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.