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, July 3, 2017

Lessons from Losing

This column appeared in the Argus Leader on May 3, 2017.

This week, I find myself in a position I don’t enjoy: My team came up on the losing end of a big game. It’s a reality of sports.

Every time we take the field, there will be a winner and a loser. I’ve been fortunate to enjoy great success with the teams I’ve coached, but losing is part of the deal. And when it happens, it reminds me that nobody is perfect, losing is part of the game, and it’s my job as a coach to turn the negatives into something we learn from and improve upon. Right now, I’m still frustrated by watching my team not play to its ability, and I’m going to let that frustration settle for a bit. It’s not a bad thing to be reminded that we have work to do and we need to develop in order to succeed.

Losing is hard. One of the hardest things to confront as a coach and to teach to athletes is how to go about losing gracefully. We get consumed with frustration, disappointment and anger at the things we think went wrong. We question our decisions and performance, we think through all our mistakes, we consider perceived inequities, and in short, we look for the reasons why we lost so we can find immediate solutions.

It is extremely important at these moments to reflect on your own actions and how the team worked together. Did we make mistakes? Did we play well? What can we do to eliminate errors and better our play? It is pointless to dwell on things you cannot control, so I try to use these moments to focus on elements of my team’s game and performance. We can work to improve, and we can always find ways to raise our game. A loss is a difficult, but good reminder that there is always work to be done.

While there are significant differences between youth athletes all the way up to the pros in learning lessons from a loss, one critical message that coaches must send at every level is that there will be no excuses and no finger pointing. Blaming anybody but yourself for the loss is not fair, and it’s not productive. I”m not saying to be unduly hard on yourself and dwell on what went wrong, but I am saying the only way you use a loss to get better is to consider what didn’t work and to find a way to change it. The only thing you can control and alter is your own performance, so that is where teams need to focus their energy.

The way you deal with losing when you coach kids is remarkably important. Young athletes are so open with their emotions when it comes to their sport. The joy when things go well is unparalleled, and the sadness when things don’t is devastating. I often see coaches and parents of those young players who would literally do anything to win, and I attribute that to them wanting to spare their athletes the heartbreak that comes with losing. We all want success, but we build character and grace in our kids when we thoughtfully and intentionally lead them through their heartbreak. Kids need to internalize the basic tenets of sportsmanship, and it’s a great reminder for parents and coaches to model those critical lessons: Work hard, do your best, be gracious in victory or defeat and never give up.

At any level of play, leading a team through a loss is a tough challenge for coaches. We have to wrestle with our own emotions about the loss and still figure out how to get the team into a position to play better and eliminate mistakes. I have to think carefully about my athletes and find the right words and actions to motivate them to overcome this adversity. And at the professional level, I want them to feel the ugly emotions that come with losing, but to also understand that losing a game truly isn’t the end of the world. We will work together to improve, and we will hopefully find a way to achieve success.

Regardless of age and experience, every team has to be prepared for the fact that losses will come. That is part of the deal every time teams take the field in competition. There will be a winner and a loser, and the best teams will find a way to overcome challenges to win. As difficult as losing may be, it offers important lessons and motivation for athletes.

John Wooden said, “Losing is only temporary and not all encompassing. You must simply study it, learn from it and try hard not to lose the same way again. Then you must have the self control to forget about it.”

So while I don’t enjoy being in this place with my own team, I’m committed to learning from the last game and vigorously preparing for the next game. It’s time to get started. I’ve been reminded that we have work to do.

Leading Through Loss

This column appeared in the Argus Leader on Dec. 19, 2016

One of the most difficult challenges that coaches face is guiding a team or a program through losses. I was reminded of that this season watching down-to-the-wire finishes in college football and the NFL. Some of those tightly contested games were the end of the road in the playoffs, and others were longtime rivalries. In every game, however, both teams left every ounce of effort on the field. It is safe to say that no matter the level of play, athletes, coaches and fans all aspire to walk off the field on the winning side.

It is an extremely tough but necessary part of any sport that coaches learn to demonstrate great leadership during adverse circumstances. Obviously, you prepare your team to go in and win, and while losing is never enjoyable, it can particularly sting when it is the last game of a career or there is a fierce rivalry. It is especially difficult to convince athletes and fans that an otherwise extremely successful season has been worthwhile when you end the season with a playoff loss. Your team could reach every performance benchmark and have outstanding results, but getting knocked out of the playoffs makes everyone feel the season was a failure. Leadership during these times is a true test for coaches, and it can make or break the future of a program.

As the coach, you must work to bring your team together during these situations. You have to be willing to look everyone in the eye and explain that losing is tough and feels like the worst thing you could ever experience. No one wants to let all the hard work come to an end without that final victory, but a coach needs to help the team realize how many things have been accomplished during the season. It is easy to forget how far a team has come and how many milestones have been reached, so as the leader of those athletes, it is extremely important to help your team see their many achievements.

The lesson of learning to overcome difficult losses is not an easy one. Most athletes are ultra competitive and extremely loyal to their teammates and program, and that makes losing a bitter pill to swallow. When I was a junior in college, we played a tightly contested game in the national quarterfinals. I did not play well, and our team lost a game that we most likely should have won. Seeing the seniors walk off the field for the last time was one of the most difficult things that I had to do as an athlete. That visual really tore at me and was a huge motivating factor going into my senior year. Those same seniors were hurt and disappointed with the loss, but they were quick to approach me and the other returning players and tell us to remember that feeling and come back next year with the motivation to win the national title. I was amazed that they could set aside their disappointment and still have the leadership qualities to guide us moving forward. That situation taught me invaluable lessons about team dynamics and leadership, and it informs my view as a coach to this day.

When working with a team or athletes who experience that difficult loss, try to focus on the things they have gained from the season. Many will have developed a work ethic that will help them throughout their life, or they may have learned values that will help them become better citizens and family members. In every team situation, those athletes forge lifelong friendships, and as it was it my situation, perhaps the stinging loss will provide them the motivation to continue to work harder and hopefully get another chance at victory.

It is good to remember that everyone is working hard all season long to raise that trophy, but very few people actually get the opportunity to experience that feeling. A coach who can lead the team through the emotional challenges of a tough loss and instill motivation and a desire to improve in order to take that challenge again is extremely important to the success of a program. Find the positives in performances and the season, and turn those into fuel for the next run. True leaders will aspire to improve and go for it again, and they will inspire those around them to do the same.

Coach Kurtiss Riggs is the owner of Riggs Premier Football and director of the Sanford Power Riggs Premier Football Academy, which provides football training, camps and clinics for area athletes.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Parents: Can you #daretochill?

**This column appeared in the Argus Leader on Nov. 9, 2016.

If you have attended any sporting events this fall, you’ve undoubtedly seen parents displaying many qualities you hope young athletes would never emulate. We’ve all seen parents calling opposing teams “cheaters” when penalties are called on them, parents yelling at a coach about play calling, and athletes who heard parents yelling at officials about “missed” calls who then turn around and yell at officials about the same thing.

The environment for school and youth sports can be extremely unpleasant for everyone involved if you have these type of parents in your crowd. How do you get them to consider their behavior? The Positive Coaching Alliance started a new initiative this fall called #daretochill, and it emphasizes some critical points for parents.

As playoffs are in full swing and seasons wind down with high-stakes games, there is a sense of heightened pressure in the crowd right now. Those parents who were grumbling earlier in the season are now emboldened to shout their negative comments at players, coaches, officials and even other parents. The entire environment is stressful for young athletes, but it can become really unbearable as parents who really want their child to experience the thrill of winning big games go about “encouraging” their kids in all the wrong ways. The #daretochill initiative encourages parents to simply chill out and remember the reasons why they are there in the first place. 

Reminding parents to #daretochill seems simple enough, but there are multiple issues at play, so if you are one of those parents yelling from the stands, take a few moments to think things through. We can all display some of these undesirable qualities if we aren’t careful.

My best advice to parents is to check your expectations. All parents want what is best for their kids, but sometimes we lose sight of how we are actually affecting those around us. Our job as parents is to be our child’s biggest fan. There is enough pressure around and within them, they don’t need the additional pressure of extreme parental expectations. Especially at games and practices, your job is to encourage and support, never to coach or criticize. If you can’t step into the supportive role and instead insist on hounding your child, the coach, or officials, you will end up making the entire experience miserable for everyone involved. The end result of a zero fun experience is that 70 percent of kids drop out of sports completely by the age of 13. Don’t lead your child down that path. Check your expectations and embrace your role as your child’s greatest fan.

My other caution is to beware the power of the group. Sometimes parents who would never dream of challenging the official or chastising a child will get caught up in the momentum of some unfortunate choices by other parents. The group mentality becomes a negative force to be reckoned with, and it can completely destroy an event that was designed to instill confidence and enjoyment for athletes. We all can take a moment and #daretochill as part of that group, and parents who lead the charge for cooler heads to prevail will ultimately be much appreciated, especially by the athletes.

As you are attending those playoff games and cheering on your athletes, take a few minutes and remember what a great opportunity exists for athletes to be part of a team and a sport. We all want the best experience for our child, and we have a real opportunity to contribute to the way our kids’ feel about themselves and their experience. If we want them to love it, have fun and do their best, then it won’t hurt us to #daretochill and let them play.

Remember that at the end of the season, peaceful parents, content kids and your love for a sport and a team are some pretty great things to take home.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Leadership At Every Level

**This column appeared in the Argus Leader on September 20, 2016.

If there is one quality that I believe is critical to the success of a sports team, it is leadership. When we think of leaders, we tend to think of a coach who builds a solid program or a player who steps up in high pressure situations. In my experience, I believe that leadership is something everyone involved in a sports organization can and must demonstrate in order to achieve success. Athletes, coaches, parents, and organizations can contribute their efforts to be leaders in some meaningful way. With the 2016 season underway, these are some ideas for everyone to keep in mind to help their team achieve success.

As an athlete, what can you do to be a leader on and off the field? Start with your attitude. Think about the attitude you bring to practice and games. The way you interact with your teammates and coach lets them know you are willing to do whatever is needed to help the team. When there are struggles and you are still working hard and trying to keep your team focused, you will be leading your teammates by example. Every athlete has the potential to be a leader if he/she believes in the team and works to show it.

Athletes also show leadership through their commitment to team goals. Everyone wants to improve and win games, but not everyone commits to working hard outside of practice and setting aside individual goals to make the team better. Your commitment shows through the effort you bring during practice, games, and the off season. Remember that effort can be shown through training and playing hard, but it also shows through when you are supporting your teammates on and off the field. Sometimes that effort is extremely difficult, especially when you need to support a competitor. You will be demonstrating great leadership if you can put in the effort, especially when it’s difficult, and stay strong in your commitment to making your team better.

Coaches have a tremendous opportunity to show leadership, not just in the win/loss record for their team, but with the relationships they build with their team and players. Kids look to their coaches for their guidance in words and actions, so it is important to keep in mind the effect of both those things on young athletes who have tremendous reliance on their coach. Your words and attitude as a coach will shape your players’ love of the game, love of practice, and desire to continue in the sport. Remember that if you model those values for your team, you create instant respect and players will listen and buy into your team’s philosophy. Coaches should always bear in mind the power they have over young athletes.

In addition to learning the game, young athletes need someone that will give constant support. Parents are the leaders that athletes look to for that positive support. I cannot stress enough that parents need to know their role with their young athletes and be a child’s biggest fan. Parents must be careful to set a positive example with other parents and especially in supporting their child’s coach. Don’t fall into the negativity trap of criticism about playing time, coaching mistakes, or issues with the organization. Your kids look to you to know that you love and support them regardless of the bigger issues, so don’t attempt to coach them during games and practices, and especially not right after a game. Let your coach do the coaching and be sure that your child knows you support him/her no matter what happens. Your leadership in helping them understand sportsmanship is vital to their love of the game.

Youth sports organizations also have the opportunity to set the leadership tone for everyone involved. An organization can make it clear that emphasis is not upon winning or losing, and it can be a leader for positive change. Sports organizations need to stay ahead of safety trends and ensure that they are promoting best practices for sport, safety, and organizational management. An organization that is demonstrating good leadership will show a willingness to listen to its members, open-mindedness to issues that arise, and a desire to operate and make necessary changes for the betterment of the group. Communication is key to success with an organization, so be sure that solid leadership is in place with your group/league and that communication is operating efficiently at all levels. The examples that are set by the youth sports organization will carry through the dynamics of coaches and parents, so it’s important to remember the emphasis on leadership at the organizational level as well.

While the ups and downs of the season can take a toll on everyone, strong leadership at all levels can help keep attitudes in check and the season on track. Don’t look to others to step up and provide leadership, find the ways that you can be a solid, dependable leader within your organization. Remember that everyone has a part to play in building success.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

It Takes a Special Dad to Coach Kids

**This column also appeared in the Argus Leader on June 13, 2016

As Father’s Day approaches, it is a great time to reflect on the unique role that dads play in youth sports. We look to parents to coach their kids in youth sporting leagues, and in football that task often falls to fathers. Coaching your own kids has unique challenges, but it also can have unique benefits for young athletes. Parents are concerned that kids learn the rules of the game, but they also have a powerful opportunity to teach life lessons to the young athletes they encounter.

I was recently following a Junior Football team with several of my athletes, and I noticed the coach would show up excited about practice and working with the team. As practice began, he had a routine but didn’t seem very comfortable with the kids’ instruction. He was uncertain on the style of offense and the rules, and he totally forgot all special teams. At that point, I figured they could be in for a long season.

After watching their first game, the team only gained one yard on offense, and the coach approached me and asked if I would consider giving him some assistance. My response was, "Please don't take this the wrong way, but why do you coach the boys?" He replied, "I get up at 3 a.m. to go to work, and I get off work and go directly to practice. Practice lets me spend time with my son and see him in a climate that he enjoys, and I enjoy being part of something with him and the other boys." That response told me everything I needed to know about this dad being exactly the kind of coach who should be working with our kids.

Coaches, particularly those volunteer dads who step up to coach their child’s team, can bring a wealth of positives to young athletes. They are demonstrating that they value spending time with their child and his/her friends and creating a meaningful experience together. They are taking an active role in making sure kids learn proper technique and rules of the game. They are demonstrating sportsmanship. These parents model how to handle conflict, how to win and lose, and how to be a good teammate in a competitive environment.

Occasionally you will see parents/coaches who accept the role to make sure their own children get more playing time, or they live vicariously through their child’s experience. And all coaches can get too wrapped up in winning and losing, and lose sight of the learning process that is so critical to youth sports. It’s important to keep sight of the most critical aspect of youth sports: to ensure that the kids have fun and enjoy the game.

As parents, whether we coach or not, we need to work together to help achieve that goal for our young athletes. Thank you to the volunteer coaches and parents who work to ensure that our kids have a positive experience. To those dads who are helping to shape our kids’ development through your mutual love of the game, Happy Father’s Day.

Friday, June 3, 2016

An Open Letter to Youth Sports Parents from Their Athlete

**This column also appeared in the Argus Leader on May 31, 2016.

Mom & Dad,

I am really excited for summer and the chance to be with all my friends. I’m looking forward to long days spent at the ballpark and on practice fields. I will be learning new things and making new friends. I hope that this is a fun experience, and I also hope you are proud of me for getting out there and trying.

Please remember that when I’m on the field or in the dugout, the experience is for me and about me. Also please remember that I am going to make mistakes; it is how I learn. I’m trying hard to do all the things I’ve been taught, but I’m still pretty new to the game. When I mess up, trust me, I already know what I did. Yelling about it isn’t going to help. If I want to talk about the mistakes, I will bring it up later. Or just trust that my coach and I have figured out what I need to do to improve.

I hope you see that I am trying to learn the rules of the game, figure out my position and listen to my coach and the officials. When you come into the picture with constant questioning about playing time, extra training, schemes and practice, it is overwhelming to me. It is really awkward when you are continually yelling from the stands about those things. I’m working as hard as I can to learn to be a good teammate and show respect to those around me. It really helps if you show that same respect to my coach and my teammates.

I also hope you see that I am happy and having fun. The finer points of performance are not my focus. I’m working together with my friends so we can play our very best. I’m not worried about outperforming my teammates, landing a spot on an elite team in high school, or getting a college scholarship. I just want to play with my friends and have fun.

One of the things you tell me is that it doesn’t matter whether we win or lose. Help me believe you. I want you to be excited about how I play and contribute to my team, not just be proud of the final score. I love to make a big play too, but as I’m learning the game, I need to know you enjoy watching me no matter what happens.

There will be great days, and there will be rough days. That is sports, and that is life. Please don’t critique my game, criticize my coach’s decisions, or continually point out the differences in playing time between me and my teammates. I would love it if you helped me to set some goals, and then helped me to achieve them. It would be even better if we could spend some time together working toward those goals. I know that now and forever, you will be my biggest fans.

I never say thank you enough, but I really do appreciate the time and energy you devote to me. I will look back on these summer days as some of my favorites because I shared them with you and my friends. Thanks for all that you do to help me be my very best.

Your child

Friday, March 18, 2016

Five tips for Sports Parents

**This column also appeared in the Argus Leader on March 15, 2016.

John Wooden once said, “Sports do not build character, they reveal it.” There is no aspect of sports where that truth is more evident than with sports parents.

We have all been present at sporting events where parents created a miserable experience for everyone involved, and the presence of those vocal few profoundly affects the experience for the majority of parents who are doing it right. In my years of working with parents of young athletes, these are the messages I try to reinforce to avoid being “that parent”:

1. Learning to lose is as important as learning to win. Parents often struggle with their kids losing, not because of the win-loss record, but because they hate seeing the disappointment their kids go through. It is so important that parents set goals outside of winning and losing with kids. Focus on aspects of performance, team goals and meaningful ways to celebrate improvement. It is OK for kids to figure out they don’t like losing, but parents need to help them learn to win and lose with respect for opponents, officials and the sport.

2. Adversity is part of the sport. Athletes at all levels will struggle, but kids don’t always have the emotional or physical resources to face their challenges. Parents need to help young athletes understand that struggles are part of learning how to improve and contribute to a team. Some days kids play well, some days they don’t. Some days they get lots of playing time, some days they don’t. Whatever the situation which is frustrating to a young athlete, parents need to find ways to empower their child to face the challenges. Parents can’t face it for them, and ultimately, kids learn about sports and life by encountering challenges with a solid support system.

3. Doing too much, too soon is not good for young athletes. We live in a time where there are tons of costly, flashy options available for young football players, and parents think their athletes need national exposure from birth in order to get their kids playing time and college scholarships. What exactly is the benefit for 7-year-olds from playing an expensive and over-hyped flag tourney in Puerto Rico? For the most part, these programs are a terrible addition to youth football. They are expensive, they mimic college and professional football with a heavy emphasis on winning, they set kids up for injury and burnout and they are unnecessary. It is better for young athletes to develop their athleticism and confidence, and to learn football fundamentals than to compete in a national Super Bowl-type atmosphere. Choose carefully the environment where your kids learn sports and sportsmanship.

4. Maintain perspective, and keep expectations in check. One of the hardest things for parents to deal with is the changes that kids go through as they grow. Their son or daughter dominated in fourth grade, but they do not know what is wrong with them now in eighth grade. Are they not trying as hard? Or practicing as hard? And how do we fix that? If you have watched your child’s peers grow and change, you know that physical development greatly affects performance, and it is different for every single child. Parents need to remember that performance and ability will vary widely in youth sports so focus on learning solid fundamentals. Helping kids focus on their own improvements and contributing to the team maintains a healthy perspective.

5. Keep it fun. Parents who berate their child, coaches, officials and other parents take the fun out of the sport for everyone involved. Parents who push too hard and project unrealistic expectations create harmful consequences for their child. Remember, the worst part for kids in youth sports is usually the ride home after the game. Encourage, support and be enthusiastic. When athletes start to lose excitement for the sport, then it usually time to move on to the next sport.

Youth sports should provide athletes and families a rich environment to learn and grow together. Parents must be mindful that the example of sportsmanship they set for their young athletes will carry over in powerful ways. Be an advocate for your athlete, but keep it positive and in perspective.