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The bane of volunteer youth coaching is the contrived hoops and barriers that discourage otherwise willing adults from participating
Sports has been a lifelong passion of mine, the initial source of hope when I arrived in the United States at the age of 6 from South Korea. In those first few months, when I couldn’t speak a word of English, pro sports on television entertained me and youth sports on our military base provided me my first friends. In the subsequent years, sports taught me so much about life, including the realization in high school that my dream of becoming a pro athlete wasn’t realistic.
So needless to say, with gusto, I’ve volunteered to coach my kids in baseball, soccer, football and any other sport they want to try. I can’t imagine anything better than being on a soccer field, on a gorgeous spring, summer or fall day, shepherding noisy, sweaty and happy children in a sport that I love, and stewarding in them some of the core principals other volunteer coaches instilled in me decades ago.
But the bane of volunteer youth coaching are the contrived hoops and barriers that discourage otherwise willing adults from participating. Among the worst obstacles are the “mandatory” online courses I’ve had to suffer through; one took nearly two hours to complete — and I didn’t learn a single, practical thing!
I was, however, optimistic about The How to Coach Kids training toolkit because of the stakeholders involved, including organizations I respect such as Nike, the United States Olympic Committee and The Aspen Institute. You’ve surely heard of Nike and the USOC but the latter is a think tank that’s invested in critical research and fostered the exchange of ideas to address some of the world’s most complex problems in business, culture, education, sports, security and many other areas.
Those groups enlisted a few others and, over a year, developed a course that’s informational, inspiring, encouraging, and, best of all, efficient.
I completed it in 27 minutes!
I cut-and-pasted pages and pages of notes, saved supplementary PDFs for future reference, and actually enjoyed the videos.
Mission accomplished, according to interviews with leaders from Nike and the USOC after I completed the course.
“What makes this coaching course different than others is that it’s practical and accessible,” said Caitlin Morris, general manager of Global Community Impact at Nike. “Many youth coaches are parents and work full-time jobs. It’s important that our course fits into their busy lives, while still providing realistic and actionable skills and tips to provide them with a solid coaching base.”
The initial iteration featured a test that wasn’t so, uh, quick; it projected to take about 90 minutes. But Chris Snyder, the USOC’s director of coaching education, insisted the group focused on making this valuable for a volunteer youth coach.
“We had to make it engaging,” Snyder said, “and we had to make it 20 minutes worth their time.”
Here are some of my favorite takeaways from the toolkit:
With all the innovations and “tricks” that have advanced youth sports into a multi-billion industry, I feel its foundation is built not on bricks but rather straw or sticks, like in the fable of the Three Little Pigs. So one of the strengths of this toolkit is the simple yet concise way in which the basics are communicated, with the proper emphasis on movement, safety, fun and age-appropriate training and practices. It also provides overviews of more advanced concepts like the IDEA Method, which stands to Introduce the skill, Demonstrate skill, Explain skill and Attend to the players practicing skill. You can, of course, click on a supplement that provides a deeper dive into the method. “Engaging this generation – the most inactive in history – starts with efforts to equip coaches with the skills and experience to engage kids in sports and keep them coming back to play,” Morris of Nike said.
I found all the videos useful and interesting. But the most memorable were the two that illustrated the adverse impact of having children play on regulation playing surfaces. They brilliantly scale a soccer field and hockey rink for adults, based on how big they feel to kids. The comments from the adults are startling: “Thanks guys, for the worst skate of my life,” one adult hockey participant lamented. “I felt lost on the pitch,” an adult soccer participant said. That was entirely the point, Snyder of the USOC said. It isn’t fair or appropriate to expect an eight-year-old to hit a three-pointer on a 10-foot rim, or a middle-schooler to consistently convert a 40-yard field goal. “The big thing we’ve seen that’s hurt youth sports is treating a 9-year-old like a 19-year-old,” he said.
I’ve been coaching every season for the last four years, so I’ve learned a lot through trial and error. But the toolkit’s detailed insight into important elements such as expectations, dealing with playing time, positions and practice tips were, well, practical and useful. Nike, the USOC and Aspen Institute want these resources to eliminate barriers and increase not only the quality of youth coaches but the quantity of them, including females.
I’m bracing myself. Sure, I’ve been on the receiving end of some “teachable moments” as a coach. But by and large, my experience has been positive. But we’ve all seen countless examples of high school coaches who quit because of overbearing and demanding parents, or wishy-washy administrators, youth referees who have been berated and attacked, and many other regrettable actions by adults, in the presence of children. But the How to Coach toolkit remains committed to this: “The coach is the key influencer who make or break the athletic experience,” Snyder said. He reflected on his childhood, when he played lots of pickup sports without adults around but also was encouraged and supported by youth coaches. But something unexpected came to light, as they shared How to Coach with influential high school and college coaches. “It’s built for the 12-and-under volunteer coach,” Snyder said, “but any coach in the country can take it and be a better coach for the right age group.”