The little league team that I coach won 8, lost 0, and tied 1. The kids had a ton of fun. The parents chipped in money and surprised me with a gift card and some thank-you cards signed by their kids; those presents were shockers.
A parent on another team sent me an e-mail asking if I could provide some coaching tips. I don’t like to foist my opinions about people management on anyone, but the more I thought about it, the more I figured a few words might find some use in the world.
Coaching kids is a bit like creating kids: A large portion of people get into it without much thought. As our president says, “Any fool can have a child.” And any fool can walk out onto a soccer field or baseball diamond or a basketball court and start barking at kids.
First off, The Positive Coaching Alliance is a great website (Positivecoach.org).
Check out their tips.
Bad coaches talk too much. Everyone tunes out people who talk too much. And kids have short attention spans. At games, you’ll notice coaches yapping orders at kids, and the kids so overwhelmed with instructions that they’re frustrated. The kids then make the intelligent choice: They don’t listen to that yammering. When people aren’t listening to each other, the fun quotient for the team drops.
At practice, a good coach will know beforehand what he or she wants to accomplish. With kids under, generally, 10 years old, it is best to teach only one new thing per practice. And make sure that the team has digested (or is digesting) all the previous items you’ve worked on. If not, it will probably be best not to introduce something new.
Bad coaches let disruptive kids disrupt too much. Bad coaches will let kids needle each other too much. Bad coaches will let kids tease each other. One day at baseball practice a kid was under a high pop, lining it up to catch it, and another kid yelled, “Drop the ball!” Right then I brought in the whole team and we had a short, intense discussion about why you wouldn’t say, “Drop the ball!” to your teammate and why it’s bad sportsmanship to say it to an opposing team. The kid who said “Drop the ball!” was not singled out as having done something wrong; it was a discussion about the concept of being negative; we just don’t do that on our team. Kids like this message and love being on a team that only says positive things. It makes them feel great.
When you gather the whole team or a single player for instruction, take off your sunglasses and make eye contact. Imagine a schoolteacher who wears sunglasses while trying to teach; it’d be a disaster. Let the kids see your eyes as much as possible.
Don’t let kids stand around too much. This is an issue in baseball practice. If I’m conducting practice alone, I’ll sometimes have two or three kids playing Wiffleball along a fence, while I do batting and fielding practice for the rest of the team. Sometimes it’s a good idea to set up stations: hitting, fielding, batting tee, popups, and have the kids rotate through the stations. Keeping things moving fast is fun for kids.
In Little League, when a kid is at bat, it’s not a good idea for coaches, players, parents, or fans to say, “Let’s go (the player’s name).” It exacerbates the self-consciousness of standing in the batter’s box as the focus of everyone around. It’s best to say, “Let’s go (the team’s name),” or, “Here we go!” or don’t say anything. If the player gets on base, then it’s fine to use the player’s name. Soccer, basketball, lacrosse — no other game has that issue as much as baseball. In basketball, if a kid is standing at the foul line about to shoot free throws, it’s a similar situation.
Also, I don’t like nicknames. The kid has had his or her name for 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 years. Use their name. It’s respectful. Kids like to be called by their name. Have the other kids use their name.
When a kid makes a good play, have the other kids say, “Nice play (name).” If they make this a habit, it helps knit the team together and make kids feel good when they make a good play.
Just walk away. If, during a game, a player makes a terrible play, the worst thing you can do is yell. Sometimes the second-worst thing you can do is say anything at all. As an ex-athlete, your body wants to do something in response to the stimulus of a bad sporting decision or mistake. If you watched the same play by a pro on TV, you’d probably shout at the TV. But after a bad Little League or soccer play, sometimes I’ll turn and walk up the sideline or foul line and pick up a piece of trash (or an imaginary piece of trash) and put it in my back pocket; to others it seems that there’s a (small) purpose to my turning away from the field; but the real purpose is to walk off my frustration and keep my mouth shut.
Will kids test your authority? Of course! There can be a lot of standing around in baseball, especially if you only have one coach at a practice. One day I was emphasizing that if you’re in the field you have to stand up. Ten seconds later I turned around and the shortstop was sitting cross-legged. I walked over and told him, “Stand up.” He did. “Follow me.” I led him to foul territory, away from the team. I pointed to the ground. “You can sit here.” He sat. I went back to the practice. I had someone else play shortstop. After one minute I walked back to him and asked him if he was ready to come back to practice. He was on the verge of tears, but he got the message. He came back to practice. His attitude was fantastic the rest of the season, one of the best.
They’re all good kids. If they have nasty attitudes or tease other kids, it’s always their home life or their school life. The field of play is an opportunity for them to leave those other worlds aside and be an athlete. If they start hurting other kids, that’s the place to draw the line and separate them. Some kids crave negative attention, and this can be a problem for the team and for the kid. Team sports isn’t for every kid, that’s for sure. But it seems to be good for the vast majority of kids.
Make positive comments at least 90 percent of the time. Try to go a whole game or whole practice without making any negative comments. (Save the comments for the next time, and try to rephrase the situation into working on it with the whole team.)
Losing. If you’ve got a team that lacks much talent, you will lose a lot. I’ve got a one-word suggestion: cookies. Lots of cookies. After the game, give them out right after your team gets back from shaking the other team’s hands. Turn those frowns upside down: cookies. Next season, if I have a team that is getting beaten badly, I might crack a box of cookies in the middle of the game. Maybe sometimes Bruce Bochy should wheel out a crate of cookies.