20 Ways to Prepare Young Athletes for Success in Sports and in Life

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 “There are two types of parents:

those that prepare child for the path ahead

and those that prepare the path for the child”

I’ve been around sports my entire life.  My Mom signed me for every youth sports program in our town and then did a great job of standing back and just supporting, never yelling.  She never talked to my coaches about my playing time….but came really close one time to giving my head football coach “a piece of her mind” after a very public beratement on the sideline after an interception that I had thrown.

I started coaching Pee Wees while still in high school and immediately jumped back into coaching after returning home from my tour with the USMC.  So I have coached basketball and football to ages 7 to 18 since I was the age of 15 years old.  I have coached boys and girls, including my 3 daughters and my son (my most challenging task of my career)

A couple of observations….

  • I never heard of AAU or elite travel teams when I was playing as a teenager.  We would make the local All-Star team and represent our hometown in playoffs.  When playoffs ended, we would all move on to the next sport with our friends.
  • It took me several years to “earn” a trophy because we didn’t get a trophy for trying – and I don’t recall anyone complaining about this lack of hardware on the mantle.
  • I didn’t send an email until I was in college and started “texting” in my thirties.  But I did own a pager and had “secret” codes for my closest friends.  I had all my friends numbers memorized and privacy depended on how long the telephone chord was.  When I wanted to see someone, I went to their house and knocked on the door.  Miraculously I still managed to have normal social interactions with other human beings.

My coaching career spans MacIntosh to Apple,  AOL to Google, Pagers to Cell Phones, Super Mario to Madden, and Chat Rooms to MySpace to Facebook.  It is obvious that kids “these days” are different. They respond to a different style of coaching, and that surely means that parenting styles must be different, too.

When I went to high school, if you didn’t play sports the school psychologist was calling you in for an evaluation.  Everyone played something.  Now 50% of the boys in a school play sports because Air Conditioning, 99 channels, video games, and the internet are way more appealing than running wind sprints.

I also think that burnout rates in teen athletes have gone sky high at the same time that the number of overzealous, pushy, high-pressure parents has increased exponentially.

I’ve also noticed the “typical” kid who walks through my door isn’t as athletic as he used to be.

 Asymmetries are more profound, injury histories are more extensive, basic movement skill acquisition has been skipped over, and – perhaps more significantly – the athletes are a bit “desensitized” to the overall training process.

   They view everything as just another game/practice, so the value of each training exposure is a bit less. This was something that just didn’t happen when I was younger and free play was so heavily      emphasized; we got tremendously excited for each opportunity to get better, whether it was a summer soccer camp or a new drill or training approach that our coaches introduced.

  Now, make no mistake about it: we aren’t going to end the Technology Era, and I don’t expect travel teams and showcases to go away, either. However, we can change our attitudes toward them and behavior surrounding them – and, most importantly, how we interact with our kids with respect to their athletic careers. To that end, I thought I’d throw out some examples of suggestions on strategies I’ve seen employed by parents who have young athletes who are well-mannered and successful while enjoying sports – from little league to the Big Leagues.

1. Never overreact – or underreact.

Sports are games, and games are supposed to be fun. Parents and youth coaches should focus on the journey, the process instead of the target destination.  On drives home crack jokes to lighten the mood, and then try to find a learning experience in losing, as opposed to just reaming a kid out and then sitting in silence for the rest of the ride home.  Taking the fun out of the game is the main reason kids give up a sport.

Underreacting can be equally problematic. If a kid doesn’t take the process seriously, he should hear about it – just like if he ignores his homework or refuses to take out the trash. If he is rude to a coach or umpire, doesn’t hustle, shows up late to practice, or poorly handles something that is 100% within his control, he should be disciplined for it. Blindly siding with your kid when he misbehaves or is lazy sets a very dangerous precedent, but it also puts a coach in a very uncomfortable situation of having to discipline your kid because you haven’t.

2. Watch competition, but not practice.

When parents are watching practice, they are much less outgoing. However, take the parents away, and they’ll let their guards down, make new friends, and try new things.
This is a big part of both physical and social development. When parents stick around to watch practice/training – even if it’s with wildly supportive intentions – kids won’t come out of their shell. Sports are a great way to teach kids to “roll” with different social circles, and it’s important for them to get this experience without helicopter parents interfering.

By all means, go to game and cheer kids on, but don’t stick around to watch practice. As an added bonus, you avoid the possibility of a coach looking over his shoulder the whole time as he wonders whether you’re second-guessing him.  Every coach dreads the parent who wants to live vicariously through his kid, so the more space you give your child, the less likely you are to be perceived like that.

3. Have your kid play multiple sports.

Focusing on one sport at a young age creates more long term harm than the short term benefits. Kids are more likely to get injured and they miss out on a well-rounded sports experience that fosters better athleticism and social interactions over the long haul.  Furthermore, playing different sports year-round is a great way to teach the athlete to be calm under pressure.  I want my athletes up to bat with the tying run at 3rd and at the free throw line in a tied game.  It is impossible to simulate these pressure situations in practice.  Besides, playing multiple sports means being motivated by multiple coaches and hearing fresh perspectives.

82% of the top athletes from the four major sports in the U.S. actually played multiple sports.

Here’s a great interview with Blake Griffin that Elsbeth posted:

4. Encourage play, not always practice/competition.

Even when the sport in question remains constant, play is different than practice, as it is far less regimented, and there is far more quality movement because there are fewer stoppages for teaching. It also presents a far richer proprioceptive environment and greater opportunity for social development. Kids need to play more – and in a variety of disciplines. Adolescent athletes need practice.

5. Don’t allow kids to get desensitized to losing.

With more and more tournaments being round robin and double elimination formats, I think we have a generation of kids who has been desensitized to losing.  It’s even worse when their school team loses, but they don’t care because their “club” team has a tournament that weekend.

Losing is part of life, but that doesn’t mean that we should be satisfied with it. It should motivate us to work harder so that it doesn’t happen again. This doesn’t just apply to sports, either; it applies to life.

6. Make kids do manual labor.

Some of the best teams in our school history did not lift weights. The head coach volunteered them all summer to bail hay. They were physical specimens who won championships in football, basketball, and baseball.  They had more players earn college scholarships and get drafted  in wrestling during a 5-year period than the entire history of the school.

Beyond the obvious physical benefits of manual labor, I think that it teaches you that a job isn’t over until the project is completed. You don’t just go out and shovel snow for 15 minutes; you shovel snow until you’ve shoveled all the snow that needs to be shoveled. This is true of almost all manual labor one would do around the house; it doesn’t have to be an official job.

I love seeing kids who are task oriented and not time oriented.

7. Get kids involved in charity work.

If you’re reading this, your kid is spoiled. What do I mean?

You can actually afford to have the internet. A lot of parents and kids don’t have that luxury – or any of a number of other ones that we take for granted.

My daughter’s high school basketball coach took the team down to a homeless shelter to help serve Thanksgiving meals every year.  This had a profound effect on my daughter, who would end up earning a D-1 scholarship.

“It completely changed my life. I had no idea that people lived like that, especially children.”

And, this came from a child who was raised on a teacher’s salary.  Perspective like this is also important because it makes you realize that making an error in the ninth inning isn’t the end of the world – when you have a roof over your head and food on the table.

Another thing that we have done is having our football players work at our youth camps.  I feel strongly that it’s important to embrace the concept of giving back – both in one’s own community and beyond.

8. Make kids get up 10-15 minutes earlier to make and eat breakfast.

It drives me bonkers when I hear a kid say that he can’t find time for breakfast. Don’t find time; make time!

My most productive time of day is 4:30AM-7AM. I didn’t realize this until I was in my mid-20s. I only wish that I’d learned much sooner that good things happen when you get up a little earlier:

  • When you get up earlier, you learn to go to bed earlier. Look at research and you’ll quickly realize that sleeping more hours before midnight is great for your health.
  • The morning world is a more enlightened world. As an example, look at TV shows at night versus in the morning. In the evening, you get sitcoms, comedy, violence, and infomercials. In the morning, you get the news.
  • Research pretty much supports that people – and particularly kids – who eat breakfast are less likely to be overweight.
  • The world is a lot quieter in the morning, and silence almost always equates to increased focus and productivity.

9. Set an example.

Overweight parents are more likely to have overweight kids. This is just one way in which kids model parents’ behaviors. Work ethic, attention to detail, punctuality, and a host of other factors follow suit.

10. Don’t contest grades in school.

Teachers don’t give grades; kids earn grades. If you start contesting grades, where do you stop? Do you call potential employers because they won’t hire little Johnny – who is now 23 years old and still has Mommy doing his laundry and cooking him mac ‘n cheese?

If you don’t respect a teacher or coach’s authority and appreciate their good intentions, then your kid won’t, either.

11. Don’t brag about your kid.

 “No matter how strong you think you are, there is still a 120-pound woman warming up with your max somewhere.”

If you are proud of your kid, tell him so. And, feel free to tell your family members. However, it should stop there. Why?

 Coaches and scouts have always seen someone better. And, to take it a step further, they also realize that there is an inverse relationship between how much a parent brags and how talented a kid really is. Anecdotally, the best players with whom I’ve worked all have tremendously humble parents who have worked hard to keep them grounded even if others always told them how good they were.

Bragging is entirely different than giving valuable feedback, though. If a parent has thoughts or suggestions that can benefit me in training a young athlete, I am absolutely all ears. Don’t by shy; just use discretion.

12. Never send college recruiting emails on behalf of your kid.

College coaches deal with recruits every single day of the week and they want to know what kind of kid they are recruiting.  They do no want to deal with the parents because the parents won’t be at practice or in the locker room.

Candidly, when a parent sends an email on behalf of their kid, they’re saying, “I want you to give my son a scholarship to COLLEGE even though I don’t think he’s qualified to put together a 4-5 sentence email for himself. Also, I wipe his butt for him, and he still wets the bed.”

Teach your child initiative and to ask questions. At the end of the day, this is about educating kids on how to be proactive and decisive. These two traits go a long way in sports and beyond.

13. Don’t tell coaches to “kick his ass.”

If your kid isn’t tough by his teenage years, it’s not because a coach hasn’t pushed him; it’s likely because parents have let him get away with murder early on and not held him accountable.
A coach trying to force a kid to be tough later on in life will increase his risk of injury and the likelihood that he’ll hate exercise and develop a sedentary lifestyle when his athletic career ends. I will, however, challenge him, educate him, and hold him accountable for his actions in my presence.

14. Don’t allow limp handshakes or conversations without eye contact.

This point shouldn’t warrant any explanation. Sprinting out to his position on the field, picking up equipment after a game, and cheering on teammates are all little things that teach kids to show that they really care. If they approach one part of their life apathetically, who is to say that it won’t carry over to everything else that they do?

15. Surround kids with unconditionally positive people.

The Colorado Rockies players loved the hiring of Dante Bichette as their hitting coach. Carlos Gonzalez – one of the top players in Major League Baseball – said, “Just being honest, I don’t want a guy who’s always being negative. He’s been really good for me already.” Guys in the big leagues are conditioned more than anyone else to learn to deal with failure; after all, the best hitters on the planet still fail 60-70% of the time! Yet, they STILL generally respond more favorably to people who are positive. Don’t you think that kids who are less prepared would need that unconditionally positive influence even more?

Parent’s should find unconditionally positive people who know their stuff to coach their kids.  And they have to put their trust in them. They wouldn’t tell their accountant how to do their taxes, and they wouldn’t tell their lawyers how to write up their contracts.

16. Make kids write thank you notes.

The TWO Most Important Words to Teach a Child are: PLEASE and THANK-YOU

17. Educate kids on how to read a situation as casual or formal.

Remember back in high school when you had to dress up on game days?  There were always 1-2 schmucks who stubbornly resisted. They didn’t tie their ties tight enough, wore sneakers with dress pants, or continued to let their khakis hang way too far down on their butts. .

Kids live in the texting and tweeting world and have no idea when it’s appropriate to be casual versus formal. I’d wager that most of those guys are still living in their parents’ basement, too. Even more now than in previous decades, it’s important to hammer home that kids need to be more formal in writing, conversation, and dress.

18. Educate kids on the dangers of technology.

Kids have ALWAYS said stupid things since the beginning of time, but not until now was it easy for something dumb on the internet to “go viral” so quickly.  Every week, we hear stories of professional and collegiate athletes getting into trouble for what they post as status updates on social networks.  Parents and coaches need to educate our youth to the proper etiquette of social media, otherwise, it’s possible to undo a lot of good with one bad post.

19. Don’t give participation trophies.

Participation trophies are the “yin” to the “yang” of the overbearing parent or crazy little league coach.  Rather than bring the pendulum back to center by educating kids that the true reward is the satisfaction that comes from knowing they did the best they could do, we’ve given every kid a trophy to make him feel special – even though all the kids get the same trophy.  Yes, the kid who shows up late to practice and swears at the coach gets the same trophy as everyone else.

Why do trophies eventually get thrown in boxes or stored in the attics?  Because as we grew older, they weren’t as important as the bonds that we formed through adversity.  Participation trophies have absolutely no sentimental or educational value.

My biggest concern with participation trophies, however, is that they a) diminish the value of exceptional performance/service and b) condition kids to think that things will always work out okay in the end. Sorry, but the sooner we make kids realize they don’t deserve a party every time they accomplish anything, the better off we’ll be.

20. Give kids opportunities to demonstrate responsibility – and monitor performance.

The toughest thin for me as a parent was walking the fine line between doing something for my children and just telling them to figure it out for themselves.  From my vantage point, though, there needs to be a lot more of the latter.

That said, I love it when I hear about parents giving kids challenges for them to demonstrate responsibility. Whether there are chores with checklists, or they have to take care of pets, I think it’s awesome for kids to be faced with new challenges with monitored performance.  Are all the boxes checked?  Is there dog poop on the floor or a dead guppy in the fish bowl?  Candidly, I can’t remember the last time that I hear of a kid earning an allowance; does that even happen anymore?  Fostering accountability at a young age is a powerful thing.

Closing Thoughts

I think there is a lot that is right about youth sports these days.  More girls are playing sports than ever before. There are loads of wildly passionate coaches out there who are trying to do the right thing. Information on training and coaching is more readily available than ever before.

We have to remember that at the end of the day, less than 1% of the kids who participate in youth sports will become professional athletes. However, sports are still an outstanding medium through which to instill a variety of favorable qualities beyond just athleticism. To that end, I hope that some of the suggestions here will help to make kids not only better athletes, but better people, too.

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About Me

Coach Stewart has coached football for 27 years, winning championships with 6th graders, 8th graders, high school freshman, and high school varsity. He coached 9 years at the youth and freshman level, always serving as head coach. After completing his college at age of 28 he has coached 21 years at the varsity level, 13 as the varsity head coach.

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