Youth Sports Practice Planning – Don’t Overreach

During my coaching clinics, I spend a good deal of time on practice planning.  Having effective practices – those that contribute to making the players better – doesn’t happen by accident.  It requires planning.  Coaches should have goals for their practices.  Initial practice sessions should focus on the fundamentals.  You never know when you will have an athlete playing the sport for the first time; and it never hurts to go over the fundamentals (watch baseball players in the first part of spring training).  During the season, the practices should include drills to improve the skills where the players are showing they are deficient. 

While I was planning the first practice this season, I got a little too ambitious in trying to accomplish too much; a common challenge facing youth sports coaching.  Here is the plan I put together for the first practice:

Notice the detailed timing.  Marvel at the military-like precision.  Well…  We didn’t get to the ‘putting it all together’ fielding or live hitting sections.  Otherwise, we did the defensive, hitting, and baserunning drills as planned.  The practice also went over the planned 90 minutes.  I chalk some of this up to me spending more time talking with the parents at the beginning – which won’t be a problem at subsequent practices.  What derailed the practice as planned was my thinking we could get through three rotations of drills in 20 minutes.  Essentially, I fell back on my previous thinking, which had been based on two sets of drills going on at the same time.  This was the first practice where I tried running three drills at the same time.  By the way, I HIGHLY recommend this.  With a 12-person team, that meant that no group had more than 4 players.  That allowed for more personalized instruction and correction when the player wasn’t doing the skill right.  It also provided the players more repetitions for each drill.  However, I should have planned for each rotation to take about 10 minutes each…factoring in the transition time from one drill to the other.  That makes about 30 minutes for the drills and not the 20 that I had planned.

I learned my lesson and was more conservative in the amount of time allotted for each part of the second practice.  I wasn’t going to be there, so I emailed the plan to my assistant coach.  This time, there were less activities planned and more time for each portion of the practice.  I also suggested to the assistant coach ideas for if everything went quick to fill the time with valuable activities.  I spoke to the assistant coach and he reported the practice went well.

What do you need to have if you’re going to miss a practice or two?  What do you need if you’re going to run three drills at the same time?  YOU NEED ASSISTANT COACHES.  As mentioned in my welcome letter , I told the parents I would be needing help and asked for volunteers.  Thankfully, several parents stepped up and assisted during practice.  My next post will talk about how to best utilize these assistants.

Working with Youth Sports Parents – It’s All About Expectation Management

One of the first things a youth recreational sports coach needs to do each season is make contact with the parents of the children on their team. In addition to easing parents’ anxiety, this is a great opportunity for the coach to set expectations for the season. Doing so can go a long way towards avoiding confusion and possible disagreements.

Contact Parents Quickly. Most leagues suggest, and I recommend, that coaches should reach out to the parents within 24 hours of getting their roster. Often, parents haven’t heard anything from the league since they registered their child to play. They might be anxious to know if their child got on a team, which division they are in, and was the league able to honor their ‘play with…’ request. Typically the roster includes phone numbers and email addresses for the child’s parents or guardians. I like to call the parents the evening I get the roster and tell them I will be following up with an email with more information. I don’t know about you, but I don’t cold-call strangers very well. In fact, I can turn into a babbling idiot. To counter this, I’ve developed a phone call script that helps me ensure that I tell each parent the same thing and cover everything I want to cover. You can download a template below.

Interestingly, the roster I received for the Little League team I am coaching this season didn’t include phone numbers – only email addresses. So, no initial phone call jitters for me this season.

Send a Welcome Letter (email). The initial phone call is a brief introduction and opportunity to confirm contact information. It sets up the welcome letter email you should send later. You can include all the information in the body of the email, but that could get long and I recommend attaching a welcome letter to the email. The purpose of the welcome letter is to provide information about you, your coaching philosophy, and set expectations for the upcoming season. Here is a welcome letter template to download:

In my letter to the parents this season I told the parents what I do for a living, let them know about my website and that I do coaching clinics, presented my philosophy, and then generally my goals and metrics for a successful season. If you coach multiple seasons, this part of your welcome letter would remain relatively the same from sport to sport, season to season. The remainder of the letter deals with sports-specific expectations.

Expectation Management

One of the challenges youth sports coaches can face is dealing with parents. The majority of youth sports parents are easy going and want their child to have fun while being active in sport. They recognize their primary role is encouraging and supporting their child. A mismatch in expectations can be a potential source of friction between parents and coaches. Some common areas where this occurs include:

Recreational vs Select/Travel Teams. As I’ve written before, there are differences in recreational and Select/Travel youth sports teams. Parents who have a Select/Travel mentality in a recreational league are often overly aggressive in their expectations. They don’t understand why certain players are in certain positions or why the primary emphasis isn’t on winning.

Playing Time and Positions. Employing my philosophy can lead to what appear to be head-scratching decisions about players in certain positions, e.g. Why is that kid pitching? Well, he’s been working on it in practice and it’s his turn. If your plan is to let every player pitch who wants to – and you said so in your welcome letter – you’ve done your part to set the right expectation with the parents and avoid this type of question later in the season.

Rules of the League. Leagues affiliated with a national organization, like Little League or American Youth Soccer Organization, will still have their own local rules. These specific rules can be related to playing time and administration of the team or even the play of the game itself. Even for parents who have had their children in the same league for a while might still need to be made aware of changes from the previous season or the changes that come with their child advancing in divisions.

In my letter this upcoming baseball season, I felt it was important to let the parents know that I won’t teach or expect the players to throw curveballs and that I will teach them to pitch from the stretch. I definitely emphasized the fact that their players will play all over the field, but that the Catcher position is different. Not every player has interest in putting all that gear on and being involved in every play. So, I typically seek out those who are volunteers. Now, we do need four of them to make it through the season; so, I might have to do a little encouraging of players who only kind of put their hands up.

Finally, I had my wife read the letter before I sent it. She said it was good, but that it didn’t really reflect how much fun I make the season. After reading it again, she was right (as she often is). I went back in and added some of the fun things I do after games – things like offensive and defensive MVP and Hustle & Attitude awards (more on that later) – to the letter. Then, I made sure at the first practice to emphasize to the parents that the letter was dry, but that I wanted to put them at ease and try to answer common questions parents had.

Whether you use the templates attached here, I highly recommend that you contact the parents of your athletes very quickly and use whatever communication means necessary and available to set appropriate expectations with the parents before the season.

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?

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