A coach’s primary job

I won’t enumerate all the facets of a youth coach’s job. It would take an entire book and more. I will argue, however, that a coach’s primary job is to teach. No, it is not to win; it is to teach kids how to win. Most of that teaching goes on Karen Coffinat practice, and I’m going to focus on just one part of coaching: teaching a skill. If you are new coach or a parent trying to help your child learn, these techniques will help make the teaching easier and more successful. Coaching is harder than it looks.
It should be obvious, but it is real important to be sure you are teaching the right thing! Techniques may be different from when you learned or from what you see at the college or pro level. You can find all kinds of sources to help with what to teach. Books, videos, and clinics are readily available. Assistants and parents should all be teaching the same skill basics. Head coaches should not assume everyone is on the same page. Teach the adults on your team too.

Parents, please watch a few practices or check (briefly) with a coach to make sure how you can best help your child. If a parent teaches one way and the coach another; it puts the child in a very bad predicament. Whatever they do, someone they are trying to please is likely to be upset. It’s a lose - lose situation.
It’s also important to consider the developmental aspects of learning a certain skill set. It’s better to learn to bat off a tee than it is to hit against a pitcher, for example. Good coaches take kids through a steady progression of basic to advanced skills at a pace suited to each player. Be aware that when learning a skill, there will be plateaus and that often, a player will get worse before they get better. Learning something new and using it in competition can take months. Be patient.
Use the “whole-part-whole” method. Have a demonstration of the entire skill and break it into parts to teach. Then put all the parts together again. In many sports, a skill will feature a wind-up, a contact and a follow through. Practice each part of the sequence and then coordinate them. Do not look only for the result of the attempt; look for the correct process. Go back to the parts. If someone takes a mighty swing and whiffs, let the player know the follow through was perfect if it was. Build on the good parts and change the parts that need improvement. You will have to repeat this many times, and you will get exasperated when the players can’t do it in competition. It will be easy for them to fall back into familiar patterns under pressure.
Another thing to realize is that kids learn in different ways. Some learn by seeing a demonstration and copying it. Others can listen to directions and understand. A lot of people respond better to understanding what it feels like (kinesthetic). In teaching an overhand throw (which leads to a serving motion), you should demonstrate it; say things like “turn your belly button to the side”; and tell them it feels like a fisherman has snagged their hand from behind and is reeling it in.
In practices, try very hard to keep everyone busy. A line of more than 4-5 players is a line with kids in it who are not learning anything. In fact, they are probably distracting others because they are talking or horsing around. Design drills with this in mind. Have different stations going at the same time and the kids moving from one to another. Just because the coach is busy does not mean the kids are.
I once asked 2nd graders to tell me what a good coach does. The 1st child answered that “They have a whistle and yell a lot.” Ouch. The 2nd one replied, “They help you get better.” The 2nd kid had the right answer.

Karen Coffin, retired coach, is a member of the P.C.H.S. Athletic Hall of Fame. She’s a writer and a facilitator for Ohio Coaching Education classes. Contact her at coachcoffin

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