As I walked around the track on my son’s practice field –trying to squeeze in some extra steps for the day, headphones in, audible book playing (the Seed by Jon Gordon), I did what I usually do when I’m out around playing fields. I people watched. My son’s team and the other high school team were practicing, I snuck in a few peaks as he made some great stops in the goal and admittedly cringed a few times when he forgot to step to the ball. Even over the sound of my audiobook I could hear the team cheering Drew on in that goal – “Great Job Drew” “Nice Stop Drew!” “Drew’s a Wall!” Drew got in the car at the end of practice feeling pretty great about playing lacrosse. (love those days!)
Unfortunately there are some other kids that I’m afraid had a less positive ride home experience. On the baseball fields to my right as I rounded the bottom of the lacrosse field I could see the body language and actually through my headphones and from at least a full football field away, I could HEAR the baseball coach who was working with what appeared to be late elementary or early middle school aged kids. I heard the words worthless, stupid, and deaf ring out, and then the F bomb. Immediately I looked at the other parent helpers on the field waiting for them to step in angrily, but they were nodding. NODDING.
I kept walking trying to tune out the outside and focus on listening to my book. As I rounded the other side of the field I saw the most adorable little bobble head and his dad working on some post practice skills. So cute, I couldn’t help but smile! Bobble heads are the kids whose helmets are bigger than their shoulders, young kindergarten to 2nd grade age range. It’s one of my favorite age groups to watch because everything they do is adorable and fantastic as they wield equipment and sticks much bigger and heavier than they are. But as the path brought me closer I realized this wasn’t father and son fun. This was frustrated parent and a little boy with his head hanging low. “Why can’t you FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS.” “It’s SO EASY!” The boy dropped the next pass, the small possibly 5 or 6 year old whose helmet was almost bigger than his entire body, dropped the pass. He connected with it, but it bounced out. For me, that’s a high five moment. His dad chucked his stick down on the ground. Then picked up the ball and chucked that too. “Why can’t you do it?! You aren’t going home until you start listening!”
I kept walking, feeling for that kid, wanting some patient lax person to show up and offer to step in. Wanting to remind that dad that these days don’t last and neither do the opportunities to grow a trusting teaching relationship. But I kept going.
Running around in the grass outside the field were kids leaving football training. Tiny little first grade guys who had just trained agility and speed like the big boys do, parents talking about future scholarships and scouts. On top of that I could still hear the baseball coach, it had been 10 minutes and the kids were still being yelled at, they had barely moved an inch. At this point the chatter from the fields around me forced me to turn up my headphones, I couldn’t bear to hear anymore. I wanted to call over all of the kids and tell them that they were about to go to Kate’s fun sports camp where parents can’t come unless they promise to just encourage and coaches have to be kind and patient – but then I remembered I didn’t have my ruby slippers and how on earth would I pull that one off.
Coaches are teachers, it’s what we do. We may not be in a classroom but there is no question that our job is to teach kids a skill, a game, rules, how to behave, how to work with others, how to be respectful, how to be ready for the next level. In fact, the two ideals are so alike that if you aren’t teaching, is it fair to say you aren’t really coaching?
So if coaches are teachers, shouldn’t we use teaching principles and tactics so that our kids can learn? Can you imagine standing in front of a classroom throwing a tantrum because a kid didn’t understand a math problem, maybe tossing a pen violently at the floor, stomping your foot, throwing your hat? How about dropping a few curse words and forcing them to run because they still can’t spell that difficult word or because they forgot their homework? Know any effective teachers with highly motivated students that tell their students to their face that they are lazy, or that even first graders can do it? But for some reason this bully behavior has become acceptable, normal, and dare I say even a mark of a strong coach of our children. It’s considered a style, or philosophy. I’d like to call it something else, ineffective and occasionally abusive.
What do we know about great teachers that we can absolutely take to the field?
- They are fun – they make whatever subject they are teaching fun, hands on, and applicable to the kids’ lives who are learning it.
- They are patient – they understand that it takes many tries, sometimes explaining it in different ways, and they help keep the kids from getting frustrated so they don’t quit trying
- They praise effort – they notice when hard work is happening, and it creates an atmosphere where kids work hard to get noticed
- They hold kids accountable – they communicate the rules and consequences clearly and they calmly and in control, enforce them
- They mix things up – they keep the kids interested by doing new things and keeping the kids on their toes
- They use kind words – they make a safe environment where kids feel free to try things and explore and push their limits by speaking in a way that is respectful and kind
- They stay even tempered even when pushed – they create a stable and reliable atmosphere where emotions don’t bounce all over the place
- They give feedback – kids are told daily and weekly and monthly how they are doing, where they are falling short and where they are excelling through grading and comments. They are approached when they seem to be not progressing and offered help to improve.
- They give kids choices – they offer some sense of buy-in and control over daily options by finding ways to let kids choose even a small part of the learning activity when possible.
- They encourage questions and free thinking – they allow kids to ask why, to encourage them to try it and see why, to learn by doing in a controlled environment and to self-advocate when they don’t understand
It’s our job as coaches, whether we are training a league, camp, clinic, team, or even our own kid to remember that there’s a method to teaching and there’s a strategy for effective learning. Our emotions and instincts in the moment can lead us down a path we should not be going with kids just because it’s a sport and not Math or English. Kids may react immediately to bullying by doing what you wanted, but in the long term we’re going to lose these athletes who eventually learn they don’t have to take it anymore. If we want to keep kids in sports then we have to foster a love of learning and teach them in a way where they find success in the short term and the long term –and that comes through being an effective teaching-focused coach when we step onto that field.