I am often asked my opinion on things that involve football. The questions range from how to find which player position best suits a child to who I think will win the Super Bowl, and pretty much everything in between. I have many thoughts on the game, on coaching, and on improving performance, so I am starting Passing Thoughts to share some of those thoughts. I welcome your comments and conversation. –KR

Monday, March 10, 2014

What Makes a Great Youth Sports Coach?

 If you ever participated in sports, I hope you can think back and remember a great coach...someone who believed in you and helped you be your best, even under difficult circumstances. Coaches have the power to make or break the entire sporting experience for young athletes, so it’s important to find and recognize what makes a great coach. I have attended my fair share of youth sporting events over the years, and I have been impressed with the quality and commitment demonstrated by volunteer coaches working with all ages of athletes. In my experience, these are the “winning qualities” I think parents should look for in their coaches:

1. Winning is great, but it isn’t why you are there.
It is very easy to get absorbed in winning games and tournaments with youth sports teams. We all want our kids to succeed and be part of a winning program, but as coaches we have to keep perspective on what is important and teach kids to win and lose gracefully. A coach’s primary job has to be keeping things positive for every member of the team, and that means giving every athlete the chance to contribute on the field. No matter what the score is or how much time is left.

Winning a 4th grade game or tournament is really not going to be the deciding factor in these young athletes’ futures, but whether they enjoy themselves and feel like a valued member of the team will definitely dictate whether kids continue to participate. In youth sports, keeping kids involved and having fun is really what counts as a “win”. Coaches need to invest in each child's potential and help them see how they can contribute to the team. Creating this atmosphere will help with team building and individual confidence, Coaches who understand the importance of building up kids, instilling skills and confidence, and strengthening their team are the ones you want working with your young athletes!.

2. Developing skills and developing a person go hand in hand. Young athletes are there to learn the fundamentals of a sport, and coaches need to help them develop their athletic ability through practice and repetition, but there is so much more opportunity for development in youth sports. We fully expect our kids to learn the rules of the game, fundamental skills, and safe technique, but coaches also can help kids learn to respect officials, opponents, and the game itself. Coaches are in an awesome position to help athletes develop respect, learn to play fairly, and practice solid sportsmanship. Gracious winners on the field can translate those skills to all areas of their lives, and the power of that development message should come through loud and clear from coaches. 

3. Patience and process...process and patience. Working with young athletes is definitely about process, and If a coach cannot be patient and enjoy the ups and downs and the process of individual and team development, then youth sports is not the place for them. Kids all have different learning styles, different motivational responses and different ability levels. These are all things that can easily "test" a coach's patience. A coach has to be able to take a step back and remember the process is extremely important to meeting the goal of youth athletics. Working with those individual athletes to develop their strengths and help them find their path to contributing to the team can be a slow and daunting process. The best coaches have tremendous patience and a strong desire to see the process through to develop their team. Those coaches find tremendous reward in the milestones their athletes reach and in seeing their team get better over time.

4. You need enthusiasm for a sport and for working with kids. Enthusiasm is a something that all coaches need to help motivate and inspire young kids to reach their potential. Many coaches are enthusiastic about games and about competing, but that enthusiasm becomes an especially effective tool when kids feel their coach is enthusiastic about their performance and involvement. Have you ever been around a teacher that didn’t seem to really like kids? The same thing happens with coaches, so it’s important to find a coach who loves the sport, but who also loves teaching fundamentals and working with children. Their love of the game is enhanced by their young proteges’ understanding and skill development. When you find a coach who is enthusiastic about the game itself and teaching a group of second graders to love it too, that is a great quality!

5. Communication is key. Great youth coaches need to be solid communicators. They have to be able to communicate with athletes during practice and games, and they need to communicate well with parents. Many team issues arise in youth sports because of poor communication, so the coach that understands his/her responsibility to communicate rules and decisions to the athletes and to their parents is a coach you want to keep. People tend to fill in with misinformation and negatives if they aren’t provided adequate information and details. Coaches who keep communication open and keep the messages positive are really excellent for youth sports!

Thanks to the many volunteer coaches who keep our youth sports organizations functioning. It is great to have people in our community who will commit to improving our kids’ abilities and sportsmanship!

**This article also appeared in the Argus Leader on March 10, 2014.

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