Coaching kids often gets a bad rap. From the Little League coach dozing in the bullpen to the whip-cracking gymnastics tyrant who doesn't mind breaking a few youthful legs in pursuit of the gold, the ways in which coaches can suck are no mystery. But what if you actually want to be a good coach? Here, a few established youth coaches offer their best strategies for success on the field. No whip required.
In a contest of who screams louder, you'll probably lose.
While screaming at your players is a great way to induce permanent hearing loss, it can also be counterproductive to the task of keeping a rowdy team in line. If you're screaming, an out-of-control squad will just scream louder.
Instead of ruling with a megaphone, Aaron Hsieh, the head coach of the 7th grade football and basketball team at Baines Middle School in Missouri City, TX, recommends patience and accountability. At Baines, Hsieh tries to stop bad behavior before it starts by hammering home the principle that once his players put on the jersey, they each become something bigger than just one individual. Holding every player accountable for the actions of the whole team discourages infighting and helps everyone begin to take their game seriously.
Marshall Cho, former Director of Basketball Operations for Portland University, has a somewhat different perspective, suggesting that it's important to treat each player differently but fairly, particularly when dealing with more talented players in a team-sports setting. "Talented players get treated the same in terms of team values and principles," says Cho, "But I try to look at each individual player to see which buttons need to be pushed to get the best effect."
Ultimately, it's important to keep in mind that, for many kids, competing in a sport can be the first time they've ever been pushed or challenged physically. So remember that when they do start to get out of line, it's often not just because they're little jerks — it's because this is new to them, and can be stressful. The best way to give them the confidence they need to shut up and play? So glad you asked...
If you're not confident, why should your players be?
All the skill in the world is meaningless for an athlete who doesn't have the confidence to match it — think of the many quarterbacks who have flamed out because they never seemed able to wrap their heads around the fact that they actually had the stuff to be on the field.
For a coach, inspiring that confidence in your players is all about being confident yourself. Kids have a way of seeing right through you when you're trying to cover up the fact that you don't know what you're doing. So don't fake it. (Or at least fake it well.) As a coach, you're supposed to be the expert, so make sure you know your stuff, and are able to present it in a way that shows.
When in doubt, following a clear, well-conceived practice plan helps remove any sense of doubt — for both you and your tiny protégés. "Choose the right routine for study, for practice, for competition, and even for leisure, and then repeat that routine until it's the default," recommends Ian West, a Brooklyn-based chess coach. (Yes, there are coaches in chess.) By the time those routines become second nature, kids show up knowing the expectations that have been set for them, and you will too — which means no one's fumbling around trying to figure out what they're actually doing here in the first place.
The parents aren't the ones in charge.
Parents aren't always terrible. Some of them are fantastic. Most of them are fine. But for every ten parents who know how to behave themselves, there will always be a few whose sky-high aspirations for their kids' athletic careers have turned them into monsters. When a parent doesn't respect the fact that you're the one charge, an otherwise functional team can become a nightmare for everyone.
Because Coach Hsieh is based at a school where many former athletes send their kids, he finds himself on the wrong side of parental ire more often than many in his position. When things get heated between you and a player's parent, Coach Hsieh recommends instituting a 24-hour rule: after the game ends, leave, and then wait 24 hours before discussing it with parents. Most of the time, this will ensure that cooler heads prevail.
One exception: there's no place for bullying, and bullying from moms and dads on the sidelines is especially damaging to team morale. Not only can it shatter the confidence you've worked to build in your players, it also undermines your hard-earned authority. So when you see a parent getting out of control, calmly let them know it won't fly when you're around — and if you have to, personally walk them somewhere to cool down. (Having a padded, soundproofed room nearby always comes in handy in these moments.)
Look, there's no one-size-fits-all rule. The coaching experience is unique to every person who takes it on. Aspiring coaches bring their own strengths and weaknesses to any team. It's important to recognize your own, and work them to your advantage. And as your players grow into seasoned athletes from neophytes who often forget when exactly they're supposed to hit the ball, you'll grow with them.
Want to see how others handle it? Check out Esquire Network's The Short Game, now on demand, which follows several young golfers and their coaches — who also happen to be their parents — as they try to navigate the stresses, challenges and triumphs of kids' sports. The full season is available here.
Ren Hsieh is the Executive Director of The Dynasty Project, a non-profit that creates and implements innovative athletic programs for New York City's Asian-American community. Hsieh has blogged for Dat Winning, CNN, and the Houston Chronicle. Follow him on twitter at @renhsieh.