My u11 team hasn’t won a game yet, and everyone is getting frustrated…from the players and parents to the coaches. Do you have any advice?
Working with children and playing lacrosse are my passions. To have the great fortune to wake up every day and know that the pursuit of those passions is also my job is truly a gift that I am eternally grateful for. This, however, is not the reality for most people in coaching positions, especially at the youth level. You may be coaching your son’s team having never played the game. You may have taken on the task in order to spend more time with your daughter, but are slowly coming to the realization that you like kids…just not other people’s kids. Perhaps you are a CEO of a large multinational corporation, and just don’t understand why these ten year-olds won’t respect your authority. Whatever the case may be, you are probably coming to grips with the fact that this job is not easy.
So you are a month into the season, and you are rolling up to practice determined to make sure you accomplish more today since your 0 wins and 4 losses record is starting to wear on your nerves and the parents are getting restless. Internally, you know that it’s not all about winning. You know that there are a lot more important things than being U11 champions, and all of the articles you have read have reinforced your belief in the benefits of competition and doing your best. That being said, you are competing, and you want to know if this is your very best.
Improvement is an ongoing process; there is no secret that anyone can offer you that will help your team beat an opponent that has far superior skill and athleticism. The only way to get where you want to be is to go through the tough times with a positive attitude and the conviction that what you are doing in practice to improve your players will, over time, provide results that you all can be proud of. The first thing I would recommend is to frame practice differently.
Practice should be hard work. To this day I still have to mentally prepare myself before every practice because I know just how much energy and focus I will need to be on my game. The kids I coach deserve 90 minutes of the best I can offer. I credit the Massapequa Mustangs football program, on Long Island, for my practice work ethic. As young boys, we were pushed to be our very best, and that stuck with me ever since. You have an opportunity to instill the same in every kid you coach. Do so by establishing what you are all about at the beginning of the season. Make sure expectations for attitude, effort, and focus are clear.
There is no universal practice plan that I can cut and paste that will improve your team. When I take on a new team, I first assess where we are and where our deficiencies lie. I then try to get a realistic picture in my head of what we are capable of and work towards that end by assigning benchmarks that I want to achieve by the end of each practice. I realize this sounds like a lot of work – just go into each practice knowing what you want to achieve that day…there, that’s more pragmatic. In other words, work backwards. Know what concept you want to get across, and design your practice with that end result in mind.
Connection – Perhaps the most important trait of a good coach is his or her ability to connect with the players. Avoid being the, “In my day…,” kind of coach who thinks he or she can single-handedly turn back the clock to the 80’s by ruthlessly running the team ragged when they don’t perform. Today’s players aren’t lazy, but they do need to know that the coach cares about them. I will admit, I am loud and demanding of my players, but early on in the process I establish norms with the group that we all agree will lead to a successful season. A monolithic mindset, one that doesn’t engage the players and isn’t interested in feedback, will surely lead to dissention and fracturing.
Not everybody is good with kids. If communicating with children isn’t your strong suit, this needs to improve. Instead of molding the team to your vision, try to meet them where they are, and show them why the path you lay is the path to improvement. Today’s players want to know why. If you are able to explain why a drill is important by showing them how it will help in a game situation you have a better chance of getting them to buy in to your plan. If this doesn’t work, I find feigning ignorance about pop culture by referencing last years dance craves at least gets them to laugh at me…bam! Connection made.
Curriculum – Many non-profit clubs admirably outsource the curriculum aspect of the game to 3rd party groups like 6Star to help educate volunteer coaches on WHAT to teach in practice. Unfortunately, to many well-intentioned coaches these one or two day coaching clinics or certification meetings are akin to drinking from a firehose. Without a proper base of information, there simply is too much information being transmitted. The information providers are tasked with educating multiple staffs with a wide range of experience who coach different ages and different skill levels. More often than not, coaches walk away more frustrated and hopeless.
If you have been with your team for a few weeks already, you likely have zeroed in on a few consistent issues that your team is having. If it’s a 11 year old group, maybe they aren’t helping on defense. Maybe they can’t clear the ball and suffer 5 or 6 goals a game against in transition situations. After an ample skill development portion of practice, one that doesn’t allow for long lines or lectures, spend time drilling down into these team specific tasks that you see need work. This provides you with an opportunity to monitor and celebrate growth based on something other than the scoreboard. “We may not have won, but we have improved our clearing by 30%.” Shift the focus from your record to your growth, and that growth will multiply.
There is a right way to play. If you aren’t comfortable with your ability to teach skill development or team concepts with your players, reach out and ask someone who is. There are many online resources, youtube videos, and willing people in the know that can be utilized. Most spring clubs have master coaches and some club coaches, like myself, are more than willing to lend a hand to a coach looking to improve his knowledge of the game.
Sometimes a simple email can help you see things a bit differently. The journey to improvement starts with reaching out and taking that one step.
I despise losing as much as the next guy. It is a feeling that I never want to get used to. The fact is, however, as athletes and coaches we enter into competition knowing that there is always the possibility that we will lose. It makes the whole process worthwhile, so we shouldn’t instill fear of losing in our players and teams. If losing the game is the worst possible outcome…you are doing it wrong. Sometimes, you are outmatched. The worst possible outcome is not doing your best…win or lose. Whether we realize it or not, the lessons these kids are learning playing a “silly” game may be the foundation that helps them rebound from life’s inevitable losses, so don’t underestimate your importance.