At times I have been accused of playing my favorites. Let me be very clear: Yes, I do play my favorites.
Here is the reality. I am a youth coach. Before you stop reading let me also say I believe it is very important everyone plays in youth sports. But this is not the NBA and I do not have to play my best players in order to keep my job. Winning is not the point, but wanting to win is. A benefit of coaching youth sports is there is less pressure to win, and as a coach I can focus on player development without worrying about getting fired. Ask the average youth athlete why they play sports and I bet they would say because it’s fun. Maybe they will say because they get to hang out with friends. Maybe they like the coach. Rarely will they say it’s because they like to win.
If I have a win-less season as a 5th grade football coach and every athlete wants to play again the next year, was I successful? That actually happened to me. In 2013, we lost every game; we were defeated. And we made sure every player played in every game. Every Monday the whole team showed up ready for another week. At the end of the year party, I was brought to tears. I asked the team who was going to play the next year. Every single athlete raised his or her hand. I just happened to run into one of those athletes last weekend at his lacrosse game. (I am not coaching, but I hear a whistle and I cannot resist). You know what we didn’t talk about? Losing every game. I asked him what he remembered about the season and he said, “It was a lot of fun, and you let us play tag at the end of practice.” He thought it was fun. He played a lot and yes, he was one of my favorites. Keep in mind we lost every, single, game.
At the beginning of every season I hold a parent meeting where I present my goals for that season. They include character development, skill development, tons of encouragement to take chances and lots of high-fives. Notice: winning is not on that list. It doesn’t need to be. When you keep things simple and kids are learning and improving every week, winning is a by-product. And let’s not fool ourselves; the scoreboard at a youth game is for the parents and the coaches, not the athletes.
So yes, I play my favorites.
Here are six things I look for in an athlete to be on the starting roster:
- Punctual:If a kid is late to youth practice, it’s the parents’ fault. Being a parent is tough and getting all their kids to practice on time is just not always possible. I’ll never punish a kid for being late to youth practice, as long as when they come in they jump right into the drills and get to work. However, if a high school kid is late to practice, it’s the athlete’s fault and that athlete is running.
- Committed: I appreciate when an athlete is trying to juggle two sports, but most of the time it is unnecessary. When a player shows up to practice, I expect them to be ready to practice, not exhausted because they just got done with travel ball practice. When you commit to a team for a season, see it through. I do not believe a young athlete should specialize, a subject I have written about before.
- Adaptable: The game is on Saturday and I get a call Friday night that a kid got in trouble at school and they won’t be at the game the next day. Now I need someone to play a position they may have never played before. Being adaptable is an indispensable attribute for an athlete.
- Aggressive: As a coach I do whatever I can to keep game assignments simple. I tell an athlete, “This is your position, and these are your two options. Pick one and go all out. If you pick the wrong one, it’s okay, just go all out.”
- Growth Mindset: This TedTalk by Carol Dweck talks about how what someone believes about their ability to learn actually affects their ability to learn! She contrasts a growth mindset with a “fixed mindset” and proves that anyone can learn something new if only you believe you can and then work smart about it.
- Confident: Confidence is something that builds over time. If my team is in week-three of basketball practice and my athlete is still afraid to shoot the ball, then we have a problem and we need to fix it. It’s okay, it’s youth sports and it will take time to build confidence. However, if the athlete is afraid to shoot the ball because her parents will be disappointed that she missed, then I have a problem with the parent and that is a whole other issue. Don’t mind me, I’ll be on the sideline ecstatic that she shot the ball regardless of the result. You know what that does? It shows her it’s okay to shoot and she will most likely shoot again. She is bound to make it eventually.
These are the attributes all coaches look for in an athlete. Ultimately they are developed or under-developed because of the parents. Teach your kids to have these six attributes by modeling them yourself. Remember, most kids do what they see us do, not what we tell them to do.
James Leath is a Performance coach and former Head of Leadership Development for IMG Academy. His company Unleash the Athlete (UTAthlete.com) offers workshops and online courses that help athletes become leaders in and out of their sport. Twitter @jamesleath Instagram: @unleashtheathlete
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