless of any science showing otherwise.
To illustrate how difficult it is to combat conventional wisdom thinking, may I present the case of RICE: Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation for a sprain or muscle strain. Most people have heard this acronym. Everyone has been told RICE is the way to deal with sprains and strains since we were kids; its easy to remember, and easy to do on your own and at home. Yet there is increasing evidence that it is completely wrong and that it actually inhibits healing.
Even Dr. Gabe Mirkin, who coined the term RICE in 1978, has recently come out against it, and said he may have been wrong. New studies show that while ice helps with pain control, it prevents inflammation, and thus delays healing. Yet look up nearly any major sporting website, Wikipedia, you name it, and there it is, RICE as the recommended remedy for sprains and strains. It is hard to change conventional wisdom!
We face the same problem trying to convince parents and coaches that competition, learning, and enjoyment actually belong together!
As I have written before, top sports scientists tell us that children need three things to become high-performers: autonomy, intrinsic motivation and enjoyment. The enjoyment part is so often lost in the shuffle of private coaching, year-round commitments, and early specialization. Yet enjoyment is absolutely crucial.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that unless your child’s desire to play and enjoyment of play matches the effort needed to succeed, he or she will never make the commitment necessary to get to the next level.
The problem is that we now equate enjoyment with not trying our best, and this is wrong. Athletes who are enjoying themselves naturally try harder. Elite athletes love to play. This enjoyment and passion did not start when they went to college or the pros; it has been there since day one. As Lionel Messi states in this video, “I didn’t compare myself to anyone. I just enjoyed playing.”
The problem is conventional wisdom tells us that having fun in training will not develop competence. Yet science tells us that when children have fun doing something, they will do it longer. They will do it more often, outside of practice as well as during practice. By default, they will develop more competence and confidence!
The best coaches know this. Unfortunately, many of them feel pressured to make the “best” use of valuable ice time or field rental time. They say “sorry, no scrimmages, no friendly games, we need more drills and repetitive exercises to get ready for our next competition” This makes the parents happy. This makes coaches the center of attention of training. Yet it does not fully serve the needs of the most important participants, the kids!
You see, game-like conditions recreated in training are actually far better in preparing players for actual games, as are small sided games and scrimmages. They replicate the situations, decisions, patterns, and speed of actual matches, which rarely happens in unopposed, repetitive drilling activities. Sure, a kid can pass to this line and run to that one, but can he play the right pass to the right side of his teammate at the right speed to tell his teammates where to turn, where the pressure is, and where the next pass should go? Can he do that with pressure coming from behind him, from in front, against multiple defenders? Can he show up in the right space at the right time, or just run to a cone because that is what his coach taught him to do? Only the game teaches the subtleties of the actual game.
We have far too many training environments that are too coach-centric. Convention wisdom tells parents to look for these environments, with the domineering coach, constantly shouting instructions and solving problems, laying out dozens of cones, and clearly in charge. These coaches make all the decisions, and tell players where to go, when to go, and why to go. The game no longer belongs to kids. Kids do not get to make game like decisions in practice, and play fearful of making mistakes and incurring the coach’s wrath. Then game time comes along, and we wonder why the kids cannot figure it out for themselves! Couple this with the pressure to get a result, or advance in a tournament, and pretty soon kids are not improving during competition, they are getting worse, They are getting scared. And they are no longer enjoying themselves.
Learning can definitely happen without fun.
Enjoyment can definitely take place in the absence of learning.
And competition can both promote or stifle both enjoyment and education.
To truly take an athlete’s game to the next level, though, you need the coexistence of learning, enjoyment, and competition, not an absence of them.
First and foremost you need fun, to keep the athlete motivated and coming back. You need learning – the development of competence – to promote improvement, confidence, and control of the experience. And you need competition to test these skills from time to time in an environment that makes mistakes likely, and thus promotes the opportunity to learn.
FUN is NOT a 4-Letter word. It can and should become the foundation of every athletic experience for kids. And when combined with learning and the right type of competitive environment, you have the ideal place to develop athletes who perform up to their potential.