When we think about coaching, we typically envision the well paid professional coaches of our favorite NFL or NBA teams whose salaries have lots of zeros in them. We assume, and sometimes correctly, that these professional coaches wield a lot of power. But if you talked to one of them and asked him/her who was most influential in their own athletic career, more than a few would point to the coaches who first taught them the game when they were a child.
As a youth coach, you have a greater impact on an athlete than any high-school or college coach ever will. If a young athlete has a bad experience, they may walk away from the sport forever. Who hasn’t seen a young player pulled from the game after missing a scoring opportunity? Or a coach who yells constantly throughout the game until more than one player leaves the field in tears? It happens all too often. The win-at-all-cost mentality has become pervasive in youth sports. In its wake are players who no longer want to play “because it isn’t fun.”
For many, their earliest experiences in organized youth sports continue to have an impact on them well into adulthood. Every athlete or former athlete can recall a moment when a coach lifted them up or dragged them down.
So, while your coaching salary may not have lots of zeros, particularly if you’re a volunteer, don’t for a moment think you’re not influencing the lives of the kids you’re coaching in a profound way. Coaching at the youth level comes with tremendous responsibility, which needs to be appreciated and embraced. Our earliest coaches have a responsibility to:
- Instill a love of the sport and a desire to develop the basic fundamentals necessary to play the sport as it was meant to be played.
- Ensure a positive experience that focuses more on creating the foundation for future success and less on winning today’s game at all costs
- Teach basics, fundamentals and discipline with positive, age- and skill-specific instruction
- Inspire players to stay engaged and return to the team. Youth coaches should be judged by how many of their players stay engaged and return the next year. That is the true measure of a successful coach.
- Respond, not react. When a player makes a game-changing mistake, you must be prepared as a coach. Your response can change everything, not just in that game or that season, but for a lifetime
- Strive for excellence rather than success. As Penn State coaching great Joe Paterno said, “There are many people, particularly in sports who think that success and excellence is the same thing and they are not the same thing. Excellence is something that is lasting and dependable and largely within a person’s control. In contrast, success is perishable and is often outside our control… If you strive for excellence, you will probably be successful eventually… people who put excellence in first place have the patience to end up with success… An additional burden for the victim of the success mentality is that he is threatened by the success of others and resents real excellence. In contrast, the person fascinated by quality is excited when he sees it in others.”
- Earn your player’s respect, even at the youngest level.