A Behavior Checklist for Youth Sports Coaches (Part 1 of 3)

by Dr. Darrell J. Burnett

When the UCLA Sports Laboratory surveyed children for the main reasons why they continue to participate in youth sports, the number one reason given was positive coach support. Research points to the benefits of getting kids to continue to participate in youth sports, noting that kids who stay in sports tend to stay in school, get better grades and have fewer behavioral problems.

It seems obvious that the key to a successful youth sports program where the kids keep coming back is positive support, which the kids feel from their coach.

It is extremely important that we, as coaches, remember that a successful youth coach is defined not in terms of a won-loss record, but in terms of how many kids decide to return to play again next year.

I praise my kids just for participating.

It’s important for us, as coaches, to put youth sports in the proper perspective. Kids have lots of pressures growing up today and it seems silly for adults to add more pressure in an area which is supposed to be “fun and games.” The first thing we need to do is to give the child credit for choosing to play a sport rather than hang out during free time. We need to credit each player just for being there. The youngster chose to sign up, come to practice and come to the games. Even when the child is having a bad day at practice or the game, at least he/she is participating and not dropping out. We need to remind ourselves not to notice and praise kids only when they achieve. It’s easy to praise the kids who do well in a sport. We also need to praise the youngsters who don’t shine but who stay with a sport day in and day out, showing up for practice and games, even though their playing time is limited.

I look for positives and make a big deal out of them.

It is said that a major source of a child’s self-view is what they hear about themselves from others, especially from adults. If we want to help promote a positive self-view in kids while they play sports we need to concentrate on looking for positives and then noticing them with animated praise.

Research shows that a healthy relationship has a 4 to 1 ratio of positives to negatives. That’s a good rule of thumb for coaches. As we arrive for practice or games, we should be thinking of trying to keep a healthy ratio of positives to negatives.

Moreover, if we want kids to hear the positives, we have to be specific. “Nice try” and “good game” are too vague. Kids need something specific so they can visualize it and remember it (i.e., “I like the way you hit the cut-off man,” “I like the way you kept hustling until the whistle blew.”) Helping a youngster notice his/her specific progress are all ways of noticing positives.

Finally, it’s not enough simply to notice a positive. It’s equally important to “make a big deal” out of it, to praise with animation. Why? Because kids hear, respond to and remember action. The bigger public commotion we make as a coach when a kid does something right, the better. In fact, a good motto is: “Praise in public and criticize in private.”

I stay calm when kids make mistakes, helping them learn from their mistakes.

The key to positive coach support is the art of interacting with a child after a mistake has been made. Ideally, youth sports offer kids great lessons in life: 1) it’s OK to make a mistake, 2) mistakes are inevitable and 3) mistakes are stepping stones for learning.

When a youngster makes a mistake in a sport, one of two things can occur: 1) the youngster can learn from the mistake and try to improve the next time; or 2) the youngster can become preoccupied with the fear of making another mistake.

If a coach stays calm and tries to instruct the child, there’s a chance that the child will see the mistake as an opportunity to learn. If the coach stays calm there’s a chance that the kid will stay calm, focus on the mistake and learn from it.

Unfortunately, as human beings, we often tend to have more animation in our reactions to negatives than in our reactions to positives. So it takes an extra effort on our part as coaches to remind ourselves to do all in our power to try to stay calm when mistakes occur. (Next: Checklist Part Two)

Dr. Darrell Burnett is a clinical psychologist and a certified sports psychologist specializing in youth sports. He has been in private practice for 25+ years in Laguna Niguel, California. His book, IT’S JUST A GAME! (Youth, Sports, & Self Esteem: A Guide for Parents), is described at his website, www.djburnett.com, along with his other books, booklets and CDs on youth sports and family life.