Tools for the Youth Coach’s Bag
No matter how quick witted a coach is, or how expertly that coach can whip up instantaneous practice plans of perfection, the season has to start with a plan and the right tools ready to go. As I have learned..I can wing a lot of things, but you can’t “wing” culture. There is a set of tools that successful coaches carry to keep their teams motivated, unified, driven, having fun, and coming back for more. A bit like Mary Poppins, this coach bag of tools is deep and can hold the culture of your entire season in its leather bound, stitched wonderfulness. Or in my case, it also can contain packets of honey that have leaked all over the inside (thanks to my goalie Nora for this annual treat..)
Culture begins before anything else, it begins before introductions, it begins with that first look or even a reputation and whatever preconceived notions the players may have about their coach. A solid foundation, a tangible guide, an atmosphere, and approachability, a plan, and a feeling of security and leadership all play into the beginnings of a team’s culture. But wait..didn’t I just sign up to run some kids around on a field and try to win, Im still learning the rules!..That all sounds like a lot of pressure?! Sure is!
Pack your coach’s bag with the necessities of a positive culture and take some pressure off for everyone. What’s inside this bag? Tools to mold, build, support, direct, hold accountable, and excite a group of athletes anxiously waiting to see what this season will be like.
The Packing List:
Expectations: clearly written out, simple, expectations, guidelines, rewards and consequences, all laid out underneath a clear and concise coaching philosophy. This doesn’t need to be rule book length, preachy, or super strict. The idea is to lay out what is expected of the team, including parents and sideline behavior, so that they are not constantly having to learn these lessons through misunderstandings and chaos. Make sure the players and parents get a copy.
A Map: Literally and figuratively, maps or addresses of fields, how travel is done, how the season will look, who to contact for last minute issues, etc. A practice plan template, rotations on parent helpers, carpools, snacks.
A Mirror (or time to take a Selfie!!!) If a coach is nervous or begrudgingly coaching because no one else would step up, (or coaching way too many teams in one season as is the case with may of us unable to use that two letter word, NO!) it comes across to the players in our body language and facial expressions. When the coach is passionate, lively, excited to teach and full of energy, the players will reflect it. Players are a reflection of how the coach comes out onto that field, bring what you want to see to that team from day one and watch the passion, excitement and love of playing grow. It’s more fun for them and definitely more fun for us.
A Carrot! The proverbial carrot is an important part of team culture because without a purpose, a reason to show up and try hard, getting the players motivated won’t be easy. That carrot can mean different things to every team, maybe it’s getting to a playoff, maybe it’s getting everyone to show up to every practice, or scoring one more goal than last season. Show them the carrot, give the carrot meaning and get everyone on the same track chasing the same carrot together. If the carrot sounds unappealing, try a proverbial donut 😀
A Hearing Aid. So often as coaches we get in front of our players and we talk to them, then we get the on the field and we talk to them, and then we get in front of the parents and we talk some more. As coaches we need to talk less and listen more. We need to turn up our listening skills and let the kids talk us through what they are seeing, what they need from us and our teams, where they are lost or confused and give them the empowerment to feel like they have a say and a role. This shifts the entire culture from one of leader and minions, to a unified group with a guide who is vested in every player.
A Can Opener! This is a reminder that all great coaches lead with an open heart and an open mind. Every team and the journey of each season is going to be different, the needs of the team, the talent, the attendance, the help, the weather, you name it! Some days we go into practice focused and determined to get the team to master a skill, but the pouring rain, band concert that kept half the players from attending or field mix ups can derail everything we had so perfectly planned. Being open to change our mind, shift our focus to what those kids need on that particular day when they show up, can make all the difference. Some of my best practices came about after a total shift in the plan for that day due to some unexpected chaos, just by being open to change and being flexible. The open heart can come into play with a player that lacks focus or can even be distracting to the rest of the team. Sometimes we are the one positive experience a kid has that day, all the kids on our teams aren’t coming from perfect families. Open hearts look to what these kids need to redirect them and bring out the best in them even when our patience is being tested.
A Clock. Ever watch the clock waiting for something great to happen? A clock is a reminder that learning, team unity and mastery take time. That drill that is a complete nightmare the first run through, maybe even the third or fourth time through can look like perfection on day 5. Accept the time factor and let the mistakes flourish into learning opportunities. The more mistakes, the quicker they find the path to what works and the more we stop and talk, forgetting to use our hearing aid, the more precious time is wasted. The best learning happens when in motion, or when they are telling us how they are figuring out the best way to perfect the skill.
A stretch of chain links closed into a circle. The links are the bond that ties the team together, the message that we are together in all things we face, that if we are connected like these links, we cannot lose one player without sacrificing the strength of the entire team. Each player may have different talents, years of playing or time to devote to their sport, but each link is made of the same thickness of metal and carries the same importance as the link it’s connected too. Each link may have a different position in that circle, but no one is more important or less important than the other when we look at the team as a whole. Each player needs to feel their worth, get the same amount of celebrations, the same amount of opportunities to learn and get better. I love the unbreakable circle exercise at the beginning of a season. Have the players link elbows in a circle and try to pull away from each other.. but they promise to not let go, a great visual symbol and promise to stay together no matter what and a few giggles in the process.
A bag of rocks. A team that believes firmly and truly that each team member will accomplish new and great things will thrive and reach more potential. Give each player 3 rocks as a representation of 3 great things they will do this season. They are free to dream of what those rocks will say by the end of the season, but the promise is that every player will have words written on their rocks by the end. Maybe it will be scoring a goal, encouraging a teammate, beating their sprint time, whatever it is, the message that your coach and your teammates believe that you will be accomplishing great things ahead gives hope and confidence to all players. No more superstar – person who scores all the goals focus, leaving the team disjointed, every success is a celebration and each player has great things awaiting them. Yes, player who picks dandelions and watches the planes flying overhead, even you will amaze yourself with something great this season worthy of celebrations! Each game and each practice is a chance for them to try to reach for something outside themselves and the chance to mark their rock.
An empty bag. This bag is for the coach, because coaches need to feel fulfilled in what they do in order to pass along that passion back to the kids. That empty bag is for you, and every tiny treasure that comes your way throughout the season goes in that bag. This is a figurative bag but it can also be a real bag. If you write down the little things that make you smile at a game, at a practice, or even out at the store when that player runs over to you and is so happy to see you. Our souls are filled with positivity through the teaching and guidance of kids, it’s the reason we do this and with a society that can be very hard on coaches and teachers we have to keep our focus on why we drive out to that rainy, muddy field while skipping dinner and exhausted. We’re giving back what we had or what we wish we had when we were kids, we’re making a great experience for our own kids or for others kids, and we’re feeding our own inner rambunctious playful selves. 🙂