In the world of youth sports, good coaches can be hard to come by. Many leagues believe they lack the knowledge and means necessary to attract and retain good coaches, but that doesn't have to be the case. By using a training program that covers all the pertinent topics in coaching youth sports, finding -– and keeping –- the best youth sports coaches doesn't have to be a challenge.
"You don't have to be an NFL Pro Bowler to coach youth football," says Fred Engh, founder and CEO of the National Alliance For Youth Sports, a national nonprofit whose areas of focus include youth sports coach and parent training, "but it is necessary that coaches know the basic principles of the sport they are coaching, and more importantly, the proper way to work with children. That way, kids are more apt to stay involved in sports and fitness, which leads to healthier and more productive lives."
Many times, the number of leagues needing coaches far surpasses the number of available volunteer coaches, sometimes called "warm-body syndrome." However, it is important not to catch this, and to make sure you find coaches who are willing to take the time to learn about and dedicate themselves to the important charge of working with children.
Training is one of the best ways to ensure that a youth sports coach is contributing to positive, safe sports experiences. Regardless of whether coaches are working with a soccer team of six-year-old girls or a group of 15-year-old football players, they are going to encounter a variety of challenges throughout the course of a season. They must know how to effectively communicate with youngsters who have vastly different personalities, backgrounds, talents and skill levels, and have sound methods for dealing with meddling parents and volatile fellow coaches.
Beyond issues of communication, they must also acquire nuts-and-bolts skills such as basic first aid and the design of effective practices. among the many vital areas that often are foreign territory for volunteers.
Training Program Components
When implementing a training program, it is important to make sure that the following subjects are covered:
• Development of a coaching philosophy. Every volunteer coach's philosophy should be centered on fun and good sportsmanship. This is often easier said than done, since good intentions can be shoved aside once the season begins and scoreboards, league standings and championship trophies enter the picture. Coaches have to maintain their focus on the kids -– not win-loss records –- and avoid directing all of their attention at those who run faster, jump higher or catch better.
• How to be an effective teacher and communicator. One of the most important characteristics of being a good coach is the ability to teach. This means being able to present information clearly and correctly, giving children time to practice, and offering them feedback on how well they perform. A good coach must be able to identify both efficient and inefficient performances, as well as analyze and correct any errors. Being able to do so will help players develop the skills that are necessary to perform in a competitive environment. It's important to choose drills that involve as many players and variety of skills as possible.
• Keeping expectations realistic. Coaches must take the age, experience and conditioning level of their athletes into consideration before placing any expectations on them. A coach should not fall into the trap of expecting players to learn everything that they know about the sport during the relatively short amount of time that seasons typically last. Coaches should stay focused on the basics while building each child's skills.
• Being fair to all players. An overwhelming majority of today's volunteer coaches –- more than 85 percent –- coach teams on which their own sons or daughters participate. Coaching your own child can be tricky at times, but if it is handled properly, it can be an extremely rewarding experience for both the coach and child. It's a natural tendency for some coaches to show preferential treatment toward their own children, perhaps by providing them with extra playing time, giving them more attention during practices or putting them in charge of special tasks. On the other hand, some coaches have the opposite reaction toward their children, and will go out of their way to avoid displaying preferential treatment.
• How to deal with unruly behavior. It's a simple but unfortunate fact of life that most people, even the most rational ones, behave irrationally at times. Coaches need to be aware that such negative behavior is likely to occur –- from parents and coaches, as well as the players themselves. Good coaches must be prepared to deal with these situations quickly and effectively. Problems that are ignored can undermine the attitude of the entire team and risk making the season miserable for everyone.
• Important safety issues. While injuries are a part of youth sports and can't be eliminated, the chances of them occurring can be greatly reduced in leagues that have certified coaches. Volunteer coaches not trained in teaching the proper techniques of the sport can put their young athletes at unnecessary risk. For example, a coach who doesn't teach his or her young players the proper technique for heading a soccer ball will expose them to the risk of suffering head, shoulder, back and neck injuries.
Also in the area of safety, once coaches arrive at the field or court, they must inspect the playing area for potential dangers. For outdoor sports they should keep an eye out for hazards such as broken glass, uneven ground, loose rocks and raised sprinkler heads. Indoors, coaches should be on the lookout for wet or slippery spots on the court, or anything that could cause an injury during the course of play. Every player participating in the game or practice is the coach's responsibility, and he or she should not rely on the opposing coach or a grounds crew to check the field.
• Proper sportsmanship. Certification programs remind coaches that win-at-all-cost philosophies and poor sportsmanship drain the fun out of a child's sports experience. They also help remind the coach that his or her behavior toward opposing players, coaches and officials will be emulated by young players. One way a coach can set an example of good sportsmanship before the game begins is to walk over and shake the hand of the opposing coach.
• The importance of a preseason parents meeting. How well a coach communicates with parents or guardians will have a huge impact on the level of everyone's enjoyment during the season. The first step in laying the foundation for a healthy exchange of information is for coaches to gather the parents for a meeting prior to the first practice of the season. This type of meeting serves several key purposes. It gives coaches the opportunity to introduce themselves in a casual atmosphere, and provides a forum for them to outline everything from their coaching philosophy to their goals for the season. Taking the time to conduct this type of meeting demonstrates to the parents that the coach genuinely cares about the welfare of the participants and wants to ensure that the season runs smoothly. The more comfortable parents feel with the coach, the better the chances the coach will have an open and constructive relationship with them. The first impression coaches make can be a lasting one, so they should approach these meetings with the same diligence and care that they would if they were meeting an important client.
• How to deal with team problems. Problems involving young players can encompass a wide range of behaviors, including everything from disrespecting the coach's authority and rebelling against rules, to showing up late for practice and failing to bring the proper equipment. Coaches hold the trump card when it comes to these situations, and that's playing time. The threat of sitting on the bench or being stuck on the sidelines for any period of time is usually enough of a punishment to warrant a turnaround in a child's behavior. Coaches can do themselves a huge favor at the beginning of the season by outlining ground rules for the team. By being clear and specific about the behaviors that are considered unacceptable, and letting the kids know the possible ramifications for these behaviors, the chances of dicey situations arising can be greatly reduced.
• How to deal with parent problems. Being able to deal with all types of conflicts, no matter how serious or seemingly insignificant, is a vital skill for any volunteer coach. It becomes especially important during tense situations during which the approach you take can make the difference between diffusing a potentially explosive occurrence or adding to its volatility. What may start out as an insensitive remark can easily escalate into something more serious, such as pushing, shoving or full-scale brawling. Not only does such behavior put the combatants themselves, as well as bystanders at risk, it also sends a disturbing message to the children.
If a parent displays inappropriate conduct, the coach must address it immediately. For instance, if a coach hears a parent direct an unkind comment toward a player, game official or opposing coach, it can't be ignored. The coach must let that parent know that such comments are not appropriate for youth sports and the positive atmosphere and good sportsmanship that he or she is working to promote.
Oftentimes parents may not even realize what they are doing, and a gentle reminder to more closely monitor their language is all that is warranted. Sometimes the coach simply making eye contact and shaking his or her head in a non-approving way is enough to make the point. However, if the misconduct continues, a more forceful approach may be in order.
Recreation professionals who actually step back from programs and analyze how they are run often find that they have assumed -– sometimes incorrectly –- that all of their coaches know how to handle all of the issues and situations that accompany being a volunteer coach. Unfortunately, in today's lawsuit-happy society, it has become imperative that coaches have a firm understanding of all areas of the sports they've chosen to coach.
Coaching a youth sports team is a challenging endeavor, but it is one that can be an enormously rewarding experience when coaches take the time to properly prepare for their role. Training/certification programs have proven to help coaches do exactly that.
Sarah Christy and Greg Bach are communications directors for the National Alliance For Youth Sports (NAYS). NAYS, which is in its 25th year of being America's leading advocate for positive and safe youth sports, offers training and education programs for all coaches, parents, administrators and officials involved in youth sports. This year, the fifth annual NAYS International Youth Sports Congress -- a three-day comprehensive educational training discussing cutting-edge topics in the field of youth sports -- will be held in Washington, D.C., Sept. 21-23, and will include NAYS' 25th Anniversary celebration. Visit www.nays.org for more information.