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Prospect has a unique and specialized approach to communications skills and issues management geared towards those involved with youth and minor sports. Michael and Mary-Louise's work in this area is ideal for parents and coaches who want to make the most of children's involvement in sports.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Doing the right things when interacting with your players:The “Checklist” for Youth Sports Coaches

Youth sports coaches have a difficult job. They are the key decision-makers. They set examples. Players look to them for leadership. Club administrators – and parents -- look to them to make good choices.

As adults we often speak to our young people about making choices— preferably intelligent, positive choices.

That said, coaches make choices, too. They can choose to be the kind of coach that cares only about “winning”, or a coach that has a deeper—and longer-lasting—impact on the young people they coach and the families whose lives they touch.

Here are some tips to help make the coaching experience better for you—and the young people you interact with:

1) Build confidence in your players

Too often young athletes have their confidence shattered by their coach. Ask anyone in sports, including top professional athletes: when you lose your confidence, performance suffers and it becomes a vicious cycle. As a coach, regardless of whether you are soft-spoken, a yeller or somewhere in between, you must show confidence in your athletes – and constantly build their self-confidence. Wouldn’t you rather be the one coach the player looks back on and says – “That person really believed in me and made a difference in my life…” than the coach who is a negative caricature in the minds of your former players?

2) Identify the real team players on your squad

Coaches so often want to build a team with stars that they neglect to identify the young athletes who will be the glue that keeps a team together, and keeps them successful. There are obviously many attributes of a “team player”, but for starters, look for young people who are good teammates, who support other players, who are unselfish, and treat other players and people with respect. A really good coach would rather ‘lose’ with a bunch of fine young people than ‘win’ with a group of talented prima donnas who care only about themselves and not the team.

3) Communicate regularly -- and honestly

Young players need regular feedback. You should never go weeks or months without providing constructive feedback on their performance. If they are not meeting your expectations, either in terms of performance or attitude, speak with them—privately. That said, the first thing you should do is set mutually understood expectations at the beginning of each season. Meet with the player alone to do this (and with their parents, when age appropriate), away from everyone else.

4) Explain clearly what you want and then demonstrate what you want

I often see coaches demand, yell, threaten. Most coaches are not Tony Dungee (coach of the NFL Super Bowl Champion Indianapolis Colts) who rarely, if ever, speaks above his “normal” voice. Parents and players expect --and accept-- some loudness from a coach. A little loudness may even help sometimes! But be sure to explain clearly what you want to see, then show what you want. Young soccer players need to see what you’re talking about, so if you can’t show/demonstrate what you want, bring in a guest instructor who can.

5) Recognize that every young person/athlete is motivated differently

Not every athlete— or person — responds to the same stimuli. Some athletes are self-driven, some may need a shove in the behind, others need encouragement. Whatever, the key is to find out what is behind every player’s mental door. Speak to the player. Get to know them. Find out what motivates them. Find out what they really love about the sport they play — this will give you a look behind the door. Again if age appropriate, speak with their parents. They may have insight that will help you inspire your young player.

6) Recognize that you have a potentially huge affect on the young people you coach

Parents clearly have a seminal influence on the lives of their children. Particular teachers can have a major impact. But there’s no question youth coaches have a huge affect on many of the young players on their team. What you say, how you say it, how you act and how you treat people does matter -- a lot. Ask yourself: How will I want to be remembered by this group of players, by each individual player, in 20 years?

Be the kind of coach that will make people remember you fondly, as a positive inspiration in their life, as someone who made a real difference, whether they go on in the sporting field or not. Your players will remember you for a long, long time. What do you want their memory of you to be?

7) Don’t hide your head in the sand. Make yourself aware of personality conflicts on your team, and work to resolve them

Many youth coaches don’t want to know if there are conflicts on their young team. Worse, if they do know there are issues, they don’t know how to deal with the situation effectively. Just like adults, we can’t expect young people, particularly young people competing against one another for playing time and recognition, etc. to always like each other, or to get along. But you can make it a point to hear, watch and see what’s going on. And you, as the team leader, can engender a sense of camaraderie, togetherness, and foster the notion of respect for each other on and off the field of play. Insist on it.

8) Keep your players’ egos in check

Some coaches may not think that this is an issue in youth sports, but in this day and age, it is. Young people see “the pros” showboating, trash-talking and generally acting in a manner that most parents would not approve of. Even the great soccer-star Zidane, in some people’s minds, may well have set a poor example in this regard in the final of the 2006 World Cup. (Zidane at least was, in his own mind, defending his family’s honour when he was involved in the controversial ‘head-butting’ incident, after an opposing player evidently made several classless on-field remarks.)

While we all want our kids to have healthy self-esteem and a good sense of self-worth, too much “attitude” can lead to an over-developed sense of self-importance. As coach, you have the opportunity—and the responsibility—to see that your players don’t fall into this pattern. If you don’t deal with it, you will generally see a negative impact on the players, your team, and your efforts to build a tight-knit group.

9) Listen to your players. Don’t assume you have all the answers

We adults often think we have the answers, because we have “life experience”. This life experience can lead to wisdom. It can also lead to rigid thinking that hasn’t changed in decades. This certainly applies to coaching. Coaches who say, “this is the way it was in my day”, or think because they played the game at a high level that they know everything there is to know, may be doing their players a disservice. The way things were done in “your day” may not have been the best way. Much like parenting, why would we want to repeat the mistakes made by our own parents? I work professionally with many young athletes and I often hear of their frustration with coaches who just won’t listen, won’t take input from those who are actually on the field, playing the game NOW. Hearing is a sense. Listening is a skill. Develop that skill— especially when it comes to relating to your players.

One other thing on this subject: As I mentioned earlier, take the time to find out what each player really loves about a particular sport. Sometimes a coach will be with a young person for an entire season and will never bother to find out that the player loves a certain aspect of the sport. Find out. Then build on that to help them become an even better all-around player.

10) Model real leadership. Don’t talk “we” and act “me”. If you talk about leadership but don’t live it, your players will tune you out.

Leadership is easy to talk – and write about— and much harder to show. But as a youth sports coach, you have a wonderful opportunity to model positive leadership. How you speak with your players, the way you instruct, how you handle situations when players make mistakes and how you communicate with players on a daily basis are all vitally important examples of your leadership style. You are showing by your own actual behavioral example what you believe is the “right” way for an adult in a position of authority to handle themselves. You should always have handy a mental checklist, a self-monitoring system that makes you ask yourself, “will I feel badly tomorrow about what I am about to say or do right now?”

We all make mistakes, and if you make one, be strong enough to acknowledge that you let a player down and then apologize to them. The willingness to do that will set a tremendous example as well.

11) Be consistent in your discipline and expectations, regardless of whether it’s your “stars” or those who play less often.

Young people generally recognize pretty quickly when a coach says one thing, then does something different. While you should aim to get to know all of your players as individuals, and know what motivates them and react accordingly, you should establish firm team expectations – and stick with them. Suppose “star” players miss practice regularly, or don’t work hard in drills, or put down their teammates (or act out in games against opponents or referees). Do you ignore this behavior because you “need” that player to “win”? The players should know what your rules, guidelines and expectations are, and realize there will be consequences— regardless of who breaks the rules.

12) The Golden Rule: Monitor how your players treat one another

For some coaches, this notion is somehow totally unimportant. It should be important to you. If you have certain players putting down others on a young team, it’s toxic and spreads. Don’t be lulled into thinking it doesn’t matter. It does. The world is still full of “Eddie Haskell” (a famous teenage character from the classic ‘Leave It To Beaver’ television program) types— kids who are nice to the coach or certain adults, but are jerks to teammates or others they don’t like.

If you see inappropriate behavior of any kind, deal with it firmly. The old adage “boys will be boys” doesn’t cut it—in male or female youth sports. Talk to the instigator/s privately and make it clear you will not tolerate that behavior on your team, full stop.

13) Be respectful of parents

Youth coaches (sometimes understandably) tend to look at parents as necessary evils. We parents can be a pain, no question. Coaches don’t want to “deal” with parents, and delegate an assistant coach or team manager to handle all interpersonal situations. You may be saying to yourself, “Hey, I’m a volunteer, I already give up lots of my time…” which is a fair point if you don’t have a son or daughter on your team. But parents do deserve to know how their son or daughter is doing, why they are playing a lot or a little, and if there are things they could be doing to make the overall soccer experience for their child a better one. Ideally, set aside a night every few weeks to have telephone appointments to discuss progress, privately, calmly and away from the field.

14) Always be open to new players, but be loyal to dedicated returning players

Just because a player made an “all-star” or “rep” team at the age of 10 shouldn’t give them an automatic renewal license for all long as they want to stay on a team. This can lead to a sense of entitlement that is not healthy. A young athlete should have to constantly enhance their skills, work diligently, attend practices, volunteer time, and maintain a positive attitude. If you have a real team player on your hands, keep them. If a new player comes by who may have a little more talent—be open but also keep your eyes open. Too often coaches are willing to sacrifice a solid but unspectacular player for an incoming “star”, but remember—the star may bring some baggage, so do your homework.

15) Ask yourself: Are you being the adult in the relationship with your player/players?

In my advisory work with young athletes, I regularly see situations (albeit from the perspective of the young athlete) where it strikes me that the player has to assume the role of the adult in the coach-player relationship. The coach doesn’t have a true open door policy, may be a ‘talker’ but not an effective communicator, may be a de-motivator, etc. When issues arise, there is silence, not an effort to resolve things and so feelings fester and simmer. This forces the young person to plan a strategy to deal effectively with the situation. I often will recommend that the young person initiate a private tete-a-tete, since the coach seems uninterested or unwilling to address an obvious problem. The meeting doesn’t always solve the issue, but at least there is an attempt at open communication.

As the coach, you be the adult. You are the adult, so accept the responsibility. Set a high standard in terms of your performance and behavior expectations of the young athletes (but understand they are young and will make mistakes), and in return do the same to and for yourself.

16) Recognize that every player on your team must not only feel they are an important part of your team/success, they must know it. That comes from you.

I quite often will hear a professional coach say things such as, “As a coach, I try to make everyone on the team feel important”. Well, that’s all very nice. All your players should feel important. But your job is not to make them feel important, it is to make them know and fully understand that they really are important. In any team sport, not even the greatest players of their generation— Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Jim Brown, Michael Jordan. Pele —could win a game, much less a championship, on their own. Every player on their squad likely contributed something significant at some point that changed the outcome of a particular game or season. Your players, especially the ones who perhaps play less than the others, need to know clearly they are an invaluable part of any success your team has. And you need to make this understood to all your players, especially those who think they are the straw that stirs the drink.

17) Are there consequences to your expectations or are they just idle threats?

In short, we don’t need to be a psychologist to understand that if your leadership, rules and expectations are to have any impact, you must be consistent not only in outlining but also in acting upon your expectations. It is imperative that you demonstrate that there are clear consequences. Anything short of real consequences and these smart young people will call your bluff and tune you out—to your face, or behind your back.

18) If you cannot provide certain expertise find it for your team.

In this day and age, coaches should be humble enough to recognize they don’t know everything. Fitness and nutrition are important, so if this is not an area you have knowledge about, bring in people who do to share information with your athletes. As a coach, if you have no legitimate expertise as a keeper/goalie coach, for example, in sports such as soccer or hockey, seek out someone who can provide it. Misinformation or poor instruction are probably worse in these instances than no information or instruction at all. Many a young goalie has been harmed mentally and emotionally by a coach who simply does not know what they are talking about.


Michael Langlois, founder of Prospect Communications Inc., is a frequent guest speaker to youth sports organizations. He is the father of four sons and has been involved in youth sports for well over 20 years. He is a recognized expert in the field of communications and issues management. Michael also acts as a private advisor to a wide range of clients in the sports field, including various Associations, elite athletes and National Hockey League coaches. He has written articles and books on youth sports for many years, including, “How Well Do You Communicate? A Guide to Better Communication with Players and Parents for Youth Soccer Coaches”. Prospect’s web site is located at http://www.prospectcommunications.com/

Building Your Minor/Youth Hockey Team With Real Team Players

Spring, 2010

 15 traits — good and bad —
that coaches should identify when looking for a true team player in youth sports

So you’re the coach of a very high-level and competitive youth hockey team.

You want your players to love the game, have fun and hopefully achieve some “success”.

For you, success means far more than wins and losses. Oh, you want to win. Any competitive person — young or old, coach, player or parent — wants to win, even in so-called “youth” sports.

But beyond that, you really do aspire to help build character in the young people in your care, build a team that plays hard and tough but fair.

So what are you looking for as you build this competitive young hockey team?

Players with talent, to be sure.

Young athletes with a passion for the sport, absolutely.

But if you really want to have a “successful” team of young players, based on the above criteria, you will need to find true ‘team’ players.

Again, what are you looking for? What is a true ‘team’ player in youth sports?

True team players may not always be the most talented or naturally gifted players, but they make your team better by their sheer presence. The poor team player has an attitude that can spread like a disease, and over time can kill the harmony and chemistry that is often critically important in helping you attain the positive goals you have set out for your young squad.

Here are some qualities, attributes, characteristics and/or behaviour patterns you will — and won’t— want to have on your team

 1) Positive attitude

 It’s an easy term to throw out there, but more than ever, in a generation filled with bulging egos and self-interest, a positive attitude — toward others and your team— is critically important in choosing an athlete for a high-level team.

What are tell-tale signs of a good — or bad — attitude in a young athlete? 
  • Does the player listen, or does he slough off input from coaches?
  • Does the player have a strong work ethic all over the ice, including in his own zone?
  • Does he/she have the ability to self-reflect, to really look at themselves in the mirror and see when they are not performing the way they should?
  • Does the player work out on their own, beyond regular practices?
  • Does the individual accept constructive criticism?
  • Does the player work on their shortcomings, or only focus on the things they like to do or are good at?
As a coach, you can fill in the blanks with many other attributes relating to the importance of attitude.

In short, you want the player who will play a role when needed, accept the non-glory jobs, play (as much as is reasonable to expect of a young athlete) for the team more than simply for goals and assists — or their own egos.

2) Work ethic

The willingness to work hard, really hard, to improve your skills is vital.

Wayne Gretzky was a hockey phenom with wonderful instincts and vision, but worked and worked to get better every day. Terry O’Reilley had a tremendous career with the Boston Bruins, but most observers will suggest he would never have made it to the NHL without a remarkable work ethic. He needed to work on his skating,, for example — and he did. He knew that he would stand out only through a real work ethic, and he set a very high bar, by all accounts.

Does being a diligent worker make you a great team player? Not necessarily, if you don’t associate with and respect your fellow players.

But the vast majority of young athletes who work hard do so because they love the sport, truly want to be the best they can be, and by extension are great influences on their team.

Being a good teammate and team player is not necessarily being the most ‘popular’, but it can include setting important examples, especially in terms of work ethic.

3) A player who shows respect for the coach and their teammates

No player, from the youngest “house league” player to the star NHL’er, will always agree with their coach.

Whether the issue is playing time, method of instruction, discipline, whatever, there will always be the possibility of disagreement.

But the team player will recognize that the coach may see the ‘big picture’ and will follow the coach’s plan for the team. This player doesn’t freelance and simply do his or her own thing.

The team player will do his or her best to adopt the strategic recommendations of the coach, and respect the coach’s philosophy — assuming, of course, the youth coach is of strong character with solid values.

(On this point, parents have every right to disagree with a coach, but those disagreements should be discussed privately, away from other players and parents.

If the conflicts cannot be resolved, the parents have the option of raising legitimate issues or concerns with a “higher authority” or seeking an alternate program for their son or daughter.)

Assuming good will on everyone’s part, the player with the team uppermost in mind will respect not only his coach, but also his or her fellow players. That final point should not be undervalued. A player who respects their teammates is worth their weight in gold.

This doesn’t mean there won’t be joking, camaraderie and even some healthy competition and occasional words of criticism.

But if the basis of the relationship is genuine respect, then the relationship can build and flourish.

4) Negative body language

Visit any hockey arena, and you will see young players, very young players, demonstrate negative body language that must have been learned by example: an example set by watching older players on TV, or in their own homes.

Some specific examples of this behaviour?

Players shoot the evil eye at teammates when that other player is thought to have made a mistake; they throw their hands up in the air whenever an officials’ call goes against them or their team (it seems to be human nature to disagree with calls by referees on occasion, but when a player reacts repeatedly, it is a problem); they won’t look their coach in the eye, talk back or simply tune their coach out. All these can be small but important signs that this particular player will let you — and the team— down at crunch time.

5) The selfish player

Selfish play doesn’t only show itself when a player won’t “pass the puck”. That does happen, and can pose a problem, of course, if a young player repeatedly refuses to look for the open man when the opportunity calls for it.

But selfish play shows itself in a variety of ways, and youth coaches need to be on guard. The player who incessantly harps at game officials is not a team player, because he/she is only hurting their team by complaining constantly to officials who, being human, may take out their own frustration against your team.

The player who constantly throws his hands up in the air when a call goes against him is being selfish.

Again, the example is often set at the pro levels. When Tie Domi hit Scott Niedermeyer with a violent elbow to the head — for no apparent reason— at the end of a critical NHL playoff game a few years ago, many believe the thoughtless act wrecked any chances his team, the Maple Leafs, had of upsetting the favored New Jersey Devils. Domi was suspended for the senseless act, and rather than focus on a great game the Leafs had just played in victory, the media and the hockey world focused solely on Domi’s actions. A thoughtless, selfish play hurt his team, badly.

The Leafs lost the series.

6) The blame game

Perhaps it is a reflection of the way some professional athletes act out, or maybe it is that too many of us as parents have gone overboard in ‘supporting’ our own kids. Whatever, far too many young athletes simply look to blame others when things go wrong.

Rather than look at their own performance, they pick at teammates, blame others for goals that are scored, and generally fail to recognize their own errors while focusing on the ‘mistakes’ of others.

This attitude can spread like wildfire, and is highly toxic.

 7) “I’m better than you”

Everyone is, of course, entitled to their own opinion. Listen in the stands at any hockey rink at youth games and you’ll hear plenty of opinions, on a range of subjects.

Opinions become an issue, however, when parents start thinking their kid is better than everyone else’s.

And when the young players themselves act as though they are better than their teammates — either in the actual things the say, the tone they adopt when interacting with fellow players, coaches, or the way they exclude certain teammates on or off the ice, it is a major problem.

Young players who think they’re great, and that others are the problem, create an environment for failure, on many levels.

8) “I’ll play anywhere, coach”

Most every coach loves the player who is versatile, can play different positions and accepts tough roles.

Often, part of being a good team player is being the kind of player that a coach can count on to embrace sometimes low-profile but difficult assignments.

We’ve all heard the expression, “Take one for the team”.

The real team player takes that phrase to heart.

 9) Humility

Genuine humility is difficult to find, at any age. We are all taught a kind of superficial, false modesty at a very young age, and that is socially encouraged, to a certain extent.

And human nature being what it is, we all have pride. That’s OK.

But developing a truly humble attitude is a wonderful trait in a young athlete. To take pride in working toward or achieving a goal is probably a healthy thing.

But reminding him or her self that few if any athletes accomplish things totally on their own is a good thing for young athletes. You usually need helpful and supportive parents, excellent coaches, teammates who also strive to be better, as part of one’s support system.

Even world class athletes in “individual”, non-team sports such as gymnastics, figure-skating and swimming need the support of others to attain great things, whether that support is financial, emotional or otherwise.

Goodness knows the professional sports world often seems to be filled with individuals who think primarily of themselves. The youth sports world — and your team— can always do with some humility.

10) Picking up and supporting a fellow player when they are down

The player you are looking for can identify when a teammate is struggling, needs a pat on the back, and a shot of confidence.

This is tough to expect when players are really young, but by the time a young person is 12 or 13, it is something that you can look for.

I remember a few years ago that I asked one of my clients, an NHL player, a question that I sensed he had never been asked before. I asked him if he could identify one player in his pro career who he thought of as a truly excellent teammate and team player, specifically someone who didn’t blame others and supported his own teammates when they were down, etc..

 He named James Patrick, the long time defenseman, who has had a quiet but lengthy and distinguished career in the NHL before announcing his retirement before the start of the 2005-’06 NHL season.

That has always stayed with me.

As a youth hockey coach, you want to find as many James Patrick-type players as possible!

 11) Helping other/younger players

This does not necessarily apply until older ages when say, a 13 or 14 year old is playing with older athletes, but it can be a very important attribute in an “older” youth player.

The great teammate senses when a younger player is struggling, uncomfortable or anxious. He/she will spend some time with the younger player, talk with them, help them to understand that they are an important part of the team, and generally include them in activities on and off the ice.

I remember many years ago, when I was coaching a youth baseball team. One of my four sons was on the team. (Yes, I was one of those coaches with a son on their team!). There was quite an age spread on this particular team, 13 to 16.

During one game, I came down very hard on my son (who was 13 at the time), in a way that I likely would not have with any other player. I unloaded. He accepted it and but was hurt and upset and quietly went to seek a quiet space in the corner of the dugout.

One of his teammates, a 16 year-old catcher and true team leader, quietly went over, knelt down in front of my son, took him gently by the shoulders and just spoke with him privately.

That response lifted my son’s spirits and made him feel much, much better, and also showed the quality of character of this young person.

That day, a 16-year old did a lot more for my son’s growth and development than I did.

He also reinforced for me what a true team player is, at any level of sport.

 12) Showing genuine happiness when others succeed

This is hard for most of us as adults, so it is quite an expectation for us to have of a young athlete.

This is especially difficult during the tryout process, when players are obviously competing for positions on the team.

But once the final squad is selected, it is important that players support one another in good times and bad.

It can be particularly challenging to find joy in the success of your teammates, but if you can, it is a wonderful gift to share.

The coach who identifies a lot of players who can do this will have a strong team, on and off the ice.

 13) A focus on fitness

There is more to being a good hockey player than scoring goals. There is no question that if a young person wants to be an elite athlete, they need to get into outstanding physical condition.

Is your potential player willing to do additional training on their own and with teammates? Young players who make this kind of commitment demonstrate they have a genuine desire to succeed.

By being in great condition, a young player won’t let themself down, and they won’t let their team down, either.

 14) Welcoming “new” players to the team

There is often an awkward transition period for any athlete, but perhaps especially young athletes, when a player changes teams or joins a new team.

The young player may not know many of his/her fellow players and teammates, and there may be a period of discomfort.

The team player will welcome newcomers to the team, answer their questions, share experiences and generally offer a genuine and warm welcome, both on and off the ice.

 15) The follower

Not every person — or athlete— is a leader, so it is certainly not reasonable to expect that every young player will be a leader.

Our course, one thing to be aware of as a youth coach is the young player who is not only not a leader, but is a follower— and someone who follows the wrong kind of example.

That kind of follower is the one that easily falls in with negative peer influences, displays immature judgments or inappropriate outbursts with coaches, fellow players or officials, for example.

One player with a negative attitude can carry other players who fall into the ‘follower’ category with them, and that can seriously impede team harmony.

Final thoughts

There are, of course, other attributes as a coach that you will have taken note of over the years in building a youth team. But these 15 things give a coach some points to seriously consider, as they go about building a real “team” in youth sports.

A final thought: Too many teams are kept together from year to year in youth sports, because of a variety of factors, with no room for “new blood”.

This can be troubling for a couple of reasons. By almost automatically keeping the same players year after year, regardless of attitude or work ethic, players and their parents develop a sense of entitlement that they, without question, deserve to be on a particular team.

 Also, a youth coach, in adopting this restrictive approach, may miss some players who would be excellent additions to their squad, and be real team players.

Unfortunately, the “tryout” process is often way too short. The longer a coach can carry on their tryout process, the better they will be able to identify the traits, qualities and characteristics that will help them locate these sometimes hidden gems.

And a team player is just that: a gem.

Michael Langlois, founder of Prospect Communications Inc., is the author of the book, “How Well Do You Communicate? A Guide to Better Communication with Players and Parents for Minor (Youth) Soccer Coaches”. Prospect’s web site is located at http://www.prospectcommunications.com/. This article is copyrighted to the author and may not be reproduced without obtaining written permission. To inquire about licensing the right to reproduce any of the enclosed content email: inquiries@prospectcommunications.com