Hey Coach, do you Know me?

Dear Coach,

Do you know me?  I’m the thirteen-year-old on your team adorned in acne and awkwardness.  On the surface I appear calm and collected; maybe even a little aloof.  However, inside I’m a combination of mayhem and confusion wrapped up in turmoil.

I’ve been part of your team now for three years.  I know I’ve been one of the final selections  each of those three years.  Maybe I’m here because my dad is the team manager.  Maybe it’s because you’ve picked the same players each of the last three years and there is no one either better than me or interested any more in being better than me.  I dubiously represent the best of the rest.

When it comes to your program, I don’t miss any events.  I’m always on time.  I don’t disrupt and force you to have to intervene like you have to do with some of the other kids.  I position myself in the back of the huddle behind the other players – a part of the team but separate from them too. I do what you tell me.  That is, at least when you take the time to tell me something.

When I was much younger, I used to get to play in games a lot.  Over the last three years I’ve noticed that I play very little compared to a bunch of the other players.  They play a lot and even replace me and get to play that much more when I’ve not been playing very well.  I’m just not sure how I’m supposed to get better though when I spend most of my time sitting on the bench and cheering on my teammates.

Every game, I see you get angry and yell at our team captain at least once.  That makes me sad.  Why don’t you yell at me?  I wish you would yell at me.  At least if you were yelling at me I’d know you still care enough to think that I have the potential to become an awesome player like our team captain.  But instead all I get is empty praise in the form of a “Good job.”  Half the time I don’t even know what you’re praising me for.

Did you know that my bedroom walls are covered in posters and other paraphernalia of the biggest stars and teams in our sport?  Of course you wouldn’t.  You’ve never asked me anything about myself.  So you also wouldn’t know that my dream from when I first got involved was to one day play professional.

And did you know that I’ve watched pro games on tv since I was a little kid?  I’d even draw up plays from those games that I watched.  I still have them in a notebook which also has lots of inspirational quotes and tips for becoming a better player that I’ve collected over the years.  I’ve always had ideas that I’ve wanted to share with you and our team but you’ve never asked me for an opinion.  You’ve not asked any of us for an opinion.  You’ve only ever told us your opinion.  You constantly tell us, this is how it is and this is how it needs to be done.

If only you knew how I really learn.  If only you knew how badly I wanted to become better.  If only you’d taken the time to treat me as an individual within the team.  But you haven’t and so here we are because I’ve obediently followed along with your plan.  After all, you’re an adult and I’m just a kid.  I learned long ago that my place is to do what adults tell me to do.  That is, until the day when I become an adult and can tell other kids what to do.

I’m thinking about quitting but you wouldn’t have any idea that that’s what I’m thinking.  You think I’m happy and content when really I haven’t enjoyed myself much at all.  I haven’t found real excitement in playing since I was a little kid.  I wish I could go back to that time.  It was so much more fun and there was a lot less pressure.

But because I can’t ever go back to the way things were, I’m getting out.  I’m getting out because I can no longer handle how things have become.

This program that you and the other adults have put together isn’t what I want.  And you’ve never stopped to ask me what it is I really do want.  You’ve just assumed you know what’s best for me.  You’ve just assumed that your expertise trumps anything of value that I could ever contribute.  And even if you always do know more than me, would it hurt to engage me once in a while and ask me what I think?

What do I think?  Wow!  I can only imagine how motivated I would feel to know that I was being given a chance to be in control of my own learning.  When I close my eyes I can picture myself being free spirited.  Creative.  Unique.  Instead I’m just one of the pack and at the back of that pack.

I don’t know what else I want to do but that’s the least of my worries right now.  Maybe I won’t do anything at all.  What’s the sense of going into another activity organized for my supposed benefit by adults if I’m only going to end up feeling the way I do now?


The Forgotten Player


Next post Sunday, April 20th

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A Picture is Worth 1000 Words (and a Million Dollars)

You are working with your soccer team at practice on the theme of passing then moving.  You’ve reminded them that they’ve worked on this topic last session and that you’d focused on it with them in the last game.   In this particular coaching moment, you are explaining to the players that the activity requires them to pass in one direction and then run in a direction opposite from the pass.  You tell them what players they can pass to and what cones they can run to.  You ask them if there are any questions and then you let them go.

Did you catch your mistake?  You didn’t demo what it was the activity should look like.

We’ve all done it.  It’s a very common mistake that can have a very big impact on learning and overall progress.  In Kindergarten I remember we used to do show and tell.  It was the show that made the tell about the object or item that much more illuminating.  It wouldn’t have been the same without the show.  Just hearing about Roger’s 20-foot python would have been cool but getting to see it wrap itself around our teacher, now that’s really cool!

We need to remember that when we coach: it’s show and tell not just tell.

Why do we only tell and not show?  Plenty of reasons I’m sure.  We forget the importance of a visual.  We forget we’re working with human beings that because of their current level of development still struggle to grasp abstract situations.  We just forget.  We don’t think we’re good enough to model (give yourself a little more credit).  We think that because the kids just saw it modelled five minutes ago that they don’t need to see it modelled again (don’t give them quite so much credit).  We’re in a rush to move on and not waste any more time.

Whatever the reason, there is really none good enough to excuse showing from the process of show and tell.  A demo cannot be skipped.  If forgetting is your issue then task the kids with the job of not letting you release them until you’ve included a demonstration in your coaching point.  Don’t discharge them from that learning moment until they have seen the picture of what you have just described to them.

Yes, we can learn when things are explained to us.  Yes, we can learn when we watch others do the things.  But we can learn even better when we have those things both explained and shown to us.

Next post Saturday, April 19th

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7 Ways for Coaches to Engage Learners

The lights are on but nobody’s home.  I’m sure you’ve heard that saying before to represent someone who’s not quite all there.  I think that being not quite all there can also be an intentional choice a person makes.  Or you’ve probably said about yourself on occasion that you’re here in body but not in mind or spirit.  In other words, you’re present but you’re not engaged.  By choice, you’re not quite all there.

In a recent post I talked about the importance of engagement to learning.  I’ve been on a real engagement kick lately (much like my year-long infatuation with Reece Pieces in the 80′s after seeing E.T.).  The notion of being totally absorbed in what you are doing makes complete sense if one hopes to remember whatever it is in six days, six weeks, six months or six years from now.  And remembering IS learning.  If you can remember something, it means you’ve learned it.  It’s stuck with you.

In education, teachers use the words on-task to describe the behaviour of a student who is following instructions and not behaving in a disruptive manner.  The problem is that being on-task and being engaged are not the same thing.  You can be on-task but not be engaged.  There’s no guarantees that ideas or information will stick with you over the long haul when you are on-task but not engaged.

Seen from the other side of the fence, you can’t be engaged without being on-task.  The very nature of being completely engrossed in something means you are focused and managing your time appropriately.

We’ve all seen examples of on-task but not engaged in our own sport environments.  Kids going through the motions of a repetitious drill or activity.  Day dreaming while they sit there and endure our insightful post-game wrap-up.

Coaches, if you want to help genuine learning to occur then you need to make sure they’re engaged.  You own the teaching; they own the learning.  And if ever the two shall meet they’ll meet because of engagement.  So here are a bunch of suggestions to help get the kids engaged:

  1.  Teach the kids how they learn.  Spend some time giving them a modern view of how their brains work, how learning happens and what engagement is.  Here’s an article that can give some of the background on learning in the 21st century if you’re not as up to speed on the topic as you’d like to be.  Daniel Willingham, the cognitive psychologist interviewed in the article, has written a great book on the subject of kids learning.  You can find it on my Books to Read page.
  2. Relevance of the content.  Is what you are trying to teach your kids what they need right now in the present moment in order to solve a problem and function better?  Because the further away from the right now what you are trying to teach them is, the more difficult it will be for them to be engaged.  If it’s something that happened last competition then don’t just say to them, “Remember that thing that kept happening last competition?  Well, we’re going to practice that.”  You must recreate that moment in your training to the best of your ability.  They need to see the reason why it is important to improve on that in the here and now.
  3. Authenticity of the content. Is what you are trying to teach your kids relatable to their experiences?  Personalizing learning is a great thing if you have the time and inclination to do so for each and every one of the kids in your program.  Or simplify that process for yourself.   If you are working with a group of 15-year-old boys, make sure that all the ways you structure the environment for their learning those boys can find and can able to relate to in their every day lives.  In other words, if you wanted to create a memorable skills competition for the boys you’d probably frame it around the backdrop of the Hunger Games and not Harry Potter.  Both are authentic for today but the Harry Potter will probably not appeal to 15-year-old boys as much as the Hunger Games.
  4. Suspenseful questions.  I don’t mean suspenseful in the sense of, “Who will start at centre for the upcoming game?  Norah or Samantha?  Stay tuned until next week…”  What I mean is you ask a question, someone gives the right answer and you maintain a poker face instead of saying, “That’s the right answer!”  You simply continue to ask for more answers before going back to the right one.  Make that into a habit and q&a sessions will become less about them trying to figure out the one right answer and more about them participating in a discussion around all the possible answers.
  5. Reward Risk.  Failure is non-negotiable.  We have to fail if we expect to get better.  By rewarding the risk takers (even if they fail miserably) you are setting the future tone for the rest of the group.  You are showing them that getting outside the nest can and will be dangerous and that is okay.  That’s what it’s all about.  They know if they go outside the nest, they’re always welcomed back to the nest with open arms.  In other words, knowing their risks are supported makes them feel safe.  Developing that sort of mindset allows for kids to have the freedom to explore and be curious.  Freedom.  Explore.  Curious.  Kids.  Four things that we should be working our buns off as coaches to link together as often as possible.
  6. Balance Praise and Feedback.  Praise makes you feel good and keeps you going.  It doesn’t necessarily tell you what you did well though.  Feedback is what gives you the specifics you need to continuously improve.  While it is important to tell them they’ve done a good job it’s also important to be specific about the good job that they did or let them know how they could get better in order to here a, “Good job” from you.
  7. Encourage reflection.  If you allow your kids to simply walk away at the end of training or competition you are losing a valuable opportunity to engage them for the future.  The first six strategies aim to enhance engagement during training or competition.  This one aims to bridge one session to the next in order to create a seamless stream of engagement.  For example, could you ask that your kids make it a habit to go home after each session and journal their thoughts?   It could be as simple as completing each of the following two statements: “I know…” and “I wonder…” .  The I wonder statement allows them to couple things they know from the current session with things that they are curious about and that they hope to learn in the next session.  That’s engagement.

Next post Sunday, April 13th

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In the Quest to Improve your Weaknesses don’t Lose Sight of your Strengths

I read an interesting article from the site We are Teachers a little while back.  In it the author, Samantha Cleaver, shared her opinion on the need for teachers to celebrate their uniqueness.  She says teachers spend time worrying about improving their weaknesses but shouldn’t forget their strengths.  And just like teachers, our coaching is shaped by our strengths.  We should embrace our strengths and ensure that who we are as coaches resounds clearly through dedication to our strengths.  The first step to knowing your strengths is knowing yourself.  Sometimes being self-aware is easier said than done.  In Cleaver’s article, she provides a test that can be taken to help a teacher identify and understand better his/her strengths.  It would work equally well for a youth sport coach with only minor adjustments needed to shift the focus from students to athletes/players.  Here are her list of strengths.

  • Creativity
  • Curiosity
  • Open-Mindedness
  • Perspective
  • Courage
  • Persistence
  • Kindness
  • Optimism
  • Results Oriented
  • Discipline
  • Independence
  • Collaboration
  • Fairness
  • Self-Control
  • Humor

In taking the test you read statements and circle five of them that you feel most represent you.  Then there is an answer key to link the specific statements you circled to the strengths they represent.  Each of the strengths is given a definition and then an example of how you could help develop that strength in students (this is where you’d need to do some modification in order to relate it to your athletes/players).

Next post Saturday, April 12th.

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4 Things we (Should) Know Better but do Anyway

We must have a death wish.  Maybe our competitors in non-sport related activities have voodoo dolls of all us sports admin people and they’ve cursed us.  Why do I say that?  Because, as Einstein said in his definition of insanity, we continue to do the same things over and over yet expect different results the next time we do them.  “Hmmmm…what would happen if I touched this scalding hot stove burner?  Ouch!  I’ll try again.  This time it won’t hurt.  Ouch!  Okay, this time it won’t hurt.  Ouch!  Alright.  I’m certain this time will be different…”

Okay, okay, I’m going over the top.  There are definitely multiple reasons to celebrate the evolution of youth sport over the years.  Yes, things have improved in so many ways from when you or I were kids – especially in the options and the opportunities available.  That’s my point though.  We in youth sport can’t afford to muff things up when it comes to organizing programs for kids.  If we don’t get it right – more importantly if we keep doing the exact same things that lead to not getting it right – eventually they’ll just go do something else.  It appears that they’re already doing that in en masse between the ages of 13 and 18.

And who’d blame them?  As we make leaps and bounds in the delivery of organized youth sports, we’re reminded of how far we still need to go.  We’re still stuck in some bad habits.  Here’s a sample of some of those bad habits that came to my mind:

1. We continue to ignore science – Fact.  We know how children grow and develop.  Fact.  We’ve known this for years and we’re learning more and more every day now.  So then why don’t we use that information to our advantages to design athlete/player-centred programming?  Canadian Sport for Life Expert Group member Steve Norris has said flat out that when we choose to ignore the facts we are acting unethically.  He has made the comparison between the science of growth and development with a cancer researcher finding a breakthrough cure but not sharing it with the world.  To do so would be unscrupulous and that is a word that doesn’t belong anywhere in kids sport.

2. We continue to over develop athletes/players and under develop coaches – Look around you at what is available to help kids improve within a sport.  There are multiple in-house programs and then there are also plenty of private businesses offering to develop kids’ skills too.  Why don’t we do that for coaches?  Why do we think that a little coach education is enough to qualify a coach?  We’re putting the cart before the horse.  Don’t we realize that by investing directly in coach development, players will indirectly improve?  I’m absolutely certain that the definitive factor in a child’s youth sport experience is the quality of the coach.  It’s not state-of-the art facilities or equipment.  It’s not even the opportunity to have access to multiple training programs.  Coaches make or break programs.  Period.  End of story. Yet we continue to send most coaches out there with the minimum amount of training if any at all.

3. We continue to undermine the recommendations of technical experts in the name of politics - A positive in the evolution of youth sport has to be the continued trend towards organizations hiring a paid technical expert to oversee programming.  A negative continues to be that the people who do the hiring choose not to follow what that subject matter expert says or they alter the things that the subject matter expert sets up.  Why pay someone a good salary if you are only going to change or not even follow their expertise?  Sadly politics continues to get in the way and the popular thing often gets done at the expense of the right thing.

4. We continue to offer adult-centred and not athlete/player-centred programming – Administrators: you really need to stop organizing players by the date they were born.  While it makes life easy for you, it makes the lives of many kids born ten, eleven or twelve months after the cut off miserable.  Late developers are getting left behind in the choice to make operations easy.  Coaches: your job is not to teach, your job is to facilitate learning.  Kids are not born ready to be taught, they are born ready to learn.  Stop imposing what it is you want and start listening and looking for the things that spark their curiosity.   Parents: Your youth sport journey is over.  Stop trying to extend it through your kids.  Go to the coffee shop during the game or go buy the groceries.  Be there once in a while but not all the time.  Let your kids have their sport for themselves.

I’m sure there are others habits as well.  Can you think of others not mentioned here?  Let me know if you do.

Next post Sunday, April 6th.

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Coaches: Take Note of Where the Joy of Learning Comes from

What’s the one sure fire way for you to ensure the kids you coach learn?  Engage them.  That’s it.  It’s so simple that it gets overlooked.   We assume there must be far more complicated interactions that will lead to learning that we must implement.  We lose sight of the fact that sometimes the simplest answer is the best answer.

Let me ask you something.  When do you feel most engaged in an activity?  When you are exuberant or when you are miserable?    Actually, no need to answer.  This is another simple one, isn’t it?

In my travels across the country, I cannot say that there is a soccer player that I’ve come across where I felt I could say, “You do not require any more skill practice. You’re skillful enough.”  Every kid I came across on a soccer field should have been and needed to be more skillful than they were. Canadian soccer players need to be more skillful.  But that’s my wish for the kids.  And my wish imposed on the kids would make it an adult-centred program.  That’s where I as an adult involved with youth sport start to lose sight of the simplicity of my job as a coach.  I get my blinders on because I realize that it is MY job to teach those players to be more skillful.

But my job is simply to engage the players first.

If it is to be a truly player-centred program than I need to focus more on engaging those players in order to get them to own the desire to become more skillful.  They need to become more skillful because they want to be more skillful.  Not because I want them to or tell them that they need to be.  I need to worry more about creating the conditions for engagement and spend less time worrying about all the corollary things that will positively spin off of a learning environment that is ripe with joy and wonder.

So as a coach, how do you do that?

In a recent MindShift post, educational writer Annie Murphy Paul speaks of a research study conducted on Finnish primary school students on the topic of joy.  The researchers followed the kids around for two school years.  Literally.  They took pictures of their emotions, looking in particular for one: joy.

What did they find?  As you can well imagine, joy did not emerge from long-winded lectures by the teachers.  When learning is seen as a passive exchange of information from knower to knowee, there is little room for engagement.  For you as coaches that means you need to find ways to get the kids taking an active role in their learning.  Ask them questions. Create problems for them to have to solve.  Get their opinion on the types of things they want to do at practice or ask them for their thoughts on tactics during competition.

In the study, joy did show up when learners got to work at their own level and their own pace.  If you coach a team sport, then this one is a difficult proposition but it can be done.  Team sports are so focused on individuals learning to do what’s best for the time that often individual development can get lost.  Team sport coaches can try and go the extra mile by coming up with a few progressions – both more advanced and more basic – when creating practices.  It could be as simple as just getting some help from assistant coaches or even parents to work 1-on-1 with kids that are either ahead or behind the rest of the group.

A social atmosphere can also encourage joy.  If you coach a team sport than this one is already done for you as practice is always social – especially if you coach girls.  When one kid sees another kid experiencing joy it can be contagious.  When one kid joyously interacts with another kid it can be contagious.  Not surprisingly, kids working together can share and therefore experience more joy than working alone.

Finally, play and joy are inexorably linked.  For a child, play is the equivalent of work for an adult.  It is how they learn.  And play means kid-driven not adult-driven.  They need to lead it.  That’s important.  Play is important.  You can’t tell me that play is not enjoyable.  We’ve all had our moments of weakness where we’ve found ourselves slipping back into a second (or third, or fourth) childhood.  Some of us have never left our first childhood.

We get so caught up in trying to do what’s right for kids that we miss the blinding glimpses of the obvious.  Typically what’s needed is right under our noses.  This blog serves as one of those reminders to look under your nose.  So how do you tell if the kids you are coaching are joyously engaged in what they are doing? Again, look under your nose by taking a page from the Finnish researchers.  Make the time to stand back and study the faces of the kids you coach.  What do you see?  Excitement?  Sadness?  Indifference?  It is just that simple.

Next post Saturday, April 5th

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The Shift from Faking it to Making it as a Coach

It may be that you always wanted to coach.  You had it in your mind that one day you were going to give back to kids the way that so many adults had given back to you when you were growing up.  Or you might be like many adults who find themselves roped into coaching because, well, there’s nobody else to do it.  Regardless of your motive, you’re here now and your conscience will not let you get away with providing your group of future super stars with anything less than a positive experience.

But there are challenges.  So many challenges.  The players, the parents, your sport club’s administration.  Each making demands of you.  You are accountable to each and sometimes that accountability can come with conflicting messages between the wants and needs of each of those three groups.  And with the other responsibilities you have in your life, it may feel that some days coaching is simply about surviving.

How do you go about moving from the doldrums of just getting by in your coaching to the echelons of community leader and role model?  Here are a few suggestions:

Become a good listener – In the panic of planning practices and making sure that each child returns home happy, you need to take the time to step back from the chaos and listen.  I mean really and truly listen to what it is your players say, their parents and your organization’s administration.  Experienced coaches know the lay of the land which is why they spend more time listening to what other people think.  They’re not always swayed by everything that is said but they do take it all into account.

Become part of a personal learning network – A personal learning network is a place where you can access the resources, knowledge and/or experience that you need to become a capable coach.   For example, a simple way to engage in a personal learning network is to open a Twitter account and look to follow individuals or organizations that share and spread the info that interests you as a coach.

Side note: I would like to start a personal learning network for youth sport coaches.  If you are interested in joining please send me an email to joel.macdonald@thehereticcoach.com

Become creative – You can’t expect to become a competent coach if you are always following what everyone else has already done.  Creativity is your personal expression of how things get done.  You’ve imitated long enough.  Now try to do some innovating of your own based on what you’ve learned about coaching.  You could experiment with different coaching styles or methodologies.  You could try some new and challenging content.  Or you could look at ways to integrate technology into your coaching.

Become human – If you have taken a coaching certification course, then I am sure you are aware of all the safety issues that could befall a naive and poorly prepared coach.  You are told that a prepared coach is one that uses common sense.  Well, common sense means feeling and not just thinking.  We’re taught in courses to become so careful about what we do as coaches that it can take all the humanity out of us.  We can easily become cold and robotic.  The most important role you have as a coach is in building relationships with the players, their parents and your club’s administration.  You can’t build relationships without love and caring.  And you can be a loving and caring coach/human being without crossing that line that they warned you about in the coaching courses.

Become reflective – Great coaches get inside of their own heads.  However, I don’t mean analytical to the point of being paralyzed to act.  They get analytical about the right kinds of things.  They ask themselves about the engagement level of the kids.  They ask themselves about the quality and completeness of the demonstrations and explanations they gave when they were correcting errors.  They note who had the most (or the least) questions to ask or how practice time was actually spent relative to what it said on the practice plan.

Become (or continue to be a little bit) nervous – Maybe this is something you still do when you go out to coach because it still feels all so new.  In that case, keep it but don’t be nervous to the point of running behind the bushes and woofing your cookies between every drill.  One potential negative about becoming an expert in a field is the false assumption that it means you now know everything.  And if you know everything than you can be comfortable and let your guard down.  Being comfortable doesn’t leave you with a heightened sense of awareness.  Quite the opposite, it dulls your senses.  Exceptional coaches first know that the more they know the more they realize they still have to learn.  Second, exceptional coaches maintain that feeling of being a little bit nervous so that they can benefit from the level of awareness and attention it creates.  It’s hard to reflect on your coaching when you aren’t aware enough to see the details.

A couple of final notes in closing this post out.  Have your own set of standards.  This is sort of tied into becoming more creative.  You’ve seen all the things that everyone else wants you to match and meet as best practices.  Now take that and morph it into your own coach-specific set of standards.  Combine the best of everyone else’s standards with the best of yours.

And finally, don’t take yourself too seriously.  When you look through this list and internalize each of the items, it may be that your eyes begin to narrow and your brow furrows as you commit the serious energy needed to do these things.  While it may require serious energy, just be careful that it doesn’t turn you into too serious a coach.  Why would kids want to grow up to become adults if they look at their coach, their role model, and see that it’s no fun?

Next post Sunday, March 30th.

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A Letter to all Coaches

Dear coach,

You are a key reason why our country works as well as it does.  Seriously, you are.  You are a gatekeeper to future accomplishment because most kids in the nation play a youth sport growing up.  And one day those kids will grow up to do the work, lead and see to the care of the rest of us.  A few, some or plenty of those kids will pass through your gate.  Therefore, you are a big part of why those kids become competent and virtuous adults.

Maybe you’re a lot like me.  You knew from an early age that helping out and making a difference in the lives of children was what you wanted to do.  You wanted to baby sit.  You wanted to become a camp counsellor.  Maybe you even trained as a teacher.  But eventually you became a coach.

Or maybe you found your way into coaching in a more unexpected manner.  Maybe you were recruited to coach?  Maybe you were told that if you didn’t coach there would not have been a program for your little one.  No matter though.  Whether it was by design or by oversight, you are a coach now and there is no going back.

I’ll say it once more.  You do what you do to make a difference in the lives of  children.  That’s all the matters.  Sure, a lot of your time can get bogged down in the politics and drama that accompanies youth sport.  So here’s a reminder for you.   You can’t just get the good.  You also have to take the bad that comes with the good.  Don’t let those negatives distract you from your reason for doing.  Don’t let anything stop you from helping kids see and develop their potential.  Never forget that.

You enlighten.  You help kids move from a state of unable to able.  You motivate.  You bring life to boring drills and important but not so fun concepts.  You engage.  You help kids not only to see the beauty in their sport but also the virtue in being a person of strong character.

You do it all.  But not for the thanks, although that is nice.  And not for the gift cards, although those are always useful.  You do it for the opportunity to be a spectator.  What you crave to see are the looks on the faces of children the first time they accomplish something new.  You know the look I mean.  It says, “A second ago and for all the seconds before that I couldn’t do this and now I can.”  It is a look of wonderment, and pride and joy and to see it is the best reward you could ever get because it is the best feeling a coach could ever get.

Always remember that whether you want to be or not.  Whether you mean to be or not.  You are a role model for every kid you coach.  Along with teachers and parents, you will have the most influence on the lives of children.  In fact, there will be periods in each child’s life where you will have more influence than a parent or a teacher.  Revel in that honour.

I know it’s not always easy.  There are days that you don’t think or feel you can do it.  There are days that you’re not at your best.  Days that you show – to everyone watching, including the kids – that you are far from the perfect specimen to be placed on a pedestal.  Don’t worry about it.  Nobody cares as much about the mistakes you make as they do about how you rebound from those mistakes.  Showing you are human, falling down and then picking yourself up again with dignity and poise, is exactly what the kids need to see.

Because you coach you impact and shape the future of children in profound ways.  Our country would not be the same and its future will not be the same without your contribution.  Please.  Please.  Please keep doing what you do.


The Heretic Coach

Next post Saturday, March 29th.

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4 Ways to get Players to Listen More Actively

“If speaking is silver, then listening is gold.” – Turkish Proverb 

Do you ever find there are times you sound like a broken record when you coach?  That is, you are repeating over and over again the very same sentence or very same instructions.  You do it because once never seems to be enough.  Inevitably and unfortunately you will be asked by at least one player what you said or what he/she is supposed to do next.  Ah yes, active listening.  Fun, fun.  Wasn’t there a section on this in that coaching course you took from way back when?  Maybe it’s time for a refresher.  So how do you help kids become better listeners?  Here’s a few ideas:

1. Once is enough

If you indulge the kids by repeating the same set of instructions over and over then you will foster lazy listening skills.  If they know you are going to say it a couple or few times then there really is no need to listen attentively now is there?  You need to announce this strategy though.  You can’t just start it one day out of the blue.  You need to tell them that you will normally say things only once and once is enough.  Therefore, this is something that is best done at the beginning of the season when you talk about your expectations.

2. Peer Listening

Get the kids to help each other out.  Go about explaining the instructions that you have to explain but pause along the way.  Get the kids to work in pairs at that point and have one explain to the other what they’ve heard from you to that point.

3. Signals and Gestures

Again, this one requires you to explain it out to the kids first so that they know what the protocol is when the situation arises.  At the end of your instructions, the players are to make a certain signal or gesture.  For example, if they are clear and have no questions about the activity, they hold up one finger and if they do have questions, they are to hold up two fingers.  This also encourages them to listen for understanding as they know they need to formulate a question(s) if they do not understand.

4. Communication Etiquette

Does anyone teach the art of communicating to kids?  Maybe somebody does.  Or maybe we all just assume that somebody else is teaching them to do it right so we don’t bother.  Even if the kids are getting communication lessons from somebody else, a little review doesn’t hurt.  Those review rules would include things like only one person can speak at a time.  When that one person speaks everyone else listens fully.  They should not formulate a response during the time they are listening.  Listening time is for listening only.  When the speaker finishes then that becomes the time to pause, digest and formulate a response.  That mean’s there will be a little dead air but as long as everyone understands the purpose of that pause it shouldn’t become an awkward pause.

As you can see, this last tip applies to the kid to kid communication as opposed to the coach to kid  or kid to coach communication.  Having said that, it’s best to make sure that you are modelling in your listening the same things you are asking the kids to do.  Practice what you preach, coach!

Good listening should not mean free license for the speaker to go on and on and on.  You also need to teach the kids that while they all have the opportunity to speak, they should be mindful of how much air time they do take.  And with kids, they will address you when they speak but I feel you should teach them to address both you and the group – especially if we’re talking about a team sport.  That means making eye contact with you and with their peers as they speak.

If you have your own suggestions for getting players to listen more actively, I’d be happy to hear about them.

Next post Sunday, March 30th.

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5 Coaching Strategies to Promote Learning that Sticks

Do you ever feel the really good stuff that you coach the kids only sticks with them for that one session?  By the time you see them again, only a day or two later, they’ve already forgotten what you showed them?  If that’s the case then maybe the topic is very complex for them and just requires more time.  Or maybe the content is well within their grasp.  Maybe the way you showed them did not stick with them.  To learn something well it must have meaning.  It must be sticky.  Otherwise, you place that piece of knowledge in their brains today only to find that it’s fallen out and blown away by the time they get back to you again.

Here are six ways to make what you coach more stickier…er…sticky:

1. Help them discover, don’t just tell them.

When planning a training session, start with a theme but then don’t take the usual route with it.  Take a page from Sherlock Holmes.  Set up the training not as pieces of information that you will tell them but instead as a series of problems that they need to solve.  Then come up with questions that you could use to help get that problem solving process started.

For example, let’s say you are teaching passing for the first time to very young soccer players.  Traditionally, you may choose to target the push pass (i.e., the pass with the inside of the foot). You take them through a series of progressions and you teach them the key technical points to performing the pass properly.  Conversely, the Sherlock Holmes approach may start with you asking them the question: “How many different ways can you pass a soccer ball?  Show me.”  From there you may progress to questions like which passes worked better than others and why did they work better?

2. Move from being the sage on the stage to the guide on the side.

The more we learn about the human brain, the more we get to know how learning really happens.  Learning is an active process.  It requires the participation and engagement of the learner.  Following in the foot steps of what was said in #1, it is important that you realize your main job is to facilitate learning, not just teach content.  For years we’ve had the cart before the horse – teaching content first assuming that learning would automatically follow.  Use structured curriculum and plans as a guide but don’t get beholden to that sort of thing.  Remember that learning is messy.  It doesn’t happen in a straight and progressive line nor does it happen when you think it will.  Learning happens when the learner feels engaged and that can’t happen if you are always in the traditional role of coach as supreme leader and director.

3. Learning is a social exercise (Team sport coaches take advantage of that fact).

I remember my schooling and later my university teacher education program.  Classroom management involved having desks in rows and using a seating plan.  You only got to turn around and talk to the person behind you when there was no serious work to be done.  Otherwise what you were doing when you turned around or tried to talk to the person beside you was called cheating.  Well, those days are gone.  Or they should be gone.  Those of us who coach team sports are lucky.  We can take full advantage of the fact that the interaction between two or more people is a great way to promote learning that is meaningful.  Knowledge is not absorbed.  Knowledge is constructed.  Learning means building.  Building happens more effectively when you have to challenge and be challenged by another person’s point of view on the same subject.  That challenge either shows you how strong your structure is or it shows you the weaknesses and where you can benefit from adding more structure – from taking on some of the other person’s point of view.  When you ask a question, don’t always allow the conversation to be back and forth between them and you.  Throw the question out there and then allow them to debate it between themselves.

4. Informally assess every session.

I won’t lie to you.  This one is hard.  And it doesn’t seem to get easier.  At least not for me yet.  However, it is one of those necessary evils that can provide a great big dividend in the long run.  If you have coaching help at your training sessions than this becomes easier.  If you are on your own when you coach then it is more difficult but not impossible.  Get into the habit of pulling kids aside individually or in their units (e.g., the defensive players, the attacking line) to give them a quick update on where they are, where they’ve come from and where you’d like to see them going.  As I said, this is easier if you have another coach to continue running things while you pull kids off to the side.  You can do this in game play by talking with the players that are the furthest away from the action or the players that are subs and waiting to get into the game.  You can do it in drills by pulling players out of lines as they wait or grab them as they’ve just finished up a run and are heading back to the line.

5. Be flexible in your methods.

One message said only one way probably will not have as much chance of sticking with the kids as one message said in a number of different ways.  It’s possible that your favourite method of presenting the topic may prove sticky for some but not for all.  Multiple methods of getting the message across improves your chances of reaching out and touching the mind of each individual.  So you can instruct the kids directly, or you can ask questions or you can even use peer teaching (i.e., kids work together to instruct and provide feedback to each other).  You can tell the kids what to do verbally, you can show them yourself visually, you can get some of the kids to show or you can break out a piece of technology – a tablet or smart phone – and show them a video.  For the sake of stickiness, take plenty of detours off the beaten path.

So, there are just a few suggestions to help you empower the kids without disenfranchising yourself from the process.  Doing these things will not make you look weak or incompetent. On the contrary, modern learning requires these types of approaches.  All of us, not just kids, learn best when we’re engaged in the content and the process.

Next post March 22nd.


Did you enjoy this post?  Then you may also like to read these related posts

Learning about Learning – November 22, 2011

Who’s the Smart One Now? – December 5, 2011

Confucius, George Bernard Shaw and Woody Allen are Sitting at a Bar… –  December 19, 2011

Beyond the Right Answer – January 9, 2012



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