What "Winning Coaches" Know
Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see. — John W. Whitehead
It's about the kids!
A "winning coach" becomes involved in coaching because he or she loves to watch kids play and grow. He or she measures the success of a season not by the number of games won, but by the number of "kids won" — those who are learning lessons that will make them winners in life. A "winning coach" knows that to help build "winning kids," he or she must first "win over" every child on the team. Enthusiastically, a "winning coach" invests one of his or her most precious gifts, time, in our most precious asset, our children.
The child comes first, then the athlete, and then the sport.
A number of years ago, one of the parents of a boy on my hockey team asked me what my coaching priorities were. I had not given much thought to a question like this, so I didn't really have a prepared thought. But I thought for a moment and told her that my priorities were first, to assist in the development of a young person; second, to assist in the development of a young athlete; and lastly, to assist in the development of a young hockey player.
When I got home that evening, I wrote down a priority list on a piece of paper and put it in a new folder labeled Coaching. Through the years, I have added many thoughts to this folder. And each year I review it for my own benefit. In this whole collection of ideas, no one thought stands out to me more profoundly than my list of coaching priorities.
As coaches, we must remember this very simple priority: We are dealing with children first and foremost, then athletes and players. When we don't recall this fact, we risk ignoring the primary needs of the vast majority of the children with whom we work, children so urgently in need of our care and support.
Assist in the development of a young person.
Most of the children we work with in a season will not play the sport(s) we coach in high school, let alone in college or beyond. They will not be the stars of their teams. They will be kids who play for a few years and then move on to other interests. What, then, should be our first priority? Simple. Our first priority should be to assist in their development as people, with an emphasis on teaching them life lessons.
As coaches, we need to give children on our teams the opportunity to experience situations that enhance their character and their future. The truly important ingredients for success in life don't have anything to do with goals, strikeouts, touchdowns, or free throws. They have everything to do with integrity, hard work, perseverance, teamwork, and the ability to deal with both adversity and success.
Not every kid we work with will be a great athlete, but our goal should be to assist every kid we work with to be a great person, one who makes great personal decisions.
If every youth athletic coach measures his or her success based on this criterion, each can strive for a "perfect season."
Assist in the development of a physically fit youth.
Considering the increasingly sedentary lifestyle that many live and the health risks associated with it, we need to do everything possible to encourage children to make a lifelong commitment to good health. All of us can encourage children to live a healthier lifestyle by modeling proper exercise, diet, and behavior. As coaches, we can give children a head start by helping build their physical assets of coordination, strength, balance, and conditioning. We need to be creative and structure our practices to build upon the basic building blocks of athleticism.
What we don't need to do is "turn off" a kid to a sport because he or she may be overweight or less gifted athletically. Too many times, these children are left behind by coaches because they may be less able to do what other children do, and therefore, may actually detract from the team's ability to win. These kids are the most important ones to keep actively involved. The positive experience a coach can give these less athletically gifted children may change their lives forever, for the better.
We need to build young athletes for their future as adults — adults who love to exercise and stay active because they can associate positive memories with these activities. That's a goal every coach can shoot for!
Assist in the development of a young player of a specific sport.
With the first two priorities firmly in mind, our third priority is to teach our young athletes a specific sport — hockey, baseball, football, swimming, soccer, volleyball, basketball, you name it.
Coach, kids have been pestering their parents to sign them up to play your sport. Depending on the age and skill level of the child, parents have expectations ranging from simply introducing their young child to a sport to seeing a significant improvement in their child's skill level and understanding of the game. Now your job, as the parents see it, is to "give them their money's worth."
To meet expectations and optimize the potential for success, I strongly suggest putting together a plan. To me, a plan means a written outline for the entire season, one that specifically lists the kinds of activities that you will use to teach. Keeping the age and skill level in mind, develop your coaching objectives and put together a coaching calendar for the season in writing. The idea is to build the season for the kids and develop a rhythm and flow of learning. For example, if you have four weeks before your first game, develop a series of building blocks that will allow you to be prepared to compete. With younger children, this four-week period may be devoted primarily to instructing and fine-tuning technique, in such activities as throwing, shooting, skating, and passing. For an advanced team, this time may be best used to review basic skills. Early on, focus more on conditioning and styles of play the team will use. Later in the season, your coaching calendar will allocate time to explore the nuances of your sport so kids can move along the experience curve, maintain interest, and build confidence.
Failing to create and follow a plan may result in less than optimal results for your players, and may put them at a competitive disadvantage in years to come.
Never forget that "sport" is defined as any athletic activity giving enjoyment or recreation.
The definition of "sports" does not involve any reference to winning or losing. To understand how a child views "sports," you don't have to go any further than watching a puppy. A puppy runs for the sheer pleasure of running. Put a group of puppies together and watch them play tag and wrestle, merely for the joy of exerting energy and competition.
If, as a coach, you extract the enjoyment from the athletic activity because of your intensity, then it's no longer a sport to a child. It becomes drudgery and a burden, and not too many kids are going to grow from the experience.
Take pleasure in watching kids run, exercise, and grow. Trust me, those are the memories you'll retain in your later years.
Trust: the first building block for winning coaching.
The single most important ingredient for building a strong coaching relationship with a child is trust. Loosely defined, trust means that child knows and truly believes that you have his or her best interests at heart. At the beginning of the season and consistently throughout the year, you must convince each child on your team that you care about him or her as a person.
How do you accomplish this? Frankly, you have to put on your sales hat. It is your job to sell each child on your sincerity, your values, and what you see your purpose as coach to be. You look each of them in the eye when you speak. You are empathetic and tender with the players on your team.
At our very first practice of the year, I collect the kids around me and talk to them about my rules and our objectives for the season. Much of what is in this book, I share with them at the beginning — the importance of learning, working hard, getting better, and having fun; the emphasis on controllables versus uncontrollables; and the importance to use this season to assist in their "growing up."
Telling kids up front what you want for every player on your team during the season is a great first step to establishing and building upon their trust. But be careful. Kids have great memories. Don't promise something at the beginning of the season that you can't deliver.
Remember who you are not!
You are not Vince Lombardi! This is not the NFL, or Notre Dame. You are not coaching a professional sports team! Your ego, athletic prowess, or coaching ability is not on the line. Your job is not on the line. Lighten up!
I am still dumbstruck at the seriousness, intensity, anger, and competitiveness that youth athletic coaches display on the sidelines. I recently witnessed a seventh grade football game. One of the assistant coaches was screaming at a kid to hustle off the field. Apparently, the twelve-year-old was not moving fast enough, so the coach grabbed him by the shoulder pads and yanked him to the sidelines, nearly throwing the youngster to the ground. One would have thought we were watching a professional football game with a league championship on the line. I am convinced that when he looked back on the incident, the coach realized how silly he looked, how humiliated he made his player feel, and how angry the player's parents were. But it's too late. The damage has been done.
Remember who you are. You're a volunteer coach who is there, first and foremost, to make a real difference in children's lives. Leave the histrionics behind.
"Winning coaches" always remember that they are not playing the game.
It's a kid's game, played by kids for the benefit of kids. You are not a participant on the field of competition. When your team loses, that doesn't mean you personally lost, that you're a lousy coach, or that you won't be asked back next year. Similarly, if your team wins, that doesn't necessarily qualify you for the Coach of the Year award. Yet most coaches fall victim to the short-term euphoria and self-gratification of a "win."
"Winning coaches" have learned to keep their own competitive energies with respect to winning in check when coaching youth athletics. Sure, the kids want to see you care, and you want to see them win! But when a coach puts his personal need to win above the interests of all the players on the team, he has broken a contract with his players and failed his duty.
A few years ago one of my sons participated in a spring hockey league. For the first two games, he was placed as a substitute on the third line, and decisions were made during the games that resulted in virtually no playing time for him. His team won both games with the first line scoring all the goals and playing the majority of the time. My son lost interest in the sport and hung up his skates for a couple of years. My sense is, these coaches were personally competing, enjoyed coaching a "winning" team, and would do whatever was necessary not to lose. The fact that they "lost" a kid, one who thoroughly understood how they felt about him as a player, was an acceptable cost of having a winning team.
Don't make this mistake. I guarantee that you will make better decisions as a coach if you always remember that you are not playing the game!
Build players' self-esteem to strengthen their positive decision-making ability.
Think about it. Is the score of the game, or how many games we win during a youth athletic season, really that important?
The really important "score" we should focus on is the number of great decisions our youngsters make in the future. Take it from me, these children grow up fast. Before you know it, they will start playing truly life-altering "games." Instead of taking place on courts and fields, these games will be played in new venues — basements, bedrooms, and the streets. Instead of decisions involving blocking and tackling, these decisions will involve drugs, sex, cigarettes, violence, and other life-altering behaviors. Every single one of our kids, from the star of the team to the child who needs the most help, will face these decisions in the very near future.
Our ultimate goal as coaches, and as a society, is to help prepare these kids to make the right decisions. Let's do everything we can to help them like themselves, care about themselves, and be strong enough to make the tough decisions they know are right.
Do as I do!
Never forget that you are a role model every second that you are with a child! Your kids see everything you do, especially in times of crisis. It doesn't mean you have to be perfect; it just means that you must always be aware you are constantly teaching them and need to do your very best.
Don't tell the kids to be respectful to referees and then yell at them yourself, or make disparaging comments about refs in the kids' presence! Don't tell the kids to handle losing positively and then get uptight and angry, if you're on the wrong end of the score! Don't tell them to treat their bodies with care and then exhibit unhealthy behavior, such as drinking or smoking, in their presence. Kids are brilliant at spotting hypocrisy.
You teach children how to communicate by how you communicate with them. They will learn more from what you do than they ever will from what you say. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say."
Remember why you were "hired."
True story. A few years back, the volunteer coach of a twelve-year-old boys soccer team told me he felt he "was hired to produce a team with a winning record." And that may have been the case. But Coach, the fact is, you were "hired" to teach these kids about hard work, discipline, courtesy, respect, and teamwork, in addition to soccer skills and knowledge. If you end up this year with a winning record, it will simply be a by-product of your success in all these areas and the quality of your schedule. By the way, if you turn out hardworking, mature young men who are significantly better soccer players at the end of the season and you don't win a single game, you've successfully met your job description.
Coaches, at the beginning of the season before your first practice, write down what you think your job description should be. You haven't seen any of the competition yet. You don't know how good your team really is. Jot down what you think your job is. And if you ever doubt during the year whether you're living up to the job specifications, pull it out and take a look. If you've been true to your convictions, win or lose, you're going to be satisfied you are doing your job!
Don't ever underestimate the impact you have on children's lives.
You are not the most important person in the life of each member of your team. But don't kid yourself, you do leave an indelible mark on each child. As a coach, you join all the other members of your community who serve our youth and become vital threads in the fabric of their character. You are an important member of the "village" that raises a child.
We are seeing more and more kids from single-parent homes, split-parent homes, and some from difficult family situations. For the extremely brief period of time you spend coaching during a season, you may become the mother or father figure for some of the kids on your team. The hours they spend with you during practices or at games may be the times they look most forward to all week. That's a big responsibility. Don't treat it lightly!
Remember, children can never have too many positive adult role models in their lives. Never!
Keep 'em coming back!
Instead of asking how many games you won last year, maybe we should ask: "Coach, how many kids from your team last year are playing your sport again this year?" Many youth coaches feel it's their duty to weed out members of their team who just aren't going to cut it in the future.
Remember, kids develop at different times. The slow-of-foot child today may be the speedster of tomorrow. The small of stature today may be the basketball center tomorrow. And the converse is true. I have no idea if that slow, small, tentative kid on your eleven-year-old's team will ever be a contributor to the high school team one day, but I know with certainty that he won't be a contributor if a coach chases him out of the sport prematurely. I remember hearing a high school coach say, "Boy, I wish Ryan was playing basketball now." But I knew Ryan, now six feet five, had given the sport up years ago because he was spoken to so roughly by his coach and was given very limited playing time.