Preparing Little League Coaches – Drills AND Administrative Best Practices

Last evening, I participated in a coaching clinic hosted by the Little League organization in which my niece is playing (and I’m coaching). As a provider of coaching clinics myself, I bring a bit of skepticism and ego to attending someone else’s clinic. I wasn’t expecting to learn that much and had a decent sized chip on my shoulder regarding whether the clinic would be of any value to me at all. SHAME ON ME. Over just under two hours, I heard enough tips, tricks, and best practices that I took about a page of notes. It was certainly worth my time and I made sure both the instructor/presenter and the Little League organizer knew I appreciated them holding the clinic. All that said, I also realized that there seem to be two types of youth sports coaching clinics: the ‘here are some drills and practice tips’ clinic like I attended last night and the ‘here’s how you work with kids, set up and run practices, and manage games’ type clinic that I offer. I wonder if what’s needed is both.

The clinic last night was put on my Austin Byler, former professional baseball player and CEO of Major League University. Austin is knowledgeable and personable. He offered drills and tips for running them with our athletes and then demonstrated them. He often referred to the coaches he’s worked with and the sources of the drills or ideas, which I appreciated as it helped to understand how they worked for college and professional coaches. I mentioned that I took about a page of notes. Here are a couple of examples:

  • He offered several short phrases that coaches can use with the athletes to get them to focus on execution: “Big glove, big target” to reinforce the active nature of the player receiving the ball while playing catch; “Catch the ball with your eyes” to remind players to keep their eyes behind their glove; and “Sink into your legs” for fielding grounders. I plan to use all of these in future practices.
  • Austin emphasized “winning the Zero Period”; trying to get the players excited about warming up and playing catch
  • I am intrigued by the idea of hitting grounders during infield practice off a tee, as he said he does – I might have to try that
  • With respect to hitting, Austin offered several excellent drills around the tee and reinforced what a valuable training tool the tee is (something that youth baseball coaches often struggle in convincing their players as they might see the tee as only what they used years ago when they played T-ball)

All in all, I am glad I attended the clinic as I will put much of what I learned into practice this upcoming season. However, as a veteran youth sports coach and provider of clinics myself, I think what Austin provided in his clinic is necessary, but maybe not complete in what, particularly new, coaches need in order to have a successful season. While the sport-specific drills will be practically beneficial to all of us coaches who attended, I think Austin’s clinic was missing other practical advice that can help coaches. Specifically, things like

  • Planning and running effective practices. As I say in my clinics, if you think you can set up some cones, roll the ball out there, and tell the players to ‘go get ’em’ and have a successful practice; well… Good practices involve preplanning to determine the goals of the practice, the drills to run to achieve those goals, and how to make the time with the athletes fun.
  • Managing playing time. Another example of needed preplanning is in setting game line-ups so that, by the end of the season, all of the players have played an equal amount. This involves tracking playing time by quarter, inning, half, or whatever the appropriate measure is for the sport your coaching. In addition, H&A coaches try to get everyone time playing multiple positions…another data point to track and complication to making a good line-up.
  • Working with the athletes. Many coaches only have experience working with their own children. My clinics provide practical tips for getting on the players’ level (both emotionally and physically) and dealing with really young players.
  • Engaging the parents. Many of us have seen or experienced first-hand adults behaving badly at youth sports events. Much of this poor behavior – and a good deal of stress on the coach throughout the season – can be avoided if the coach sets expectations from the beginning.

Austin provided an excellent handout that had checklists of skills to master in game play, dugout etiquette, and teamwork. This provides a handy way to evaluate the players on my team…determine where they are at the beginning of the season and measure their progress at the end. My goal is that every player is better than they were at the beginning of the season. During my clinics, I provide a handout as well. My handouts include a few drills with the recommendation to find additional ones either at the league website or one of the various sites on the internet. I also provide other items related to the material in the clinic like an initial phone call script and welcome email template.

Maybe what’s needed for many leagues is a combination of the drills-heavy clinic Austin provided last night and the practical administrative tips type clinic I provide. Particularly new coaches would benefit from both. I wonder if there’s an opportunity to collaborate with Austin and Major League University?

COVID-19 Upside? Pushing the Reset Button on Youth Sports

I read a good article about the impact of the COVID-19 virus on the grassroots hockey experience in The Hockey News. Unfortunately, the article is only available to subscribers. The author, Ken Campbell, offers tips on ‘Making the Best of a Bad Year’ (the article’s title). I think his recommendations work for all youth sports, not just hockey. Coaches who have relationships with their teams – something that comes with having a philosophy and style where children and parents ask to play with you season after season – can encourage their athletes to “push the reset button this season” by using this time for personal development and taking a break.

Personal Development Players can use the time away from structured practices and games to work on skills and personal development. Many drills that coaches teach players and employ in practice can be done at home alone. In fact, as a coach, I suggest working out at home as a primary means of improving skills. Players can find drills on the internet – many with videos that show how to do them properly. Campbell quotes a youth hockey coach who says

It will be very interesting to see how players have developed during this. Have they taken this time to develop and become 20 percent better?

– John Winstanley in December 2020 issue of Hockey News

Getting a Break There has been much written and said about the concerns of youth sports specialization (even I’ve written about it). Campbell highlights that not having spring or summer hockey offered the children the kind of balance “that many in hockey development would like to see young players achieve”. Some youth athletes have been on the court, field, or ice almost nonstop for a long period of time. Not having organized sports activities gives them “the opportunity to get a bit of a break and play some other sports and try some other outdoor activities” like bike riding or skateboarding. Campbell also suggests that for some of the older youth athletes, this time off could provide time for their bodies to rest and recover.

Interestingly, Campbell captures a situation that can be well-meaning, but extreme. Specifically, he writes:

“Some youth-hockey associations are requiring parents to only drop their children off at the rink – they’re not allowed to come inside”.

– Ken Campbell in December 2020 issue of Hockey News

I am sure, as opposed to the satirical comic above, this restriction is in the name of minimizing social contact and the spread of the virus. Campbell captures one hockey development manager’s belief that not having parents in the arena would be like kids playing at the park on their own – there’s more freedom. Admittedly, “not having parents constantly hovering over the youth-hockey experience can be a good thing”, but as I have previously suggested, it is an extreme position. Seeing as “the vast majority of parents of young players are reasonable and have good perspective”, the right thing to do when the world situation gets back closer to normal is to allow parents to enjoy attending their children’s sports activities It’s up to the league administrators, officials, coaches, and other parents to make sure that those who are unreasonable are counseled to behave or asked to leave.

All in all, I appreciate a professional sports magazine speaking to the youth sports experience. Kudos to The Hockey News for providing guidance and insight to hockey fans who might have children who play youth sports. For coaches out there; hang in there. In addition to this advice, there are other recommendations for coaching during the pandemic here.

2021 is Here!

For many of us, the New Year brings with it renewed hope and expectations. The same is true for youth sports and coaches.

COVID-19 disrupted all of our lives last year and youth sports were not immune. Leagues across the country shut down. When some leagues re-opened, there were restrictions on equipment sharing, spacing, and having end-of-game snacks. Adjustments were made. The baseball league where I coached my niece didn’t shake hands after the game – both teams went to their respective foul lines and tipped their caps to each other. There were some parents who were reluctant to have their children return to sports even with additional precautions.

As we flip the calendar, youth sports – at least as we knew them before the virus – are not a given. Cases here in Arizona are on the rise and many schools are going back to online only classes. As the vaccines become more prevalent, perhaps we can get back to youth recreational sports later this spring and into the summer. Leagues can restart and children can safely return to play. This is my hope.

My other hopes for the New Year:

  • Continued positive relationship with my Flag Football Fanatics and Goodyear Parks and Recreation clients. When they start playing this season, I’ll be doing my clinics.
  • Continued blog posts to provide assistance to youth recreational sports coaches. On deck already are discussions about coaching teams with both boys and girls and whether my philosophy is ‘soft‘.
  • Progress towards the Hustle & Attitude Guide to Coaching Youth Sports book. I haven’t given up on writing the book.

Most of all, my hope is for safety and good health for everyone.

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