Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Consolidate Your Advantage (It's Yours, Now Hold on Tight)

   Opportunity presents itself in different ways. Sometimes you undergo changes during adolescence that suddenly provide you with a physical advantage. You may also learn to perform certain skills more adeptly, providing you with a competitive edge over other players. Other times an opportunity results from an external event—an injury to a teammate, someone deciding not to go out for the team, or your coach shaking up the lineup (when your team is not performing well).

As a freshman on my high school’s basketball team, I seldom received much playing time in games. The team’s starters were physically more mature. And unlike many of these boys who could shoot jump shots against defensive pressure, I only possessed a “set” shot. I recall spending many of my freshman year practices on the side of the gym trying to learn how to shoot a jump shot with the ball up over my head.

But by the beginning of my sophomore year’s basketball season, I had become stronger—and more importantly—quicker. I also had developed a jump shot and could now score consistently from short range. The team’s mix of players had also changed. Two of the prior year’s starters decided to focus on football and not go out for the team. From nowhere, I suddenly found myself with an opportunity to compete with the best players on the team. The head coach chose me as one of the team’s starters for our opening game and I remained a starter for the rest of the season (on a team that only lost two games).

If you’re ready for the opportunity, physically or otherwise, you can find yourself starting, receiving more playing time, or asked to play a more important role. As this opportunity unfolds, you may also begin to realize that you can perform at this higher level.

How to Consolidate Your Advantage

Whatever the opportunity, try to understand its nature, what has changed, and how you can consolidate (strengthen) your advantage.

You consolidate your advantage by putting together quality performances, one after another. Similar to how repetition locks in an athletic skill, repeatedly performing well in competitions reinforces your sense of the possible and boosts your self-confidence. These successes root within you an unwavering belief that you will succeed. This confidence is important for those inevitable moments when you face adversity—when events don’t go your way and doubt begins to creep in.

Expect Challenges

As your role within your team changes and improves, you will likely confront challenges from teammates who don’t want to give up their position to you. They may try to intimidate you to see if they can undermine your new found confidence and status. This is natural—not all of your teammates are your best friends and willing to easily accept your good fortune at their expense.

During my sophomore year basketball season, there were many ups and downs. A few of my teammates regularly challenged me in practices, hoping to take my spot as a starter. But once I had tasted success, and realized that I could compete, I stubbornly warded off my teammates efforts. In one practice after another, I demonstrated that I was the better player. And with repeated success in doing so, my confidence increased. I consolidated my advantage and remained a starter.

Remember that it’s a competitive world and everyone wants their piece of it. Recognize your opportunity when it arrives, consolidate your advantage, and resist the inevitable challenges by others. It's yours, now hold on tight!

Copyright © 2012 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

If you enjoyed this article, you may like my book:
The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the best youth sports experience for your child (Amazon $8.95)

(Kindle Edition $2.99)


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Get Involved—Become an Assistant Youth Coach

   In my post The Role of Organized Sports in Your Child's Life, I touched on the importance of not outsourcing your child’s youth sports experience to organized programs. Even at the earliest ages, you can make a positive impact by doing something as simple as playing a game of catch with your child.

Regardless of your skill level, a game of catch (i.e. throwing and catching) begins the process of introducing your child to sports. This simple activity helps form an important initial bond between you, your child, and a sports activity. It’s often your child’s first experience having fun "playing ball" with a "teammate."

When your child reaches an age where he or she can participate in a developmental youth sports program, don’t forego the opportunity to stay involved. You can still play that game of catch. You can personally teach your child some basic skills.

You can also help coach your child’s team in organized sports.

What if You've Never Played Your Child's Sport?

Some parents are hesitant to offer their services as a coach because they never played the game. They're worried that they lack the knowledge to teach young players the necessary fundamental skills.

In developmental programs and leagues, however, you will usually find coaches who are willing to mentor assistants. Just as they do with their youngest players, these coaches are ready to pass on their knowledge to novice parent-coaches.

A head coach that fits this description will find a role for you to play within his or her practices. Similar to a beginning player, you should expect that your role will initially be limited. Nevertheless, it will provide you an opportunity to interact with your child and others—and to begin learning the game’s fundamental skills and how to teach them. If you complement this initial coaching experience by reading a few introductory books on your specific sport, you will have acquired the necessary knowledge to coach at the lower levels.

Knowledge of the sport you are coaching is a desirable asset for any youth coach. But knowing how to teach and nurture young players is probably equal to or more important than having played the game. (I talk about this in Is Your Child's Youth Coach a Good Teacher?) Books, blogs like this one, online articles, and other resources will help you understand the most important principles and approaches to successfully coaching youth sports.

So even if you’ve never played your child’s sport—but believe you have good communication skills, work well with children, and want to get involved—ask your child’s coach if you can become his or her assistant. You may help create an enjoyable, rewarding experience for everyone (including yourself).

Copyright © 2012 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

If you enjoyed this article, you may like my book:
The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the best youth sports experience for your child (Amazon $8.95)

(Kindle Edition $2.99)


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Missing Practice—When Your Best Players Don't Show

   Spring. It’s that time of the year when parents sign their children up for multiple team sports. Basketball, baseball, lacrosse and the soccer empire all vie for the attention of youth sports participants and their parents.

This bounty of opportunity can cause several problems for the athlete and sports parent. As I described in an older post, one such problem occurs when a parent “over-books” his or her child’s activities. With too many scheduled activities, the child inevitably misses numerous practices and games.

For coaches, it’s often a frustrating time. Many of us who coach do so for the rewards that come from developing young players and a team throughout the course of a season. Developing a child’s understanding of team play, and how to integrate his or her individual abilities together into a larger team experience, is one of the satisfying challenges that draw us to coaching.

But how can a coach develop a team when players regularly miss practice and games due to other commitments? The short answer is one cannot.

If you’re lucky, you coach a team that sits atop others. Possibly you coach a “select” team, one in which parents have invested significant sums of money for their child to participate. You may coach a team that needs to cut players to reach a manageable sized squad. Or maybe your team is simply the only game in town. In other words, you are a coach who has explicit power. You are in the enviable position of dictating to your players that they attend practices—or else.

The quandary youth coaches face

But in the mainstream of youth sports, most coaches don’t enjoy this level of control. At the bottom of the food chain are the coaches in a community’s developmental sports programs. These coaches typically have only one or two practices per week to prepare for their weekly game. The leagues in which they coach emphasize fun, instruction and equal playing time. Establishing an attendance policy and enforcing it is atypical.

A coach in these programs must instead resort to tactics of persuasion, possibly coupled with minor punitive measures such as not starting a player who misses practice or reducing a player’s minutes in a game. This coach must try to convince each child (or parent) that attending practice is important—both in developing the child’s ability to its fullest and to fulfill the inherent responsibility and obligation each player has to his or her team.

Other approaches a coach may use to address attendance issues include talking with individual parents to determine if they can help. Possibly splitting attendance equally between two competing activities may be an acceptable solution. Also, in certain instances a coach may be able to better match practice times to his or her players’ availability. This is more likely at the beginning of a season before the practice schedules are set.

Most importantly, practices must include a large dose of fun, provide players with instruction they find meaningful, and generate a high level of positive energy. Successful coaches in these programs often pull their players toward team goals through their own personal style of leadership. Ideally, players want to come to practice!

Focus on what you control

Sometimes the dice simply land wrong for a volunteer youth coach. Scheduling conflicts exist and key players on your team regularly miss practice and games.

So what can you do?

I would suggest that you reset your team expectations and focus more on teaching the individuals who do attend practices. Concentrate on improving each child’s individual skills, providing more instruction and practice repetitions. This is also an opportunity for you to dedicate more time to your beginning players. Since there is less likelihood that these children are involved in competing athletic activities, they will more consistently attend practices. Parents of these children may also realize and appreciate that their child is receiving semi-private training at little or no cost.

From a competitive perspective, your beginners are usually your team’s weak link. But these young players may dramatically improve with added instruction and opportunity, leading to more team success as the season progresses. And should your better players begin to show up toward the end of the season (possibly for a season-ending tournament), your team will be stronger for your efforts teaching the younger beginners.

As I’ve written elsewhere, one of the greatest rewards for a youth coach is to witness the development of a young player’s ability and self-esteem under your tutelage. If you walk away from a season knowing you’ve helped even one child on your team, you have succeeded.

Copyright © 2012 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

If you enjoyed this article, you may like my book:
The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the best youth sports experience for your child (Amazon $8.95)

(Kindle Edition $2.99)


Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Find and Exploit Your Opponent’s Weaknesses

   Your ability to play a sport well always starts with your own game. Ideally, you possess an arsenal of skills that give you an edge over your opponents. Any weaknesses you have are minimal. Your game is both strong and resilient. Like a tree buffeted by high winds, it remains standing no matter the fierceness of the storm.

But in a contest that pits you against a tough opponent, you also need to consider the nature of your opponent’s abilities and game. You need to understand his or her strengths and weaknesses. By doing so, you can employ tactics that improve your chance of winning. Before or during a contest, try to find and exploit your opponent’s weaknesses. Even the best players have them.

Your Opponent's "Weak" Side

Start by determining whether your opponent has a weak side. Athletes typically have a dominant side and a weak one. For instance, tennis players rarely have equally strong forehand and backhand groundstrokes—one is usually weaker than the other. In many sports, a young athlete’s weak side is the same as the athlete’s non-dominant hand. Right-handed basketball players will usually dribble better with their right hand. Right-footed soccer players will likely dribble the ball better with their right foot. And in both cases, each will find it easier to move to the right (and better protect the ball). For these players, their weakness lies in using their left side and moving in that direction.

So in the above examples, how would you exploit your opponent’s weak side? If the tennis player favors his or her forehand, you would of course hit more balls to the backhand side. For the basketball and soccer players, you would defend them by positioning yourself slightly to their right (“overplaying”) and forcing them to use their weak hand/foot and move to their left.

Other Weaknesses

Your opponent’s weaknesses can lie almost anywhere within his or her game. Like the examples discussed above, they may be obvious. Other defects (like an inability to play well in stressful situations, for instance) may be less obvious. Sometimes these subtle weaknesses won’t appear unless you force your opponent past a certain threshold. Up until that point, your opponent’s play may be flawless. But exert enough pressure over an extended period, and your opponent’s game begins to fall apart. Confidence erodes, self-doubt creeps in, focus is lost, and athletic performance falters.

Here are several other examples of potential weaknesses and ways to exploit them:

  • Your opponent has a specific skill area that is exceptionally weak. Similar to having a weak side, an athlete may have a skill area that is extremely weak. Some baseball batters can hit a fastball pitch well, but not a curveball. A basketball guard may play well against a passive zone defense, but regularly commits turnovers when dribbling against a pressure man-to-man defense. An offensive football lineman can pass block against a bull rush, but is unable to handle a speed rush on the edge. Once you identify a skill weakness, go after it! (Throw the curveball, pressure the basketball guard when dribbling, and use a speed rush against the offensive lineman more often than a bull rush.)

  • Although possessing excellent sports skills, your opponent is physically deficient in some way. A skilled player may lack strength, foot speed or quickness. If you are quicker, try to deny your opponent the opportunity to use a skill. Against an exceptional offensive scorer, for instance, try to defend this opponent before they receive the ball by denying the pass. In racquet sports like tennis, try to move your opponent around the court side to side, forward and back, opening the court for an eventual winner. In the football example above, use the bull rush against the offensive lineman who has quick feet and good technique, but lacks strength.

  • Your opponent relies too much on his or her physical athleticism. Some athletes ignore (or are unaware of) good tactics because they typically win contests through physical talent alone. Try to counter any athletic or physical advantage with a compensating game strategy and tactics. A good example is the “Rope a Dope” boxing strategy used by Muhammad Ali to sap George Foreman’s punching power over the course of their famous fight.

  • Although athletic, your opponent is either not well-conditioned or possesses less endurance than you. Similar to the previous item—but in this case an athlete is physically ill-equipped for a longer, tougher contest. Against this type of opponent, you try to survive the beginning onslaught, knowing that over the length of the contest the tide will turn as your endurance prevails.

  • Your opponent loves a certain style of play, but does not easily adapt to other styles. Some athletes love “pace.” If you hit a tennis ball to them hard, they return it harder. Against these opponents, mix up your shots. Hit some balls soft and high, others hard and low, add some spin, change locations. If you’re a baseball pitcher, throw in some changeups against a good fastball hitter. Sometimes it’s not one style that works, but the constant changing of style that wins the day.

Here's an example from my own past that illustrates the last item. When I played tennis as a junior in high school, I had the opportunity to watch the deciding set of an important match in which our second singles player was struggling. Although Jay was an excellent player with smooth strokes, his opponent seemed to have figured out his game. Jay's opponent loved pace and was crushing his return at every opportunity. It seemed Jay had little chance to win.

In utter frustration, Jay changed his tactics—he began to serve underhand. He hit the ball upward in a looping arc so that when it came down in the service box, it bounced high. Seeing the opportunity to quickly end the point, Jay’s opponent charged forward, wound up, and swung to put the ball away. But in his eagerness to end the point, Jay's opponent began to hit the service returns out of play. He struggled hitting the soft “sitter” at shoulder height.

During rallies, Jay also began to mix in lobs with regular ground strokes. I watched in disbelief as Jay’s opponent grew more and more frustrated, dumping shots into the net and spraying the ball past the end lines. As the match continued, his opponent completely lost his composure and Jay came back to win the match.

In this instance, Jay’s willingness to boldly change his tactics exposed his opponent’s inability to handle a certain style of play. Although you probably won't have to resort to such an extreme approach, keep probing your opponent to discover where his or her weaknesses lie.

Copyright © 2012 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

If you enjoyed this article, you may like my book:
The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the best youth sports experience for your child (Amazon $8.95)

(Kindle Edition $2.99)


Tuesday, May 1, 2012

3 Teaching Qualities to Look For in Your Child's Coach

  In my last post, I discussed the importance of your child's coach being a good teacher; someone who both understands the sport and how to communicate his or her knowledge. I talked about the coach who not only teaches skills, but also conveys the game's values.

Let's dig a little deeper and talk about how a youth coach goes about achieving these ends. Let's focus on the "positive" approach to coaching, the one that most of us agree provides the greatest benefits to the largest number of kids.

So what defines a positive coach? Here are three qualities that parents should look for:

  1. Believes in kids–expects improvement. For each child under his or her tutelage, the exceptional coach sees opportunity for growth. This coach does not accept the child’s ability as fixed, but instead recognizes the areas in which the child may eventually excel. He or she can see how certain attributes (size, quickness) are compensatory—providing success in areas other than the ones in which they present a more obvious weakness.

    This coach sees the entire spectrum of ability, both existing and latent, and is able to find ways in which each child can succeed. The exceptional coach believes in each child and the child’s potential to find enjoyment in playing the sport. And most importantly, each child begins to incorporate this belief into his or her own sense of what’s possible.

  2. Uses positive language to sandwich criticism. Whenever possible, a coach should use the “sandwich” technique while instructing. A coach should first encourage the player on what he or she was doing right; next, state the problem; and finally, indicate what action or behavior the player should have taken [what was done right – the problem – best action].

    For absolute beginners, struggling younger players, and children with more sensitive personalities, a coach can soften the criticism and emphasize the positive. Older, more experienced players, on the other hand, respond well to constructive criticism—especially when they understand that their coach appreciates their talent and has higher expectations for them.

  3. Frames difficult situations as either an opportunity or lesson learned. Practices and games in youth sports are filled with failure. Overmatched beginners, players having less athletic ability, and teams missing key components, will all struggle against superior opponents. From a purely win-loss perspective, there are lots of losers.

    But a positive coach breaks down each contest into smaller ones, finding opportunities to foster relative success. By reframing the goals of participation, this coach can still teach important lessons no matter the outcome.

    Here's a simple example. During the basketball season, I will occasionally have my players run a “Suicide” race where each player progressively touches lines further down the court, always returning to the starting baseline. I don't use this race to get my kids in shape or to punish them for poor performance. Instead, it's sometimes useful to regain their attention or to simply have some fun. (Many enjoy the challenge of the race even though they'll moan and groan about it.) But here's the problem. On most teams, there are children of different ages, sizes, and athletic ability. There are always one or two children who will win the race and a couple of other children who will usually finish last. Although this drill may appeal to the fastest ones, it’s not inherently fun for the slower ones. But by shouting words of encouragement to these children, giving attention, and casting the race as one against another player of similar ability (or even themselves), a coach can get these players’ best effort. Although they lose the overall race, they still strive to do their best. They work hard; they persevere; they learn to take pride in their effort. A race lost from the start is “framed” to achieve a positive result.

    Losing a game is a failure—but it also represents a great teaching moment. If a coach frames the loss as a lesson learned, and practices to overcome the problem, the players will also view the loss as a necessary part of growing and becoming better players. Likewise, when playing a superior opponent, a coach can cast his team in the role of the underdog—and emphasize the opportunity for his players to play their best and relish the challenge of possibly upsetting their more talented opponent.
When you're considering the merits of your child's youth coach, keep in mind the above three qualities. In most instances, your child will benefit from a knowledgeable coach who uses a positive approach. Besides providing skill instruction, these coaches engage your child in a way that builds self-esteem, confidence, and a joy for the game itself.

Copyright © 2012 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

The Joy of Youth Sports
If you enjoyed this article, you may like my book:

The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the best youth sports experience for your child (Amazon $8.95)

(Kindle Edition $2.99)