Coaching and COVID-19

The new ‘normal’ – me coaching baseball last week

All aspects of our lives have been impacted by the Coronavirus, including youth sports. Many states canceled youth sports for the spring and then eventually the summer.

Here in Goodyear, Arizona youth baseball was suspended in March at the height of the national response to the virus. The league my niece plays in restarted two weeks ago. I have been helping as an assistant coach. The league has mandated that coaches wear masks while interacting with the players and other coaches – although in each of the last two games I coached, while all the coaches on our team were wearing masks, none of the opposing team’s coaches were wearing them – mirroring the situation in greater society, much as youth sports often does, right? In addition, the league has mandated social distancing for the players – i.e. only a few are allowed in the dugout and the remainder are just outside the dugout (still behind a fence) and are sitting approximately six feet apart.

Should we be playing at all? Many children (and parents) could really use the activity, camaraderie, and physical energy outlet that comes with playing youth sports after being out of school and in stay-at-home orders for several weeks. According the Aspen Sports Institute Return to Play risk assessment (an excellent resource for anyone concerned about youth sports during this time), even with the precautions I mentioned above in place, playing team baseball is a HIGH RISK activity. Did my niece’s league re-open too soon (again, questions that mirror the broader virus-related dialogue)? I like what the Aspen Sports Institute has said about returning to play (in this case they’re talking about playing basketball); it’s

Worth keeping in mind: The NBA – with all of its resources and access to medical experts – hasn’t even returned yet to playing, with plans to do so in late July in a bubble environment.

Ultimately the decision to play is up to each state and local league’s discretion; not to mention parents’ feelings about the safety and risks. My niece had to change teams when the league restarted because some of the players on her original team were not coming back – at least a few of them due to concerns related to the virus. Further, we learned last week that one of our players’ family members has the virus and therefore he wasn’t going to be playing for two weeks while his family quarantined.

What about coaching, if the athlete’s league’s are playing? As with my general response to the virus, I believe I am taking appropriate precautions. Our city has mandated wearing a mask when being in public and maintaining appropriate social distancing. I am following the league-directed recommendations as well. I am wearing a mask for the entire practice or game. It is uncomfortable in the Arizona heat, but really, there are medical professionals and others who are required to wear their masks for 8+ hours a day; so, I’m not really going to complain. I help the manager remind the players that they need to maintain social distancing as much as possible.

When interacting with the players, I am trying to act as normal as possible, however. In trying to behave as I would if there was no virus, I’m trying to present the children with a respite from the anxiety they are likely feeling – just as we all are. It’s not a normal situation, though, is it? Again, the folks at the Aspen Sports Institute have good advice recognizing how coach’s need to be more sensitive to each player’s mental health than maybe before the virus.

My recommendation is for coaches to be hyper aware of the reason the league is playing during this time – and indeed the reason for youth sports, in general; to provide the children the opportunity to have fun with their friends and learn to play a sport…in as safe an environment as possible. If at any time, the coach feels one of those goals is going to be compromised due to the virus situation, the coach needs to take action. These actions can include recognizing a possible increased stress level and injecting a deliberately fun activity – regardless of the potential impact to the result of the contest (which Hustle & Attitude coaches understand shouldn’t be the primary driver, anyway); maybe backing off the discipline and letting the athletes let loose a little more than would be typically allowed; and even removing the players from the situation if it becomes unsafe for them in any way.

Additional resources for coaches:

  • Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) offers online courses to help coaches be equipped with skills to deal with players’ social and emotional needs
  • PCA also has ‘Coaching During COVID-19‘; a blog post and Facetime Live Tips a Tools Tuesdays video (30 minutes) by Kelly Kratz  
  • Up2Us Sports has training for coaches to help players improve their mental health, heal from trauma, and learn conflict resolution skills

Book Review – Coaching for the Love of the Game by Jennifer Etnier

I recently finished reading a really good book about youth sports coaching, Coaching for the Love of the Game – A Practical Guide for Working with Young Athletes by Dr. Jennifer Etnier, a professor of kinesiology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The title and description of the book had me thinking that maybe I wouldn’t need to write my Hustle & Attitude Guide to Coaching Youth Sports book after all. 

The book covers general issues and topics in youth sports like the professionalization of youth sports, how free play has almost all but been eliminated, and early sports specialization.  Dr. Etnier also gets specific about coaching covering topics such as:  why kids play youth sports (and often end up quitting – see Etnier’s opinion piece in the New York Times);  the role of coach as teacher (look for an upcoming post where I describe why this is my favorite coaching role); dealing with parents; and whether you should coach boys and girls differently.  I found this last topic, and the research Dr. Etnier references throughout the chapter “Blue and Pink” very interesting.  Overall, I recommend reading the book as it is a well written and concise explanation of the importance of quality youth sports coaching and some information that can help improve youth sports coaching.

Here are few of the passages from the book that spoke to me:

  • “What matters is that the athletes have positive experiences, improve their skills, have fun, learn to work hard, and develop as individuals” (p.3). Kind of sounds like the Hustle & Attitude philosophy
  • When it comes to the question of the importance of winning…many recommend a focus on the process vice the outcome.  However, Dr. Etnier recommends that there is a balance and that the outcome isn’t necessarily winning as it is improvement.  She suggests “you must stay focused on both process and outcome to be successful!” and further
    • “If you are apathetic about the process, you will never obtain the outcome.”
    • “If you are apathetic about the outcome, you will have a hard time staying committed to the process.” (p.77)
    • In other words, if you don’t work hard (learn and practice the skills of the sport), you won’t get better (the outcome) — HUSTLE; and if you don’t want to improve, you won’t persist through the lows and challenges that it takes to get better — ATTITUDE.
  • In her chapter “Children Are Not Miniature Adults”, she provides a developmental readiness relative to chronological age table that is a useful guide for the first time coach to understand what he/she can realistically expect of the children based on their ages in terms of motor skills, cognitive development, social development, and capacity to distinguish between ability and effort.
  • “We need to compliment and reward effort, persistence, risk taking, and performance gains.  Everyone has the ability to improve, so if you can teach your athletes to focus on the enjoyment that comes from the activity itself, then this question of whether or not they are good enough becomes less relevant” (p.114).
  • After the game:  “The outcome of the event should have very little impact on what you say to your athletes” (p.140)…we measure ourselves against the goals we set for the team for the game and whether we demonstrated hustle and attitude!
  • “Organizations should provide curricula for their coaches to ensure that the youth sports experience is consistently positive, developmentally appropriate, and designed to advance the skills sets of the athletes” (p. 162)…, things like providing Hustle & Attitude coaching clinics!
  • Many other excellent ideas and discussion on participation trophies (I’ll be updating my previous post on the subject to incorporate Dr. Etnier’s discussion), setting expectations with parents, and playing time – BUT YOU’LL HAVE TO READ THE BOOK YOURSELF (I wouldn’t want some knucklehead blogger spilling all the cool parts of my book…presuming I ever actually finish the book!).

Although a very good resource for the coach looking to gain an understanding of the craft and the environment of youth sports, I think there’s still room for my philosophy and practical recommendations.  Dr. Etnier’s book is more academic in focus and light on the practical tips for first-time coaches than the book I plan to (eventually) finish writing.  Her book provides solid research-based justification for the Hustle & Attitude philosophy.

I’m Back!

My last post was way back in February of 2018. Then I said I was taking a break to write a book – The Hustle & Attitude Guide to Coaching Youth Sports. So, is the book done? Well, no. As of the last time I sat down to write (this January), I have 12 pages – or four short chapters written. Not a lot for over 2 years absence from blogging.

Why am I back? I’m back because I have had additional experiences in youth recreational sports coaching that reminded me I have something of value to say to coaches, parents, and league administrators.

  • I have been blessed to be a part of my niece’s youth sports experiences since we moved to Arizona. I have assisted her flag football and baseball coaches with practices and games.
  • I have started a relationship with the Goodyear Parks and Recreation Department offering clinics to the coaches of their sports. Although I never coached volleyball, I believe we had a very successful clinic back in February.

I’ve noticed that, even well-intentioned, youth recreational sports coaches do not measure a successful season the way Hustle & Attitude coaches do: i.e. the kids have fun and learn to play the game. The key measure of success being that the athlete decides to play again the next season. They don’t see that equal playing time and at multiple positions – key tenets of the Hustle & Attitude philosophy – contribute to a successful season much more than measuring the number of wins and losses.

So, I’m back and with a new focus. My previous posts broadened to cover all things youth sports. Although deciding whether your son should play tackle football is very topical and at least tangentially related to youth sports coaching, it doesn’t really speak to a prospective or current coach in terms of advice or best practices.

My new focus will be on youth recreational sports coaching. My goal from here on is to write and share writing about topics, ideas, and opinions that are of interest to people who volunteer, recruit, train, support, or are otherwise interested in youth recreational sports coaching.

If this is of interest to you, I hope you follow the blog (and bring some friends!). Who knows, after a number of these posts, I might have enough content to put together and finish that book!

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