Practice, practice, practice. Sometimes it seems like the only thing that being involved with a youth sports team means is that as a coach you are at practice and assigning homework for next week’s practice. Sure there are games - that is the point of practice. But without practice and practice homework the team’s ability to show up and play that game to their very best is not going to be there. So, being in the position that you are in - youth sports coach - whether basketball or baseball is your game, it falls on you to not only organize practice but to also make sure that the kids on your team show up prepared for practice and show up at games well practiced.
What does this translate into? Extra practice time? Sort of. In reality, what it means is making sure that you assign homework. Give the kids something to take with them after practice, apply between the times they are with you and the team, and bring back having become incrementally better at what they did during the prior practice. The homework has to be brilliant though - the type of exercise that can grow each individual and bring them together as a team that works better than they did the last practice. This can be quite a challenge. So as a coach, what are you to do?
Stepping into an entirely different sports’ mentality, and borrowing from the best of the best of LaCrosse coaches, there are some great tips that can come into play for new coaches in terms of thinking through the approach to working with the kids on the team. The same principles hold for basketball and baseball, as these come from Dr. Richard Ginsburg, a sports psychiatrist and Harvard Medical School faculty member, so we endorse how USLacrosse.org recommends framing your coaching and would not change a word of this:
1. Fun is essential.
Studies have shown a strong correlation between enjoyment of the activity and participation longevity. Kids remain active in a sport if they are having fun. Performance also improves when participants enjoy playing the game. (Tuesday, Sept. 23)
2. Teach sportsmanship early.
Coaches must seize the opportunity to impart good values (integrity, respect, compassion, etc.) and to model good behavior. (Wednesday, Sept. 24)
3. Remember that kids are not mini-adults.
Kids are a work in progress and must be treated and coached differently than adult participants. (Thursday, Sept. 25)
4. Design age-appropriate practices.
Coaches should consider the physical, psychological and cognitive abilities of youth players when developing practice plans. Drills and plays should use the appropriate complexity, based on the age of the players. Coaches should be organized in order to minimize the amount of time spent standing around during practice. (Friday, Sept. 26)
5. Define success appropriately for each age group.
For pre-kindergarten and kindergarten aged kids, the primary focus should be on having fun and safe activity that provides kids with joy of movement. Among elementary school aged youth, the emphasis should evolve into developing skill competencies and building friendships. With middle school and high school players, defining identity and recognizing their individual strengths and weaknesses becomes part of the equation. (Monday, Sept. 29)
6. Provide positive feedback.
Coaches are encouraged to give accurate praise. Research shows that a ratio of at least 5:1 between positive and negative feedback is needed. (Tuesday, Sept. 30)
7. Save specialization for older kids.
Research shows that 10,000 hours of activity are necessary to move a person’s skill set to a significantly upgraded level. Is that the kind of commitment a younger player should be making to the game? The motivation to participate must be intrinsic. (Wednesday, Oct. 1)
8. Avoid over-training.
Ginsburg stresses that youth play just one sport per season and have at least 1-2 days off per week. He also encourages that kids have extended time off; preferably a break of at least two or three months from the game. He also cautions against a dramatic increase in training levels to minimize the risk of injury from overuse. (Thursday, Oct. 2)
9. Use appropriate equipment.
Avoid ill-fitting hand-me-down equipment, primarily safety equipment like helmets and shoulder pads. Make sure it’s a good fit. (Friday, Oct. 3)
10. Avoid "playing up."
The temptation is to move kids into older age groupings based on skill level or physical development. But Ginsburg says there is a benefit to being the best player on the team. It helps develop other abilities, like leadership skills and patience. There could also be injury risks and risks of social alienation for players who are moved up the chain.
Practice and Drills
When you think about those principles it becomes easier to wrap your head around how to design your practices and assign homework. Essentially you need to have the kids show up at practice, as noted, prepped, excited, engaged, and to some extent on a level playing field.
The drills that you are going to work into your practice plan can all be found through Hustle Fitness. The easily downloadable app has access to thousands of drills and plays that you can use. Your practice plans are like the teaching plans that the kids’ academic instructors use, modified to focus on physical activity instead of academics. Essentially, each practice should include:
A warm-up that gets the body moving and limber
Skill development that focuses on one of the core skills needed to play the game
Team-work and strategies for cohesiveness
Scrimmage or practice game
Cool down and focus
The same, minus the scrimmage, should apply to homework.
Homework for Youth Sports Team
You need not to have mapped out the entire season in order to do this, but you do need to have in mind the next couple of practices and how they relate to what your team needs in order to play on game day. The homework that you assign should be determined to a large extent beforehand, but should also take into account what you notice in real time during the practice that the kids need to work on, and be both individualized and assigned as a group.
The next time you see your young athletes you need to reward them for the work they put in between practices - taking into account the coaching philosophies and the real skills that the players show improvement on.
It was Vince Lombardi who said it best, “individual commitment to a group effort - that is what makes a team work.”