Coaching youth sports, whether as a parent, volunteer or paid professional, is a daunting task—but also a wonderful opportunity to influence the lives of young people in such a positive and lasting manner.
While seeking to constantly upgrade one’s skills and experiences is certainly crucial, being a “certified” coach in and of itself is not a guarantee of quality. Some outstanding youth coaches have no certification at all, but do possess invaluable life experience, intuition and sensitivity. They are somehow instinctively able to connect with young people to help them achieve their best.
Some “qualified” coaches bring only that to the table: levels of certification and courses that they “passed”, but seem to bring little else in the way of, say, communication skills or the ability to actually demonstrate what they want from their players. They too often lack the ability to connect, motivate and inspire.
So here is a short primer of traits, qualities and characteristics that players and parents (or Clubs looking to hire a coach) can look for:
- Do the coach’s players look forward to the next practice/training session? Generally speaking, a coach who makes practices and training sessions a great experience engenders in his or her players a desire to want to improve and work hard while training. They make practice a real challenge but fun at the same time. If your son or daughter jumps out of the car to get to the playing field to train, that’s usually a good sign.
- Does the coach really know how to communicate with young people? The ability to listen—really listen—is often the first step in being an effective communicator. The youth coach who spends at least as much time listening as talking themselves knows they don’t have all the answers. As a result, they are always trying to be better at their job—and better at developing the skills and strengths of their players while also ensuring those players improve in the areas that they might struggle in.
- The coach who focuses on and rewards behaviour, effort and attitude over outcomes sets themselves apart from the crowd. Too many youth coaches reward an isolated play that helps their team “win” a game, as opposed to a player or players who consistently support teammates or show leadership and team spirit in a variety of subtle ways—ways that only a truly perceptive coach will notice.
- A good youth coach does not have to yell constantly or berate players during games. A coach may be a yeller, and that is acceptable if it is understood by all that yelling is their method of instruction—and not intended as heavy-handed public criticism. But a really good coach prepares their teams thoroughly and, as a result, the players themselves are able to make decisions on their own on the field of play.
- A really good youth coach not only allows “mistakes”, he/she actually encourages their players to try things in order to improve their skills and become more comfortable on the field/ice/court. A player with a great attitude, spirit and work ethic does not deserve to be put down for a mistake—mental or physical. Young players with the right attitude will grow through trial and error. The good coach allows for creativity and experimentation. The coach who creates fear in their players kills development.
- The wise youth coach remembers what it was like to be young themselves. They know that a young boy or girl can’t enjoy a sport (or grow and develop and improve their skills) if they feel as though they have a piano on their back all the time when they are playing in a game—that is, adults who constantly tell them what to do, when to do it, or that they are always somehow doing it “wrong”.
- If, as a parent, you have identified a youth coach who knows how to inspire youngsters, you have found gold. The youth coach that knows how to connect with and make youngsters not only feel better about themselves but can push and challenge young people in a healthy way will have a lasting—and positive—impact on your child.
There are many more things that could be added to this “list”. But it’s a start. (When Stephen Covey famously authored a book about the “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” in the late 1980s, he would no doubt have acknowledged he was only scratching the surface. There are many other traits he could have added.) Everyone reading this has had their own experiences as a player, parent, coach, volunteer or Club administrator and can add to the list.
I’ll close with something I often say in the seminars that my wife and business partner Mary-Louise and I conduct for youth sports Clubs: if nothing else, a youth sports coach should never, ever kill the love a youngster has for their chosen sport.
That some coaches do, sadly, is one of the central reasons that so many youngsters leave sport as an activity by the age of 13. And it shouldn’t have to be that way.