Guide To Greatness

By Charles Giuffrida

When Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi began training camp with the Green Bay Packers in 1961, just months after the Packers came within yards of winning a championship, the legendary leader began his first practice by uttering, “This is a football.”

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From there, Lombardi added to the team’s practices brick by brick, from reviewing proper formation techniques to route running and even tackling. Step by step, he went over every detail concerning the basics of the sport with a team that included all-stars and a future Hall of Famer, laying the groundwork for a career in which he never lost another championship game. Lombardi’s lesson is that, to be great, you must never lose focus on the fundamentals of your profession. His attention to details proved to be the team’s primary strength as it won two Super Bowls in a row.

Difficult But Not Impossible
As park and recreation professionals, we can apply this philosophy to a great number of responsibilities, but nowhere is it more critical to reinforce fundamentals than when working with children. From an administrator’s point of view—in addition to the fact that children are both a delicate and difficult group to work with—one of the main reasons it’s demanding is because the profession typically experiences significant turnover with volunteers and seasonal staff members from year to year. This can significantly impact the quality of the programming as well as the experience of those participating.

With such prominent turnover and a need to rely on inexperienced volunteers and seasonal staff members to support programs, one question is, “Can we trust that each staff member or volunteer has a full grasp of the essentials of what it takes to work with children?” The answer is a resounding “no,” and this is no one’s fault; working with children requires years of educational training and experience (and even then it’s still not enough).

Recognizing this as a critical issue, our department developed a program to better prepare adults working with children. The following techniques and reminders are reviewed with coaches, coordinators, and seasonal colleagues prior to an activity. While these guidelines are not perfect, they were constructed using the department’s collective knowledge as well information written by leading experts in the field on the fundamentals of working with kids.

Guideline #1
Quality programming does not just happen. The first lesson we try to instill is that recreational youth sports (organized or not) are not inherently good or bad. Providing a basketball to a group of fourth graders and instructing them to play does not automatically lead to increased positive attributes for the participants. Instead, it is through quality recreational instruction and appropriate activities that kids benefit.

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Guideline #2
The quality recreational instruction we are referring to begins with clearly established objectives. It is critical to have a defined goal or purpose for the program we are administering. For example, within our traveling basketball program, we emphasize that time spent with kids should be focused on specialized skill development and exposing athletes to real game situations. Establishing a purpose helps ground the coaches and connect them with the department’s mission. This is beneficial because people in general are purposeful beings who need structure, routines, and goals to function effectively.

Guideline #3
After the purpose has been established, remind coaches or instructors that they must know their audience! Achieving a level of quality programming means more than just understanding the sport—it means understanding child development. Different age groups bring different needs in terms of cognitive, psychological, and physiological development. Some of the more important differences and suggestions follow:

1. Fine motor skills. Fine motor skills develop as children grow, becoming more automatic as they become teenagers. Until this muscle memory sets in, teach young athletes complex skills in stages, breaking down movements to one at a time. Consider teaching a layup by focusing first on where the ball should hit the backboard in order to be successful before asking players to attempt all of the motions while running towards the hoop at full speed.

2. Visual skills. It is rather difficult for young children to visually track objects as they are thrown to them. With this in mind, we revamped the T-Ball program this past year by completely removing the game of catch from the activity rotation. Instead, we focus strictly on proper techniques for running, throwing, and hitting.

3. Attention span. The younger the child, the shorter the attention span. Keep this in mind when working with anyone under 12 years old by limiting distractions and frequently rotating through drills.

4. Abstract thought. Generally speaking, children do not develop the ability to think in the abstract until they reach fifth or sixth grade. A perfect example as to how this may impact a sport is zone versus man-to-man defense. Virtually any child can understand a man-to-man defense, but when asked to take on zone, their brains simply cannot handle it. Try not to place kids in a situation where they will need to think multiple steps ahead until they’re mentally ready to do so.

5. Learning style. Sticking with cognitive development, keep in mind that each child learns differently. A great coach would do well to differentiate their lessons for children of all ages.

Guideline #4
In addition to these reminders, we also encourage coaches to remain aware of a child’s self-worth and confidence. Young people create a sense of self by comparing themselves to those around them. This means they are always watching and actions certainly speak louder than words. Many things can impact a child’s self-confidence (especially when interacting or watching their peers), but nothing is more damaging than an adult who sends out negative (verbal or non-verbal) signals after a mistake has been made.

Guideline #5
Finally, it may go without saying but safety is paramount. In addition to first-aid and AED training, we include the following often-overlooked safety tips in our presentation:

Cross training in practices. Report after report tells us that specialization in sport—especially in young children—can lead to an increase in injuries or limit development. We emphasize this to coaches and expand on it by mandating portions of practices be dedicated to activities not directly related to the sport being played. For example, a soccer coach is asked to incorporate a 10-minute game of Dodgeball into the players’ routine. This guarantees that a portion of the thousands of minutes these kids spend with us will include activity time that works alternate muscle groups for the primary sport being played. Additionally, it adds an element of fun for participants because who doesn’t love changing up a practice to play a new game?

Guideline #6
The other safety tip involves heat tolerance. Heat and hydration are a concern for all people, but it is critical to understand that children are much different than adults in this area. Younger individuals tend to overheat faster as their bodies are still developing a more efficient sweating system. Compounding the problem is that young children lack the ability to detect their need to drink water.

While this advice may seem rather elementary to some readers, that’s the whole point. Fundamentals will always be ordinary tasks that are often taken for granted or viewed as implied knowledge by both instructors and participants. However, if there’s one thing that Vince Lombardi taught us, it’s that no detail is too small, and that mastering the fundamentals is what can take anyone from being good to being great.

Charles Giuffrida is the Assistant Director of Revere, MA Parks & Recreation, a Certified Park and Recreation Professional, and a graduate of Endicott’s Van Loan School in Athletic Administration. He can be reached at cgiuffrida@revere.org.