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.

Wearing Two Hats – Coaching Your Own Kid

I recently finished a really good book by Gordon Maclelland of the Working With Parents in Sports organization. The book, Two Hats, is a guide for coaching your own children – that is, wearing two hats: parent and coach. It’s a quick read (only 180 small pages with good sized font) that has much good advice for the parent who is considering coaching their own child in youth sports. Maclelland offers similar guidance I cover in my coaching clinics as well as some I hadn’t considered.

In my last round of coaching clinics, I asked the coaches participating what they’re primary concern is when coaching their own child. Here are the responses from one of the clinics (thanks again to Mentimeter):

These likely mirror the general concerns you would have when it comes to coaching your own child. Further, they are all covered in Two Hats. The book starts with where parents should start – having conversations with their child and family members about the implications in terms of time, commitment, and other dynamics of taking on this responsibility. This chapter introduces the format Maclelland uses throughout the book: discussing the topic and then closing with Key Points; in general, then for Parents to consider, and finally for Coaches to consider. The book then covers the positive aspects and challenges of coaching your own child (highlighting much of what the coaches in my clinics identify as their concerns).

The longest chapter is ‘Starting as You Mean to Go On’. If that sounds a bit funny to you, that may be because the Working With Parents in Sports organization is based in the United Kingdom. Readers of the book will figure this out as words like ‘kit’, ‘pitch’, and ‘garden’ (apparently that is what folks in the UK say when referring to their backyard!) are peppered throughout. Although highlighting just how different the Queen’s English can be from how we say things stateside, I didn’t find the language interfering at all with my enjoyment in reading the book. The chapter covers Setting Up the Season, Communication with Parents, and the ever-important Pre-Season Parents Meeting.

Two chapters are devoted to the ‘conversations in the car’; both on the way to the game and the crucial post-game conversations. I appreciate the recommendations that “Any advice on how to perform better from you in the car (on the ride to a game) is adding stress to your child’s situations” and that parent coaches should try to ensure the car ride to the game is as normal a car ride as possible. Much is made about the how parents handle the car ride home. Too many times, it can become an over-critical rehashing of the errors and mistakes made during the game. Trust me (and Maclelland), your children know what they did wrong in the game; there’s no need for you – in such proximity to when it actually happened – to go over them. Maclelland suggests you should

“Get your ‘coaches’ hat’ off as quickly as possible and certainly it should be gone by the time you get back into the car.”

The book closes with leading sports figures (none of whom I recognized, but again the author is writing from a UK perspective) telling their stories about coaching their own children. Each coach explains how they came to coach their own child; the best parts and challenges they faced; their relationship to other parents; what they might do differently if they had it to do over again, and then their top 3 tips for parent coaches. Honestly, I think too many pages are spent on this aspect of the book. There really aren’t many new insights brought forth from these – mostly professional – sports coach/parents.

In addition to the material I share in my clinics, which you can see for yourself here (the Coaching Your Own Child part starts at 3:38 of the video), I thought I’d answer the same questions posed to the leading sports figures in the book (I’m in no way implying that I am a leading sports figure…at least I’m not one yet!):

In what circumstances did you coach your own child?

I just did it. I guess I saw my dad coach me when I was a kid – so, I had a good example. I will share a story about why I coach. When we first moved to the Los Angeles area, I didn’t know anyone and was reluctant to step up and be the head coach of my boys’ Little League baseball team. I told the head coach I’d help out, though. Although he was a decent youth baseball coach, there was one aspect he and I disagreed on. There was a player on the boys’ team that was awkward, unathletic, and might have had a learning disability. The coach marginalized that player; i.e. he wasn’t coached to improve and didn’t get a lot of playing time. I have always felt that every player should get the same amount of coaching and opportunity to play and improve. After the season, my wife – who I often fail to recognize enough for how much of a partner she has been and continues to be in this youth sports coaching journey – told me that if I wanted to have the players coached the way I thought they should be…I’d have to be the coach. From them on, I was the head coach of all my children’s teams.

What were the best parts of coaching your own child?

The best part was all the time we spent together. And I think the overwhelming majority of that could be characterized as ‘quality time’. I also appreciated seeing up close how they improved in ability and grew to have a desire for athletics and sports, in general. I really liked seeing how Jacen picked up the strategic aspect of the game – once calling a play (we didn’t have in our playbook) that resulted in a touchdown in a flag football game. For Cameron, I liked seeing him find something he really wanted and working for it; in his case, playing baseball competitively.

What were the biggest challenges?

The biggest challenges were them treating me differently on the field than they did at home and me treating them differently from the other players. I recount both of these with stories in the clip of my lesson in one of my coaching clinics.

What was your relationship like with other parents?

Generally speaking, fantastic. I suggest this because many of them resonated with my philosophy such that they asked to have their children play on my teams again – and once a group of parents asked me to coach a season after my boys had aged out of the league. I made some friends of the parents, particularly those who helped out as assistant coaches.

If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?

The advice in Two Hats about taking off my coaching hat, particularly in the car ride home, was somewhat convicting. I believe I struggled with that a bit and might have coached the boys all the way to the house (or dinner; wherever we were headed) in the car. I’d try to be more deliberate about just being a supportive dad in the car ride home. There’s time for coaching them up later.

What are your top three tips for parent coaches?

  • Treat your children the same as you treat the other players – i.e. do not be tougher on them because they’re you’re own children
  • Don’t short-change them playing time; looking back, when there was any doubt who should play, I always deferred to other children – perhaps cheating my boys of playing time
  • Be more positive than negative – this is a subset of the first recommendation as I was pretty good at doing this with the other children, but was probably not good enough at it with my own boys

In summary, I appreciated the book for its recommendations that, in many cases, reinforced what I teach in my clinics. I also liked how it afforded me the chance to think about this topic a little deeper. I’ll be incorporating some of the specific tips in my clinics. I recommend reading the book.

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