Coaching your kid’s team? With great power comes great responsibility!

In Learn
By Alex Flanagan | November 3, 2018

By Guest Contributor: Pete Jacobson

There are really only two paths a mom or dad can take to find themselves at the helm of their kid’s sports team.

There’s Path 1:

The gung-ho, “can’t wait ‘til Joey’s old enough to play on a team so I can be the coach”-type. You sign yourself up to coach before you even sign your kid up for the league.

Then there’s Path 2:

“Hey, parents, Joey’s team needs a coach this season. Can anyone help out with that? It would be a shame if we couldn’t have a team!”

“UGGH,” you think to yourself. “I guess I can help out.” Extra points if your spouse volunteers you without asking you first!

Either way, just like that, a new coaching career is born.

No worries, though! You got this, right? I mean hey, you played a bit of baseball/soccer/football/basketball/lacrosse as a kid. No?

Well you at least you know the rules, right? Sort of?

I mean, how hard could it be?

Not to be melodramatic here, but, let me hit you with a quick truth. If you’re not on top of your game, you could be a kid’s last coach. Their last coach… Ever!

In fact, 70% of kids in the US today, quit sports by age 13. Yep. No need to clean the lenses on your Rec Specs – you read that right. Age 13!

That’s a lot of responsibility to lump on a volunteer! Kind of makes your freshly-issued whistle and clipboard feel a lot heavier, doesn’t it?

Fear not, fellow parent-coach! The path to being an all-star youth coach, and keeping kids fired up about sports, is much simpler than you might expect! I’ve been a varsity high school coach for almost 20 years and here’s the simple truth you need to know to be a great coach for your kid’s team:

Stick to the Big Three.

1. It has to be fun.

Simply put, if a kid’s not having fun they’ll quit – it’s only a matter of time. Even if they don’t quit, if they’re not having fun they’ll never love the game, and if they never love the game they’ll never make sports a long-term part of their life!

First thing to remember here is that fun starts with you, coach. Lighten up! There’s never a good reason you should be yelling at your team or the referees. You’re not Bobby Knight and this isn’t for a National Championship!

Now let’s look at practices. Practices aren’t fun by accident. We need to be intentional about finding ways to sprinkle in the fun wherever you can.

Some quick tips:

  • Want to know the quickest way to bore your players? Try running a practice without a practice plan. We need to keep our kids engaged and moving the whole time, and to do that we need to plan ahead, arrive early, and set up our practice area accordingly. Going to practice without a practice plan is like leaving your house without pants. Don’t be that guy.
  • Set the tone with a fun warm-up. It doesn’t even need to be specific to your sport! Let’s come up with a quick game, get them moving, get their heart rates up a bit, and prime the environment for a great practice!
  • Standing around is not a skill that needs developing. Let’s try to build our practices around small group activities that result in as many “touches” as possible for each kid. Consider splitting up the team into stations and rotating them through. Don’t hesitate to recruit other parents, siblings or spouses to help you make this happen. (And while we’re on the topic of standing around, keep your explanations as short and sweet as possible – no one’s looking for a doctoral dissertation on lay-up drills!)
  • Think outside the box (or the practice)! If you want to create a memorable season for your players, then give them some memories! A team event, here or there, outside the scope of your regular practices and games is a great way to get everyone feeling the love. How about a team movie night at coach’s house? An end-of-season pizza party? How ’bout taking your team to watch a local high school or college game in your sport?

2. The Skills that Pay the Bills

Last I checked the various youth sporting organizations out there aren’t paying volunteer parent-coaches big bonuses for winning the league championship. Winning isn’t your most important job – it’s teaching the sport to your kids!

So don’t teach them plays. Teach them how to play.

Whatever the season, every sport features its own fundamental set of skills that are critical to master if our kids are going to become “athletes”. As a varsity high school coach, I can tell you that these skills are some of the first things we look for when deciding whether a freshmen will make it in our program. As a youth coach, the best thing you can do for your kids is spend as much time as possible helping them develop these fundamentals.

Not sure what that entails for your sport? Fear not! Our good, old friend the Internet is there to help. A quick Google search will get you started on the right path.

Keep in mind, this philosophy will probably force you to abandon some tactics that will help you win games (like a full-court press or zone defense in basketball), but, trust me, you’ll thank me later (and so will your kids)!

3. Some “Next Level” Stuff

The last of the Big Three is really a mindset shift more than anything else, and that mindset is this: every decision you make should help get the kids on your team back in the sport next year, and on to the next level. Yep, that’s on you.

In fact, as the varsity coach in my district, I have direct oversight of our youth league, and the I let our coaches know every year, the single metric we use to gauge their success is what percentage of their kids come back the following year. That’s it. Nothing else.

I’m gonna guess that will change the way you think about some things. Here are a few pointers we give to our coaches in this area:

  • Everyone plays.  “Kids play sports because they enjoy playing sports.” Sounds pretty obvious, but what it means is that kids on your team are there to play. Not to sit on the sidelines watching their friends play. Want to keep a kid on your team? Make sure he’s getting in every game. (Now I’m not saying every kid should get equal playing time, but a good rule-of-thumb for the youth level is that every kid should get in for at least a third of the game.)
  • Praise effort not achievement. In every practice and game, strive to catch kids working hard and focusing on the process of getting better. Make a positive example of those who model this concept. This is even more effective when it’s not the “best” kids on your team getting called out.
  • Find a way to make each kid feel successful. For a kid to stay engaged and coachable they need to feel like things are moving in a positive direction and that’s your job. Give each kid on your team a process-oriented goal in practices that they can complete for a sense of accomplishment. For example, take 25 free-throw attempts sometime before you leave today. Whether or not the shots go in, 25 attempts is the measure of success for the day.

There you go, coach! These should get you off to a great start this season and make you feel a little better about your new job on the sidelines, but these tips are just the tip of the iceberg. Check out the Parent-Coach’s Cheat Sheet to get more on these tactics and other secrets of the best youth coaches.

Bio: Pete Jacobson has been a varsity HS coach in New York for almost 20 years. He also works with coaches of all levels through WinSmarter to help them get better at what they do, have a greater impact and go home happy. Check out the Parent-Coach’s Cheat Sheet to get more tactics and other secrets of the best youth coaches.

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