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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Choosing the Best Youth Sports Program for Your Child

By Jeffrey Rhoads

Ideally your child plays for a coach who is an excellent instructor-one who recognizes teaching opportunities and communicates lessons in a positive, uplifting manner. But in addition to a good coach, participating in the right youth sports programs is essential to your child’s enjoyment of sports. Choose the wrong program or league, and you risk damaging your child’s desire to play sports.

Just as a coach should find a team role in which a young player can succeed, you must locate the youth sports program that best suits your child’s age, interests, and level of play. Only by providing your child with a progression of playing opportunities that match these factors, will you provide him or her with the best sports experience.

Starting Out
For the youngest children playing organized sports for the first time (ages five through eight), the emphasis is primarily on fun and basic skill instruction. Fun at this level is running around with a minimum of structure and rules. Within a couple of years, your child can more fully participate in the adult version of the game and begin to learn additional individual skills and team concepts. Competition is also introduced at this level. Youth sports programs that are developmental in nature and participation-based are essential to children in both of these age groups. You should make sure that your child’s youth sports leagues emphasize these principles.

As your child ages and his or her skills develop, you may see your child excel in one or more sports. You will then face the decision of placing your child in a more advanced, competitive league. Possibly your child will have the chance to play with older children. An opportunity for your child to begin specializing in a sport may also appear. In these decisions, carefully weigh the pros and cons. If your child truly enjoys a sport, exhibits a competitive nature, and is more physically mature, playing at higher levels with better players will usually improve his or her level of play. But advance your child too quickly and you risk your child’s confidence and enjoyment of the experience.

Avoid SpecializationExplore Multiple Sports
Specializing too early presents the risks of injury, burnout, and loss of crossover benefits from other sports. Several studies (most recently a 2011 study conducted by Loyola University Medical Center) have found a higher incident of injury associated with early specialization. For children who have not yet reached puberty, specialization in a single sport is also risky because physical maturation (changes in body type) may limit their ability to succeed in that sport. For example, a young girl who grows to be six feet tall is unlikely to find success as a gymnast.

Try to balance your child’s development against these risks and select youth sports programs that you feel best match your child’s particular personality and ability. The right youth sports program should challenge your child, but also enable them to enjoy the entire experience.

Should your child participate in select travel teams, you should still look for a program that provides good instruction. A league that is comprised mostly of competitive games, but little practice time, will not provide the opportunities for a coach to teach and develop his or her players.

Also remember that competitive, talented athletes often still enjoy leagues which emphasize participation. These leagues can provide a chance to play with friends in a more relaxed environment. They also offer better athletes the opportunity to develop and exercise leadership skills. As a parent interested in your child’s happiness, you could do a lot worse than placing your child in a participation-based instructional league.

Provide Opportunities for Self-Directed Play
And finally, provide your child with opportunities to play pickup games with other kids. This unstructured, self-directed form of play complements organized sports and affords your child with other essential benefits.

Jeffrey Rhoads has coached youth sports for over 25 years. He has worked with all levels of young players–including both absolute beginners with limited athleticism and more talented athletes who went on to success in high school and college. Mining both his experience as a youth coach and his own joyful, sports-filled youth, his writings provide valuable guidance for parents, coaches and players on how to create a great youth sports experience. He is the author of The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the Best Youth Sports Experience for Your Child.

His blog, Inside Youth Sports, can be found at: www.insideyouthsports.org

Get your drills here

We know that most volunteer mom and dad coaches in Little League, youth soccer, youth basketball, softball and other sports won’t go online and watch streaming video and get drills for practices. They won’t read lengthy manuals and books. They need something fast, organized and even fun that they can use “on the fly” to run an effective training session even if they have no experience or have had no time to prepare. By giving them our deck of cards with 52 good, fundamental drills in four color-coded categories you’re giving them a chance to succeed. What better gift can you give to your hard-working volunteers?