Coaching the Correct Level and Age-Group

In 1st grade, I played soccer with a number of 2nd graders. Our club had two teams in the same age group, and we played each other late in the season. It poured, but we played anyway. We had so much fun. Our uniforms were green, but my team wore white t-shirts for the game. Our t-shirts were brown by game’s end, and our running and sliding in the mud tore apart the field. I cannot remember which team won – the Blitz or the Cosmos – but I remember that it was a blast to play.

I played in the same soccer club through 8th grade. Eventually, the Blitz and the Cosmos joined together to become the Comitz and then the Irish Rovers. Our coaches changed from Mrs. Gifford to Mr. Slavik to Mr. McDevitt. However, the soccer never changed much. We were always pretty good, but none of us took soccer seriously. Soccer was recreation. We played for fun. Our coaches kept us in shape and created an environment where we loved to play and practice. I never remember wanting to skip a practice. I looked forward to practice and games and loved to play soccer.

However, I never improved greatly. I was a decent player. I played midfield. I tackled the ball aggressively and had the best throw-ins on the team. In retrospect, our coaches kept the game fun, which was great when we were young, but they never transitioned to more fundamental and tactical instruction. While other players lost interest and quit, I loved to run around and play, but I never developed great fundamentals. However, I did not know any better as soccer was never on television to expose me to a different way to play the game.

Over time, players’ motivations and needs change. My soccer coaches were great for the younger age groups. However, to develop as a soccer player, I needed to transition to a different coach who stressed the tactics and technical skills. I remained in a recreational environment, which was great and fun and met my needs, but if I had wanted to become a better, more fundamental soccer player, I needed to find a more development-oriented program before high school.

In Benjamin Bloom’s Developing Talent in Young People, he outlines three distinct phases during a child’s development regardless of discipline. In the Early Years, a coach’s most important asset is his engaging personality and positive attitude. Creating a positive, fun environment where the athletes feel secure and comfortable is more important than teaching ability or winning games. If a coach makes every player feel important, he or she succeeded, and my soccer coaches certainly excelled in this respect.

As Real Madrid Head Coach Ettore Messina wrote on his blog:

“If I see that my child comes home perfectly adequate and most of the times positive, and his team is playing with a good sense of togetherness, for me that’s the sign that you might want to stay with this coach.”

During this phase, the player develops the passion for playing the game, as without the passion, he is unlikely to work hard enough to become a great player. A coach who inspires a love of the game during the Early Years accomplishes far more than anyone realizes.

As Ettore Messina wrote:

“Until kids turn 12-13 it’s not only sport, it’s more a game. By game I mean something that can be played with a lot of mistakes. It should involve a lot of fun. It’s like in school when you experience all the fun when you start to read, to count or to discover something new. It’s more a game for the first 4-5 years. Then it becomes more serious and you should start asking those kids to be much more selective in their understanding and their learning. You start pressing them a little bit more to organize their ability to study. The same in sports, it should not be about fundamentals until at least 10. For sure, you can teach your children to know their body through the use of the ball: how to catch, how to roll, how to run with the ball etc.”

In the Middle Years, teaching is important. During this phase, players need a coach who teaches them how to play the game and gives them the tools for future success. The quality of a coach’s feedback determines his worth, as a player must learn the proper skill execution during this phase.

Currently, many parents and coaches want to skip these initial stages and move directly to a more competitive environment. Messina warns that “you should not hurry to make your kid a pro athlete that has four or more trainings a week and dedicates a lot of time to sports. Personally, I think, this should not happen until the kid turns 14-15. Young kids that are exposed to a very high level of pressure physically, technically and mentally, usually, cannot stand this kind of pressure. I would like to find a teacher for my kid who will be able to offer a reasonable level of challenge to the young players and develop some kind of group mentality, still respecting everybody’s personality.”

indoor courtMy basketball coaches were more technique-oriented than my  soccer coaches. In junior high school, our coaches forced us to use our right and left hands proficiently and spent copious amounts of time on proper shooting technique. We learned about help defense and we ran the Flex offense.

In high school, my coaches varied, but our junior varsity head coach was an old school stickler for fundamental execution. We drilled everything. Every player learned to play in the post and handle the ball. We did box-out and transition drills every day.

Finally, when I moved to Sweden after my senior year of high school, I played on an under-19 team in my town, and our coach focused on developing tactical skills through 2v2 and 3v3 games. We did some drills – especially shooting drills – but spent much of practice working together in small-sided games to utilize our basic fundamentals and learn to play the game without relying on set plays.

Throughout my development, my coaches constantly stressed fundamental execution and developed my skills gradually and purposefully. I loved to play the game and constantly practiced on my own, supplementing the lessons from practice with my own individual practice. We played every day at recess in junior high school, and after school I practiced in my front yard. During the off-season in high school, we played open gyms or went to the park to play almost every day.

My coaches provided the basic instruction and also the motivation – what Daniel Coyle terms the ignition in The Talent Code – to work on my own and improve my skills. The combination of the ignition and the instruction helped me to develop my fundamental skills, while I lacked the fundamental emphasis in my youth soccer days.

During the Late Years, players need a “finishing” coach who brings together the player’s passion and fundamental skills to create a great performance. During this phase, sports change from a fun, learning environment to a more competitive atmosphere where winning and performance are important.

In college, I joined the UCLA Crew team. Our head coach did one thing particularly well: he made us believe in our ability. More specifically, throughout the season, he created a self-belief that we would be the strongest team at the finish of the race. In our final race, at the Pacific Coast Rowing Championships, my boat, a lightweight four, told our coxswain to do whatever she had to do in the first 1500 meters to keep us within a boat-length of the other boats and we would out sprint the opposition in the last 500 meters.

Until my first race, I had never seen a race. I had no idea if we were the best conditioned and strongest boat in the race, but our mindset made us the strongest. After a horrible start, we were in fifth out of six boats at the 500m mark. We walked on three boats and finished second. At the 500m mark, we trailed three boats by about a boat-length; however, unbeknownst to us, one boat destroyed the competition and we were close to two-and-a-half boat lengths behind at the 500m mark. In the end, our coach’s emphasis through every drill and every comment all season – that we would be the best boat in the last 500 – came to fruition.

At the college level, the coach’s job is to develop his team into a winning team, and our coach managed to succeed. I am not a rowing technician, so I do not know if he was the greatest technical or tactical rowing coach, but he reached his athletes, assisted with our development, motivated us to work past our comfortable level and developed a mental toughness that earned us the silver in our biggest race of the year.

When we discuss coaching, we view coaching as one profession. However, coaching differs greatly between levels. A college coach may succeed at the college level where much of his job is to evaluate, recruit and sign players, but these skills do not translate when coaching 10-year-olds. A youth coach may have great enthusiasm and create a great environment, but these skills may not translate to a varsity high school team.

Once we acknowledge that athletes have different needs and motivations at different levels and coaching basketball is not just one thing, how does a parent select a coach for his or her son or daughter?

Watch your son or daughter and decide on his or her phase of development. Look for those characteristics in a coach. When your son or daughter finishes practice or a game, is he or she happy?

I spoke to the director of a youth basketball camp, and he said that he had three parents tell him that traveling team coaches were telling them that if they do not start their child on a traveling team now (as nine-year-olds), their child will never make it to high school basketball.

Is travel ball necessary for nine-year-olds? Is it beneficial? Why does a nine-year-old need a travel team? Is it a more positive, fun environment for the player? Does the coach make every player feel important? Does the coach inspire a love of the game? If the travel team accomplishes these goals better than a recreational or neighborhood team than the travel team is worth a look.

However, if the travel team is like most and winning games takes precedence, does a nine-year-old need that performance pressure? Some believe the competitive pressure toughens the young athlete and helps his ultimate success. However, what is the ultimate goal of youth sports: to produce professional athletes or to provide a fun, positive experience where kids can make friends, learn sports and develop their mind and body?

In a 1993 study, kids were asked what they considered fun about their sport. They answered:

  • 8-years-old: Being able to do the skill
  • 9-years-old: Learning and improving skills
  • 10-years-old: Playing with friends
  • 11-years-old: Competing with others about the same ability
  • 12-years-old: Competing against a challenging opponent
  • 13-15-years-old: Winning games

[Shi, N. and Ewing, M.E. (1993). Definitions of Fun for Youth Soccer Players.]

Based on the study, does the average nine-year-old need a competitive travel-ball experience to make the high school team in five years?

Picking the right coach for your child is often difficult because so much focus and attention is placed on winning or the coach’s system. We undervalue the important skills of youth coaches and exaggerate the importance of the skills used at the professional level.

Bob Knight was a great college coach, but his demeanor would terrify a nine-year-old, not make him fall in love with playing basketball. Most people overlook the importance of a youth coach who makes players feel important and develops a love for playing the game.

Similarly, we overlook the importance of a coach’s patience during the Middle Years. An impatient coach will not help a player to develop his skills. Skill-building requires time – 10,000 hours according to K. Anders Ericsson. Developing a new skill also is a mistake-laden process.

To improve, a player has to move beyond his current level and constantly challenge his ability. An impatient or critical coach may not tolerate the time or mistakes involved in this process.

At the end of the spectrum, a youth coach who makes players feel important may not provide the discipline or motivation necessary when working with already talented players who just need the last small push or need to see how they fit into the overall picture.

I am fortunate because I had great coaches who fit their roles at every step of my development. If my junior varsity high school basketball coach was my coach in 5th grade when I joined my first basketball team, I doubt that I would have pursued basketball much longer. However, if my 1st grade soccer coach coached a high school team, I doubt the team would fare very well.

These coaches were great in the roles that they played. However, that does not mean that they would be great coaches in EVERY role that they choose to play. Some coaches excel with a variety of different players and different age-groups. However, other coaches should acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses and stick to their strengths.

I know several AAU programs that grow frustrated when players leave their programs when they get to high school. It is unfortunate that players show a lack of loyalty, but in some cases, the player is taking a step that he or she must take to further his or her development.

For instance, if I decided in 5th grade that I really wanted to be a soccer player, I would have looked for a club with a higher level of coaching. If I made the high school team and decided that I wanted to play in college, I would have searched for another club that would provide more elite competition and exposure to college scouts. That does not mean that my initial coach was bad or unimportant. Instead, my decision means that I learned all that I could from my first coach and she did such a great job and developed such a passion for playing that I had to leave her to turn my passion into better performance.

Unfortunately, rarely does the initial coach receive any credit in the development matrix, and the final coach – the club team before I left for college – gets most of the respect and accolades. More people want to join this club and play for this coach including younger and younger players who need to develop the passion and the fundamentals, and this finishing coach may not have the tools to coach these players effectively.

A great under-9 coach does not have to be a great fundamental teacher. A great under-12 coach does not need to be a great X’s and O’s coach. A great college coach does not have to be a great skill development coach.

Rather than examine these coaches’ deficiencies, we need to focus on a coach’s strengths and match the strengths to the players’ needs. When a coach who really makes players feel important, makes the game fun and builds self-esteem coaches high school varsity players, it is not always a great match; however, put the same coach with 10-year-olds and everyone wins.

A great skill development coach may not win at the college level and therefore will be fired. That does not mean that he is a bad coach, and once he finds an environment that values skill development – like 12 to 14-year-olds – his brilliance as a skill development coach will shine.

As a coach, examine your strengths and weaknesses and try to match your strengths to the right age group. As a parent, examine your son and daughter and find a coach who meets his or her physical and psychological needs.

By Brian McCormick, M.S.S., PES
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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