You’ve read the blogs, advice columns, coaching books, and you get it, practice for kids sports need to be fun! But are we even trying to win anymore – are these participation trophies warping our entire concept of competition? If all we’re doing is having a good time, how do we get better? Is it possible to use fun as a driver for more effort, creating a faster learning curve or is it hindering our competitive edge?
The search for the perfect practice is second maybe only to the search for the holy grail. Our goal is to make kids love coming to practice, learn individual motor skills, understand team strategy and rules, learn sportsmanship, life lessons, integrity, overcoming adversity, come back every season – and you thought you just signed up to coach a few skills a couple hours a week as a volunteer!
Don’t worry! The secret to it all is simpler than it appears! Split your practice plan into sections and tackle them separately to be on your way to building a high quality, unified and skillful team. If you get the maximum output from your players each minute, eliminate downtime and activities with poor effort, then you can get much higher returns on your practice time. You just might find that fun is the catalyst for higher effort practices and greater performance!
So how do we mix fun and learning to get the best from our kids?
You’ll need something to do as kids start arriving, rather than having players waste time standing around and waiting to start, give each kid a ball as they arrive and have them work on the latest trick. Depending on the sport it could be a stick trick, a dribbling move, footwork, etc) When they’ve mastered it, have them show it to you so you can assign them a new one.
They need to warm up – laps aren’t fun, things that aren’t fun get less effort. Have a few different interesting ways to get their heart pumping, such as everyone hooking their elbows together and having to go all the way down the field, turn around and get back without anyone unhooking their elbows. One day they could all have to bear crawl, leap frog, hop with two feet, spin around 5 times after every 20 steps, etc. No one wants to be late to practice if the warm up is the best part!
Choose your focus for the day. Break down that skill into individual, partner, for time, and with added components. It could look something like this- Defense- denying the ball:
Shuffle, change directions at cone, shuffle down to next cone, keep going through all the cones working on staying low, quick foot movements and staying big and with eyes up.
Add- Offense player is now working way through cones, you stay with them keeping good body position.
For time: offense is racing quickly through the cones, you are still trying to keep good body position and stay with them
Add another offense on the side trying to feed a ball to the first offense player as they work their way through the cones. Defender stays with them, stays ball side, denies the pass.
Make it a one V one to goal situation without cones
Add more defenders, more offense players, add in one by one until it’s game like.
Mental Breaks can get rid of those second-half practice slumps that kids get. Too much learning and focus eventually turn into goofing around and less effort. Don’t just water break, MENTAL break! Add in a 5 minute game – it could be freeze tag, the number game, wizards-giants-and elves, etc. Then refocus by having them regroup and tell you what they learned in the last drill before you move on.
Award effort points. Award them freely! The kids can keep track of them for you. The person with the most effort points can pick the mental break at the next practice. It could be one point, it could be 1 thousand points. In every drill, someone is working hard – make sure you show that you noticed. If your athletes are competing to see who works the hardest at every practice, no one loses in that scenario!
What’s the point?!! They’re all thinking it while you explain the drill. What’s the point of this- there’s so much to think about? Make a habit of always giving them the POINT of the drill. The point of this drill is that you pivot and cut back for the pass. When they do it correctly call out POINT! Now everyone is focused and working to get recognized for getting the POINT. As a coach you get immediate gratification of seeing players grasp a skill, and the players have a reason to focus and try harder.
End on sprints? That’s how we did it when I was growing up! I like to send kids home sweaty and tired (that’s what they hired us for right?) But sprints leave a kid to go home remembering something they really dread doing. How can we get the same effect without the misery? End every practice with the Great Race! Set up cones or use lines on the field and make it an obstacle course. Split into teams and have them race each other. The first 3 players could be sprinting, the next three can only hop on one leg, the next must crawl on their bellies, but each player must get to the end. Another day you could set up several teams – half the team competes and the other half counts reps for each event, then rotates. The first event is a sit up contest for one minute, then a push up contest inside a minute, and lastly how many 20 yard sprints in one minute. Add up points for each team and find a winner. Builds teamwork, conditioning and fun! Your creativity is the limit on this one and it’s a lot more fun to coach them working hard, competing, and having fun then to have to yell and scream because they aren’t sprinting hard enough.
Wrap it up and tie it with a bow. At the end of practice let the kids remind each other and explain to you what they learned and what things were the most fun. This review only takes a minute and helps connect this practice to your next practice as well as helps those important points be committed to memory.
So as it turns out, fun can be the catalyst for harder working athletes, rather than just a distraction from the real work. Kids seem to put out more effort to have fun than for anything else! If the fun is organized, has clear goals, attainable improvements, and is designed to their level of knowledge and development, then your practices will leave them sweaty, smiling, and better than yesterday – sounds pretty close to perfect to me!