Depending on where you are in the country, youth sports are potentially starting again and if they aren’t starting for you yet, I think we can all agree they will be back.
As coaches and program directors, we need to understand what players have gone through. Many kids have had no social interaction, they are probably feeling anxious or confused about what is going on and most have had no real exercise except from maybe joining Mom or Dad in their morning virtual “fitness” class. Therefore, we need to make sure youth sports are a fun and safe place for kids to try and get back to some normality.
Here in Colorado, we have been playing for several weeks now at the competitive level and that time has taught me a lot of lessons. Here are 5 coaching tips to help your coaches prepare –
1. Have Fun!
This should be obvious, but many of us coaches are overly competitive and right away want to get straight into the “serious” stuff. I was doing two virtual workouts per week with my team, they should have been ready to get straight into regular training, right? Wrong. They were no longer used to the speed of the game; some had grown six inches and could no longer control their bodies. Some just wanted to see their friends again and had no time to chat to them as Dad dropped them off late.
The last thing my players needed, was to have their coach all gung-ho and ready to set high training standards right away. I should have had a more relaxed and fun activity to break the ice; this might not have even been soccer related. I could have had my players tell their favorite joke, or ask what the positives of lockdown have been for them? Some kids may not have even thought about the positives and maybe it’s something they need to focus on more if we end up in the same situation. Think holistically about your players and not just about the X’s and O’s.
2. Chat With Every Player
This is often difficult, but I make a conscious effort to try and talk to each player once per week. During a water break or as players arrive, I would simply chat to players and ask how they are doing. It helped me figure out quite quickly who has really struggled during these strange times and who has not. I was able to either give advice on challenges they might be having and was also able to see who might need more encouragement during the training. Everyone has dealt with this situation differently; our players are no different and some are fantastic at hiding how they might actually feel. In the long run, showing your players you care about them off the field will also result in more “success” on the field as they will be willing to run that extra mile when it comes to it.
3. Be Patient
Your players won’t be at the level they were previously, how could they be? No matter how much juggling or playing soccer with their dog they have done, they are not going to be at the level they were previous. Have you watched any of the MLS since restart? Even those guys are struggling. Players are going to need you to be patient, positive and encouraging! They will get frustrated with each other, don’t let them. Highlight examples of kids being positive and encouraging, this will have huge long-term benefits.
4. Play Games
According to JOHN O’SULLIVAN at Changing the Game project, “lack of fun” is the number 1 reason kids quit youth sports. So, what is fun? Fun isn’t goofing around, it is playing and competing in lots of games such as, 1v1s, 2v2s etc. If your practice has to be socially distant, be creative and think of how to make skills a competition. Below I have provided a link to some socially distant activities by Pete Nowakowski, Stuart Blake and Peter Prickett.
5. How To Coach While Wearing A Mask
Many of us are required to coach in a mask, it didn’t take me long to realize my players no longer understood whether I was being sarcastic and joking, or serious. Recognize if you have a certain tone of voice, or humor, it’s going to be hard for kids to understand with them not being able to see your facial expressions. If you are someone who doesn’t tend to change the tone of your voice, you might have to think about having more energy and excitement in your voice. Overall, kids will likely prefer we have to wear masks as it sure gets old trying to shout in one!
In summary, kids have been through a lot and creating the next Lionel Messi or Carly Lloyd should definitely not be our priority. Be empathetic, understand where kids are and let’s provide them a fun, safe place to enjoy themselves again. For us coaches, coaching kids and seeing smiles on their faces should also be a good way for us to shut off from world too.
Please make sure to follow your local health authorities COVID-19 return to play guidelines and let’s get through this safe.