The Sporting Life

Developing competitors, coaches, and sports communities

Coaching on the Island of Misfit Toys

Lessons the coaching manual left out

Professional and collegiate sport teams spend endless hours scouting and recruiting players… youth sport teams do not.  Moms, dads, and unwitting volunteers often find themselves standing in front of a band of pre-adolescent athletes who more resemble the cast-aside toys in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer rather than the starting squad for Manchester United. 

The young man that squawks for some water before the game has even begun seems a bit like Charlie-In-the-Box.  The girl continually stopping to adjust shin guards and tie already tied shoes is like playing with the train with square wheels.  The boy that seems to have mistaken soccer for basketball is much like the cowboy riding an ostrich.  The young lady off to the side that seems more content doing anything other than sports perhaps is much like the polka-dotted elephant.

When looking at such a band of ruffians, one quickly realizes that pro coaches have it kind of easy.  The youth sport coach may finds himself not worried about teaching kids new skills and encouraging fun, but rather fearing for kids’ safety during the simplest of plays.  The book on coaching T-ball from the library instructs to teach kids to make the letter “L” when cocking to throw, but seemed to be missing the chapter on doing barrel rolls in the outfield.  Coaching a youth sport team, while very fulfilling, can challenge both one’s patience and sanity.

A little awareness and a bit of acceptance can make the head-scratching a bit more entertaining.  They can also sow the seeds for athletic growth in seemingly strange sports’ practices.  The following are a few ideas for adding some mental peace, if not technical aptitude, to your team.  All are routed in the principle that healthy struggles are good for player development and enjoyment of sport:

Consider Cooperative Learning – So often young athletes are stratified by skill level.  This actually robs both “talented” players and less-skilled athletes of valuable growth opportunities.  Take time to organize drills where mixed skill-level athletes work together towards success.  To a thoughtless observer this could be perceived as a detriment to the high-skill athletes.  Conversely, science suggests that they will benefit the most.  Consider the intangible skills that the athletes will learn… leadership, patience, teamwork, and the art of making others better.  A drill with mixed skill levels may not look pretty at first, but will reap huge learning benefits.

Misfits Make Good Models – When it is time for a drill or skill to be demonstrated, do not ask the most competent athletes to show their stuff.  Rather pick one of the more “normal” athletes.  The work of Albert Bandura suggests that the most confidence is reaped from watching someone like ourselves perform an activity.  Sure the best players will look good, but will their demonstration resonate with the rest of the team?

Player Development Is Ugly – Learning is about looking like, and being, a bit of a misfit at times.  Consider the youth hockey player that was never willing to fall… she would never have learned how to skate.  Be more concerned if your team looks perfect than if they look imperfect.  Stumbling and bumbling a bit is the key to reaching new levels of play.

Catch Them When They Fall – The greatest thing a youth sport coach can do (or any coach for that matter) is to allow athletes to feel like they can aim high because if they miss their mark someone will be there to soften blow.  In the right environment, athletes will push themselves.  It is exciting to strive.  A great youth sports coach smiles during the stumbles and helps the athlete get upright and ready to run forward again.

Most teams are misfitted: Consider Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman during their championship runs of the nineties. The art of coaching is nurturing strengths, supporting during shortfalls, and providing the glue to bring players together.  To embrace the island of misfits is to truly be coaching.

Dr. Adam Naylor leads Telos SPC and is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Sport Psychology at Boston University’s School of Education.

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