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Coaches: Do This & You Will Create a Memorable Experience for Your Athletes
Preached a lot but practiced enough, this simple tactic makes all the difference for your young athletes experience.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
In this world of tunnel vision and desire for immediate gratification, it is worth re-visiting the concept of how our athletes are doing with this youth sport experience. By all accounts, not good. We have documented the drop off and lack of participation concerns, so we wont dive into that.
Rather, we will look a little deeper at how we are making our young people feel.
Before we go there, let’s just say that this is shared based on a lifetime of being a player, teacher, coach, referee, parent, volunteer, board member…at all levels…from 6-8 years old through college/university. From recreational and beginner to elite level looking to go pro.
The common denominator to positive experience for the athlete are not = wins/losses or being the best player or having the strongest team. The common denominator is how the experience made the athlete and those around him/her feel. While winning is fun, I have witnessed winning teams alienate a lot of players on the team.
This experience lies in the hands of the head coach. The person driving the bus is the one who has the most influence on the athlete experience.
Of note, this feedback is not looking to add more responsibility to coaches but rather remind us all of the influence we have and the impact our actions can create.
How we act as coaches, the language (both verbal and body) sets the tone for the experience.
Fundamental skills like:
· Looking people in the eye when speaking to them.
· Asking how the athlete is doing and getting to know them.
· Showing appreciation and gratitude to the athletes.
· Setting expectations and standards early in the process.
· Understanding that not all conversations or situations will be positive or go according to plan.
· Being organized and/or having someone to help if that is a weakness.
· Being direct about playing time, skills required to play, goals of the program, and anything else that may help the process.
In fact, the one thing that can hold back the experience for all concerned is lack of, unclear or negative communication.
A situation comes up where little Johnny is not playing on the travel team as much as anticipated. Sitting down with him and explain why. Explain what can be done to change that. Include the parents if you feel that help and depending the age of the athlete.
Note: Parents, if little Johnny or Jill is not playing as much as you would like encourage them to initiate this conversation with the coach, asking what can be done to improve and how can more playing time come his/her way. This is not a discussion for the parents to initiate and often makes it worse. This reminds me of the semi pro hockey team’s coach, a multi year veteran of the NHL, getting approached by a parent asking about why his son did not play more on the power play. This was about a 17 year-old young elite athlete and I would venture to say 2 things would have helped this situation.
1. Player approach the coach as outlined above.
2. Coach approach the player explaining what has to be done for more playing time. Maybe this was done, not sure. In both cases, communication supports the experience. Knowing where you stand as a player creates a better experience even if it’s not where you want to be.
Younger athletes under 13, expectations on the role of the player on the team or during, prior to or after competition is the responsibility of the coach.
I can not tell you how many times a coach will leave everyone in the dark by not communicating expectations or plans. In many cases, coaches may not know how to communicate, never been taught or asked to improve and often, conversations can be uncomfortable so they are avoided.
Often at a higher level of sport and competition coaches are so focused on team or skill play they forget the individuals on the other end. They forget the pressure they feel, the stage they are at, and the performance levels they are expected to execute.
Over and over again, you will hear successful strong coaches talk of communication, positivity, body language being more important than anything else.
The interview and hiring process.
Countless times in interviews (on both sides of the fence), I have encountered interviewers focused on expertise in sport specific skills. When in fact, especially at a young age, the communication skills and style can impact the development and experience of a young athlete as much if not more that sports skill teaching.
Common communication mistakes from coaches in youth sport:
Speaking to kids as if they were adults.
My most recent experience is with older youth athletes. The college age, 18-22 bracket. Speaking to these athletes as if they were adults is mistake number 1. While, they should be treated as more mature versions of the younger athlete, criticism needs to be constructive, condescension and singling someone out at this age can do a lot of harm. Same applies for the younger group. Emotionally, and emotional intelligence at that age is different than someone at 35, 45, 55 in a coaching position.
Challenging kids without insulting them. Part of development through sporting experience is to provide opportunities for our young athletes to test themselves in competitive situations. Challenging the athlete in his/her preparation, during competition and while reviewing past performance can be either constructive or destructive based on how it is done. Challenging while empowering is a skill. A communication skill. Examples would be “I see a lot of potential in you’ , or “I see an ability to rise to a higher level” would be constructive. I will let your imagination or observation skills run a little bit to come up with destructive examples, as we see them too often.
Speaking out of turn about others. Speaking to others about the abilities/deficiencies of certain athletes, in a negative way is a great way to spread dissension through the ranks like wildfire. Evaluating abilities and finding ways to build athletes up is a completely different perspective to a similar conversation. Choosing words carefully, never putting athletes down to others, and having a confidential clause amongst coaches are examples that can help here.
Building people up. Too much in our society brings people down. It’s easy to criticize and jump on the point the finger bandwagon. “How can help others rise up?” should be the question. This is a skill. Difficult conversations and situations happen in sport because ultimately there is only 1 winner, and the rest had things go different than they hoped.
Not having fun or showing enthusiasm. Taking things too serious, not smiling. We are talking about playing a game for fun. Players reflect the demeanor of the coach. Smile.
You may ask how can a coach bring an athlete up when their performance is not going well, or when playing time is reduced?
Being honest is a good start. Identifying areas the player needs to work on for a better experience is part of that honesty.