The Power of a Good Coach

A good coach with good training can transform a young athlete's life.

Up2Us Sports coaches
Up2Us Sports

If your child plays sports, even as a preschooler, you've probably seen how inspired a kid can be by a good coach. A coach can make a powerful impression on a child, which is why Up2Us Sports exists. Via research, training, and local programs, this organization aims to "harness the power of sports to reduce youth violence, promote health, and inspire academic success for kids in every community." I spoke to Megan Bartlett, chief program officer, about sports-based youth development (Up2Us Sports' focus) and good coaching.

Catherine Holecko: What is sports-based youth development?

Megan Bartlett: Sports-based youth development (SBYD) is the intentional use in the sports environment of strategies that can help the positive social, academic, and physical development of youth. A more formal definition:

"Sports-based youth development is a methodology that uses sports to provide the supports and opportunities youth need to be healthy contributing citizens now and as adults. A SBYD program offers youth an experience in which they learn and master sports skills along with life and leadership skills in a safe, fun, supportive and challenging environment. This experience involves caring relationships, facilitated learning, experiential learning and vigorous physical activity."

SBYD coaches prioritize relationships. As such, they employ strategies that will help them form lasting relationships with the youth they coach.

They build a positive, inclusive culture by following a strict behavior code, practicing positive traditions, and making sure that all athletes have an opportunity to meaningfully contribute to the team. SBYD coaches help keep kids engaged and build their self-efficacy by focusing on progress and not performance.

They are master skill-builders who use these techniques to help youth improve in their sport and develop the skills that will help them be successful in life. 

CH: How can volunteer coaches use these techniques with their athletes? It seems like almost any child could benefit, not just those who are in high-risk situations.

MB: Yes, any child can benefit from having a coach who uses SBYD techniques. Volunteer coaches should, first and foremost, consider relationships and fun. We know that 72% of girls and 79% of boys mention these reasons for leaving sports: "I wasn’t having fun," "I didn’t like my coach," and "I didn’t get along with my teammates." These are things that coaches can control! 

To build more positive relationships, coaches should spend more time listening and less time telling kids what to do. Have a quick check-in with kids when they arrive and show genuine interest in their lives. Make time for a “team time” circle at the end of practice, not to debrief the day or continue the lesson, but to let them talk about what they want to talk about, not what you want to talk about.

  Schedule some “informal time” where they can choose what they want to do.

To up the fun factor, let kids have more choice. When they choose the activity, they will have more fun (and they’ll be more invested in it, which is great for building their skills too!). Play more games! Game-like scenarios are the best ways for kids to practice their skills. Letting them play helps keep them engaged and keep them developing.

CH: What about parents who don't coach, but have kids who are involved in sports? Are there ways they could use SBYD techniques with their kids?

MB: Great coaches help kids learn how to learn, which is something that parents can also do! At Up2Us Sports, we encourage coaches to use the “How did you do that” interview. When a kid does something really well, good coaches celebrate it. Great coaches point out the specific thing they did and celebrate it. Exceptional coaches ask a very important question: How did you do that? 

When you ask kids how they accomplished something that they couldn’t previously do, they have to think about the process they took to learn that thing. They have to focus on the strategies they used while they were learning. When a player gets an overhand serve in for the first time in tennis, asking her how she did it makes her focus on the extra practice hours she put in, or the time she asked her coach for some special help, or the time she spent watching other players serving. Then a coach (or parent) has the chance to talk with her about how that extra practice, asking for help and studying the game might help her learn other things she wants to learn—on the court or in her life

CH: What should parents look for in a coach for their child? Of course it would be great to find one who is trained in SBYD. Any other skills or traits that make for a top-notch coach?

MB: As above, great coaches focus on relationships, positive team culture, the development of competence in sport and life skills, and make sure kids are having fun. Another critical characteristic of a great coach is that they see all the opportunities in sports for learning

The best coaches are the ones who create a learning environment that is kid-directed. Most coaches do a lot of telling—telling kids what skills to learn, plays to run, and things to work on. They also spend a lot of time settling disputes and dictating the flow of the game. Instead, if coaches let kids work these small conflicts out on their own (like who the ball went out of bounds off of, or whether or not the runner touched second base) then they get to practice working things out for themselves. Great coaches don’t make decisions for kids, but let them practice making decisions. 

CH: Why do you think sports are a good medium for messages about self-esteem, academic success and so on?

MB: Sports are a good medium for these messages and other critical learning opportunities because sports can and should be a place where kids get to practice taking risks. If a coach creates a safe and supportive learning environment, kids get to try new things without fear of consequences and they should be able to learn how to succeed and how to fail. Building a tolerance for, and even enjoyment of, competitive situations helps prepare kids for the times in their lives when they will have to compete. 

We also can't ignore the power that comes from kids' motivation to participate in sports. Because they want to be on the team, they are more engaged in all aspects of the sport. This gives the lessons they learn through sport some extra power. And it’s why relationships and fun are such crucial elements to the success of coaches. Kids learn the most when they are fully invested.

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