ONCE AGAIN, recent news brought us a sad story from the world of youth sports. In the Little League World Series for softball, a team from South Snohomish, WA was found to have purposely given less than their best effort in a game, in order to eliminate a potential competitor from the semifinals.
The South Snohomish coach, Fred Miller, was found by Little League to have deliberately tried to lose a game and not score more than three runs in order to avoid a rematch with a team from Iowa. His team rested many top players and gave the playing time to the reserves (not a problem in my book if this was all he had done). He sadly also instructed players to bunt instead of swing away, even in two strike situations. As a result, his team was no-hit and lost 8-0 to North Carolina, eliminating Iowa.
The Iowa coach, sensing something was amiss, filed a protest, and Little League ordered a one game playoff, which Iowa won and thus eliminated South Snohomish. The incident was later described to the Seattle Times by South Snohomish Little League President Jeff Taylor:
“Our coach was faced with a decision that, in the bubble of intense competition, appeared to him to be in the best interest of our team. In hindsight, it is very likely he would have made a different choice. Though the decision that Coach Miller made did not violate the letter of the rules, I can see abundant evidence that it was not in line with the spirit of the game.”
“We hope that everyone remembers that the decisions that have placed our team under scrutiny were decisions made by the coach. Our young ladies had no role in that. In fact, they have fought their hearts out to be in the World Series and nothing should take away from that accomplishment.”
This story is sadly similar to one from last year’s baseball Little League World Series, where the team from Jackie Robinson West in Chicago was stripped of their title after it was discovered that the team used a falsified boundary map to add players to its roster, and then tried to get other organizations to lie about it and cover it up. As Little League CEO Stephen Keener stated after stripping the team of its title:
“The real troubling part of this is that we feel horribly for the kids who are involved with this. Certainly, no one should cast any blame, any aspersions on the children who participated on this team. To the best of our knowledge, they had no knowledge that they were doing anything wrong. They were just kids out playing baseball, which is the way it should be.”
Both stories highlight what I believe to be a major issue in youth sports: we have a coaching problem.
Now I don’t want to throw these coaches under the bus here. No coach should ever be defined by the poorest decision he or she ever made. Coach Miller and the adults from Jackie Robinson West have likely made some incredibly positive impacts on young athletes. Yet these two cases are perfect examples to all coaches who work with children that every word we say, and every action we take, can have a tremendously positive or negative impact. Coaches don’t get to decide which words stick, and which ones do not, so we must be intentional about everything we say and do!
Far too often these days, inadequately trained coaches are making decisions that compromise the integrity of the game in order to “earn” a trophy. This happens when winning becomes more important then playing the game the right way, and outcomes are more important than development.
This happens when coaches do not realize the tremendous power they have to influence lives and be positive role models, and results take precedence over coaching and teaching. While events such as the ones surrounding the LLWS get the publicity, the issue is, sadly, very common. A survey by ESPN and the Aspen Institute found that over 60% of parents identified the quality and behavior of their coaches as a big concern.
We have a big coaching problem.
Far too often, untrained or insufficiently trained coaches are entrusted with the well being of our young athletes. Sadly, the results of poor coaching often go beyond having to forfeit a game.
Poorly trained coaches can be bullies, they can demean kids, and their actions can leave emotional and physical scars that last a lifetime.
We need to fix this. We need to mandate the training of ALL coaches!
When we look at youth sports participation numbers in the US, we see a decline in participation rates. In 2008, 58.6% of children age 6-11 played a team sport at least once a year, but by 2013 that was down to 52.2%. That translates to over 2.6 million fewer kids age 6-11 participating in sports.
The majority of kids age 6-11 are being coached by volunteer coaches. These coaches are the gatekeepers of sports, and often determine whether an experience is a positive one, or a negative one. However well intentioned these coaches may be, the sad fact is many of them are inadequately trained. According to Jarrett Royster, the director of education for the YMCA, of the 6.5 million youth coaches in the US, only 1 in 5 have been trained in age appropriate motivation and communication, and only 1 in 3 say they have been trained in sport specific techniques and tactics.
In other words, we are entrusting our children’s love of sport and participation in a lifetime of activity with well-meaning, but inadequately prepared moms and dads. I certainly do not blame the coaches, for they are doing exactly what is asked of them, and are doing their best with the little help they receive. It keeps the financial costs down, but at what cost in terms of sport participation, and the well being of children?
Imagine for a moment that our school system entrusted the teaching of reading, writing and math in elementary school to the moms and dads who volunteered their time. How would that affect children’s ability to read, write, and (gasp) enjoy learning! It is hard to imagine, because we would never do that, as we see these abilities as essential. Yet when we look at the massive benefits of sport participation and active lifestyles, isn’t a positive early sport experience nearly as essential?
The biggest fear amongst youth sports organizations is the fear that they will not attract enough volunteers if they require too much of them. At first glance, this seems to make sense, as these coaches are already donating a ton of time just to be at practices and games. Yet when we look at the research, and what other countries (and forward thinking US organizations) have done, this is simply not true. On the contrary, it seems clear that we are not attracting and retaining enough volunteers simply because we are not preparing them to have an enjoyable and impactful experience, and providing them with the tools to do so.
In countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom, all coaches of all levels are required to undergo some level of certification before they are allowed to work with kids. In the US, USA Hockey and USA Rugby have required certification for all volunteers. Are there still bad apples and some bad decisions by coaches? Of course. But most importantly, instead of chasing coaches away, it has increased volunteer rates, and provided our kids with better prepared coaches!
A prepared coach is a happy coach! A happy coach is a better coach, and is more likely to return year after year and provide a positive experience for kids.
It is time that sports organizations not only require coaching education, but make education part of their culture, something that people want to do instead of ‘have to do.” This takes bold decision making, and not simply doing the bare minimum. Sending an outdated pdf of drills no longer cuts it. We must make training accessible on the field, online and at all levels of coaching. (For examples of fantastic free resources, check out The Drill Book for soccer, hockey, baseball and basketball activities, and the Positive Coaching Alliance’s Development Zone for a treasure trove of coach and parent education material.)
Here are three ways our youth sports organizations can better educate our coaches, and make the sporting environment a better one for our kids:
1) Help coaches to focus on the right things:
When researcher Amanda Visek of George Washington University asked children what were the top five characteristics of a coach they listed the following:
- Respect and Encouragement
- Positive role model
- Clear, consistent communication
- Knowledge of the sport
- A good listener
A thorough coaching education program must not simply be a handout of a few drills to run, as clearly that is only a part of what will make the experience a good one, or a negative one. Coaches must be taught age appropriate psychology, the impact and tremendous power of their words to build or destroy self-esteem, and how to create a physically, mentally and emotionally safe place to play. And they must have access to education in person and online. Scheduling a single coaches meeting and hoping everyone shows up no longer cuts it.
This past spring, for example, I coached my 7 year-old son’s lacrosse team, and I was required to take a one-hour online course about concussions (a new mandate for all coaches in Oregon). We were not required, however, to learn anything about lacrosse, or anything about kids, (though we were given a pdf to go through for some ideas and rules.) THIS IS INADEQUATE! I was required by law to learn about something that MIGHT effect a very small percentage of kids, a concussion, yet I was not required to learn anything about creating a positive sporting experience, which effects EVERY KID! We need both!
2) Create Opportunities for Advanced Learners
Great coaches build training sessions that allow for learners of all levels to be challenged, and great sports organizations should do the same for their coaches. We should not have one coaching education night that is the same every year, for every coach. Who would want to see the same stuff year after year?
Having run multiple organizations that depended upon volunteers, one thing I learned is that some coaches only have the time and energy to do the bare minimum required, but many of them are passionate about being an excellent coach, and are hungry for more tools. Sadly, in order to better themselves, these coaches are forced to find information and educational opportunities on their own.
We need to provide ongoing field sessions for coaches of all ages and stages. We need to provide online learning about safety, psychology, and child development. We need to recommend great books and websites. We need to help coaches realize that the people in front of them are not undersized adults, with similar needs, values and priorities as themselves; they are kids, and they need activities, games, communication and motivation that is developmentally appropriate. In other words, treating your 9 year-old football players like your high school coach treated you – see Friday Night Tykes – is never appropriate, and very ineffective.
3) Attract New Coaches, and Retain the Ones You Have by Rewarding Them
One of the best ways to get enough coaches for your organization is to retain the ones you have. Reward their loyalty by providing them with additional tools and resources. Reward them by offering advanced education for coaches who return, or opportunities for their kids. In Virginia, for example, Virginia Rush Soccer Club runs a free summer camp for the children of its volunteer coaches. Those coaches can attend and learn a slew of additional activities for the upcoming season, and their kids get a great summer soccer experience out of it. It’s an idea worth emulating.
As far as attracting new coaches, the best way to do that is to tap into your biggest underutilized resource: MOMS! Only 25% of all youth coaches are women, so making an effort to attract and train female coaches, perhaps by running special female only training programs for them, is a great way to fill your coaching ranks, not to mention provide positive role models for your players.
If we want to stop the decline in youth sports participation, it is incumbent upon us to provide children with a better experience. We can only do that by surrounding them with educated coaches and positive role models who respect them, teach them, and motivate them to live a lifetime of healthy activity.
Will some youth sports coaches continue to make poor decisions in the heat of the moment?
Of course, that is inevitable.
But we can start addressing this issue, and go a long way to creating a better sports environment for our kids, by requiring certification and education for all coaches,. We can help youth sports refocus on developing better athletes and better people, instead of who wins the most games at age 10. We can give coaches the tools to make better decisions for their players, and themselves.
It’s time we gave our coaches the training and resources they need to be great!
It’s time to train ALL our coaches!
(And lest I only say negative things about Little League, here is a positive one, the finest example of youth coaching I have ever seen)