Sunday, January 13, 2013

Youth Sports, Parenting and Coaching

Sign 'Em Up

There are countless reasons why athletics are good for kids.  Beyond the obvious physical/health benefits of being active, youth sports teach life skills, such as:
  • responsibility, work ethic, time management
  • how to contribute to a team and be a good teammate
  • respect for and appropriate interaction with superiors (coaches, referees, judges, etc.)
  • winning gracefully and coping with disappointment
and... for the most part they keep kids busy and out of trouble.

If you couldn't have guessed, I'm all for youth sports in general.*

Coaching and Me

This season marks my eighth year as a club volleyball coach here in the Arizona Region of USAV.  In my time as a player and a coach, I've learned a lot about the wonderful sport of volleyball.  But far beyond that, being a part of youth sports in this capacity has been such a rewarding and valuable part of my life.  I love coaching.

When I stepped out of my comfort zone as an assistant coach and started head-coaching a few years ago, I felt it was important to set the tone at the beginning of each season by communicating to the team parents my coaching philosophy, and make a promise to them in my role as their daughters' coach.  I have gotten feedback that they appreciate this.  I should mention that I coach nine and ten year olds, which is very very young for club volleyball.  For most of my players, this is their first year in club sports.

I'm not an authority on the matter, nor would I call myself an expert or coaching guru.  But these are the three broad concepts that comprise my coaching "philosophy" that I share with my team parents every year.  I think these are universally applicable to all sports and all age groups of kids that play them.  There are books upon books about how coaches can do the below things, and there's more than one way to coach a team; but Parents, if your kids are involved in sports and you AREN'T getting these three things from the coaches, you may consider exploring other options.

Fair Expectations of Your Kid's Coach:
  1. Teach.  Coaches should TEACH the kids fundamental skills that will lay the foundation for their future as players in that sport.  This is especially true for the little kids, but even at older ages, (heck, even at a professional level) there is always something that players can learn from their coaches.  It irks me to see coaches who don't teach, instead expecting their players to already know everything they want them to know so all the coach has to do is direct traffic.  Not cool.  Youth Coaches are teachers, not just strategists, and they should take that job seriously.
  2. Confidence.  Coaches must ENGRAIN confidence and poise in their players when they are young so they are comfortable walking onto the court/field/rink and can perform under pressure without melting down.  This goes beyond the physical skills and includes incorporating the expectation that the kids work well with referees, understand the flow of a game/match, act with maturity during conflict, and are good teammates.  Coaches should be examples of professionalism and sportsmanlike conduct.  Confidence and poise go a long way with kids and if they start a sport really young, being confident on the court or field will give them an edge as they advance to more competitive levels.
  3. Fun.  Coaches must instill a love of the game and motivate the kids using positive reinforcement,  and FAIR reward/consequence. The kids should WANT to play.  No exceptions, especially the little ones.  Even in the most competitive older levels of youth sports, if your son or daughter doesn't look forward to games, matches, meets, tournaments, practices, hanging out with their team... there is something wrong.  Even TOUGH coaches can foster a motivating, positive environment.
Notice I didn't say anything about the scoreboard?  Winning does not makes it into my top three priorities for coaches.  I personally believe that when kids are first learning a sport, they should be playing to employ what they've learned in practice, not necessarily playing to win.  Make no mistake, everyone loves a win (coaches included), but winning doesn't necessarily mean the kids are learning.  I also believe that if all of the above is happening, a favorable scoreboard will follow in due time.

You would think those three things would be no-brainers, but with youth sports being so vast and huge, there are quite a few adults out there carrying clipboards who I certainly wouldn't want coaching my kid.  The good thing about youth sports being so vast and huge is that if a coach or team is not a good fit for your family, you have options to take your little slugger somewhere else!

Parenting an Athlete

People have asked me if how I coach my volleyball players will change now that I'm a mom.  "Has motherhood affected my coaching style?" I answer, "Maybe a little, but not really, at least not immediately."  (After all, my daughter can't even crawl yet!)

I recognize that I still have a lot to learn as a leader, teacher and coach, but I don't think being a mom will all-of-a-sudden change much about what I do on the court or how I interact with my team.

However, being a coach all these years probably WILL affect how I parent my kid(s) when and if she chooses to play sports.  

I think all seasoned youth-sports coaches roll their eyes a little when you mention the word "Parents."  Even if your players collectively have the best parents in the world (I have had some rockstar parents over the years), interacting with moms and dads adds a whole 'nother dimension to coaching.

In a perfect world when you trust that your kids' coaches will do their job well, here is what the coaches should be able to expect from you parents:

Fair Expectations of Parents
  1. Logistics.  Manage all the stuff the kids can't do themselves.  When I say "youth sports" I am pretty much talking about middle school and younger... kids who can't drive and probably don't do their own grocery shopping.  Please get them to practice on time.  Feed them healthy foods and keep them hydrated.  Check your email for correspondence with the coaches.  Don't schedule a family vacation on a big tournament weekend.  You get the point.  
  2. Encourage Responsibility.  Let your son or daughter take on as much responsibility as is reasonable for their age -- gradually stop holding their hand and taking care of every little thing, in whatever ways work for your family.  This could mean packing their own gym back, filling their own water bottles, calling the coach themselves if they are sick and unable to make it to practice. Make it possible for them to practice or workout at home if they show interest in doing so.  Responsible players are coaches' favorite kind.
  3. Support.  Support the kids, support the team and support the coach.  This means encouraging not only your kid, but ALL the players, from the sidelines.  This means making practice and competitions a schedule priority for your family [don't sign up for club sports if the time commitment is not reasonable for you].  This means NOT saying negative things about another player, parent, or the coaches in front of your kid.  This means getting involved in a positive way.  Trust me, if you do these things, you'll have a lot more fun too.
Notice I didn't say anything about knowing the ins and outs of playing the game?  Remember from above, you are expecting the coaches to teach your kids how to play -- that means you don't get a say in how they do things.  It is nice to learn some of the basics if you don't know them already, so you could potentially help your kid practice at home, and understand what's going on when the ref blows a whistle... but make sure this doesn't get in the way of supporting the coach, whom you selected to teach your kid how to play.

It's for the kids.

When coaches and parents are on the same page, everybody wins.  Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world where all youth sports coaches are wonderfully qualified and all parents are peaceful supporters of those coaches.  But... let's all do our best to co-exist and remember why we are doing this in the first place.  It's all about the kids.

I speak here generally about kids in athletics.  Of course I believe there are personal parameters that parents must gauge before signing their kid up for sports; the right age, how "ready" they are, how competitive it is, finances, etc. but this post is about the 'what and why', not the 'where, when and how'. Also, in this post when I say "youth sports" I am talking about little kids developing as athletes, ages eighth grade and younger.  High school sports are another deal entirely, although some of the principals herein do apply!


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