One of the most underrated and undervalued skills of a coach is the ability to teach. Teaching is not easy an easy task. Just knowing the material is not enough to qualify us as teachers. We must be able to deliver the material in a manner that our athletes understand, and we must develop a method for delivery and implementation. It is not uncommon to see great players who are unable to execute the fundamentals of coaching because of their inability to teach the game. However, as the coach, your players are counting on you. They are eager to learn, and our ability to teach is paramount to our success.
It is important to have knowledge of the game to teach the game. I understand that many youth coaches are parents and may not have played the game, but it is important to have previous knowledge, or at least learn about the game you will coach. Coaches must teach the skills required to play, and they must introduce the concepts necessary for players to play the game effectively. There is a path to athlete development, and there are many other skills needed to be a good youth coach, Here we will explore four elements of teaching the game.
Build the Foundation
The first step in developing an athlete is developing a foundation. Each sport has its nuances and its basic skill sets. Most team sports require running (skating), passing, receiving, shooting, and some form of stick-handling/ball-handling/cradling, etc. The trick in these sports is to evolve to a level where an athlete can perform multiple skills at the same time. Just like building a house, you must start with the foundation. Many coaches, especially at the young age are quick to teach the strategy of the game. Unless players are able to execute the basic skills of the game, it really doesn’t matter where they stand. When players can execute the basic skills without thinking, it frees their mind to think about the concepts.
Once you feel your players have a solid foundation of skill, it is time to introduce concepts of the game. The most basic concept of team sports is space. Players need to learn where it is, and how to get there. Moving without the ball or puck is one of the most crucial pieces of playing team sports. The concepts teach players how to play with each other. Developing an understanding of how to support a teammate by taking space both offensively and defensively, how to defend, and how to transition from offense to defense (and back to offense) are three key elements to developing a quality athlete. If a player has a strong foundation of skill and understands the basic concepts of the game, that player can play on any team with any players regardless of the “system” the coach uses.
Now that your players have a strong skill set and understand the concepts of the game, implementing tactics will be easy. If you are having trouble implementing tactics with your players, either you skipped a step, or you are not teaching. Typically, either the player isn’t skilled enough to execute what you want, or that player does not understand how it works. Let’s face it. Most “systems” are inherently the same. Each coach uses different language and dials up pressure from different positions, but if you took positions away from the game, the concept of the “system” is fairly universal. Tactics put players on the same page so that each player understands who is responsible for what. Some coaches like a very structured set up and others like to let players freelance more. I am in the middle somewhere. Regardless of your preference in how you like to see the game played, tactics are the last piece to integrate when coaching a youth sport. Players cannot execute tactics without skill and a knowledge of concepts. I caution every coach to be patient in this area.
Sharpen the Knife
Knives get dull after repeated use. It is necessary to go back and sharpen your blade so that the knife is effective again. Athletes are no different. Over time, their skills deteriorate without practice. I am amazed at how a week off from practice can affect an athlete. Even professional athletes practice their basic skills every day. They recognize the importance of executing the simple tasks without thinking so that they can spend more time thinking through the game. Every player can improve their skills and improve their thought processes. Keep these two areas sharp, and the game becomes much easier for your athletes.
With every task in life, there is always a process for completion. Sports are no different. I have been involved in coaching sports for over 20 years, and I have seen many parents and many athletes try to rush the process. It is so important to develop mastery at one level before moving on to the next. I have seen this first hand with players and coaches in regards to their training philosophy. Many coaches and athletes take shortcuts and move on to the next step before they have mastered their own level. In coaching we must find that balance of pushing a player to move forward and not moving ahead too quickly. The great teachers have the ability to read their students and understand how to modify pace in order to extract the best from their class.
It is easy for coaches to be distracted from development by becoming focused on wins and losses. It becomes harder to stay focused when parents become involved and increase pressure looking for results. Coaching athletes is about growth and improvement. Coaching athletes is about giving a young person an education, not just graduating. We must keep our focus on the elements that are important for long term success in the sport. It takes work, repetition, patience and time to properly follow the development process.
How do you train your athletes? Are you following the proper development path or are you taking shortcuts with your athletes? Leave a comment and start the discussion.