Saturday, June 14, 2014

Try lots of stuff

I encourage all coaches to try new stuff all the time and take notes on what works (or what doesn't work). You never know what will and won't work when dealing with young kids. I think that's the most surprising thing I've seen with coaching: you just never know what will or won't work. Some examples:
  1. In our flag football league, there are certain zones that are "pass only." In one game last year, I tried something I hadn't seen anyone else try at our age level: run the shotgun in the passing zone. Amazingly for 8-9 year olds, we didn't botch any snaps. The next game I decided to try it for all plays. Again, no botched snaps. And our running game got better. Voila! We did that entire season, and have done it this season with great success. And a couple other teams have adopted it as well. Never woulda thought.
  2. In hockey this past season, we realized that our inexperienced kids were not adjusting well to lots of body contact in the half ice game. So, we came up with a drill where the defense played without their sticks and skated around and tried to knock the offensive players down. In addition to it working, something else happened: for the first time, the offensive players actually picked their heads up, looked for teammates, and passed the puck! Who woulda known.
  3. I came up with a straightforward play in football this season with simple steps (basically a halfback option). Thought it would have been an easy play to implement and execute. Haven't been able to get it to work yet with the smartest, most athletic kids on our team. Go figure. I'm throwing it out.
  4. Helmet stickers in hockey worked awesome in getting kids' attention and to focus on details. Simply amazing. A total experiment at the beginning of this last season.
  5. In flag football, our kids forget how to pull flags unless we explicitly practice it in practice before the game. No kidding. I thought we were good at pulling flags, so a couple games I skipped our flag pulling drill. Di. Sas. Ter.
And so on. I have yet to run the same exact practice two times. If I find drills that work awesome, I will re-use those. But I also leave room in both my practice plan and my game plan to try new stuff. Unless it's playoffs or tournament, then it's game on :)

There's a side benefit as well: I think kids get bored of monotony. I see coaches get their kids to execute something really well by repetition. By the end of the season the kids are bored with it and it shows.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Development vs. Competition

Most coaches think of practice time for development and game time for competition. While I do use practice time to develop players' skills, I also spend most of my games for developing players. Players rotate positions, we experiment, we take big risks, we learn. At certain points in the season (in football its playoffs, in hockey its tournaments) we go all in to compete.

Developing Players

Kids needs reps, plain and simple. They learn by trying stuff and failing. So you need to let them fail. A bunch. And then let them fail some more. The more they fail, the better they get. While they are failing, they need fair, firm feedback. My style is to keep both positive and constructive feedback in the same tone. To my players, they are getting facts from me. "Nice hustle", "smart play", "you need to press the puck", "don't let the runner outside" all come from me in the same tone.

As I mentioned, I use games to experiment. I don't strive for perfection. I strive for creating learning experiences. Having QBs learn to time deep passes, hockey players carrying the puck vs. passing, etc. In each case, players need to fail in order to learn their boundaries. Those boundaries become their new bar, they work to surpass that bar, establish new boundaries, and the process repeats itself.


Sports are a fun opportunity for kids to learn how to handle competing. What it means to try your best. What it means to put your best foot forward. How to win with class, and how to lose with grace. As such, I use some part of the season to focus on competing, and yes, trying to win. Playing sports is fun, winning is better.

When I talk to kids about competing, I talk about the possibility of losing and what means. Specifically, I explain to them its ok to try to win and then lose. Just as you don't give up if you drop a ball (you keep trying to catch it), you don't give up if you lose.

One benefit to my approach is that by the time we start competing, I've learned more about my players and their capabilities than opposing coaches have learned about their teams. After all, I've spent more time developing, experimenting, and learning. This puts the kids in a great position to compete and allows the team to put their best foot forward. My best example of this was last year's football playoffs. Our team finished 5th out of 6 teams during the regular season, including getting mercied our last game of the season. In the playoffs, we won all three of our games by more than a touchdown each to win the championship. A season of development followed by a playoff run focused on competing. I'm convinced that one of the reasons we competed so well is that we were "fresh." We hadn't spent all season focused on winning as other teams had. When the playoffs started, we weren't worn out. We were starting fresh and played that way.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Identify and develop leaders

This is relatively new to me, as I've only done it a couple times, and the most time I spent on it was this past hockey season... with great success :) The idea started because I had a really inexperienced hockey team. 8 of our 11 players had never played mite major hockey before (for those not familiar with hockey tiers... it basically means they kinda knew how to skate but never played team hockey before). I sat down with my assistant coach at the beginning of the season, and we put together our season plan. We knew our biggest challenge was to quickly get the inexperienced players up to speed. One of our ideas was having captains. But we also set some parameters: we both had a high bar for performance and behavior on the team, so it would follow that we would have a high bar for someone to don a 'C' or an 'A' on their jersey. They had to earn being a captain. To do so, we laid out the following for the players:
  1. You had to be a model for others to follow. In the locker room, on the ice, during practice, during games, on the bench, at any team function, etc. The bar was simple: if we used a player as a consistent example for others to model, they were eligible for captaincy.
  2. You could lose it. Either of one the coaches could rip that badge of honor off the jersey at any time, at our discretion, for any reason.
  3. This was no trophy-kid award. Our plan wasn't to give every player a chance to wear a captain letter. It truly had to be earned.
It. Worked. Wonders. We actually made two players captains, talked to the team about why, and gave the players models to follow. And follow they did. The previous season we won about half of our games. This past season, with a less experienced and less talented team, we went 27-1-3. I attribute the primary reason to our captains who led the team, set a great example, and the players that followed them. For the captains, they developed their leadership skills. One example: at one practice prior to the season, one of the to-be-captains playfully slashed the other to-be-captain (dressed in goalie gear) in the leg pad. Not a big deal, it was meant in fun between two players that had played together for three years. But it set a bad example in the respect and sportsmanship department to players who had never played with a goalie on the ice. So we talked about setting priorities between having fun and being a leader. It was the player's choice what they wanted to do. We rotated captains once two-thirds of the way into the season. And we identified alternate captains throughout the season as others showed leadership qualities. Feedback from parents was that this was a good move. They liked having their kids have role models and show that hard work pays off. I have been reticent in instituting this in my current flag football season. After a blowout loss last weekend, I am correcting that oversight this coming Sunday.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Opportunties, standards, and accountability

This is a complex topic. Giving kids opportunity, holding them to high standards, and holding them accountable all create a healthy tension. It is our jobs as coaches to use this tension to help develop kids and the team.
Every pro was once a beginner.
I have high expectations of each player on my teams. But they are reasonable expectations based on the player's interest, ability, and potential. I have to get to know my players as individuals in order to put a reasonable bar that is just beyond their current reach. And that's where this conversation starts: have high - but reasonable - expectations for your players. For some reason in hockey, the coaches seem to think that 7-8 year olds should be able to do everything the pros do. Clearly such expectations are unreasonable. They are also too complex (do you really think a kid is going to understand every detail a pro does?). So recognize that there is a development curve with all players. And players will move along that curve over time. You just don't know when or where. This is truly the motivator behind my policy of equal playing time. You just don't know when you're going to see someone step up and deliver.
I remember the championship game my second year of coaching football. The previous year we went to the championship game and got blown out 28-0. So we were back, more experienced, and playing a different team for the title. We had some awesome offensive players, but the other team and coach were stronger on defense. Late in the game, we were down 12-6, and we had struggled to move the ball consistently all game. One of the players on our team was playing his first year in football and really is only football experience ever. Soccer was his game, but it was clear he had not "grown up" watching/playing football. Well, he was on offense, and even in championship games we believe in giving everyone a chance. Sure enough, he took the rock to the house on a 25 yard scamper to give us the go ahead score and winning the league title.
I have examples almost every game I've ever coached where a kid just surprises you with a great performance or raising their own back. Don't deny kids those opportunities and experiences! High expectations apply across a number of areas, including player behavior. I set high expectations for players respecting their teammates, listening to their coaches, and trying their best. I also set a minimal set of behavior standards for which there are consequences (usually talking to their parents) if they aren't met. My players know that crossing the line isn't tolerated. Having high standards means you need to let players know when they are or aren't meeting those standards (and if they meet your standards, you need to set a new bar for them!). At a USA Hockey coaches training session, one of the presenters gave the best short description of this: "Kids need and expect fair, firm feedback." Of course you need to be positive and tactful when coaching kids... but you need to coach them. I'm always surprised when coaches don't actually take the time to teach kids what they need to do to improve.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Two key fundamentals in coaching

I view almost everything I do as an experiment and opportunity to learn. I've had a lot of success coaching the last few years; even so, I always look for ways to improve so I examine what didn't go well. I also reflect on trying to understand why overall things went so well. When I do, two things absolutely stand out as creating success: having a consistent structure, and keeping things simple.


One thing I've learned in raising kids and now coaching kids: Kids. Need. Structure. Do not overlook this part of your planning. Have structure to your practices and games, keep it consistent, and let the kids know about it ahead of time. Knowing what is coming keeps kids confident. It keeps the boring stuff time-bound so that kids know there's an end. It allows them to keep their focus on what their coaches are teaching. Goodness all the way around. I learned this lesson last football season. It was the last regular game of the season. The kids had a really good year (they were a young team, and had battled to a 2-2-1 record at that point - outstanding given their age level compared to other teams). The football structure here is an hour of practice followed by an hour game. Given it was late in the season, we spent the entire practice practicing plays (as opposed to drills/techniques). Kids were doing great all the way around. So the last 15 minutes of practice we let them do whatever they wanted. They had fun. Unstructured, ad hoc play. The game? It was a disaster. We got mercied in the first half, the first time that's ever happened. Granted the team we were playing was the first place team, but we just played awful. Little effort, little discipline, kids weren't doing their assignments, etc. So bad that after the game parents were asking me "what happened?" I learned my lesson: structure is important. The following week, in the playoffs, we won three straight games - including beating that first place team - to win the league. Structure. USA Hockey's American Development Model is a great example. Every practice (5 months, 2 practices a week) we run has the following structure:
  1. 5 minute open skating session
  2. Six, 7 minute rotating stations (rotating in the same direction each practice... consistent!)
  3. Team breakout practices for 10 minutes
  4. Cleanup!
This consistent structure keeps kids focused on learning instead of focused on understanding "what do I need to do now?" And the results speak for themselves (our team was undefeated against the other four associations / 9 teams in the area :) ).

Keep it simple, stupid

Oy, I see coaches trying to teach professional strategies and techniques to kids in all sports. Really. Haven't seen it work yet. See those kids' eyes glazing over? Or not paying attention to you? You're talking over their heads. Keep it simple. Let them execute the simple stuff really well. A couple years ago our flag football team was in the championship game. During a beer after the game of the of the parents told me that another coach had stayed to watch, and asked him "where's James' playbook?" His response was "James doesn't use a playbook." "Really?" "Yep." Whereas everyone else in the league has these playbooks they call plays from in the huddle, I teach my kids three simple plays. They master them, they have confidence in executing them, and they win. Have the kids focus on 1-2 things, have them do those things really well.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Setting your players' expectations (tip #2)

I set parent's expectations to make my job as a coach easier. By setting expectations, parents have far fewer questions and they enjoy the season more.

Setting player expectations actually makes my job harder. Because if you're going to set expectations, you need to do the follow through work to ensure that players meet those expectations. Which means paying attention to each player, having an appropriate bar for each individual, and giving feedback in a manner that the player will receive. All that takes work. It's also something that I believe sets me apart from most coaches. And it's what I believe drives my success.

By trial and error I developed a formula that has worked well for me and I've used this the past three seasons. I have four rules that I expect all the players to follow, without fail. They are simple, reasonable (no reasonable parent or player would argue with these), and form a foundation for your players to develop. The rules:

  • Respect
  • Listen to your coaches
  • Try your best
  • Have fun
Respect is first because it is an umbrella rule around everything I do. In an era where a larger percentage of kids (and even their parents) lack respect for authority, their peers, institutions, etc, I find it important to set the tone that respect is a requirement of all things we do. No excessive celebrations, no arguing with refs, respect for your teammates efforts, etc. Most importantly here is respect for the notion of teamwork (since I coach team sports). The concept is simple: your teammates are working hard to work together to achieve team goals, so it is expected of you.

Listen to your coaches and Try your best go hand-in-hand. The key here is to follow through on your instructions. Players must try their best to do what you ask. It's the entire reason parents pay $$$ for their kids to join sports leagues (otherwise it's just rec play at the park... valuable, but not why parents enroll their kids in leagues). Reward the kids that listen and try their best, and the others will follow.

Have fun. I have never had a player who listened to their coaches and tried their best not have fun. It's a simple formula, and it works wonders. Sure, I've had players not listen, or not try their best, or both. Sometimes they have fun, sometimes they don't. But if you set the players' expectations that if they listen and try their best they will have fun, you will have a lot of followers. Of course it's on the coach to ensure they are giving direction that enables the kids to have fun, more on that in a separate post.

That's it. This is a simple formula that works, and works wonders.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The best time spent all year: setting parent expectations (tip #1)

Football season kicks off in two weeks. Prior to that, I'll sit down and spend quality time on the most important thing I will do all season: setting parent expectations for the season. This not only gets parents on the same page as you, it streamlines the coaches/parent meeting at the beginning of the season (hopefully you've answered the obvious questions in your email). For each season I coach, no matter what the sport, I take time to spell out what to expect for the season and email it to all the parents. This includes:
  1. What is the coaching philosophy for the season?
  2. What can the parents expect relative to playing time, instruction?
  3. What rules do the players and parents need to know?
  4. Are there any volunteering expectations for the parents?
For example, for football, even though I've had most of the kids on my team for multiple seasons, I'll explain in my email:
  1. Football is a team sport, and our rules and expectations of players support that.
  2. The regular season focuses on player development, players getting equal playing time, players trying out each position, and trying to equally distribute the ball to everyone.
  3. The playoffs is for competition. We put players in the positions that give the team the best opportunity to win. (This is a great example of the importance of setting expectations before the season so that no surprises come up.)
  4. Our team rules ("respect", "listen to your coaches", "try your best", "have fun")
  5. Asking the parents for a couple more coaches to help during practice.
  6. Send out links to game rules and schedule.
The specifics don't really matter... what matters is that you have specifics. I also recommend being as concise as possible. After all, you want the parents to take the time to read your email. But please take the time to execute this task. It's the best return on your time you'll get all year.