It’s that time of year when we’re just starting to thaw out and you start dusting that mitt off—another year around the diamond is just around the corner.
If your son or daughter is playing sports—or getting ready to—you’ve probably either been asked to coach their team or been pegged as an assistant. It can either be a really good experience or a nightmare. I’ve had both.
Over the past 20 years I’ve coached kids from five years old to high school in soccer, baseball, football, basketball and weight training. I’ve had teams that have kicked butt and others that never won a game. When they’re young the most important things are that kids have fun, learn the sport and make friends. Once they get older and start playing on select teams they’ll have more pressure on them, and you won’t be asked to coach. But while they’re young and learning, make sure it’s a great experience.
Here are 10 can’t miss tips that will help when you find yourself staring down your daughter’s second grade softball team.
1. Let them have fun
As much as some parents would love to think that winning an under-8 girls soccer game is going to change their lives, it isn’t. The most important thing when coaching young kids is that they enjoy the experience and want to do it again next year. You can teach them to play hard and to never give up, but don’t come across like a drill sergeant. The games should be fun, practices should be fun and (it goes without saying) the pizza party should be fun.
2. Don’t talk for more than 20 seconds
Young kids have no attention span—especially the boys. If you blather on about how to execute a corner kick and then go into your career stats when you were playing, you’ll get two of them hitting each other, another one picking dandelions, three waving to their parents and the rest will be picking their noses up to the elbow. As always, know your audience.
3. Keep them moving
This is the biggest mistake I see dad-coaches make. If you take anything from this post, make sure it’s this: You have to keep young kids moving. A single line of 10 kids doing lay-ups is not only a terrible use of time, you’re also just asking for them to misbehave. They’ll be much more interested and invested if they are active and sweating. Keep lines short and break them up into two groups if you have another coach to help, but just don’t do any drills that allow them to stand around. I feel very strongly about this.
4. Create drills around games they already know
If they’re really young and just learning the game, take something they already know and
incorporate the sport into it. When I coached my son’s 5-year-old co-ed soccer team, we did “Red Light Green Light” while dribbling the soccer ball. They felt comfortable because they already knew the game, which made learning the skills that much easier.
5. Don’t get too complicated
If Hoosiers has taught us anything, it’s that even a high school basketball team can win it all by just focusing on the fundamentals. I don’t care how well you can read a cover 2 defense; if you’re coaching your son’s 7-year-old flag football team, make sure they can execute the snap from the center to the QB before you teach them hot routes.
6. Send out a kick-off email
At the beginning of each season, after I get the team roster, I send out a welcome email to all the parents. This is a great opportunity to introduce yourself, set the practice schedule, let them know any extra equipment they need to buy, ask for volunteers (asst. coaches, snack help, refs) and set the tone for the year. I also take this opportunity to tell the parents they better stay in control during the season, and remind them there is no place on this team for a nightmare sports parent. I make sure the email is welcoming, but my message about parent behavior is firm.
7. Get a snack mom (or dad)
Make sure another parent takes care of the snack schedule. You might think this wouldn’t even be worth mentioning, but nothing is more important to most little kids than the after-game snack.
8. Get administrative help
Get a parent or your spouse to help with the administrative piece of coaching. There are all kinds of things to keep track of such as where the upcoming games will be played, directions on how to get there, supplying a ref, etc. To be honest, this is the part of coaching I hate the most.
9. Play everyone an equal amount of time
When dealing with little kids this should be obvious, but isn’t. Some coaches just have to have that Podunk City U-7 soccer title to put on their resume. You know what? It doesn’t matter. While we always want to win, these kids are so young and will be getting their coordination, speed and size at different times so you need to just be a starting point. I don’t care if the kid trips over the sideline, he plays just like the others.
One of my best friends grew so fast he was 6 feet tall in 7th grade (I was a whopping 4′7”), and dominated in basketball. He looked All-World. You know what? He never grew another inch and didn’t even play in high school.
The biggest compliment I ever received in coaching was when an older couple thanked me for their son Leonard’s best year of basketball ever. They said I was the first coach who ever let him shoot. Leonard was really tall, but uncoordinated. Who knows, he may have grown up to be a beast in high school. Why would anyone discourage him in fifth grade? The easiest way to accomplish this is to create a cheat sheet with the substitution patterns pre-determined. That way you won’t have to worry about who has played and who hasn’t. Just check the sheet.
10. Have a plan
Whether this is the first time you’ve coached or even if you’re a seasoned veteran, you’ve got to have a plan when you show up to practice every day. It’s important you have a game plan on how to attack teaching each skill and scrimmage. If you’re not sure where to start, check with a buddy who has done a lot of coaching, online coaching sites or shoot me an email at playstead at hotmail.com.
—Photo greg westfall/Flickr