As I spent last weekend at the Legacy Park baseball fields, I realized that May has brought games to the summer youth sports season. This means that practices will be less frequent and the window of opportunity to teach important lessons and reinforce key fundamentals is getting smaller every day.
While it is true that many lessons can be taught during competition, I believe that practices are the best place for coaches to teach kids about the sport.
In my analysis of effective youth coaches, almost all shared the same trait: they all put importance on their practices and got the most out of their time.
A couple of years ago, I attended a football clinic where one of the nation’s premier youth football coaches was speaking. He spent a large amount of his time talking about his practice routines and preached the benefits of repetition. If fact, he felt his team competed so well against teams from around the state because he was able to get so much out of each practice. Through a disciplined approach with engaged coaches and parents, his team of 9-year-olds could run six plays in the amount of time it took other teams to run one. By game day, his team had run the same couple of plays hundreds of times and were flawless in their execution because of it. This got me thinking about how this could be applicable in so many other sports and how some coaches have not caught on to this.
Ask a successful coach what their practices look like. Many will have a detailed plan timed out to the minute on drills and technique that they will be practicing on a certain night. I have always been a supporter of planning out practices as I have a file overflowing with wrestling practice schedules dating back to the 1990s. These plans included warm-ups applicable to what we were working on as well as technique instruction and drills that would benefit all members of the team.
Practices should be a time to reinforce key behaviors and coaches should be engaging athletes throughout the session. I always try to focus on what the kids should be doing instead of what they are doing wrong.
“Great job using two hands on that ground ball,” or “way to sprint through the line of scrimmage,” are a couple of examples of how this is done. As a coach, you set the tone of the practice so be positive and when you see something good, recognize the athlete. Most times, with young kids, you’ll get more buy-in from them when you pat them on the back.
Remember that practices should be fun. Too many times, I’ve seen practices where kids are standing around and one or two kids are the only ones seeing action. This isn’t fun for the rest of the kids and they eventually will lose interest. Plan your practices for every kid and make it fun by including all athletes through stations or games.
Many coaches get excited and fired up on game day. But I love hearing about coaches who get fired up about practices. They understand that this is the best way improve the skills of the kids and are excited to use this time to teach the fundamentals of the sport.
My youth wrestling coach, Tom Morrow, used to ask us at the end of every practice, “Did you learn something? Did you have fun?” Parents and coaches: ask your kids this at the conclusion of the next practice. You’ll know then what an impact your practices can have!
Mike Gempeler has coached youth sports for 18 years and is a regular contributor for the Lee's Summit Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.