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Getting the Best in Player Return at Practice

For the last 16 years I’ve been working on, failing, rebuilding, rethinking and figuring out the delicate balance I need to coach youth players in a variety of sports.   From kids not showing up to practice, not paying attention, failing to improve, talking over me, hanging on my legs, telling me random facts from home, and more – I’ve made it my mission to get the most out of my players in that short 1 to 2 hour time span on that freezing cold muddy field.  Lesson one was that telling them to knock it off, pay attention and hustle more has never, ever worked.

My goal is to create an environment, a culture, that fosters learning, fun, keeping the kids attention, and getting them to want to come back and bring friends with them next season. While trying to balance all of that, I also needed to address the fact that I really am a hopelessly competitive person, and I don’t like to lose. But I had to learn that I don’t have to put aside my drive to win as long as I can do it without destroying that delicate balance I have worked so hard on. And interestingly, that has led to a more overall developed team in the long run than focusing primarily on wins ever did.

I’ve created and scrapped ideas over the years, learned everything the hard way, and found a formula that helps me run a practice with kids that hang onto every word, learn quickly, put out more effort, go home smiling, and come back season after season. Though I’m by no means a win at all cost coach, I would be remiss to not mention that my teams very often do in fact, WIN. (shameless self promotion or we could just call it confidence..)  There’s something about kids that focus at practice, love their sport, have mounds of self-confidence and who show up that helps that winning record build itself..and it has nothing to do with what I know about the game! Those teams that still struggle with winning, leave with incredible memories and expereinces and the drive to come back next year. Isn’t that a win too?

So for those of you just starting out, struggling, or perhaps still learning the hard way, I hope I can save you some time and frustration and give you my tried and true and thoroughly tested plan for the best season ever!

Biggest Player Turn offs at practice leading to the Least Positive return:

  1. Too much down time – generally in the form of lines or waiting to sub in. If you have more than three, they can be in a station doing something so they don’t get bored. Stations are my best friend at practice – appoint players to take turns being in charge of the groups

  2. Punishments – in any form, no long term positive return on this

  3. Accusations and judgments – these sound like “you don’t care, you aren’t trying, you’re lazy, you’re out of shape, you’re not doing work outside of practice.” Etc etc

  4. Long Drills- they get bored long before we as coaches do. 5-10 minutes is all you need, you can always repeat the drill later. If it goes on forever they check out mentally knowing they will have plenty of chances to go.

  5. Calling out for mistakes – we often make the mistake of making a correction in the form of calling out publically what someone did wrong. Even if you “say” it’s a correction for everyone, that last person to go is feeling embarrassed.  Call that person over and give them a personal goal of something to work on, restate how to do it correctly if you must address the group, don’t mention what was wrong.

  6. Sprints and Laps- Races, tag, obstacle courses are fun, sprints and laps are boring and they are likely to put out less effort

  7. Angry, frustrated or unengaged coaches – they look up to you, look forward to learning from you, those are high expectations and a good reason to put on a happy face.

Biggest return from your players in effort, success, self-esteem and growth:

  1. Imagination in everything – it’s not a ball, it’s a puppy! It’s not a field, it’s a lava pit! It’s not sprinting, it’s escaping the invisible dragon!

  2. Everything’s a game – Get the gold nugget into the mine, make sure 4 miners help move it down the field! Defensive drill inside a box becomes cat and mouse. Suddenly they are volunteering to be in the drill and working harder because it’s fun! Ever have a kid ask to do ground balls drills? But maybe they will ask to play the sumo box out game or the game where they spin around 3 times and then race to beat their opponent to the loose ball.

  3. Balance activity choices– offer some challenging tasks that are too hard to master right away balanced with activities that they will feel successful at within one practice. Enough to stay encouraged and build self-esteem, but pushed to work hard and learn as well.

  4. Recognition – call outs of praise as well as individual one on one praise can be the single most important thing you do all season for your players to keep them engaged and learning. Don’t add on a correction, let the imperfect go, let them live in the moment of being purely complimented.

  5. Rewards – stickers, high fives, ribbons to tie on their sticks, leaps of joy, getting to lead something – any sort of reward for the effort and focus you are looking for is a good reward!

  6. High energy and enthusiastic coaches will reflect high energy and enthusiastic players. Players are your mirror – are you smiling?

  7. Be mysterious – find your silly side! If your players are always wondering what you will say next, their eyes are on you every time you speak. Speak less often and keep it short, they hear your first two sentences and your last sentence.. cut out the middle.

  8. SHOW instead of TELL – Walk through drills after brief intro. You’ll end up doing that anyway, skip the long explanation.

  9. Ask instead of telling – Why is this important? How would you stand? Which way makes sense for my feet to be pointing?

  10. Be specific and singular when instructing – next time through follow all the way with your stick. One instruction, one thing to think about, one controllable opportunity to earn genuine praise and feel successful only moments away!

I’ve found that coaches that continually blame the teams they have for not paying attention, not being able to catch or throw, or understand concepts, have forgotten whose job it is to create an environment that makes kids want to learn.  I’m no child development expert, but I feel very confident that these are universal KID traits –  by definition kids struggle with attention spans, boredom, acting out, being silly and NOT taking life (and practice) very seriously. It’s not a team problem, it’s just the everyday challenges of coaching youth sports.  We have to adapt our practices to the age and maturity of what is presented to us so that we all have a great experience.  Are we coddling them? Absolutely not, we are adapting to the level they learn and putting it into terms they enjoy instead of trying to treat them like mini adults.  Teachers have figured this out already, now we can apply it as coaches as well!

Happy kids = happy stress-free (almost) coaches! Go have some fun!

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