We Can Learn a Lot From Youth Sports Coaching
Sports have been around since the dawn of human civilization thousands of years ago. But organized community youth sports are a little younger. They got started in the mid-1800s and became an American institution about 100 years ago. Ever since then, youth sports have needed volunteer coaches.
I started coaching youth sports just after our oldest child was old enough to play soccer. That was in 2015. Seven years later, I have coached all three of our kids in soccer, softball, football, and baseball — girls and boys — from ages 4 to 12.
I used to think being a youth sports coach was all about me teaching kids how to play the games. That's definitely part of it. But I've learned that being a coach is actually much more than just being a teacher. It's being a student. And I have learned some valuable life lessons from the kids I have coached.
All Great Athletes Have to Start Somewhere
Step 1 is learning everyone's name. Everyone wants to be seen and heard, no matter their age. Shouting "Hey, you" is not in the Knute Rockne book of inspiring pep talks. "What's your name again?" doesn't exactly build up anyone's character. But saying "Good job, Joe" or "Way to go, Alice" is much more meaningful.
It might seem unimportant, but a person's name is where their identity starts. And recognizing young people by their names helps them build confidence and positive self-esteem. When people feel good about themselves, they will respond better to directions and tend to do good things. The net result is positive behaviors and actions.
Once we know everyone's names, the team building continues. How do we make a roster of 13 individual 7-and-8-year-old kids who don't know each other into one cohesive group? Teach them the fundamentals with drills they can understand. Sharks and minnows on the soccer field. Check. Alien tag on the gridiron. Bingo. Forget all the X's and O's. Keep everything simple. We score in that goal. You run that way. Don't let them score in that goal. Keep your eye on the ball. Put the bat on the ball. Speak their language. To do that, you need to listen.
Kids know more than they get credit for. But because they are small humans, they can get easily dismissed or overlooked. This kind of treatment comes from the school of children should be seen and not heard. I know that way of thinking. I used to think like that a little bit, too. Then, one day, I realized kids are smarter than we think. It's a good idea to take the time to engage with young kids. When you listen to them, they say the darndest things. And those things can be illuminating and enlightening.
Of course, listening takes patience. And while patience might be a virtue, it also can be in short supply when you have one kid wrapped around your leg, and five others running in five different directions, not listening to a word you're saying. In those moments, staying calm is not easy. But anger is the enemy of instruction. Once you learn to laugh at the absurdity of life, you will remember that the most important thing for early youth sports is to make sure everyone is having fun.
No Matter What You Do, Make It Fun
In the beginning, it's not always all about winning. Sometimes it's just about having fun. When you're having fun, good things happen. There comes a time when participation trophies are not beneficial. But when you're 5, and you get out there on a soccer field, football field, or baseball field, that is something to celebrate.
This is how kids and coaches get resilience. That ability to bounce back from difficult situations is the definition of toughness. And toughness is a quality that never goes out of style. Once a team gets that taste of toughness, teamwork makes the dream work, and they are unstoppable.
Now more than ever, we need resilience, toughness and teamwork in this world. We can start in our community. We’re so besieged by anger and negativity in the news, on social media, and even in our daily interactions. It is therapeutic to escape that for a few hours every week and see kids running around and having fun.
Youth sports are where games are played at the purest level. It's where kids are kids. It's good to be a part of that as a coach, player or spectator. Adults are the ones who take the fun out of youth sports.
But it doesn't have to be this way. Life, as has been said before, is too important to be taken seriously. The sooner we realize it, and start working together as one big team, we can build community. And life will be better for everybody.
This story was first published in the Southwest Connector, a local newspaper in Minneapolis, Minnesota.