At 4:40p on Tuesdays I make the risky right hand turn onto Murphy Memorial Drive. The turn is risky because The Murph is narrow at the mouth and you come in too hot after exiting the Sea Street racetrack. I sneak a glance at Grumpy White’s [closed permanently] and daydream about the hundreds of buffalo chicken sandwiches that I got rid of inside those walls.
I’ve been helping out with youth hockey skills on Tuesday nights at Quincy Youth. It feels great to be back on the ice in service of kids learning the game. In a life where I feel like I’m mostly fumbling my way through, this is a zone where I feel utterly competent. The right intervention can change a kid's life, no matter how minor the suggestion. For a kid that wants to get better, showing them what a “good stick” looks like can instantly make them a better defender. I love running a station for Coach Gibbons and finding a small detail to focus on that will help the kids with their game.
When I call them in for a huddle to offer a morsel of coaching, I’m scanning the group. I’m looking for eyeballs to connect with. The kids that are gazing at the clock trying to do the math of “how long till we’re done” get a little less of me than a kid who is sweaty and listening. I make a mental note of the kids who are looking for help and then I try to help. I don’t badger the drifting kids. Not every kid is eager to be a hockey player. Maybe their folks just need a quiet sixty to sit in the car and read a novel or look at butts on Instagram. Maybe the kid likes being in all the cool pads and hanging out with friends. These are great reasons to play youth hockey. I try not to lose sight of the fact that it’s hard to be a kid sometimes.
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The other kids I’m scanning for are the quiet ones who stand on the outskirts of a huddle. The ones who maybe feel like they don’t fully belong out here. I’ll try to find a few seconds to glide over and say something like: “I saw how hard you worked on that drill. Well done.” Sometimes the kid will be so startled you wonder if they ever hear any good news. I can still remember kind things and shitty things that coaches said to me as a child.
We run four sessions on Tuesday nights. Of the one hundred or so kids that we get to help, there are two or three who hang around after the session to touch gloves with all of the coaches and say, “Thanks, Coach.” I have to admit that it feels a little good to be thanked. It’s always the same couple of kids.
The first time it happened, I knew instantly that I wanted my kids to be “thanks, Coach” kids.
I started drilling this with Jake a few weeks ago. After we’re done with a sport, Jake will turn and sprint for the snack bar or the swingset or the parking lot. I summon him back and say, “Jake. Let’s go say thanks to Coach.” I’ll walk around the field hoping that Jake notices me collecting a cone or a stray ball, and then we walk up and I say, “Thanks, Coach,” and we wait one extra beat to make sure Coach hears it. Coach might be going home to a dark apartment to eat frozen pizza alone. A small moment like this might stay with her for days.
It’s hard to coach little kids. I’ve been coaching kids of various age for the past sixteen years with short breaks mixed in as I tried out various “real jobs”. The hardest group to coach is brand newbies. We all hear the lamentation about the attention span of this newest generation of athletes and I think the adults deserve a helping of blame for running boring practices and pre-game rehearsals. Here are some ideas if you find yourself elevated from spectator to volunteer coach.
Learn all of their first names immediately. Tape it on their shirts if you need to, but by week six, if you are still pointing and saying, “You! You’re the quarterback for this play,” that stinks.
You should only sign up to coach if you have the time. Beyond the weekly sixty minute game, do you have a free hour during the week to put some thought into what you’ll do with the kids this weekend? Which drills have worked well so far? Which ones stink and should be cut? You don’t need to know the neutral zone trap or a cover-2 defense, just watch some drills on YouTube and find some stuff worth trying.
It should be mandatory for K through second grade players to have an extra twenty five minute practice during the week followed by pizza and capri sun. We did this for baseball and all of the learning happened at these sessions.
Jake played on teams this fall where a coach would show up and stand there like a tobacco store Indian and shout things like “come on, guys! Line up! Play defense!” Most kids don’t know what “line up” means. You need to be prepared to put your hands on kids and set their bodies in the right spot. And give them a task for the next play. Here’s an example from kindergarten baseball.
“Here’s a place to stand with your bat. Hold the bat high, like this. When the ball comes, try to smash it into the parking lot.” If the kid made contact, I would lovingly run them down to first by the scruff of their neck. Remember that they know nothing.
Start every session by taking a knee with the kids. Share the plan for the session and set some expectations (take care of your teammates, have fun, be safe). A lot of these kids are first timers and your only job is to make their intro to the sport a positive experience. Go slow. Take the time to answer even the silliest questions.
You need to demonstrate things for the visual learners. John Wooden had a simple framework that works well. Do it like this. No, not that. Like this. A correct demo, followed by a common mistake to avoid, followed by a correct demo.
For the rest of the parents on the sidelines, you can’t criticize what the coach is doing if you haven’t volunteered to wear a whistle and carry the clipboard.
Great coaches have a way of connecting with the kids and selecting drills that are hard work but feel like fun.
If this sounds like a lot of work, it is. If a parent reads this who might be a potential show up and wing it person, I’d be delighted if this caused them to stand down and let someone else do it. I appreciate the parents who donate time. I do. I guess this is a call for us to do a little more.
I’m going to continue to work hard to help out with youth sports. I’ll find time to make practice plans and to work hard on learning their names. I hope you’ll consider helping, too. This is some of the most important work we can do as parents. Youth sports offer the most compelling canvas for teaching life’s lessons.