I Don’t Understand or No Excuses

Whenever a coach points out a mistake to a player, the player always has the opportunity to try and shift the blame somewhere else.  Not wanting the blame for a mistake is a natural human reaction.  Unlike in school, where homework eating dogs run wild, sports often leave a player or his teammates as the only possible sources for mistakes.

Trying to assign blame to a teammate is sure way for a player to become unpopular on the team.  However, players need to think through why they are trying to avoid blame in the first place.  Mistakes are a normal part of any activity and this includes sports.  When coaches point out mistakes, they are not looking for excuses, they are looking to try and prevent the problem in the future.

Players should consider limiting their answers to coaches to one of two possible answers.  These are:

  1. I don’t understand.
  2. No excuses – I’ll try harder.

The first answer lets coaches know that a player doesn’t understand how the mistake happened and needs additional instruction.  Coaches are there to teach and most coaches welcome player questions.The second answer lets coaches know that a player knows how the mistake happened and what to do to correct it.  The coach can then expect the player to act differently at the next opportunity.

Accepting blame for mistakes is essential for learning how to correct them.  When players blame others or make excuses, they often guarantee that the coach will be pointing out their same mistake in the future.


Building Team Chemistry

If team chemistry made a sound, it would sound like a “click”.   When teams “click”, they raise their level of play as teammates cooperate and work together toward their common goal.  Most championship teams credit team chemistry as a key element of their success.  But, in the limited time available to youth sports coaches, team chemistry is often a challenge for teams composed of teammates not already familiar with one another.

Building team chemistry involves building common experiences, skills, emotions and goals among the players.  However, in a short season, practices and games alone may not provide enough time.  To build team chemistry quickly, coaches should consider a preseason or early season team meeting with only the players and coaches that helps break the ice and gets players more familiar with their teammates.  Some suggested activities include:

  • Player introductions where one player asks another a list of questions and then introduces the player to the group.
  • Relay races, trivia quizzes and similar small group competitions with no more than 4 players per group.  Smaller group size helps facilitate player interactions.
  • Problem solving activities featuring game situations or strategies that smaller groups of players discuss, solve, diagram and present to the whole team.
  • An after practice pizza party that gives the players a chance to talk and interact with one another.

By breaking down normal shyness and letting kids get comfortable around their teammates, coaches facilitate an environment where peer support encourages team play.  This environment can help the entire team work together and minimize player cliques composed of players who attend the same school, have the same teacher or have previously played together.  Helping all players get along before a game goes a long way to helping players get along during a game.

To Be the Best at One Sport, Play Several

An article, available on NFL.com, provides parents a good understanding of the need for kids to have a variety of sports experiences.  The article cites Paul Hornung a football Heisman Trophy winner, member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and recognized as a widely skilled player.  His advice for young athletes is to delay specialization for as long as possible by playing a variety of sports for the following reasons:
Each sport develops different physical skills, coordination and conditioning — all of which will result in overall athletic growth.

  • Each sport requires a different mental approach, yields a variety of experiences, and breeds discipline which can be applied to other sports.
  • A variety of coaches, in different sports, can provide a broader background of fundamentals, strategies and performance tips.
  • Playing different sports can help youngsters avoid mental burnout, injuries and a sport becoming work, instead of fun.
  • Playing different sports early on can give athletes an edge when they are forced to specialize later on because of their well-rounded experiences.
  • Besides playing different organized sports, young athletes should have time to play plenty of pick-up games for fun and peer competition, with no adult supervision, because these promote creativity and freedom to improve, instead of the pressure to always perform successfully.

The sports learning process should be similar to the one that kids go through in school where class time is divided among many subjects.  Parents should encourage their kids to seek this variety of sports education knowing that the more well rounded they are with all skills, the better kids will play in any sport they choose.

Applied Listening

From childhood through adulthood, everyone always seems to ask “Are you listening?”  In life, as well as in sports, listening skills are at least as important, if not more so, as communicating skills.  In sports, player listening starts with an attitude and ends with an action.

Before players can listen, they must be first be ready to listen.  No player is good enough or smart enough to have it all figured out.  If this were the case, then professional sports teams wouldn’t require coaches.  Players must have an attitude that allows them to hear how to do things better or differently, no matter what level their skill or experience.

With a good attitude as a start, the next step is for players to listen and analyze comments.  An instruction from a coach that a player hasn’t thought about is fairly easy to process.  However, if a player is hearing something that the player thinks is already being done, it may be time for a talk with the coach.  There may be a miscommunication between coach and player that requires more discussion.

With a good attitude and clear guidance, the last step in sports listening is doing.  Putting into practice the things a player hears is the only way for coaches to determine if players listen and the message is understood.

Resetting Expectations

Albert Einstein once described insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  Different teams are motivated in different ways at different times.  Sometimes, coaches find themselves using one approach with a team only to determine that another approach would raise a team to a higher level of performance.  If only the players were involved, changing approaches would be relatively easy.  However, in youth sports, coaches often forget that parents are watching and trying to participate as well.

Before changing approaches, coaches first need to consider communicating the new approach with parents to give them an opportunity to reset their expectations for practices, games and player-coach interactions.  Without this prior communication, parents may become confused by what they see and parent confusion eventually leads to player confusion.

A proactive and communicative approach with parents is an essential first step before changing approaches with youth players.  By working with parents in advance, coaches can get parents helping with the change rather than resisting it due to past expectations.

Supporting a Coach’s Discipline

Sooner or later, kids are going to get in trouble and a coach is going to take some form of corrective action.  These actions can range from a discussion to a game suspension.  There are four basic approaches that parents can take in response to a coach’s corrective measures.  They are:

  1. Ignore the Problem – If kids know that their parents saw the coach’s actions, they will expect to hear about it from their parents.  To kids, ignoring the problem may seem like either parents are not interested or too embarrassed to discuss the matter.
  2. Criticize the Coach – Whether a parent agrees with a coach’s actions or not, any criticism of the coach in front of a child will only undermine the coach’s ability to work with the child in the future and can even interfere with a kid’s ability to work with future coaches.  If the coach is the problem, parents must find other ways to deal with the issue rather than discussing the matter with or in front of their child.
  3. Double the Discipline – Some parents may feel the need to add their own corrective actions to a coach’s in the form of a lecture or a grounding. This method does increase the consequences for a player’s mistake. However, the surest way for a player to avoid this double penalty for future mistakes is to quit playing sports. In the majority of cases, a coach’s discipline is sufficient.
  4. Explain the Coach’s Actions – Sometimes kids know what they need to do differently and sometimes they can be confused by a coach’s comments.  For example, a coach’s comment about a  lack of “hustle” may be attributed to other factors (see Issue #6).  Parents need to work with their child and coach, if necessary, to help their child understand the things that can be done differently.

Of the four approaches, the last is always preferable.  Discussing matters calmly and in a positive way can help children learn to deal with issues by themselves.  Coaches may not always be justified in their reaction to a problem.  However, the way a parent handles these situations helps shape the way a child handles criticism.  By directing a child towards working on things they control such as performance and attitude and away from things they cannot control, parents create kids who are better able to deal with criticism in all areas of life.