Key Concepts for Coaching Kids
As a Little League and kids soccer coach, I learned that while some kids are “naturals” and most are not, proper coaching can help them all improve.
There are three keys. First is to acknowledge and reward good effort made in attempting to carry out the coach’s instruction. If you tell the kid to swing the bat all the way around and turn over the wrists and they do it but miss the ball, you don’t just say “good try, you’ll hit it next time” or “keep your eyes on the ball”. You do say “great job. You really improved the follow-through part of your swing.”.
Then bite your tongue. Let the praise sink in. Wait till the next opportunity to dispense your next bit of coaching wisdom.
Second is to encourage resilience, something they have as toddlers but lose as they become conscious and judgmental of their performance. A toddler falls down 500 times but couldn’t care less. He or she gets up again and soon becomes an expert at walking. A 7 year old swings and misses on the first pitch, a crowd yells at him with a hundred tips, but after that he won’t swing.
The trick is to set a resilience goal, a bounce back goal, that encourages maximum effort the next try. It sounds strange but if you get them saying “go up there and strike out with the hardest swings in this league” Or “get your money’s worth — no cheap swings”, they do a lot better than telling them to “choke up “ or “just meet the ball” or “focus “. Sure they’ll strike out more at first, but they’ll keep swinging and after a few games it will amaze everyone when your strike-out kings suddenly start blasting out extra base hits.
You need to explain this to the parents and the kids. When they are aware of the method, they help each other. Just as you’re about to tell a kid they had great technique setting their feet properly for what turned out to be an errant throw, three others jump in before you and praise that part of the effort. This all leads to more coachable kids and ones who offer encouragement and constructive positive criticism.
Finally, you need to master the fine art of maintaining order without becoming a rigid disciplinarian. Part of the secret is to give them opportunities at the start of a practice to yell and scream and jump up and down till they get a bit tired of it all. Coaches who are always yelling at their kids to sit straight and keep quiet risk losing their authority even if they can cajole compliance. Another small secret is to give any troublemaker a job: enlistment as a special helper does wonders. Try “I’m looking for someone strong who can do x….” and asking an overly boisterous kid to volunteer can provide an instant boost in group status and self esteem that leads to improved behavior.
As a coach you will make a lot of small mistakes, but don’t beat yourself up. Do quick fixes when you can and move on. If what you are doing is producing a team of coachable, enthusiastic kids, who are not out of control, then you are doing all right. All the rest will work out so that in the end you and the kids will be able to look back and feel good about their experience on your team.