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.

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.

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