The Art and Gift of Coaching: A Dialogue on Youth Development in Sports

(Jointly Authored with Ryan Brazuk)

Coaching is an art. Better yet it's a gift. Having the opportunity to journey with young athletes, encouraging them, teaching them, motivating them, and seeing them realize their potential on the field/court and in life - that indeed is a gift.

But it's an art too. Just because someone was a good player growing up doesn't mean that they will be a good coach. And just because someone knows the game (historically or strategically) that also doesn't necessarily translate into success on the sidelines.

Over the last couple of months, the two of us have had a number of conversations about coaching and thought that maybe we could share some of what's come up during our ongoing dialogue. While one of us (Ryan) has coached soccer for a number of years on various levels and the other (Chaz) has coached basketball for the last two decades, there are many core lessons about youth coaching that transcend the differences in these two sports. The hope is that what follows will be an encouragement to current and future coaches and that it will push them to think about how they engage their players in the future whether the goal is producing future collegiate athletes and professionals, winning your league title, improving the play of your kids, or just getting some exercise and having some fun.


The Art of Coaching Practice and Training

Ryan: During training sessions, I think it's important for coaches to focus on being teachers. And in that position we're teaching them several things that are useful on and off the field. We're teaching them how to play the game, we're teaching them to love the game - which is even more important, and I like to think that we're teaching them life lessons along the way. Having a passion for anything in life is what drives people to success.
In regards to teaching them how to play I employ four focuses which lead to individual and team development. Some of this is soccer-centric, but I think it translates to other sports.
Firstly I emphasize individual awareness. That's awareness of your teammates, awareness of where you are as an individual on the field, of where the ball is, and having a tactical awareness of the game. Some people call this "soccer smarts").

Chaz: That resonates with basketball too. So many kids are preoccupied with how they are personally doing. Am I dribbling correctly? Will I make a mistake? What if I miss? By being stuck in their heads they end up not being aware of their teammates. Even if they possess individual skills in shooting or dribbling, teaching them to get out of their own heads and to play with others is an important early lesson to instill. That's also one of those life lessons that you're talking about.

Ryan: Totally. The second focus I work on is having small touches. Early in soccer you might see an athletic player send the ball down the field and outrun the other players to it and then toe the ball into the goal. This doesn't work well once you end up playing with better competition because teams can figure that out, let alone it's just not good team soccer. I stress to my players that they should have ultimate control meaning they control the ball. The ball doesn't control them.
Next I emphasize that they need to keep their head up. This is connected to the whole awareness piece about seeing teammates on the field and being plugged into the game. By having your head up, this tells me that my player is completely under control of the ball and fully aware of their surroundings.

Chaz: When you first said keep your head up, I thought you meant keeping your head up and not being discouraged if something goes wrong. I've seen young players mentally get taken out of a game because they ended up being down a few baskets early or because they personally are playing poorly. I've always thought helping kids to be mentally tough on the court and field, was also a deeply important part of what we do.

Ryan: Absolutely and that's connected to the fourth focus I emphasize in training sessions and that's confidence. I want them to be ready to play no matter who their opponent is and no matter how the game is going. And you can work on this in training sessions. Coaches can help players gain confidence and never quit if they fail, lose, or make a mistake by offering support, kindness, and respect no matter what the outcome. Failing at something makes you that much closer to succeeding at it and that's something very important in life.

Chaz: I saw a post game interview with a college basketball coach the other day. His team was up big at the half but the other team stormed back to take the lead with about a minute to go. During their final timeout he told his players who were getting down on themselves that "just because the other team is playing well, that doesn't mean that we are playing poorly." He helped to keep them mentally in the game and to keep them confident. This is hard for younger players who don't have a lot of years of playing under their belts. One thing I try to do is connected to what you were saying about teaching them to love the game. I remember one hoops team that I was coaching and we won maybe just 2 or 3 games that whole season. We just didn't have a lot of size and we were playing a number of first time players. It's hard to keep a losing team motivated over the course of long season of getting beaten on the court. But what we tried to do was to cultivate a love for the game in practice so that, as hard as it is, they can keep playing when things go south just on the strength of their passion and love for basketball. And sometimes, that love and passion can lead to surprises on the court or on the pitch.

Ryan: I like that. The mind needs exercise too. I often tell my players to "think smarter not harder." So we teach them how to play the game and we teach them to love the game, and the whole time I think that we're teaching them life lessons. This is more subtle, but I think it's important to teach players respect. I speak to them respectfully as a friend. I get down on their level and look them in the eye when we're talking. I no longer have to tell my players to line up after games and shake hands and thank the referee, they just know that's the right thing to do. We had a game in the past that we were tied at halftime and then won the game by three goals. Some girls were over excited and expressing it in a way that I do not support at all. One of my players said in front of the rest of her teammates "we need to act like we've been there before." I couldn't believe it, she said exactly what I was thinking about not only being respectful in victory (being a good sport), but also about being a mature winner.
I don't ever yell at my players and I think in a way my players catch the culture of respect that I'm trying to establish during our training sessions. But beyond respect, the lesson of learning how to work together as a team, how to never give up, humility in victory, courage and contentment when things don't go your way, these are important life lessons that coaches can teach players. I can honestly say that through my years of experience playing and coaching, being on a team allowed me to develop my interpersonal skills.

Chaz: I want to point two things out to you, the first being that you spoke about learning the game, learning to love the game and learning life lessons, but you didn't speak necessarily about teaching them how to win.

Ryan: Winning isn't everything. I can remember losing by five goals to a team that we clearly outplayed. Even though we lost by a good amount, my players still brought positives out of it. One of my players stated "we outplayed them, possessed the ball and did moves but we just couldn't finish." Playing the game right is winning in my book. Don't have to win the game in order to succeed.

Chaz: Another rich life lesson there. The second thing I'd point out is that you don't call practice "practice" but instead "training sessions." Is there a difference?

Ryan: On one level it's a cultural thing. Many European clubs refer to it as training as they are there to train not only their bodies, but their minds as well. But the difference if more than that. Practice to me connotes repetition. It's us working on skills, muscle memory, and more physical preparation - all of which is important. But training seems more long term. In training we're working on more than preparing for the upcoming game or even this season. We're training them for successful athletic careers and for hopefully successful lives.

The Art of Coaching During Games

Ryan: During matches I think that players need to able to think for themselves. While we're warming up, I tell them what to focus on. When I tell them this, it refreshes their memory of what we worked on in training and helps them apply it in to game situations. They end up coaching themselves on the field. If they see one of their teammates not doing their job like not spacing correctly I see them tell each other in a productive way. By not barking orders constantly to them, it makes them think for themselves and figure it out on their own or as a unit. This leads to strong team chemistry and really prepares them for the long run.

Chaz: When I see you coaching, there is a contrast with the opposing coaches who often seem to be screaming at their players and in my opinion over coaching. But what you have poured into them in training in the pregame and halftime is enough. They talk with each other and coach themselves to a certain extent.

Ryan: I'm not yelling orders to my players, but I'm not sitting there passive. In training we focus on things like passing the ball to a teammate, combination play or skill moves to beat a defender. Again in the pregame conversation we're talking strategy and reminding them to focus on the little things, I'm telling them to try different moves and to take risks. And while I don't yell during the game, I'm constantly talking to the players who are subs waiting on the bench. If I notice a player on the field who is doing something wrong, I simply call them over to the sideline and speak to them there. It doesn't matter if the game is still going on, if a mistake is made it must be to addressed right away so it does not turn into a habit. Allowing them to play and use their minds while on the field builds confidence. Confidence is everything.

Chaz: I remember as a player always sizing the other team up during warm ups. If in my mind I thought I and my teammates were better, we would always play well. But if I found myself psyched out pregame, it would take me a while to shake that fear. But again instilling that confidence is an important role for a coach. I find half my pregame conversations are meant to pump a team up. To get them excited, but to remind them what they are capable of. I end up probably being a little more vocal when I'm coaching. Part of it is I just get excited as a fan of the game. It's hard for me to stay still when watching a beautiful play. But I find myself really cheering for them when they make a great defensive play or sew a nice assist into the lane. I think them hearing me cheer for them does help. Like you I never yell critically partly because it's embarrassing to a player and shame doesn't help when trying to get a player to love the game.

Ryan: I do cheer when we have a great play or someone uses their opposite foot, sometimes a little amount of praise goes a long way. I think there might be a role for yelling to pump people up, but coaches should ask themselves if their yelling is having the adverse effect and degrading their players. I've seen coaches in my past, as a player and coach, think that yelling is a vital for pregame or a mistake.

Chaz: It breaks my heart seeing a coach yell "What are you doing out there? What was that?" to their players and then to see the kid hang their head in shame.

Ryan: But when a mistake happens or the team isn't playing well, I find myself saying to them "we have to be better" or "why are we playing down to their level?" Many coaches might have something difficult going on in their personal lives and that finds its way to their team. Self-awareness is so important for a coach - for anyone really, but you can ruin a kid's whole experience with youth sports in one season. Parents need to have this as well because, just like a coach, their kids follow their example. Even in one harsh moment. Overstepping like that is leading them to hate the game because they don't want to feel that sense of fear and being uncomfortable again. Having fun while working hard is very important.

Chaz: I find myself treading very carefully when giving constructive criticism. I like to frame it as making adjustments. But even before helping players make adjustments you have to build a level of trust that what the coach is about to say isn't personal, but in fact it's coming from good place with the intent of improvement.

Ryan: I actually keep a notebook with me during the games where I take notes on the things that we did well and the things that we need to work on. And then during halftime certain points are addressed and later at our training sessions where we get to work. Much better to gently and respectfully correct them when they get to the sidelines or at training rather than yell at them on the field.
After the game, I go home and look at the notebook that I kept during the game and make a game plan for our next training session. Some of the notes are things that we did especially well and some are things to work on during training. Even though they are kids I treat them in a sense like professionals.

Chaz: In the last few years a part of my postgame activity had been to send an email to parents later that evening. In the email I try to find one positive thing to say about each player. Each game has a superstar who has a double double. But there is something encouraging that I can say about each kid. One strong rebound, a steal, solid defense or great sportsmanship. I find that often in sports the good isn't affirmed enough. We only hear about the great or the terrible. Parents end up sharing these postgame reports with their kids and I find this too helps them learn to love the game.

Ryan: I loved playing soccer growing up. Checking the standings, seeing where our next game is at and even talking to my friends about it in school, passion for the game is what drove me. Playing in college is where I realized I loved the sport enough to try to impact players with my knowledge of the game. I feel that providing positive criticism at the next training session works best for how I coach. Everything can be brought up right in the beginning as an introduction to the session and we just get to work from there. Like you said before, it's important to address it not as a personal attack, but you have to be firm in order to get your point across.

Chaz: I think that players pick up on a coach's love for the game and love for coaching. It affects their play in positive ways, it helps them learn to love the game themselves, and it helps them have a good long career in their sport.

Conclusion

Having a high level of sports intelligence and patience is key in being a coach at any level. We both believe that sports prepare you for real life, that being the smartest player on the field is way more important than being the most athletic. This allows players to react effectively to good or bad situations. But beyond intelligence and patience, coaches need to have a contagious love for the game. Communicating that love is an art that can potentially positively change the trajectory of a young athlete's career. And sharing our love for the game through teaching and coaching is a tremendous gift.