Make Them Want to Come Back

By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck

Over the past ten years I’ve written many articles on youth sports. One of my original and most often repeated comments is that your first goal as a coach should be that every player wants to come back and play again next season. Regardless of wins, losses, or anything else, if you accomplish this, you’ve succeeded. But how do you do this?

The first thing to realize is that you are the conduit between the player and the sport you are coaching. You represent the sport to the player. It will be difficult for a young player to like the sport, but not like the coach. One of the main reasons youngsters quit sports at an early age is not that they didn’t enjoy the game itself – but rather, they did not like the person managing the team.

So make them like you. The easiest and most obvious way to do that is to smile. Doesn’t mean you can’t ever be stern or serious, but when the players are showing up at the field, make each one feel like you’re glad to see them. Set the tone by joking around a little with them during warm-ups. I used to try to make a nickname for every player at the beginning of the season. Some didn’t stick, but a few did and the kids loved it. You can be serious once practice starts, and it’s OK to bring some intensity based on the age level you’re coaching. But be sure that every criticism is balanced by something else the player did well, (e.g. “You’ve got to watch that ball all the way in. But I like the way you used two hands.”)

Part of making them like you is running fun practices. A serious practice that teaches fundamentals and pushes players to perform can still be fun. I’ve recently seen several drill videos put out by national organizations designed to help their volunteer coaches. In them a professional coach demonstrates how to perform a particular skill, then proceeds to have 2-3 players mimic his actions. Not only is the drill boring, but when have you ever run a practice for just two or three players? Apparently the other ten kids are standing off-camera just watching. Each drill should be made into a game involving every player. All of the drills in our deck of cards have a “Make it a Game” feature that turns an ordinary drill into a competition the entire team will love.

What about being competitive and trying to win? Much of what is written about the “ills” of youth sports blames coaches who only care about stroking their own egos with victories, even if it is at the expense of some of the kids. And much of that is legitimate. Clearly, it is important to judge your audience. I’ve written many articles about when it is OK to get more serious about winning and how far it should be taken – I don’t intend to get into that here.

But when I coached in the Majors Division of Little League, (ages 10-12) we wanted to win. And just about every other coach in the league did too. The kids wanted to win also. Skeptics will say we were over-the-top, that it shouldn’t be about winning at that age. It wasn’t only about winning, but we did try our best to win. One might say that philosophy is bad for the players who aren’t stars on the team, but I disagree. Because we made it a point after every game to go player-by-player and highlight something each individual did to help the team. In fact, we worked even harder to give recognition to the players who didn’t usually contribute as much. If we weren’t all trying to win, that praise wouldn’t have been as significant. And when a youngster with just average ability rose up and did something great and made a huge, positive difference in a game, the thrill he got, the adulation from his teammates, that one moment might be enough to make him want to come back again next season. And when it’s all said and done, that’s exactly what we’re trying to accomplish.

Brian Gotta is a former professional youth baseball coach and current volunteer Little League coach and board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels and a baseball coaching book which can be found at www.booksbygotta.com. He can be reached at brian@coachdeck.com

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