If you are a longtime reader of this blog, you may know that my father was a firefighter on the New York Fire Department many years ago. His father was a firefighter. My brother was a firefighter. But what you may not know is that after seven years on the job, my father was badly injured when he fell through a roof. His back injury forced his premature retirement from the NYFD, but he did not stop fighting fires. He became a volunteer with our local department on Long Island.

For over 50 years, my father served as a volunteer firefighter. He did a stint as Fire Chief, and once he could not longer fight fires he served as a teacher and instructor to new firefighters. I have many memories as a child of the alarm going off in the middle of the night and my dad running downstairs and out the door at 2am to go to a fire, car accident, or a false alarm.  He did this for decades, volunteering his time for the betterment and safety of the community, as did dozens of other amazing men and women. 

So why do I tell this story? Because volunteer coaches, and those who administer local sports programs that rely on volunteers, have a lot to learn from the dedicated volunteer firefighters.

Many sports organizers tell me that they are simply happy to have warm bodies to sign up and coach, and that they cannot ask them to do any certification or training because they already are donating so much time. And the statement I always say back to them is this:

“Thank goodness we don’t have the same level of expectations of our volunteer firefighters!” ‘Sorry sir, I know your house is burning down, but no one ever taught me to use the hose.’”

Well, some might argue that our metaphorical youth sports house is on fire, and the people best positioned to fix that — our volunteer coaches — have not been given the tools to do so. 70% of children quit sport before the age of 13, which means many of them never see a certified coach before they walk away. As the Aspen Institute tells us, only 5% of children quit sports the next year if they have a trained coach. Over 25% quit if their coach is untrained!

Think about everything that happens with our children throughout the day. Whether it is a pre or post school program, school, day care, child care, etc., every state has licensing and educational requirements in order to be qualified to take care of children. From 7am – 3pm, we are stringent about how our kids are cared for. But come 3pm, oftentimes the only requirement is “are you available? Yes, great, here is your bag of balls and cones, see you in 3 months!”

That is a travesty. And as volunteer firefighters demonstrate, the argument that community volunteers cannot do any additional training is simply false. And given that there cannot be anything more important for a volunteer to do then work with easily influenced children in a highly impactful environment like sports, it is crazy that so many organizations abdicate their responsibility to train those coaches. Not simply hand them a 20 year old PDF of outdated drills, but train them about the children who are in front of them. Email them great practices, but teach those volunteers about kids, their social and emotional needs, and their stage of development. 

“My five year old soccer players keep bunching up!” I hear often. “Of course they do,” I say, “if you gave a bunch of 5 year olds one toy to play with, do you think they would fight over it?”

“My seven year olds don’t pay attention!” coaches tell me. “Of course they don’t, because you have them standing in lines and you are giving kids with a 10 second attention span a 3 minute lecture with 6 coaching points!” I fire back.

Here is another falsehood: if we ask them to do more training, no one will coach. Yet as this article shows, when our friend Nate Baldwin took over the youth sports program in Appleton Wisconsin, (Winning the Race to the Right Finish Line in Youth Sports,) he had to actively recruit over 30 coaches for his 80 soccer teams. Five years later, after MANDATING coach education and giving them the tools to succeed, they not only grew the program to over 120 teams, but they only needed to find 8 coaches! When given proper training, coaches enjoy the experience and they are more likely to come back season after season.

As the Reverend Billy Graham stated, “a coach can influence more people in one season than most of us influence in our lifetime.” No truer words have ever been spoken. Which is exactly why we must start treating our volunteer coaches like volunteer firefighters. We must realize that lives are at stake, and we must mandate and deliver coach training that is relevant, age appropriate, and draws from a modern understanding of how children learn, and how to teach.

Volunteerism is no excuse for a lack of professionalism. I learned that many decades ago from my volunteer firefighter father, who gave countless hours of his time to prepare for that moment when a life was on the line. 

Coaches, we may not be put in life threatening situations on a daily basis, but please, let us never forget that our influence is powerful, and never neutral. Demand that your organization train its coaches, seek out opportunities to get better, and be the best version of yourself for the kids. Because they deserve it!

Let’s be more like volunteer firefighters, and make a huge difference in the health and well being of our community!

(If you are going to be coaching this Fall, you can take our quick, 60 minute course called “Transformational Coaching” for only $9 by clicking here. It will give you a great foundation for being the coach all your athletes need, so please share this link in your community!”)


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Tagged under: Coaching, youth sports