Sunday, November 9, 2014

Communicating with Your Players: Foundation for Success

Coaches must be able to communicate effectively for their team to succeed. Whether it is a non-verbal gesture, a guttural moan, or a heartfelt monologue, effective communication is necessary to teach and to create a sense of teamwork. And if done well, it can provide the motivational push that drives a player to elevate his or her game and compete in games where they might be overmatched. Excellent communication also improves preparation during practice and can give a coach insight into the players’ attitudes and understanding of her goals for the team.

One form of communication that is too often overlooked, or avoided, is the one on one meeting between player and coach. I'm not referring to comments made by the coach in the heat of the moment, or the "teachable moments" that occur during practice and in games, but rather a “private sit down” before or after practice, or during the school day.  

I advise every coach to conduct these meetings, regardless of whether it is in college, in high school, or even at the youth level. These meetings should be thought of as conversations and not lectures where the coach gives his "spiel" and then simply asks the player if he understands and has any comment or question. The coach has as much to learn from his players as the player learns from his coach.

These conversations can be in some part instructional, offering advice on a player's game, focusing on the positive but also pointing out areas for improvement. But I envision these conversations in a much more expansive way, and in fact a good conversation will allow the player to give her observations on everything from how
practices are run, to playing time, to how fair the coaching staff has been in the treatment of players, even asking players what they think about how well the games are being managed.

This sort of conversation might be tough on some coaches' egos, but the sense of empowerment that it creates in the player's mind, and the new sense of "ownership" that the player feels, are important parts of the maturation process for student-athletes. My experience has been that the majority of players leave these meetings with a better understanding of their role on the team and a better understanding of the program's priorities and philosophy; they have also gained useful information on their performance and the coach's expectations.

Some coaches might be concerned that these private conversations could lead to distrust among the players, especially those players who think the meeting is nothing more than an opportunity for the coach to pry, or for teammates to unfairly "self-promote" or "rat" on other players. Regardless, the benefits of these private meetings far outweigh any concern that teammates are "badmouthing" other players. It is up to the coach to use any "delicate" information in such a way that it cannot be traced back to any particular player, and frankly coaches should never be asking questions that will be potentially divisive.

And finally, given all the recent attention to bullying and hazing, and the strict penalties now being enforced by schools and State Associations, it is crucial to use this time to find out if there have been incidents of inappropriate treatment of teammates. The anonymity that these meetings provide offers an opportunity to learn things that you would otherwise be unlikely to learn.

Regardless of the sport, drama is an undeniable feature of the relationship among players. In sports like lacrosse or soccer, drama among players could lead to passes not made, less teamwork on defense, and jealousies that will injure the sense of “team” that is vital for success. In sports like tennis, where individuals are expected to play with a sense of honor and honesty, where competition for positions in the lineup can be cutthroat, and where on some teams there are players who are “part timers,” gaining greater insight into player motivation is essential. And for those tennis coaches making use of video, these meetings would also provide an opportunity for instruction.

Effective communication is the essence of any strong relationship, regardless of whether we are talking about a marriage, a retail store, or a sports team. Every coach must take the time to meet with every member of her team. The benefits for both parties might be small, or they might be substantial, but the bottom line is that each player deserves the respect that a meeting would represent. The players, and their parents, will also respect you more for doing it. So meet with the players, and reap the benefits of a team full of empowered athletes playing their hearts out for their


Monday, November 3, 2014

Thinking About Being A Coach: Follow This Guide and You'll Do Just Fine

I remember the winter of 1991 like it was yesterday. After four years of teaching, I was finally being offered a chance to coach. Two positions were open, one to coach the boys tennis team, the other to coach a new sport at the school, boys lacrosse.  

Frankly, I knew nothing about lacrosse; I don’t think I had ever seen a game. Tennis, on the other hand, was in my blood. I had a racquet in my hand at the age of five, had spent two summers at Chase Tennis Center, played four years of varsity doubles, and would clearly fit the profile of a tennis junkie. Tennis would have been the easy choice, but I remember the experience of my varsity coach in high school and decided to steer clear.
With over two decades of coaching now “under my belt,” and after spending many, many Friday afternoons commiserating with other coaches, I have come to learn that regardless of the sport, there was a lot that we had in common in terms of the skills we needed if we were to succeed.

John Wooden famously referred to himself as a teacher, not a coach, to better emphasize the valuable role he commanded. A successful coach, much like a successful teacher, must find a way to “connect”. It is only then that a coach will be able to prepare their players for success and teach the life lessons that are so much a part of a coach’s responsibilities.
So after decades of coaching and exchanging ideas with other coaches, I have identified 5 characteristics that I believe are necessary components of successful coaching. Regardless of the sport, anyone interested in learning to be an effective coach must strive to master these fundamental ideas.

The first characteristic is passion: passion for the sport and passion for the role of coach. The enthusiasm a coach projects to his players is infectious, and it must be evident at practice even more so than on game day. Practice must be more than something athletes know they must do, it is something they must look forward to attending. This is especially true in today’s environment, where so many young athletes- for better or worse- have begun to specialize in one sport to the point where one’s enthusiasm wanes and the sports takes on the feel of a job.
A successful coach must also be knowledgeable. Coaches must be aware of both the skills and strategies the players must master. Being able to teach proper technique, detect and correct errors, and build winning strategies based on a player’s skills and an opponent’s weaknesses are all responsibilities of a coach regardless of the level.

Organizational skills are an overlooked but essential quality for a successful coach. Organization includes a well-structured practice, creating fair and enforceable rules for the team, having a protocol for dealing with parents, and planning out a season much like a teacher would plan a unit in math or history.
In the past the idea of empowering players was given little attention, but in today’s world it is an essential quality for any successful program. Players need to know that they are more than passive members of a team but are decision makers, whether on the court, at practice, or in the locker room. Captains must have real responsibilities, and players must be able to express their individuality and see that their personalities can contribute to the team’s success rather than as a threat to a team’s cohesion.

And finally, a successful coach must be resourceful. Whether referring to tools to benefit their players’ training, human resources to help teach, or activities to help stir passion, coaches must always be seeking out new and creative resources to inspire and educate the team.
Coaching young athletes has become the most fulfilling and inspiring experience of my adult life. There are simple keys to success in coaching, keys that anyone with the desire can learn and master. But you must master them all. The impact a coach can have on young hearts and minds makes it a challenge I encourage everyone to consider. The rewards will last a lifetime.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Brave New World of Coaching and Parenting in the Age of Travel Teams

With the fall interscholastic season well under way, I think it would be a good time to reflect on the role of  Head Coach and increasingly complicated position he or she now finds himself in, especially as high school sports has become more and more entangled in the business of “training, promoting, and marketing athletes.”

Let me first address that final point. There was a time not so long ago when high school coaches were forbidden from working with their players in the summertime; in fact they were, as well,  only allowed to meet once in the off-seasons with the players. Not only could they not work with the players over the summer, they weren’t even allowed to work at camps which their players attended. I’m sure the NJSIAA’s policy was well intended, but oftentimes it resulted in a cat and mouse game with coaches reporting on other coaches, while coaches became stealthy and secretive in their activities.

That rule has since been rescinded, and now the pendulum has swung the other way, with many coaches now reaping incredible financial rewards working with their players and those from other programs. It’s no coincidence that the year the rule was rescinded we saw the rise of Tri-State Lacrosse, probably the gold standard of travel programs, at least in lacrosse.

High school players have become willing commodities in this new market for year round athletes, with parents paying thousands of dollars to help provide their kids with “opportunities” for more training, exposure, and competitive play. You didn’t think that coaches would work with their players out of the goodness of their hearts when there was a buck or two to be made?

And it’s not just the high school athletes, increasingly these programs promote to players as young as fourth grade. Summertime used to be a time for unorganized play, having fun, relieving stress, and giving your body time to develop properly. Now we have doctors seeing pre-teens showing signs of injuries once reserved for college age players.

When I started this article I was actually feeling some sympathy for the high school coaches caught up in this, but the more I write the more the more I realize that a large number of these coaches are complicit in this enterprise. It’s hard not to turn away I suppose. Truth be told I may end up coaching a summer team myself, though as a volunteer.

What I wonder is how many parents do an actual cost-benefit analysis of these programs and their motivation for getting involved. Are they hoping to gain a competitive advantage for their kids? Are they simply looking for an activity that would be “fun” for their youngster? Are they desperately looking for a way they can “bond” with their child?

It is certainly true that competitive team sports can teach invaluable “life lessons” to their children, and that definitely can’t be dismissed. But are travel teams necessary to impart these “lessons?” Just as it is important to acknowledge the positives of organized sports, there are some other facts that must be acknowledged as well.

According to a 2013 Michigan State survey, thirty five million children ages 5-18 play organized sports, with approximately 66% of boys and 52% of girls getting involved. But by the age of 13, 70% of them drop out, and an ever increasing number of those that remain are being drawn to these summer travel programs and becoming year-round “specialists” in one or two particular sports. I’ll leave aside my concerns for repetitive motion injuries and the psychological harms being created. And I readily admit that many players are sincerely having a good time. I do, however, want to provide a reality check for those families who believe they are providing a competitive advantage for their kids.

First of all, there are some children that are “natural athletes,” and for them there is unlikely any “need” to play one sport all year. In fact many of the college coaches I spoke to would prefer that their potential recruits had a more diversified experience. And as far a playing in college goes, the stark reality is that only 2% of high school athletes receive scholarships, and rarely a full ride. Fewer than 7% of varsity baseball players make it to the NCAA; for basketball and soccer the numbers are 3.3 and 5.7 percent respectively.

We will never go back to the days when high school coaches were kept away from their players in the off-season, and it seems unlikely that the trend of summer and year round travel teams for pre-teens and high school players will be reversed. Coaching travel team families (the parents are part of the bargain) complicates the dynamics of high school sports, and is one of many changes that coaches must navigate as they build their program and coach the games. In my next article I will delve deeper into the art of coaching in this “new age” of student-athletes, then turn our attention to youth sports and the challenges faced by parents who volunteer to coach community teams, because regardless of age, it is a brave new world out there.



Saturday, August 2, 2014

How to Deal with Mercy Rule Games

An interesting discussion took place last week on WFAN's show "The Sports Zone," hosted by well known sports parenting consultant Rick Wolff. Mercy rules have been adopted to hasten the end of lopsided games, and typically come into use after a certain score has been reached. The purpose of these rules is two-fold: to save the losing team from being overly embarrassed, and to avoid potential injury caused by players that are either not physically equipped to compete, or who seek "retribution" against the winning team by engaging in dangerous behavior on the field.

It is hard to imagine that opposition to these rules would exist, but it does. Some opponents argue that players need to learn from the experience as if the defeat were in fact a source of motivation to improve their play. Opponents also argue that invoking the rule is in and of itself humiliating, drawing attention to players and parents that the losing team is somehow dysfunctional. The implication is that either the coach or the parents are not capable of producing capable athletes.

Both of these arguments seem more like excuses to continue playing what is a clearly uncompetitive game rather than well reasoned arguments against mercy rules. The risks inherent in such games, especially the safety factor, must clearly outweigh any argument to prolong such games. Moreover, teenagers are a particularly unpredictable group, and the risk of unsportsmanlike behavior on the field must also be considered.

These games also place coaches and officials in a difficult situation. Some officials may see their role as trying to establish some balance, and in the process call "suspect" fouls on the winning team's players that are unfair and confusing to the athlete. Coaches could, and should use these games as a way of giving valuable playing time to their "second tier" players, or to teach their players to "control the tempo" and control the ball rather than score, but it is admittedly difficult to tell players who rarely get on the field to not try and score.

These games are also difficult on the parents, who oftentimes do not know how to react to what they see going on in front of them, and who usually "share the sideline" with the opposing team's parents. For all of those involved, mercy games are difficult to endure, and bringing a quick end to the game certainly seems like a reasonable solution.

The one group of people that seems to escape scrutiny in these games, but who deserve to be scrutinized the most, are the athletic directors. Let's face it, if these games were not scheduled, then all else involved would not be put in these difficult positions.

I coached varsity lacrosse for 19 years, and in the earlier years there were very few teams in the State, so few that my AD let me schedule over half of our schedule. Now it seems every high school has a team, and the range of ability between the schools is dramatic. In my area, the CVC created three "ability and experience based" divisions for lacrosse, which is a sound way of organizing the schools, but then they declared that every school must play schools from every division. Not only does that limit a coaches ability to find competitive games throughout the State, but it insures that every team will be on one end or the other of games with scores of 20-2, 19-0, 22-3, and so on. These are in fact actual scores from last season.

There is no excuse for these games having to be played, and frankly the only reason they are scheduled is laziness on the part of athletic directors. They love their matrixes; it is such an easy way to schedule most if not all of a program's games.

The blame for "mercy games" must be placed squarely on the shoulders of athletic directors; mercy rules are a direct consequence of their reluctance and failure to do their due diligence and work with coaches to develop a competitive schedule. They should not escape scrutiny, and they must be held accountable. Any coach that knowingly schedules such games to inflate their record or to help their star players pad their stats should likewise be ashamed of themselves.

The bottom line is, mercy rules are a reasonable solution to non-competitive games, but, in reality, the best solution is for the games to never be scheduled in the first place, and the blame for that should rest with the athletic directors. It's time for them to do their job.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Germany's Shameful World Cup Performance

No one expected the trouncing that Brazil received at the hands of Germany in yesterday's semifinal, and a 7-1 score is soccer is about as one sided a victory as one can imagine; if not mistaken it was the most lopsided score in the entire tournament so far. Five of Germany's goals were scored in about a 10 minute span in the first half, and it was clear at halftime, with the score 5-0, that the victor in this game was not in doubt.

But Germany continued to push forward in the 2nd half, lobbing long passes downfield in attempts to score rather than playing a ball control game and methodically moving the ball forward, something certainly not uncommon on a soccer field. Further, Germany kept its best scorers on the field the entire game rather than using its few substitutions to bring in players that might otherwise never touch the field in the World Cup. Germany scored two more goals, and rather than quietly celebrating each goal they remained demonstrative in demonstrations of bravado that were clearly inconsiderate of their opponent or the venue, since Brazil was the host team. Boy, as a host I certainly hope to never have guests that showed me such little respect.

I was astounded that there was almost no discussion among ESPN analysts of Germany's clear effort to run up the score on a defeated Brazil. If this is accepted practice in soccer's culture I am glad I never had interest in the sport, because there can be no doubt I would never want my players to emulate the German players or the German coach, who must have found no problem with the play on the field.

This was a game devoid of sportsmanship and devoid of decency, a clear effort to embarrass the host team in front of their own fans. Now obviously the World Cup stage is far removed from our youth sports programs, but as coaches we should really ask ourselves whether we consider German behavior appropriate in a game so one sided and at the host's home field. We have all been in these circumstances, on one end or the other, and we need to ask ourselves what we would do. Would we keep our best scorers in the game? Would we continue with an aggressive offensive style of play? Would we celebrate goals so demonstratively? And would we have shown so little consideration for the fact that the team we were humiliating was the event host?

Loving Germany is never easy to begin with; we see them as distant, hyper disciplined, and arrogant. Suffice to say, they did little yesterday to change that view. This was a huge loss for Brazil, and they of course have themselves to blame. But as the victor's coach, we have certainly responsibilities, certain lessons we want to impart. In this case, think about Germany, and then just do the opposite. hat a horrible example they set for the world's young soccer players.

Coaching and Teaching One and the Same

In the "official" biography of John Wooden by Steven Jamison, Coach Wooden was quoted as saying that he never referred to himself as a coach, but rather as a teacher. When a man of such stature makes a statement such as this, it is worth taking a few moments to digest his view.

I wholeheartedly agree with Coach Wooden's view, which has important ramifications for job athe position of coach and how we treat those who place themselves in this role.

I was a teacher for 21 years, and have coached for about the same amount of time. I went into teaching with absolutely no preparation or training, and likewise for coaching. I became what is called an "alternate route" teacher. What that meant is that I went straight from college to the classroom, where I was provided with a mentor, a clinical supervisor, and was entered into a college program designed for me and similarly situated teachers from other schools. If not for those human resources I would have completely floundered, despite my best intentions. There is just no way to go into a new job and succeed without this support.

The same could be said for my experience as a coach. Now I had spent many years as an athlete, and so I had some experience with coaches in that perspective. But experience as an athlete does not prepare you for the demands of running a sports program as a varsity coach. Sad to say the school itself provided nothing of consequence to me as a coach other than a mandatory workshop all coaches had to attend. There was no supervisor (the AD had too much to do), no mentor, and no coursework. Thankfully for me our high school was only 2 miles from Princeton University, home of Coach Bill Tierney and the PU Men's Lacrosse Team. I took the initiative to approach Coach Tierney, who was kind enough to allow me access to his practices so I could learn both the sport- I had never even played lacrosse- and his approach to dealing with his players. I can never Coach Tierney enough for what he did for me, if not for him I would have certainly floundered and possibly failed.

I also had help from the Princeton High team, whose coach was willing to actually run a couple of joint practices with my team so that both me and my players could more quickly get acclimated to the sport.

The problem a lot of coaches in my position have is that they really don't have a "baseline" or reference point to use as a way of gauging whether or not they are doing a good job, and it is the natural inclination of most people to believe that they are.

What I quickly found is that my experiences as a teacher and as a coach were almost identical: the preparing of lesson plans, the need to evaluate performance, the need for organization, the need to discipline and reward performance, the duty to communicate with parents, the teaching of skills and concepts. Teachers are coaches, coaches are teachers, it is that simple.

Those first several years were a struggle in both arenas, but I can't imagine what my experience would have been like if not for the help, support, and resources at my disposal. I guess my point is that it is my contention we do a poor job preparing parents for the demands of running a team. Now of course sports run training programs, mostly on-line, and may provide videos or buy a book from one of those companies promoting their "solution" to the question of how to coach. But a lot of these programs are not evidence based but merely reflect their "approach."

But what I learned in those first few years on the job, and from my experience with Coach Tierney, is that every coach or teacher has their own personality, and that trying to "put aside" that persona to fit a "system" is unfair to the coach and to the players. Similarly, much of what one learns in coaching and teaching is learned "in the trenches," through trial and error. That is why it is incumbent to provide youth coaches with support that is tangible such as with a mentor and/or supervisor. Coaches need someone they can work with, someone they can "reflect" with, someone who provides another set of eyes to assess what is happening at practice and on the field. Remember, if we assume that a coach is no different than a teacher, than we need to provide the same kind of experience as those like me received when they began their career in the classroom, and then received continuously over the years for continued support to make sure that I was continually trying to improve my craft. No teacher, nor any coach, will ever "know it all" and have no more left to learn.

A final point: the kind of commitment a youth program makes to preparing its parents says a lot about how much it really cares about its children in its program. I remember when I volunteered to coach a 2nd grade soccer team in our town, one of about 16 teams. I was given a bag of balls and a handout with a few drills. Now at that young age the most important thing is having fun, but even at that age a properly trained coach can make sure the kids have fun AND correctly learn some basic skills. Since I was a teacher I felt more comfortable in my situation, but it is wrong to assume that being a parent is sufficient preparation for coaching kids.

So in conclusion, my point with today's post is that it is incumbent on all youth programs to see their parent coaches as teachers and actually begin to enter that expression into their vernacular. By redefining coaches as teachers it is my hope that programs will take more seriously their responsibility to properly prepare and train their parents for the demands of their position. We would never just throw a teacher into a classroom without providing the kind of support I detailed earlier, and there is no way we should just throw our coaches out there with nothing more than maybe a book, a video, a website, and a pat on the back.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Buck Showalter's Righteous Attack on Youth Baseball Coaches and Parents

Anytime I hear that Buck Showalter is going to appear on Mike Francesa's WFAN talk show I have learned to expect a refreshingly honest and insightful interview, but what I heard this past Thursday went well beyond expectations. What started out as a simple Q and A about pitchers quickly turned to a dialogue about the "epidemic" of  recent Tommy John surgery, but what came next was completely unexpected.

The average age for Tommy John surgery is now in the teens, and Coach Showalter used this sobering fact to lament on the state of youth sports today, with most of his venom directed at "travel teams," with equal parts acrimony directed at varsity coaches and unrealistic parents who feel that they can "turn" their child into a star. In the minds of both Mike and Coach Showalter, athletes with professional level skill have "G-d given talent," and that they would excel at any sport they chose to play. The Coach in fact says that to him it is a "red flag" whenever he sees an athlete that plays just one sport. He goes on to site an example of players who don't know "how to fall," and believes that is the result of baseball players who forego other sports. Both Mike and Coach Showalter point out that a lot of great players pick up the sport late in life, and that such players tend to have more passion for play than players who have been playing for so long that the sport has become routine, like a business and devoid of emotion.

The overuse of certain muscles, resulting from repetitive motion of unnatural movements, is destroying young bodies and a direct cause of the exponential increase of sports related injuries in this country. Travel team coaches, who directly profit from teenagers participating year round, have convinced too many parents that they are providing a service to their children, and of course it isn't until it is "too late" that parents realize they have been fed unrealistic expectations and have set their kids up for monumental disappointment.

Frankly, I have yet to meet a college coach who is in favor of a young player specializing in one sport and one position. In fact, they prefer selecting athletes who have been involved in a variety of activities, and even prefer players who spend time in "unorganized" sports.

Hopefully we can begin to turn the tide against these travel teams and their "hijacking" of youth sports. They have transformed athletics to the detriment of the players and the sports themselves. Children deserve better decision making from their parents. It is time for the voices of reason to fight back.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Spurs Offer Lessons for Youth Coaches

The incredibly unexpected dominance of the San Antonio Spurs on the home court of the Miami Heat have left many experts baffled. Initial comments looked for deficiencies in the Heat's game that "allowed" the Spurs to overwhelm them in consecutive games, but attention has now turned to the Spurs own game philosophy, and it is here that we can learn a couple things applicable to youth sports.

One is playing time: the Spurs are the only team in the league where no player averaged more than 29 minutes of play in a game. Coach Popovich has made clear- on those rare occasions where he actually gives answers- that the balanced approach to playing time isn't so much to rest players as it is to give his bench players the opportunity to apply what they learn in practice to game situations and to hold them accountable for their performance in the eyes of their teammates. Throwing players in a game only during "mop up" minutes poorly prepares them for more critical junctures of a game and makes it difficult for them to improve their game IQ. The poise these bench players display, and the clear willingness of the starters to cycle the ball through these reserves is testament to this strategy; it is something that should be emulated at the youth level. This is going to be difficult for coaches consumed with "winning" to relent to, but I am convinced that coaches who make clear that each player is accountable and that it is every players responsibility to improve their individual game will be rewarded by these bench players, and by the parents, something that pro coaches obviously don't have to worry about :)

The second aspect of Coach Popovich's philosophy that should be emulated at the youth level, especially in sports like basketball, lacrosse, and even ice hockey, is the motion offense. Spurs players are constantly in motion, as is the ball. The defense rarely gets an opportunity to get set, making it very difficult to anticipate what the offense is doing. Now granted we all know the pick and roll is coming, but after that? No defender can let up, and by having to stay in motion they are much less prepared to know their immediate responsibilities with "sliding" to help out on D. The defense is under constant pressure, and you could see in the eyes of the Heat players the frustration and weariness.

The convergence of motion on offense and more balanced playing time is that the players are comfortable keeping the ball moving, regardless of who ends up with the ball. That is why you will see games with the bench players as leading scorers, and why you see so many assists in the post game line score. The Spurs are the consummate team.

I have coached teams with one or two extraordinary players, and early in my career I was content with just giving them the ball, having the other players clear out, and just letting them "do their thing." But it became clear- too slowly to be honest- that the other players were not only getting resentful and "trouble" in the locker room, but were showing little if any improvement in their game. Our game became "handcuffed" to this game strategy, and I was left to deal with a majority of disenchanted players and parents. The winning- and yes we did win games this way- was not enough to justify this coaching strategy, and I realized over the years that my happiest days as a coach, and my happiest teams, was in those years where we had no "superstar," just a lot of motivated players happy to share time with each other on the field. It was during these years that every player took the idea of accountability to heart and worked tirelessly to improve their play. The motion on offense became a requirement, not just a strategy, and win or lose we did so as a team in every sense of the word.

As you watch the final few games, and who knows what might happen because the Heat are certainly capable of the same type of play, study what is transpiring. You might even want to send out a blast email to your players sharing your observations. Don't be surprised if your team is seeing the same thing, and might expect the same thing, when they get back on the field.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

About Participation Trophies

The handing out of participation trophies for youth sports- mostly recreational youth programs- has become one of the most contentious of all issues in recent memory, and to be honest I don't see how the issue can ever be resolved to everyone's satisfaction. Much like the abortion debate, participation trophies raise what could be called "first principles" people; views are deeply philosophical and unlikely to be swayed.

Those opposing the trophies are adamant that people should not be rewarded simply for participating, that it reinforces the idea that striving for excellence and winning are no longer important. Just trying is enough to deserve recognition. If everyone receives an award it cheapens the idea of "earning" something. I certainly understand this point of view, but for youth recreation sports it is a view that is far too narrow minded, fails to realize the point of youth sports, and also fails to realize that awarding such trophies and rewarding excellence are not mutually exclusive.

Participation is in fact one of the goals of youth sports. There is so much research indicating the positive impact of youth sports (for the sake of this issue we are not addressing issues regarding the quality of the coaching and guidance the players are receiving) that simply participating is something that should be encouraged, and awarding these trophies is great reinforcement.

Now there are some sports where a township youth program has enough participants to have a league unto itself, and so if records are kept there will be a winning team; the issue of whether records should be kept is also one I'll reserve for another post. In other sports, lacrosse comes to mind, many towns only field one or two teams per grade level and compete against other towns. Arguments against these trophies usually arise in the first instance.

Here's the point: there is no reason why a town program can't acknowledge participation for everyone AND give a second award to a team that has been deemed the league "winner." Further, there is nothing preventing a team from giving out its own team awards that do reward exemplary effort within their team, whether it is an award for hustle, batting average, sportsmanship, ground balls scooped, assists, or any other skill the coaches want to emphasize. I would strongly encourage these awards, much more so than an award for simply being the "winner," as they help teach important life lessons and remind the players what skills the kids should work on if they desire to achieve excellence in the sport.

Since having fun is also a crucial element of youth sports, and one of the reasons players stay with sports- the fact that 80% of youth players opt out of youth sports by age 13 is distressing to say the least- I would also encourage coaches to hand out some "goofy" awards, though they must be careful not to conceive them in a way that is embarrassing to the player and not to give those awards to only the least talented players on the team.

The bottom line is that there is no shortage of things that youth players can receive awards for, and that participation is certainly a category worthy of recognition, even if it goes to everybody. However, opponents of these awards have some legitimate concern if there are not also awards going out to players to reward excellent or exemplary performance. One simple way of doing this is to have your youth league/program create a "team of the year" award to reward the team that is recognized as the one that best embodies the values of the league and might be seen as a "model" team. Yes, there will be those that will object to such a selection; there is no getting around that. There are always parents (and coaches, and players for that matter) that feel that their kids team is always the most deserving. That's life, but like all things that are voted on, and where there are "winners" and "losers," as long as the system is beyond reproach you will find that these parents voices will get drowned out.

So reward participation, but find lots of other things to reward as well. You will find that the benefits far outweigh the "harm" of acknowledging those that "simply show up and get something." For those that have made participation trophies an issue, it is understandably a serious issue, but, frankly, it should not be an issue at all.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Playing Time for Your "Bench Players"

There can be nothing more frustrating thing for a player than sitting on the sideline waiting for his or her turn on the field, a turn that all too often never comes. At the youth recreation level is it unforgivable for a player not to get meaningful time on the field, and no team should ever have too large a roster to accommodate that desire.

At the high school level, where differences in ability justifiably translate into differences in playing time, the desire for playing time is no less real. Players at that age and at that level are usually cognizant of those differences in ability, and in a close, competitive game, a coach that substitutes out the better players at a critical juncture late in a game, just to satisfy the idea that all players must step on the field, is doing a disservice to entire team, including that player who has been pacing the sideline all game.

I used to face this situation often, justifying the situation by promising the player significant playing time in an upcoming game against an inferior opponent. That is all well and good, but no doubt makes such players feel that they are only capable of playing in predictably lopsided games. Then one day I was confronted by a player who had enough of this routine. He attended every practice, participated in the drills and learned our philosophy, and demanded the respect he felt he deserved with the reward of playing in all the games. I promised I would think about it. Then, as fate would have it, we were shorthanded in our next game- a tense and competitive game- and when one of our starters was injured, I was "forced" to put in that player.

I would be lying to say I wasn't praying for the next 3 minutes, hoping that the move would not backfire. What I soon realized is that I never gave enough credit to players like him, not because he came in and became a phenom on the field, but because he was smart enough to understand the situation, understand his role, and used his skills to do the things he was capable of doing.

Another benefit coaches need to consider is that by giving your starters more time on the sidelines, they have time to study the player they are matched up against. This learning may prove invaluable when the starter returns to the field, as they now have time to learn his/her opponent tendencies:  do they cross their legs, do they drop their stick head, do they overrun on defense, do they throw checks every "x" seconds. The sideline is a classroom, and it is up to you as the coach to see that your players view it that way.

Frankly, at that moment I felt like a complete ass, but an ass that was capable of learning and capable of changing. It was at that moment that I changed my whole attitude towards winning and towards my players. My coaching philosophy is deeply steeped in the idea of player empowerment, and I take great pride in the fact that once the game starts it is the players that are "in charge," making important decisions on the field themselves. I'll speak more about this in future posts, but the point here is that even my bench players had the confidence to elevate their game to fit right in.

As far as playing time, the main point of this post, it was here that I made an important decision, one that I believe all coaches in sports like lacrosse, soccer, and hockey should adopt: make sure that every player on your team step on the field in the first half of the game.

By doing this, you will never be faced with the situation of denying your players their opportunity, and right, to be part of the game. You will never be forced to look a player in the eye and tell him: "I'm sorry I couldn't get you in, but the game was just too close and I could not risk taking out my starters at that critical moment." Can you imagine how that must feel for a player to hear that? Please don't tell me that you would understand, that you would accept staying benched "for the good of the team and so that we would have a better chance to win."

That is such an unnecessary conversation, and in fact it creates a situation that could have damaging repercussions in the locker room. I had my serendipitous moment, and this change in my approach has had a positive impact on every team I've coached. I implore every coach to adopt this policy; it is a proactive step that will diffuse problems with players and parents before they even start. I am a better coach for it, my players are better for it, and their teams are better for it.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

An Important Role for Your Assistant Coach

It is important that every youth head coach have a dedicated and dependable assistant coach to help at practice and on the sidelines. Having two assistant is even more desirable. It is the responsibility of the head coach to assign meaningful tasks to the assistants, as both practice and game situations are frenetic places with several things going on.
As you learn more about my coaching program you will find that I place great value in the Positive Coaching Alliance's "Double Goal Coach" strategy. One important element of the PCA philosophy is the notion of "filling player's emotional tanks." It is crucial that players feel empowered and that they feel a strong connection to the team and to the program, and that participation on the team will help develop and improve their emotional maturity and self-respect.
With this said, I would like to suggest that a head coach designate one of his/her assistant coaches as a "PCA Coach." As such, their primary role on game day, and to some extent at practice, is to keep track of the positive things that  players are doing to improve their play and the performance of the team. Having this information is important for the head coach to have when they are addressing the team, both individually and as a group. Remember, even when it is time to critique a player and point out something "negative" or in need of improvement, the coach should also have something positive to say as well. This is very important if these "teachable moments" are to have the positive impact you desire.
Players obviously need to be made aware when they are making mistakes or engaging in inappropriate behavior, but the research is pretty clear that a coach's words are more effective when they include positive words. Having an assistant responsible for tracking player performance will provide the head coach with a valuable inventory of information on the team's players. A strongly encourage all head coaches to consider having a PCA Assistant. I will share details on the PCA in subsequent posts, but the best way to learn about them is to visit their website:

Monday, May 19, 2014

Introduction to My Blog

This blog is dedicated to youth sports, focusing mainly on non-school associations such as township recreation teams and so-called "competitive travel teams. The goal is to engage in frank discussion of issues regarding the most appropriate manner for coaching young athletes and administrating the organizations responsible for preparing parents for the mission of creating an environment that is fun, safe, and educational.

We will explore the larger issues in youth sports as well, issues such as year round participation, specialization, concussions, and parental pressure. You are invited to respond and offer your own perspective, borne out of personal experience as a young athlete, a coach, parent, or member of a Board of Directors.

My personal background in youth sports is with lacrosse. I founded a youth lacrosse association, have served as a boys and girls coach, headed up a Board of Directors, and had a local leadership position with US Lacrosse, the sports governing body. In addition, I have coached at the varsity level as a head coach and spent 12 years as a lacrosse official. 

I'm going to end this initial post by asking an essential question, one that I will explore repeatedly in this blog: "What qualities do we look for in a youth coach?"