The Art of Being a Successful Youth League Coach

So you want to be a Youth League Manager or Coach! Congratulations, you’ve make the first step for a very influential role in the life of a youngster.

There’s an art to being a manager or coach in the Youth Leagues. You have to be a combination teacher, parent, cheerleader, and counselor!

And remember, being successful as a manager or coach is not necessarily reflected in the win-loss column of your team. The ultimate measure is whether your players end up the season seeing themselves as winners regardless of their place in the standings!

From the T-baller chasing the butterfly instead of the ball, to the upper level kid who’s a “natural”, each Youth Leaguer will be building memories, and you will have an opportunity to help make them positive.

Here are some basic guidelines which may help you enjoy your experience as a coach.

Assess and teach specific skills.

Be reasonable in your expectations.
Avoid confusion.
Set an example of good sportsmanship.
Empathize. Get into their shoes.
Be specific. Never presume anything.
Acknowledge progress.
Look for positives in each individual.
Laugh a lot.

Compliment specifics.
Overteach.
Amplify Successes.
Create team spirit.
Have fun.

Assess and teach specific skills.

Each Youth Leaguer should be given the opportunity to become aware of the various skills needed in the game and should also have the opportunity of learning and practicing those skills. Obviously, some players will respond more quickly than others. But each youngster deserves attention. A simple checklist of the basic skills in hitting, pitching and throwing, and fielding can be used as an opportunity for each manager and coach to teach and measure progress in each player.

The emphasis needs to be on teaching and not criticizing. If a Youth Leaguer makes a “mistake”, this should become an opportunity to learn how to do it correctly rather than an opportunity for “feeling bad” about making a mistake.

Be reasonable in your expectations.

Obviously, expectations of level of play will vary from T-Ball to upper levels. Attention span is often very short at the lower levels. Managers and coaches at lower levels will become frustrated if they expect total attention, dedication, and motivation to the game of baseball. It is important for all of us to remember that, out of millions and millions of Youth Leaguers, only a few ever become professional baseball players.

In summary, the manager or coach should neither overestimate nor underestimate the skills, emotions, and behaviors of a youth Leaguer.

Avoid confusion.

Youth Leaguers do better in a structured and consistent environment. The more the manager or coach anticipates details and attends to them before practice and/or games, the more time can be spent on teaching and playing the game. Lineup cards, equipment inventory and field preparations are just a few of the items which often times, if put off till the last minute, add to confusion when the player shows up for practice or games. Visual aids often are helpful in “spelling out” expectations which the coach has for the players. A blackboard in the dugout may help for listing lineups, positions, etc.

It is important that the manager and coach present a “united front” to the players so that they do not get mixed messages.

Set an example of good sportsmanship.

It is essential that the manager and coach be roll models for their players in all the areas of sportsmanship including interactions with the umpire, with other teams, with players on the same team, and with parents. Players are looking to their manager and coach for leadership and will pickup quickly on temper tantrums, sarcasm, put-downs, and hazing.

Empathize. Get into their shoes.

Empathize is extremely important in manager and coach. Seeing the Youth League experience through the eyes of the Youth Leaguer is essential.

  • Some have had very little experience.
  • Some have little or no encouragement from parents.
  • Some are playing “for their parents’ sake”.
  • Some are experiencing “family problems”.
  • Some have a very low self esteem.
  • Some have a long habit of “temper tantrums”.
  • A manager should not take reactions from players “personally”.

Youth Leaguers, at any level, are still growing physically and emotionally and are likely to have “good days” and “bad days”.

Be specific – never presume anything.

Spell it out! Many Youth Leaguers, especially those in lower levels, do not understand baseball jargon. Phrases like “step into the ball”, “round first”, “hit the cutoff man” can be baffling to a youngster who tends to take things literally. When giving instructions, always ask the player to repeat what you said and to show you a visual example. Visual drawings on blackboards, various “hands on” walk-through exercises on the field with players, and “what-if” quiz games with the players can be very helpful in getting them to understand your expectations.

Acknowledge progress.

One job of a Youth League coach is to help each youngster develop confidence and see progress while learning the game. A player who is taught to see some progress at each practice and game has a good chance of increasing self-confidence.

Progress can be noted in three areas:

Frequency – How often
Duration – How long it lasts
Intensity – How much emotion is used

Using the following checklists or just observing players, a manager or coach can always find some progress to point out each player.

Frequency (i.e., moved forward on the ball as an infielder twice);

Duration (i.e., paid attention to the game while in the outfield for two consecutive batters without picking dandelions or waving to friends at the smack bar);

Intensity (i.e., ran out a grounder with full speed).

It is helpful to get players to recognize progress in each other.

Amplify successes.

When a player does something correctly, it is extremely important that the manager or coach respond with lots of enthusiasm and excitement. Often, we tend to be animated in our response to a mistake, and somewhat calm when giving praise. For the Youth Leaguer, the opposite needs to happen.

That is, the coach needs to show lots of enthusiasm and excitement and animation when giving praise, and should try to remain calm and supportive when reacting to a mistake.

Create team spirit.

Another goal of the coach is to get the Youth Leaguer to think “we” instead of “me”. This is difficult in the lower levels because of the immaturity and developmental levels of the player. However, from the beginning, there should be a clear message that criticism among players is not acceptable. Asking players to identify specific progress in the other players on the team helps set up a positive team approach. Players should be encouraged and praised for cheering the other members of the team during the game whether on the field or on the bench. Team “chatter” and cheers should be encouraged, but only cheers which support team members, not cheers which antagonize or attempts to “rattle” the other team. All team members should be encouraged to be “good sports” toward the other team before, during, and after each game.

Although some players will be seem as “heroes” for some game winning feat, a coach needs to make sure that each team member gets significant recognition. Individual captains for each game is one way of making sure that each player gets, some leadership opportunities.

Parental involvement.

Parental involvement can be very helpful for developing team spirit. Recognition of the team “mom” is very important. Involvement of all parents by the coach can go a long way towards developing team spirit. A letter to all parents describing your overall coaching philosophy can be helpful in eliciting parent involvement. They can also be encouraged to cheer for all the players. But, remember, parents also have a life beyond Youth League.

Look for positives.

As a Youth League manager or coach it is important to avoid the “criticism trap”. If a player hears mainly negative comments and receives attention for negative behaviors, the Youth Leaguer can quickly lose self confidence and even a desire to play. One of the best things a coach can do is to “catch the Youth Leaguer doing well”. There should be a “four-to-one” ratio of positive remarks to critical remarks. Thus, for every “correction” there should be at least four (4) “pats on the back”. Correction is sometimes necessary, but encouragement should be the norm. A coach can be a real factor in building a youngster’s confidence by noting all the positive things that go on with each player.

Laugh a Lot.

It is really important as a manager or coach to realize there is “life beyond Youth League”. We run the risk of taking ourselves too seriously. A sense of humor is essential, both in managers and coaches, and in plyaers. Smiling and laughing adds to relaxation, which adds to productivity and enhancement of performance.

Compliment specifics.

It is important for both manager and coach to attend to specific achievements rather than to make general statements. “good game”, “nice try” are less effective than “i liked your level swing”, or “I liked the way you stayed down on the ball”. When you praise specific behavior in a player, you have a better chance that the youngster will remember what you said, and pay attention to it, and believe it!

Overteach.

Repeat, repeat, repeat! Most Youth Leaguers are not one-time learners. They need to be told over and over and over. It may seem boring at times, but the manager or coach needs to repeat instructions several times. Obviously, as the player moves from level to level there is less need for repetition. However, time spent on the earlier levels repeating basic instructions is well spent.

Have Fun!

Finally, it is important to remember that…

AFTER ALL IS SAID AND DONE, HAVING FUN IS “NUMBER ONE”

when it comes to Youth League Programs.

Youngsters learn better and remember more when they’re having fun.

The successful coach is one who teaches skills, sportsmanship, and teamwork in an overall atmosphere of “fun and games”.

By Dr. Darrell Burnett. Dr. Darrell Burnett is a clinical psychologist and a certified sports psychologist specializing in youth sports. He has been in private practice in Laguna Niguel, California for 25+ years. He is a member of the Little League International Board of Directors. He was listed among the “Top 100 Most Influential Sports Educators in America” by the Institute for International Sport.

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