Thursday, August 22, 2013

When Should a Youth Coach Raise His or Her Voice?

   Many of the youth leagues in which I've coached emphasize the participation aspect of sports play. In this setting, most coaches do a good job applying positive coaching techniques. When mistakes occur, they calmly explain what the player did right, what went wrong, and the corrective action(s) needed.

But where the competitive element is present, coaches sometimes do become emotional when instructing their players. During more intense play in competitive leagues, it's not unusual to see coaches expressing their frustration when players make bad mistakes (berating their team during a timeout, for instance).

There are, of course, different coaching styles. Even at the youth level, some coaches prefer a “tough love” approach. In competitive settings, they treat their young players much the same way as they would older players. They expect their players to listen, learn, work hard, and perform. Their tolerance for mistakes is minimal.

Unfortunately, this type of coach can sometimes resort to emotional outbursts when mistakes are made. Over my years of coaching, I've watched a few of these coaches scream at their players, publicly scolding and belittling them at length for some unknown sin.

Most of us would agree that this type of coaching behavior is rarely, if at all, appropriate. But are there times in youth sports when it's okay for a coach to raise his or her voice? When emotion and displeasure should ring out?

Here are 3 types of situations in which I've found raising one's voice is sometimes beneficial:

1) Disrespect/wildness during practice

As a coach, you may find your kids behaving in a manner that is disrespectful of you, other players, or property. This typically happens in practices when you loosen the reins and let your kids’ energy flow more freely. The downside of the “fun” is that the kids become wilder, talk more, and generally are more difficult to settle back down.

To regain control in these situations, raise your voice and inject an emotional edge. If necessary, single out misbehaving players with a comment or two. For kids who enjoy the play, and want to be at practice, this is usually enough. I also sometimes couple this with a high-energy, structured drill (e.g., Suicides) that engages the whole team. (Also see Emotional Leadership—Your Attitude Affects Your Players' Attitude.)

2) Misconduct during a game

You may also experience unacceptable misconduct in game situations (e.g., arguing with the referee), behavior that may require a more strongly worded discussion with your player. If you need to immediately address poor behavior with a child, pull him aside before you engage in any criticism. Try not to get too caught up in the heat of the moment—address the key point you need to make in a forceful but measured way. Where possible, make the problem a teaching moment. Here's an example from my coaching experience:

In the semifinal game of a season-ending middle school basketball tournament, my star player began arguing with a referee toward the end of the first half. He received his second technical foul and was disqualified for the remainder of the game. Kenny was upset as he came to the sideline, and kicked one of the chairs. I quickly pulled Kenny aside, loudly told him to "settle down," and then explained the consequences of his actions. Kenny was emotionally fixated on his belief that the referees made a mistake and were wrong. I just kept driving home that, whether the referees were right or wrong was immaterial, the bottom line was that he had hurt his team and possibly sacrificed his teammates’ hopes to win the championship. We barely survived that semifinal game. Kenny returned the next day to give one of the most inspired, dominating performances I’ve ever seen at this level of youth basketball.

3) Kids are playing far below their ability

The performance of players (or your entire team) in a game may be far below their demonstrated ability. In this instance, the players are disrespectful of themselves. This is the one type of situation where I can become more emotional and outright yell at my players. Here's one personal story that illustrates what triggered my outburst, along with the outcome:

Years ago, when I was coaching a fifth grade team in a competitive Catholic school league, I let it all out during the halftime of a game. My team had played far beneath its ability in the first half and we were losing to an inferior team. One mental mistake after another had occurred, the players seemingly did not care, and my best player, Luke, was walking through the motions—not taking any responsibility for his or the team’s poor play. My team was lying down.

Upon entering the locker room at halftime, I paced around, quietly looked at them for about 10 seconds and then exploded. I made it absolutely clear that losing this way was unacceptable, and that I was embarrassed—just as they should be. I also ripped into my star player in front of the rest of the team. I know they were surprised and possibly a little shocked at seeing their normally reasonable coach go crazy.

We came back to the floor for the second half and my team played the remainder of the game with terrific intensity. Luke, who was an easy-going kid who favored his offensive game, busted his butt on defense. During our timeouts, as he gulped for air, I could see the look of determination in his eyes to prove my halftime assessment wrong. Each of my team’s players gave their best that second half and we eventually overcame the substantial halftime deficit to win the game.

And here's the epilogue: I ran into Luke ten years later at the local YMCA and he brought up this game, describing how it was a highlight of his youth basketball experience. The halftime speech and the second half comeback had clearly impressed upon him a strong emotional memory—a good one in this instance. (But it’s also suggestive of the potential harm a coach can inflict upon a young child with misplaced words of anger.)

If you judiciously pick the right moments, raising your voice can be an effective technique to gain your players’ attention, focus their energies, and correct unacceptable player behavior.

What's your experience? Any thoughts on alternative ways for a youth coach to deal with problem behaviors?

Copyright © 2013 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

($8.95; Kindle: $2.99)


Friday, August 2, 2013

Focus on the Target!

   You probably know that you need to focus on a target when you pass, shoot, or hit a ball. When you first learned to catch a ball, you undoubtedly were instructed to “keep your eyes on the ball.”

By focusing your eyes on a target, you engage your mind’s visuospatial ability. (Visuospatial is the perception of the spatial relationships among objects within the field of vision.) You know when and where the ball, person, or other object will be. And in turn, this triggers the appropriate physical response.

With practice, you swing a bat at the right time in the right place. You put your hands or glove where the ball will arrive. If you’re shooting, you apply the precise amount of force in the right direction to get the ball to and in the goal.

So how does this “targeting” process work and how can you improve it?

What's Your Target?

You may believe that all you need to do is focus on the ball, goal, or player. But here’s an important question that you need to ask yourself, “What target am I aiming for?” It’s not quite as simple as you may think.

If you’re shooting a basketball, the general target is the basketball rim. If it’s the entire basketball hoop, however, your mind’s subconscious targeting mechanism is focused on the ball hitting the hoop. That, of course, is not your real “goal.” You want the ball to go through the hoop!

Narrow Your Focus

Like a paper shooting target, you need to find and focus on a bulls-eye. Why? Because your accuracy improves when you narrow your focus. You provide your mind with a more exact target. And this, in turn, fine-tunes the mind’s targeting mechanism.

You want the target to be as small as possible. Besides triggering a more efficient and accurate targeting response, it also has a side-benefit. There’s more room for error. If you “miss,” you can still achieve your primary objective—scoring a goal or making a pass that your teammate can handle.

Some Examples

Here are some examples of targets you can use in different sports. Instead of aiming for that basketball hoop, use one of the hoop’s metal hooks as your physical reference point. Your mind will lock in on the smaller target, and your results will improve.

For larger goals, such as those in hockey or soccer, you can use the edges of the goal as your baseline target. You can then create a mental map of smaller imaginary targets slightly inside these edges. In practice, you can use corner targets, shooting tarps, or place plastic cones in the spots you want to hit.

► When receiving a pass, provide your teammate with a target. Extend your hands or glove. Put the blade of your hockey stick on the ice.
For passes, also select an appropriate small target. It may be the emblem at the center of your teammate’s shirt or your teammate’s hands. In baseball, it’s likely your teammate’s glove. In hockey, it’s often the blade of a stick. Sometimes the spot you aim for is one located on the court, field, or ice. You may need to pass to where a teammate will be, not where they are now. In a sport like tennis, you want to aim for specific spots on the court. When serving, for example, don’t simply aim for the server box. Instead, narrow your focus and aim for a corner of the box.

Copyright © 2013 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

($8.95; Kindle: $2.99)