I had a terrific pitcher on one of my baseball teams who, on a good day, was pretty much unhittable. He was on the small side, a lefty, and didn’t have great velocity. But he had better control than any 12-year-old I’ve ever seen. And his ability to keep hitters off balance by changing speed and location was, at times, remarkable for a kid his age.
The challenge in coaching him was keeping him motivated, engaged, and emotionally balanced. Sometimes he showed up for practice or games and clearly was checked out. During the season I learned that he had a tough home life and that he wasn’t doing well in the classroom despite his obvious intelligence. He ran around with kids who were a few years older, kids who had behavior problems.
He wasn’t sullen or combative, but he was difficult to engage – a quiet kid who kept to himself and just didn’t seem to be having a lot of fun. He obviously was hurting at levels he didn’t want to reveal. Without overstepping my role as a coach, I tried a few times to reach him, without success.
On any team, you’re dealing with the emotions of a lot of different kids. Keeping them motivated and playing together, making them feel special, and helping them have fun can be a challenge, and there are no formulas that work with every kid every time.
But this article from the Positive Coaching Alliance, a wonderful organization that does a lot of good work for kids in youth sports, provides some very useful tips on what they call “filling the emotional tank.” Take a few minutes to check them out.
I found a couple of the tips to be particularly inventive, such as naming drills after players who do them well and naming new captains for every game. These strategies not only help develop team unity but also make all the players feel like they belong and like they’re contributing. A kid who feels confident plays better and has more fun playing. Check out the tips and tell us what you do to fill your players’ “emotional tank.”
A big DON’T is to lose patience with a kid who doesn’t respond to your strategies. Some players, as we all know, can be difficult. Like my crafty left-hander, they might be going through some upheaval in other areas of their lives. You need to make sure they don’t undermine team morale or your authority, so clear expectations must be given, but don’t write them off too quickly.
And don’t lose your temper. This week a girls basketball coach from Wisconsin lost control after a game, when he allegedly threw one of his players to the ground and punched her. According to this story on NBCsports.com, two players, one of whom was the coach’s daughter, got into a shouting match, and the coach interceded. He says he was attacked by the 17-year-old player and was only protecting himself. Witnesses reportedly say otherwise.
He was arrested, and the courts will decide the legal consequences. For our purposes, it seems to be an example of a coach losing patience. A grown man does not physically assault his own player unless their relationship already is strained and has reached a boiling point, even if he’s attacked.
Keep the emotional tanks full by using positive, empowering strategies. If a player doesn’t respond and remains difficult, decide if you need to talk to the parents. There might be extenuating circumstances. Showing anger is only going to worsen the situation. Like teachers, coaches must realize they’re not going to reach every player. But by motivating the rest of the team, you just might motivate that player too.