Motivating Youth Athletes – You Need More than One Tool in Your Toolbox

Photo by Anete Lusina on

I recently had an incident where I was a little too hard on one of my players. It turns out this is his first year playing baseball. He’s played other sports and is clearly athletic. He’s also very coachable. At practice, however, I got on him for not running out a ball he hit. Technically, I was right to correct the behavior – we expect our players to run hard to first every time. However, the manner in which I corrected him wasn’t appropriate for the player. This revealed to me an insight about coaching youth sports: coaches should know their players and motivate them accordingly.

“Motivation is the essence of coaching”

Rick Wolff, Coaching Kids for Dummies

It is the coach’s responsibility to get to know their players and understand what motivates them. Children are not all motivated the same way. If the coach only has one motivational tool in their toolbox, e.g. the carrot and stick approach of rewarding good behavior and punishing bad, they will struggle to reach all of their players. Some will respond to that type of motivation, but others will not.

Motivating young athletes can be challenging. As Drs. Laura Smith and Charles Elliott say in Child Psychology and Development for Dummies:

“What’s rewarding for one child may not be to another”

In this particular instance, I should have realized that this athlete was playing baseball for the first time and there are some things that he doesn’t already know. It’s my job to teach him – and to do so in the best way to make sure that he picks it up. I should expect other players with more experience to know about running the ball out no matter how hard its hit or whether they think it might be foul (the players run, let the umpire worry about determining fair or foul). But, for a first-time player, this isn’t second nature yet. My sarcastic reaction likely came across as intimidating and hurtful to the athlete (more on sarcasm in an upcoming post). This athlete needed me to explain and teach the right thing to do and reinforce that behavior by giving him another chance.

NOTE: This highlights a point I want to make for coaches. Just because you are coaching a team of 10 and 11-year olds, don’t assume that they have been playing the sport for several years. As in the example above, you could have an athlete playing the sport for the first time. I’ve had this happen coaching teams of 13-year olds. Again, don’t assume every player on your team has experience in the sport just because of their age. The risk you run is coaching past that player and not reaching them. This is one of the reasons I start every season with the fundamentals. New players need them and the more experienced players can always benefit from a refresher on the fundamentals.

The key to motivating each athlete in the best way for them is to have a relationship with them. At the beginning of the season, however, when I haven’t established a relationship, I default to being overly positive – even when correcting the athlete. The idea is to applaud the effort. Tell the player you appreciate how they tried the skill or technique, but that you would like them to try it another way. Then, I teach the proper way, demonstrate it, and give the athlete an opportunity to try – hopefully in a one-on-one or small group setting where, if they continue to struggle, it is not in front of the whole team.

I like what Rick Wolff says in Coaching Kids for Dummies,”Talk to your team as though they’re young men or women”. I often refer to them exactly that way. I’ll start a practice with “Alright young men, it’s a great day for baseball”. I find that the athletes appreciate being addressed and treated with the respect that comes with being older. In fact, I have found that, if you treat them as mature young people – even maybe more mature than some of them actually are – the children respond in a mature way.

As the season progresses, your relationship with the players will grow such that you will better understand how each child responds to different types of direction. Recall, as a coach, it’s your responsibility to adjust your style to the players, not the other way around. Some will respond to you because they have a general respect for authority and they’ll take direction from you because you said so. Others will need something different. You might have to show the player why doing the skill differently is better; in other words convince them that you know better. When a player misbehaves or otherwise isn’t taking direction well, you should pull the player aside and deal with them directly. In doing so, over the course of the season, you will begin to understand the best way to reach that player.

I’ll end with a description of one of the best examples of employing different motivation techniques I’ve experienced in my sports career. My high school football coach was an excellent leader in all aspects. In terms of motivation, though, he demonstrated to me how a coach can recognize what motivates their players and not apply the same technique across the board. He knew that, for some players, yelling at them was enough for the player to never want to make the same mistake again. He also knew that that type of behavior wouldn’t do it for me. Whether because I was an Air Force brat or already in Air Force Junior ROTC, he knew that I pretty much ignore that type of behavior. In any event, he knew that I respected those put in authority; I didn’t want to let them down. So, he recognized that just giving me the indication that I had disappointed him was enough to motivate me to improve.

An example of this was one game when I made a mistake and saw my back-up running on the field – which is the message for me to get off the field. Once on the sideline, I looked over at my coach. He was standing with his arms crossed looking at the game. He glanced my way and we made eye contact. He raised his hand and motioned with his finger for me to come to him. I slinked over to him, shoulders bent. When I got there, he never took his eyes off the field and said, “Where were you supposed to be on that play?” “The flat”, I told him. Again, not looking at me he said, “Why weren’t you there?” Sheepishly, I replied, “I don’t know”. “Don’t let it happen again”. I said, “Yes, sir” and walked away. I was out the rest of that series, but when it was time for our defense to go back on the field, I saw that my backup wasn’t going in…so, I’m back in. And I never let myself miss an assignment again and ended the season having graded out the highest defensive back on the team.

Recognizing what motivates each athlete, as my high school coach was able to do, is a difficult thing for any coach, nevermind for the last-minute volunteer coach. I get that. Particularly for those who think they will be coaching more than one season, though, this is very important. In addition to the recommendations above, coaches should seek out other experienced coaches and teachers for advice and tips how to motivate the young athletes under their charge.

Making Youth Baseball Line-Ups Part II

Last fall, I posted about making youth baseball line-ups. This morning, as I was making the line-up for our first game of the season – OPENING DAY, BABY! – I thought of additional recommendations. Here’s how I started the line-up:

Start of Youth Baseball Line-up for 3/20 game
  • I start with the template of all the positions down the left-hand column including that, should all 12 players attend the game, we’ll have three players on the bench each inning (‘B’).
  • Along the horizontal at the top of the page, I list the innings. I optimistically list all six that we could play at this age. In many cases, we only get to play four due to the time limit or run rule (if one team is ahead by more than 10 at the end of the 4th, the game is over). Knowing this, I try my best to make sure that every player gets a chance in the infield and outfield before the end of the 4th. Also, conveniently, having 12 players on our roster means that after 4 innings, every player will have sat for one inning. Playing into the 5th and possibly the 6th means that players will have to sit for two innings this game. This is important to track as these players will have one less inning in the field than their teammates and this effects who sits twice in subsequent games.
  • Next, I fill in the players I want to pitch that day. In this case, Killian and Sophia are planned to pitch two innings each. If either of them gets to a high pitch count or in trouble with too many walks, I can go to Noah or Kyle early (again, because we rarely actually play more than 4 innings). For instance, if Killian were to get to a high pitch count in the second inning, I might bring Noah in to finish the inning and, unless he’s pitching lights out, I’ll still go with Sophia in the third. This gives more players more opportunities to pitch.
  • I prefer that pitchers sit the inning before they are planned to pitch. This gives them the chance to rest and/or an opportunity to warm up and get loose in the bullpen (if there is one!).
  • Finally, I pencil in my catchers. I don’t like my catchers to go more than three innings at a time. On the off chance that we do go the full six innings though, I plan for two catchers, three innings each. I like to give the first catcher a breather by having them sit the inning after they finish catching. I also like to give the second catcher a break the inning before they are to catch. If they are not due up early the next inning, they can go ahead and get the shin guards on and help speed up the process of getting all the gear on before their first inning behind the plate.

With the pitchers and catchers set for their innings in the field and their corresponding innings on the bench, I can fill out the rest of the lineup. Again, the plan is to have players play both the infield and outfield – and preferably within the first four innings (again, because we rarely get to the fifth or beyond).

Hopefully, these two posts are useful for youth baseball coaches in making game line-ups that result in the athletes playing the same amount, playing multiple positions, and having fun playing baseball.

Effectively Using Assistant Coaches in Youth Sports

As I mentioned in my previous post, in order to run effective practices – in fact, to help ensure a successful season overall – head coaches/managers need good assistant coaches.  I always ask parents to help out in my welcome letter .  In my experience, there are several who are very willing to help out.  If you don’t get enough who are willing, it is also my experience that there are usually a couple who, with a little coaxing, would gladly help out at practice.  In the case where there are no outright volunteers, assure the parents that you will give them everything they need to help out at practice.  Tell them how you will show them how to execute the drills correctly.  Assure them that you will take the hardest and most complicated drills yourself.  If all else fails, remind them that they most likely will be hanging around practice – the days of parents dropping their kids off for practice and running errands as my parents did are gone – they might as well help out.

Here are some techniques for effectively using your assistant coaches:

  • If necessary, remind them that this is youth recreational sports.  Recall that, if the parents were schooled in coaching the sport you’re coaching, they likely would have volunteered to be the head coach.  Many of the parents will only have their own youth sports experiences to go build on for coaching.  And, if the last time they were coached in sports was in high school, that type of aggressive attitude is not appropriate for youth recreational sports. Also, this is recreational sports and not select/travel sports (which are different).
  • Give them everything they need.  If you are going to ask them to run a drill, particularly one that involves a deliberate technique that you want to make sure the athletes learn and repeat; make sure to provide enough information to the assistant coach.  I’ve brought the books where I found the drill or a printout of the explanation of how to execute the technique properly and shared that with the assistant coach.  Try not to do this right before they are expected to run the drill.  If you can email it to them ahead of time, that’s the best.  If not, meet with the assistant coaches while the players are warming up and go over the drills you are going to run in practice.  If any of them have any questions, you can then provide them the background material to prepare them while the athletes are otherwise engaged.
  • Don’t micromanage them.  I can be a bit of a control freak.  I want the players to learn the skill or technique and to be corrected if they aren’t doing it properly.  I have a way I like to explain how to do the techniques.  However, if we’re going to run multiple drills at the same time – and WE ARE, right – then I have to be comfortable with letting the assistant coaches handle the presentation of the technique and the correction of the players, as necessary.  A couple of ways to handle this include:
    • Take the more complicated drills yourself.  At our first practice, I wanted to be the coach that showed the players how to cover first base correctly.  It can be a complicated procedure and I wanted to make sure the players heard it from me and that I watched each of them try it.  That left the other two drills to the assistant coaches.  I made some quick suggestions to the coaches of the technique to describe to the players and what to watch for (and correct), then set them off to run their drills.
    • Show the players (and coaches) the correct technique, as I present it, all at once before breaking into the smaller groups.  A technique I am considering is to have the team and coaches together before we go through the drills and doing the instruction myself.  In that way, everyone sees the correct way to perform the technique (assistant coaches, included) and hears it from me.  I would go through the three drills one at a time, then release the groups to go with their assistant coaches and execute them.

So far this season, we actually have more assistant coaches than I had immediate need for.  I could delegate each of the drill stations to an assistant coach and then I could be a floater; moving from drill to drill and assisting in the explanation and correction during execution of the drills.  I’m toying with trying this in my next practice.  [See my self-described control freak nature above though, as why this might not happen]  I’m also going to make sure I tell all the parents who are interested in helping that, if they see something during practice where they could add value, to by all means jump in.  At a recent practice, one of the player’s parents who wanted to help, but wasn’t assigned a drill or other specific role in practice, gathered the balls after rounds of live hitting and returned them to the bucket.  This allowed the other coaches to keep coaching and sped the practice along as the players didn’t need to shag the balls.  I really appreciate that initiative and will encourage that with the other parents.

No matter how good the head coach/manager is, there are too many players on the team for them to be able to run effective practices themselves.  By encouraging parents to help out, a coach gets the assistance he or she needs to be successful.  Ensuring the assistants have the right youth sports mindset, providing them the resources they need to effectively help out, and then letting them be to do their thing will lighten the head coach’s load and help make the season better for the children.

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