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Will Wood: Kids need good coaches to become good coaches

I have been coaching youth sports since my first son started playing soccer in first grade. He’s in college now, so I’ve been at it a while. Along the way, I have learned a few things, the first of which is that I am a lousy soccer coach. My teams lost every game I ever coached.

While my skill in coaching soccer was severely limited by my poor understanding of the game, I let the kids know on day one that we were there to have fun, and the league didn’t even count goals. Any good play, and we were all high-fives and applause. Most of them enjoyed the game enough to keep playing (with more skilled coaches).

Many of us have had good and bad coaches, and the impact of those coaches can last a lifetime. I still hear things my coaches said to me when I was a kid. One of the most common reasons kids love a sport — or leave it — is the coach. I have seen young people driven out of a sport they loved because a coach had only victory on his or her mind, and they figured the best way to get there was to somehow scare their athletes into it, but there is a much better way.

My first season coaching an elementary school running team was an unmitigated disaster. I had no control over the seven — just seven — runners in my charge. One day, somewhere between the Halloween parade and actual Halloween, the kids on my team were literally bouncing off the walls and taking turns throwing themselves into a trash can.

I had to figure out how to get them on track while also making the program fun, because if it wasn’t fun, why would they want to keep doing it? Running is already the hardest sport there is. It seems like the easiest, because even a toddler can do it, but getting better requires a lot of unpleasantness for incremental gains.

Heck, running is the sport that other sports’ coaches use as a punishment.

So I adopted a mantra from the Positive Coaching Alliance: That which gets rewarded gets done. This completely changed how I coached the team. To test it out, one day after a long run I asked if anyone wanted to join me for some voluntary sprints. About a third of the runners lined up with me. We ran sprints, and at the end of practice I gave them a special recognition.

The next time I offered voluntary sprints, the whole team lined up.

That running team went on to have great results. Even the YMCA — who used to oversee the program and the 5k race at the end — started calling us “The Mighty Hillsdale.” The team grew in popularity, too. By the spring of 2022 we had 90 runners, quite a few more than the seven on that first team. But the most rewarding thing is that some of my former runners have returned to coach with me.

I want to be clear that positive coaching is not the same as a “participation trophy” approach. In fact, on our team, we only give out three awards each year. For the first — which we call “The Kuegler” — the team votes in secret for who has worked the hardest at each practice, all season long (and they cannot vote for themselves). The second award is for most improved fitness. The third is the most improved 5k.

We are the only running team I know of that does not have a trophy for the fastest runner. Our entire focus is on rewarding effort because it takes practice to get better, and it takes motivation to go practice. Those trophies have been a great way to motivate young athletes to put in some grueling miles, but so are the daily recognitions we give to a few runners for hard work or being a good teammate.

By far the single most important thing I have learned about coaching youth sports over the years is this: the chances that you could be coaching a future world-class athlete are almost zero, but the chances that you could be coaching a future youth coach are huge.

So be the coach you loved as a kid, and your impact will last long after the season is over.

Will Wood is a small business owner, veteran, and half-decent runner. He lives, works, and writes in West Chester.

Source: Berkshire mont

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