With the summer youth sports season winding down, I’ve been fortunate to see some great competition from Lee’s Summit athletes over the past few weeks. Moreover, I’ve enjoyed seeing how a brief interaction with a coach can help young athletes perform. Whether it’s a correction of mechanics or the coach motivating the athlete with positive encouragement, witnessing a young competitor reaching the desired result (or his/her attempt to) with the help of their coach is a great moment in youth athletics.
This summer, I have offered tips to Journal readers on coaching youth sports. I am by no means an expert. I am, and will continue to be, a continuous learner of the coaching trade and have learned many lessons in my years of volunteering my time to area youth.
The greatest lesson I ever learned about coaching athletics didn’t come from guys like Vince Lombardi, John Wooden or Dan Gable. It came from a local man by the name of Dan Martell. Dan was a 1982 graduate of Lee’s Summit High School who became the head coach of the Lee’s Summit Kids Wrestling Club as a teenager. During his tenure in the 1980s and 1990s, he helped build the program into one of the largest and most respected youth wrestling clubs in the state. Winter after winter, hundreds of area kids gathered in the high school field house to learn about life and wrestling from him.
Early in my coaching career, I had the opportunity to coach with Dan. Unbeknownst to him, he became a mentor to me and taught me the most important lesson in coaching youth sports: it is all about making a connection with each and every kid. Dan reinforced the importance of building a rapport with each and every kid and when it was time to compete, he would use positive encouragement to build each athlete up to help them perform at a high level.
Dan’s technique wasn’t really a breakthrough by any means. In fact, the coaches named earlier also employed this practice throughout all of their championship seasons. And while Dan’s athletes saw great success as well (as many of the kids on Lee’s Summit High’s 1996 nationally ranked, state championship wrestling team began their careers under Dan’s tutelage), Dan strived to know his wrestlers individually to help find victory beyond just winning matches.
We have all seen coaches who yell and cuss to “motivate” their athletes. I have never understood the logic of demeaning kids as, many times, people struggle to perform well when they are emotionally torn down. Dan showed me that in every interaction in youth sports, a coach can make a deposit in his/her athlete’s emotional bank account to build confidence and poise. These interactions should be honest and meaningful to keep the athlete grounded and messages communicated to correct a behavior or technique should also be conveyed in a positive manner.
Dan Martell knew the inner workings of every athlete on his team. And during his time as their coach, he was able to find unique ways to build their confidence to drive optimal performance. The best youth coaches understand this philosophy and have been able to spark extraordinary performance. I hope that coaches and parents who want to see more from their kids are able to learn what I learned from Dan Martell.
Know your athlete and find ways to build them up. Believe in their abilities and be their support system; you’ll see great things.
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.