Being a coach

I love being a coach

It’s 2009, and my daughter is turning 6 years old. A good friend with a daughter the same age asks me to coach in the 6U (6 years old and under) division of the local girls’ softball league. We were both youth, high school, and eventual college athletes, so it just felt normal to start coaching our kids. Team name as voted by the players… the Blue Snowballs! My motivations were to spend time with my daughter teaching her a game that I love (softball is close to baseball) and introduce her to the amazing world of sports and physical activity. 

That initial season, however, I learned just how confused and unprepared I was for being a coach. Not sure if I expected the players to already know how to play or that they would just focus and pay attention. Gazing over at the older divisions, I could see how much time was being asked of them from clinics to year-round playing. Player and family cliques seemed to be the norm. At 6U, thankfully, your responsibilities as a coach are making sure the kids are safe and having fun while introducing basic skill development. The practice and game intensity levels are low, as they should be. I did reset my mindset, so my first season as a coach was a ton of fun. So much so, that I coached my daughter’s soccer team that Fall, and then kept it going with her each subsequent season and eventually coached my son. 

It’s now 2020, and I have coached my daughter and son across thirty-five teams from 6U to 14U spanning rec leagues, club, and school athletics in the sports of softball, soccer, baseball, basketball, and flag football. In addition to coaching, I have volunteered in various league administrative positions, launched a club team, became a Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) Double-Goal Coach, and in 2019, became a PCA Certified Trainer. Countless athletes, families, new friends, and memories.

Making adjustments

As my kids progressed through their age groups, I learned about coaching adjustments. As players get older, the competition and demand for skill development increases. But that’s just part of it. The emotional quotient (or EQ), plays as big, if not bigger role in an athlete’s development. It’s the main ingredient for fun, which really keeps the players coming back and gives them that love for sports and puts them on the path to an active and healthy lifestyle. PCA’s coaching workshop emphasizes effort, learning, accepting mistakes, getting to a full emotional tank, and honoring the game. While striving to win is a key part of the message, the underlying theme and driver is a positive culture. The team’s culture will take shape whether you want it to or not. Culture is what inspires the team and accomplishes goals such as teaching life lessons, skill development, and instilling that love for the game. It’s how you connect with the families and bring them into the experience. So coaches may as well get out in front and be intentional about establishing culture.

Steve Kerr learned the importance of culture from Pete Carroll. Prior to his first day on the job with the Warriors, Coach Kerr spent every moment diagraming plays, evaluating players and skills, and figuring out their offensive and defensive schemes. 

Then he was invited by Coach Carroll to attend a few days with the then-SuperBowl champions Seattle Seahawks. 

“How are you going to coach your team?” Carroll asked Kerr.

Kerr, a bit taken aback, and stammered, “You mean, like, what offense are we going to run?”

“No,” said Carroll. “That stuff doesn’t matter. You’ve played forever, and you’ll figure out what plays to run and how you want to defend, pick, and roll and all that stuff. I’m talking about what your day is going to look like. What practice will feel like. What are the players going to feel when they walk into your building?”

Coaching youth sports and coaching the Warriors are clearly different endeavors! But, yet, similar in how to approach the concept of coaching. It took me until the 10U division to figure this out, and with the help of PCA, I began each season by writing down the team’s philosophy and goals. It can feel a bit corny or uncomfortable at first, but it really helps set the tone. Here is an example of one I have used. I save all my coaching notes in Evernote! 

Team Goals

  • Fun
  • Player development (skills and mindset)
  • Players wants to play again

Coaching Philosophy

  • Practice the Positive Coaching Alliance method of Double-Goal Coach of striving to win while teaching life lessons
    • ELM Tree of Mastery (focus on Effort, Learning, and how to handle Mistakes)
    • Full Emotional Tank (E-Tank)
    • ROOTS (respect for the Rules, Officials, Opponents, Teammates, and Self)
  • Life lessons include sportsmanship, resilience, teamwork, empathy, hard work, growth mindset

Expectations

  • Be on time and ready for practices and games (if you cannot attend a practice or game, please update your availability well in advance)
  • Know and respect your role (coach, athlete, family member/parent)
  • Read, sign, and follow the league code-of-conduct

This has evolved over time and has varied by sport and age group, but the exercise of creating this framework is very helpful in establishing the culture in concert with the other coaches (who contribute to this), the players, and families.

The concept of ‘roles’ is an important piece within this culture puzzle. In the simplest form- coaches coach, players play, officials officiate, and parents and families support and cheer. A frequent example of crossing this role boundary is the contentious scenario when parents decide to coach or officiate. As a coach, it’s an extremely difficult situation to confront and manage because most of the time parents are acting out of love for their player. These comments though distract the team and irritate the officials. The irony is that the players don’t even hear you, or want to hear from you!

Being intentional about developing and communicating your coaching plan will help a ton in establishing the culture while providing a toolkit when dealing with the many on and off-field situations.

The days are long, but the years are short

I reflect upon this experience now having possibly coached my final team as my son’s middle school basketball season recently came to an end. With my daughter in high school and my son starting high school in the Fall, unless I decide to continue coaching independently of my kids being on the team, this may be the end. Along the way, my approach and definition of coaching expanded well beyond the scoreboard.

The younger age groups, five to eight years old, are like a structured play date. The fields are smaller, the rules are modified, the practices and games shorter, and the scoreboard is, for the most part, an afterthought. As players turn eight, however, winning and the associated pressure to either specialize or commit a bigger portion of your time and money enters into the picture. You frequently hear things like “my kid just joined a travel team,” “we just hired a private coach, ” or “if you play on this club team, you cannot play other sports.” It’s pretty crazy and driven mostly by the families – not the athletes. Aside from this, it’s fun when sports transition to the higher levels because, as a coach, it’s great to teach and leverage your knowledge under the standard rules in a more competitive setting.

Most volunteer coaches though are not given a handbook or really much training. Leagues do the requisite background checks, sometimes offer one-time clinics, and might provide dated practice plan templates, all of which are good. But coaches, for the most part, are thrown into this wild sea of kids, parents, family priorities, skill development, emotions, league administrators, local rules, technology, and all the politics. Coaches confront many opinions, drama, playing time grievances, lack of attendance, and coaching and chirping from the sidelines.

In these older divisions, I definitely stressed out, which took its toll on my fun quotient and undoubtedly impacted the players. You quickly appreciate the depth of sports in terms of rules, situations, playing time balance, roster management, safety, and player development with the wide range of skill levels. Practice days and times are limited, as is the attention span of kids, which makes preparation even more challenging. Your ability as a coach to establish the culture, teach life lessons, and handle the skill development all in one relatively brief season is a tall order indeed.

Tools of the trade

PCA offers research-based techniques and the Aspen Institute provides a ton of useful data. Other organizations such as Changing The Game Project and Coach for America offer complementary services. Also check out the NCAA website, Canada’s Sport for Life and the American Development Model

The main premise of the PCA Double-Goal Coach is to teach life lessons while competing to win. It’s not win-at-all-costs, one big group hug, or participation medals. PCA strikes a nice balance. The framework is an empowering force and transformed my approach to coaching and even my personal and business life.

The Aspen Institute’s Project Play develops and aggregates sports knowledge to help communities pursue healthy sports programs. While the data can be unsettling, it is useful when engaging with parents and families. Data surrounding quitting rates, injuries, college scholarships, and percentages of those that play at higher levels (high school, college, professional) become very compelling when engaging with athletes and parents.

Here are the tools I use most frequently-

  • Be organized and regularly communicate with the players and families. Be accessible and responsive. 
  • Develop and evolve a coaching philosophy that is regularly shared with players and families.
  • Arrive prepared for practices and games with a plan. Install routines. 
  • Use a clipboard to write down your thoughts and observations, such which players are modeling effort or how the team is developing.
  • Be positive and bring in the fun. Research has shown that the magic ratio is using five positives to every negative, or criticism. Non-verbal positives (e.g. high fives) count! You will be amazed at how this mindset also improves your fun as a coach!

For families, one particular piece of advice is to avoid the “car ride home” discussion. Research demonstrates how destructive this can be for young athletes, and this video from the documentary Trophy Kids is one of the more disturbing examples – the father is an ex-college football player that didn’t make the NFL. When the topic of the practice or game comes up, a recommendation is to initiate the conversation by first asking your player “how do you think it went?”

Next-up

My coaching journey has been more rewarding and fulfilling than could have possibly been imagined. Many of my kid’s friends and family refer to me as “coach,” which makes me smile every time I hear it. I have a lot of gratitude having been able to coach and coach my kids.

Thinking about how to leverage this happiness and accumulated knowledge, a few years ago, I decided to expand my professional endeavors into sports, particularly youth sports. Sports and fitness is already a huge personal passion. The issues of quitting rates, access and affordability, safety, coaching, training and player development, health, nutrition, and technology are my areas of interest. The various “play” initiatives are important, and a growing number of organizations are providing resources and platforms for dialog and solutions.

Although I didn’t start out with this expectation, coaching these past 10+ years has re-shaped my life and put me on an exciting path.

Jeff

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