Coaching: Never Say Never (part one)

by Coach Glen R. Harris, PhD, CSA, CPC


Over the last 32 years of coaching and teaching (mostly to young people), certain themes have repeated themselves over and over. These reccurring themes slowly developed into a set of guidelines or rules, as it were, that I use when coaching or teaching. Most of these came from the realization that within the role of coach I was actually doing much, much more. With nearly 50% of today's kids being raised in single parent homes, we coaches have a tremendous opportunity to have a great influence on the lives of our charges. It is out of this realization that the following set of rules, or principles, have grown. They provide me with the basis for my own coaching philosophy. I'd like to share them with you now, not as a solution for everyone, but rather as a stimulus to anyone who - like me - strives to continue to learn and develop their abilities as a coach. With this in mind, I offer:

The Eleven Principles

  • You're more important than anyone thinks.
  • Remember "Murphy"  - Be prepared for anything.
  • Give warm-ups the respect they deserve
  • Be positive.  Never say "never" or "can't" or "don't."
  • Stick to basics  - it's the foundation of greatness.
  • Encourage, Encourage, Encourage.
  • Focus on the effort, not the results.
  • It's a game, keep it fun.
  • Great coaches have great patience. "They don't belong to you. You belong to them."
  • YOU can always learn more.
  • Remember: They're just kids.

YOU'RE MORE IMPORTANT THAN ANYONE THINKS. I don't believe enough coaches understand this.  If they did, they would act much differently. Coaches at all levels, but especially at youth and adolescent levels, are tremendously important to the development of their athletes as just people. If you stop and think about who the recurring role models are in a young person's life there are only a few - parent(s), teacher(s), pastor/priest(s) and coach(s). Given this short list, a 51% divorce rate, and the fact that the average American marriage lasts a mere 9.4 years as real statistics, it's fairly safe to assume that not all of the above-named possible role models are present for any athlete. While the reasons for this are many, I submit to you that the magnitude of a coach's impact is clearly amplified for today's young athlete. I'm sure that we can all quickly cite examples where a coach finds him or herself in a position of distinct influence on a young person's physical, mental, and/or emotional development. For coaches who are not aware of their role model status, it is not only unfortunate, but it can be tragic. If you understand the awesome power that you possess, and you truly understand that you are indeed more important than you or anyone thinks, you will be better prepared for the truly essential role that you play in the lives of your athletes.

BE PREPARED.  Remember Murphy. It's not enough that a coach understands his responsibilities; he must also be prepared to perform them. Whether it's setting up practice schedules, repairing equipment, or just being physically and emotionally ready to successfully handle the challenges you'll face each day, a coach must realize that to be effective requires much more than just showing up for the allotted practice and tournament times. As a rule of thumb, I have found that every hour I spend with my athletes requires at least an hour of preparation, often more. Of course, this does not include the unpredictable issues that a coach may face like schedule changes, discipline problems, and injuries, just to name a few. The point being that you must take the time to come prepared to coach while maintaining enough flexibility to adapt to unforeseen challenges. The need for good preparation seems to become greater and greater as the demand for quality practice increases, due to shortages of available facilities, loss of time, and a myriad of other factors that you, as a coach, have no control over. To get the most out of the time you have with your kids, being organized and prepared isn't just a cliché; it's a necessity.

GIVE WARM-UPS THE RESPECT THEY DESERVE. This seems to come as a surprise to many folks, but this, like all the principles, has several layers of benefit. Often times I hear, "I don't have time to stretch," or "Drills are boring." I emphasize warm-ups for several reasons. First, warm-ups provide young athletes an opportunity to transition from their typically chaotic day into the more structured environment necessary for a coach to teach and instruct. (This is a somewhat selfish reason, but nonetheless very valued). Second, I believe exercises provide an opportunity to work on team building.  The exercises are more than just performing the exercises in unison.  They provide a time for you as the coach to talk (team build) with your archers. I do this in my college classes. I do this with my college team, and every chance I get with juniors. This provides a great equalizer to all the individual personalities.

Warm-ups also provide leadership opportunities.  It's a time when you can allow each of your athletes to "be in charge" and to develop some leadership skills. Experience has proven to me that this third benefit is an excellent way to draw out the less outgoing, less mature, or perhaps most noteworthy, the less-talented kids into the mainstream of the team (this is very useful with the younger set). Simply stated, being a warm-up leader allows them to become contributors sooner than they might otherwise.

Finally, I firmly believe it just makes sense to develop good habits early in a young person's life. Warm-ups certainly provide physical benefits, but, as I stated, this goes much deeper. So, start giving warm-ups the respect they deserve.

BE POSITIVE. "Never say never or can't or don't." We all naturally want to look at ourselves as positive coaches, but I see a disturbing trend in many coaches of young athletes. That is, they are quick to point out the flaws or negatives, and this comes across as very derogatory. I suspect that this is certainly not the intention of the coach. Instead of pointing out a mistake, you should reinforce the correct behavior. Kids are no different than adults in wanting to receive positive "strokes." They want to be told they're doing things well. Find what's good, reinforce what needs to be done, and keep them moving forward. OK, so he/she doesn't have the best swing, or kick but he/she has a great attitude. Certainly a coach can find something good or right to say or build on about their athletes in most instances. Not only do the behavioral scientists suggest it, but also my experience has proven that positive feedback is much more likely to elicit the correct behavior or form skill that you, as a coach, are looking for.

Also, be sure you are reinforcing the behavior that you want, rather than focusing on what is being done incorrectly. If you phrase your correction in the form of a question, or simply reminding the athlete about a particular skill then the correction will always be positive. Try starting your statements with "Remember..." or "How about we try ...?"

One caution to add is to be sure your feedback is appropriate. Kids can smell insincerity and then you have a real can of worms to sort out. In the final analysis, practices that are filled with positive coaching are more enjoyable for everyone - coaches, athletes, and parents. It's a matter of perspective. Is the glass half full or half empty? Be positive.  The end result will be individual skill improvement and enhanced team morale.

Remember there are always more possibilities than there are limitations.

continue reading in Never Say Never (part two)

Coaching: Never Say Never (part two)

by Coach Glen R. Harris, PhD, CSA, CPC


STICK TO BASICS - It's the foundation of greatness. The analogy I most often use is, "A foundation made of many bricks has the best chance for survival. You can remove a single brick, examine it, refine it and put it back without jeopardizing the entire foundation." Does this make sense to anyone but me? Pick any sport - archery, baseball, soccer - any sport, and you'll find that each is defined by a very few fundamental skills. If these skills are the basis of your drills, your athletes can only get better. This sounds too simple, huh? Unfortunately, I see many coaches and athletes that want to skip the basics and go right to advanced techniques. It's like they want to skip practice and go directly to being a champion. That's a ridiculous thought, but that's the gist of it. Maybe it's because they think it's boring, or to win they must have these advanced skills. I don't know what the motive is. What I am sure of is that there isn't enough time spent just executing a good shot over and over.  Do you get the point?

If you take a look at the great coaches in any sport, despite the personality differences and differences in style, they all have one thing in common:  They focus on the basics. There's plenty of time to work on advanced skills. Do the right thing - stick to the basics. This will provide the foundation upon which your athletes can build greatness later in their careers.

ENCOURAGE, ENCOURAGE, ENCOURAGE. The results are amazing for coaches who use more sugar than salt when working with young people. This principle goes one step further than just being positive however, and suggests that coaches can help their athletes learn new and more difficult skills quicker and easier by continually encouraging them. No matter what the skill, we must encourage them to keep trying. Like being positive, this helps establish an environment for your young athletes which enhances the learning process. Allow them the "freedom to fail." If you are able to establish this type of mind set, you will soon see your athletes trying things they might otherwise have not attempted. If you wait until an athlete tells you he is ready to try something, it may never happen.

I submit that the results will reflect your encouragement. They will be doing things even they didn't think they could. And watch their self-esteem, confidence, and performance soar. Encouraging young people can be a very powerful tool. It will serve you well in your coaching responsibilities.

FOCUS ON THE EFFORT, NOT THE RESULTS. In this highly competitive and results-oriented world, this is a tough sell. It is without question, in my opinion, that failure to focus on an athlete's effort is the number one mistake made by coaches. Far too often we care about the score, the outcome, the bottom-line, and not often enough about what got us there. I'm reminded of a quote by an anonymous author, "Life is a journey, not a destination." So, too, is coaching if your focus is on improving your players as young men and women, and specifically on developing those character traits that are necessary for them to be successful contributors in society. 

I have always treated the whole person, not just the athlete. There is a fundamental link between caring about your athlete's effort and instilling in them the importance of working hard, playing fair, and doing their best. Anything less suggests that the "ends justify the means", and you get caught measuring success by a win/loss record. I don't believe that anyone gets beaten by anyone else.  The only difference between young athletes is experience and how each uses it. Focus on the effort, not the results.

IT'S A GAME, KEEP IT FUN. Not every tournament is the Olympics, or the World Series, or the Super Bowl. I'd like to think that most kids given a ball or a bat and a place to play, will create a very enjoyable competitive game all on their own. I just recently experienced this myself with one my college teams. After the tournament, we had sometime to kill before we had to return to the event venue. I looked desperately for an activity to help entertain my athletes. I pulled the van over to a phone booth for ideas from the yellow pages only to turn around and find the team having a great time in the parking lot with a tiny little Super Ball. It was working for them, and it worked for me. Now, I'm not suggesting that our only motivation is to have fun. We can all think of aspects of our sport that are certainly not fun. We should also recognize that there are different levels of fun depending on the age of our athletes, what kind of skill we are working on, and our sport itself. The challenge is to balance our level of involvement with the skill we want to develop to obtain the desired results.

Again, I need to temper my statement. I am not suggesting that coaches can't or shouldn't coach with intensity and enthusiasm. In fact, I will argue just the opposite. I link my success to the fact that I am driven by sport, and that intensity is necessary for me, in order to get the best results. My caution would be that during these "defining moments" of a tournament, we must remember that it is indeed a game, and things that affect the results are not entirely within our control. Use your imagination, and be creative. It's only a game, keep it fun.


"They don't belong to you. You belong to them."

This assertion is based on a rather simple analysis of human nature with respect to the teaching aspect of a coach's job. Much of our time is dedicated to instructing our players on how to perform a particular skill. We all have a variety of techniques that we use to teach. However, I suspect most of us use a process characterized by some key activities that include describing what you want done, demonstrating what you want done, observing the attempt, and providing feedback. When the skill is new or difficult, this process, by definition, requires patience. The human being can only consciously do one thing at a time, so that means when teaching a new or additional skill previous steps or skills are left to the subconscious or momentarily forgotten. More often than not, I find that if an athlete is not doing what the coach wants them to do; then it's probably that the coach didn't describe, demonstrate, observe, or provide appropriate feedback. We may think we did because we are comfortable with the particular skill; we have done it hundreds of times; we also know what we expect. Human nature dictates this type of thought process in everyday life. So, we shouldn't expect it to be any different during the time we spend coaching.

The next time this happens and you feel frustrated by the lack of performance of your athlete, take a look at yourself and see if it isn't YOUR process that has broken down.

YOU CAN ALWAYS LEARN MORE. The fact that you are reading this suggests that you understand the importance of expanding your knowledge as a coach. Granted there are many aspects of coaching that are relatively stable; however, there are many more that are dynamic. There is equipment, which is governed by laws of physics, and there are tournament rules, which appear to be in constant transition. But really the basics are the same as they have been. The most difficult challenge facing today's coaches are new skill techniques, new strategies and tactics, emerging advances in technology and even more challenging, a constantly changing society. These and numerous other issues demand that coaches need to be constantly aware of the need to learn more. There are many opportunities available to keep current and in the educational flow, regardless of how many years of experience you have, you can always learn more.

REMEMBER, THEY'RE JUST KIDS. This last principle is a simple reminder about who you are dealing with as a coach. I highlight this at the risk of being accused of understating the ability of young people. History is full of amazing stories about individual triumph over all the odds. I do clearly recognize the unlimited potential of the human spirit, which to me is the fuel that allows such acts to occur. I do, however, encourage you to remain cognizant of the physical, emotional, and mental capacity of your young athletes. This becomes increasingly difficult when they do things that, at times, simply amaze you. Many times these individual triumphs not only raise our expectations of our athletes, but they also make us immune to the fact that more often than not, kids are not necessarily supposed to do these things. When our athletes do extraordinary things, we must balance our desire to build upon that event with the reminder that they are just kids. These principles, rules, or guidelines have been developing over my last 28 or more years as a coach and continue to evolve every day. They have helped keep me grounded and in perspective with who I am, what my role is, and what I am doing. I hope you find merit in them and perhaps can use part or all in your coaching, philosophy, or better yet, help to establish your own, even better, guidelines.

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