Tips for coaching and communicating with younger athletes

coach communicating with young hockey players

It may seem obvious that athletes of different ages will require different styles of instruction, motivation, and even communication, but what does that really mean?  Let’s break it down.

After years of working with older teens, I started working with much younger children.  The difference was staggering and, though I had years of experience working with kids, I felt like I was brand new and clueless.  I had to adapt and improve upon everything, right down to how I communicated with them.  Here is what I learned and some tips to help streamline your path to success.

As a coach the ability to communicate with younger players can help you provide better feedback to young athletes or help communicate with the parents.

Your demeanor is probably most important!

Children can tell if you really want to be spending time with them and truly enjoy their company, and they respond better if you do.  This can be most difficult with the most challenging children, but remember that, often times, they are the ones that really need the most positive support.  Find something positive about each athlete each time you are together and find ways to excite yourself about working with them.  Maybe focus on the growth you see each time.  Let them see how you enjoy your time together and tell them that you look forward to the next session.  Your attitude and enthusiasm is extremely contagious with the younger crowd.  Smile, be energetic and enthusiastic.  You may need to dig deep and even perform a little, especially if you are not having your best day.    

Know your audience!

Learn a bit about the developmental stages of the athletes’ gross and fine motor skills for the age with which you are working and make sure you are choosing training plans that meet their needs and skill level.  You may also find some information on their social and emotional capabilities at their particular age.  For example, around age 5 kids may still be very eager to please adults but may start to struggle if forced to work with the opposite gender.  They will need instructions given in as few simple steps as possible and a lot of modeling.  Around ages 9 and 10 they can start to become less interested in pleasing adults and even seem a bit selfish, rude and argumentative.  They can handle more instruction but may also be more distracted by external influences, such as a fight with a friend before practice.  When you are talking as a group, young children may raise their hand and want to tell you about everything about nothing related to what you are talking about- down to the neighbor’s dog- and your pre-teens may not want to talk to you at all.  Understanding just a bit about the developmental stages about your group can save a lot of time, frustration, and heartache for all of you!      

Positive Reinforcement and Resilience

Most of us cannot improve without realizing where our struggles and areas of growth are.  We need constructive criticism and correction.  Young kids, however, respond much better to the criticism when the atmosphere of instruction and learning has been built on positivity.  This will help them create a positive attitude and to adopt the right behaviors.  Find ways to provide positive feedback before the constructive criticism, such as “That was great effort, now let’s see if we can…”  Nice… , next time let’s see if we can make it…!”

Modeling a positive attitude can assist them in developing the right attitude, too.  Help them learn to react to challenges and obstacles with a desire to work hard and overcome them.  Remind them that the learning and improving is in the pain and the struggle and that is where they get better and stronger.  Instead of feeling sorry for themselves after a loss, guide them to desire to work harder and get better.  This is an essential skill that will also help them in life.  

Instruction

In any group of humans, you will inevitably find several different styles of learning and communication.  Your best course of action is to try to explain and instruct as simply and clearly as possible in a variety of ways.  Try using visual cues such as “push the wall away” or “explode off the wall!” when giving verbal instructions.  Whenever possible, model for them what you want them to do. And, know that some kids just won’t get it until they do it.   

Also, do not assume they know anything.  I struggled with this most.  I would say “pass up your notecards,” assuming they understood that meant hand it to the child in front of them until the athlete closest to me would hand me all of the notecards from behind them.  All of a sudden every child was running toward me with their notecard and it took me awhile to get them all seated and ready to listen again!  You will need to teach them the structures you want them to follow for practices and games and probably even practice them several times, depending on the age.  Children crave structure and routine.  It is worth the time investment to teach them your structures and routines.    

You may be thinking, well, if I need to know what they know, I will just ask them.  For example, “Raise your hand if you know how to do a push-up!”  The problem is, no-one wants to admit in front of their peers that they do not know how to do something (even a 4 year old) so most likely everyone will raise their hand, even if they don’t really know.  Or they may just raise their hand because they weren’t paying attention and everyone else is raising their hand so they did, too!  Instead, have them show you what they know. 

A good rule of thumb is K.I.S.S.  Keep it simple stupid.  The younger they are, the fewer more simple and clear steps you will want to use and the more modeling and repeating you will need to do!  

Goals  

For yourself:

Your goals may need to shift from focusing on winning to focusing on development.  Be sure you are focusing on long term, developmental goals for the kids and not short term, possibly self-fulling goals, such as winning.

For the athletes:

Setting, evaluating and adjusting goals is crucial to success in life and sports.  Goals can be highly motivating or they can become an expectation that weighs kids down.  Goals can be time consuming but I recommend taking at least a couple of minutes with each athlete and find out what their goals are.  This can be as simple as having them write their goal on a notecard for you to review at your convenience.  Younger kids may have pretty simple goals such as make some new friends, have fun, or learn to skate faster.  It helps you motivate them if you know what their goals are.

Working with younger athletes can be the most rewarding, and the most challenging until you get the hang of it.  One last bit of advice, younger athletes will thrive on the passion and excitement you feel for the game.  Share with them what you love about your sport and don’t be shy about having some fun and showing them your own joy in playing!

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