Youth coaches have a tremendous responsibility to shepherd players. It is not one to be taken lightly, nor one to be cast aside in a moment of anger or exasperation. As a noun, a shepherd is “a person who protects, guides, or watches over a person or group of people.” As a verb, to shepherd means, “to watch over carefully.” I chose this word carefully for this letter because it gets to the core of what a youth coach must do. You must protect, guide, and watch over your players carefully. If you do not, you are not being a responsible shepherd.
I am going to lie out five essentials that I believe youth coaches must do to be a responsible shepherd. They are Communication, Patience, Self Control, Perseverance, and Honor. Taken individually they are but single strands but bound together they form the backbone of a good shepherd and an even better youth coach.
Essential #1 – Communication:
These players are kids. They are not high school, college or professional players. They are just kids wanting to have fun and enjoy the game. Because the players are children, you must tailor the way you communicate to them. Young kids will not respond to the same method of communication that is used for a college player. What matters is that your message gets across, and you must decide what that message is going to be. Will it be to “win at any costs?” Perhaps it will be to “dominate the other team.” Or maybe it will simply be “to look out for each other?” Two of these messages are not appropriate at any level of youth sports. They are counter-intuitive to what being a good coach is all about.
I have established that a good coach protects, guides, and watches over his or her players. I find the “win at any cost” mentality completely abhorrent. It sends the message to the youth player that as long as you win nothing else matters. It is a horrific frame of mind, but sadly it is one shared by many youth coaches. These coaches forget that a team is a reflection of the coach. Your message will be internalized by your players and then shown to your community on the field. The “win at any costs” mentality excuses cheap shots, cheating, and relies far to heavily on the best players to carry the team to a victory. I feel sad for these coaches, but I feel worse for the kids. Here is an adult, a coach, a person they have been raised to respect telling them that winning is the end game, and anything, honorable or not, is permissible so long as a “W” is secured.
To me, having the message “to dominate the other team” is willful ignorance of the purpose of youth sports. We want kids to learn respect, honor, and responsibility through their particular sport. Dominating another team sends a terrible message to the young minds on your team for three reasons. One, it makes your team’s only goal the utter destruction of their opponent. It makes your team relish beating a team by piling on the points, shelling the goalie, and demolishing the psyche of the competing team. Two, who are you to tell a child that they must be better than another child in order to have worth? That is what you tell your players by wanting them to dominate the competition. Three, the message of domination is externally based. It puts pressure on the young player to always run up the score and win by a healthy margin. When you run into an opponent that may be better than your team, or the score is closer than you all thought it would be, your players will begin getting down on one another. They will destroy themselves from within. All because you wanted to run up points in a youth game.
The message I prefer above all others in youth sports is for all of the players “to care for each other.” This message is different from the first two because it is inherently positive, and it removes the external goal of winning from the kids’ minds. If a coach articulates this message well, he will find his players coming together in difficult situations because this message focuses on the core concept of a good shepherd of protecting your players. The players will protect one another on the field. They will play hard for their friend next to them. They will pump each other up when losing, and keep their composure when winning. They will do these things even if they do not fully understand or realize the power of caring for one another. They will simply do them because that is the coach’s message, and what the coach expects. This message builds character; the other two and ones like them only tear it down.
Essential #2 – Patience:
If you do not have patience, or do not care to develop it further, you will not be a good youth coach. As the saying goes, “kids will do the darndest things.” Kid will disobey, forget, screw up, and have their heads in the clouds during practices and games. You cannot hope to coach effectively at the youth level without patience.
Patience is an absolute requirement of a guide, which is one of the responsibilities of a good shepherd. If you fly off the handle the first time your player loses the ball, makes a bad pass, or doesn’t listen to your instruction I can assure you that you will have a very long season. Your players will come to dread screwing up when they see you yelling incoherently, or worse profanely, on the sideline. They will become tiny pressure cookers ready to burst because you cannot keep your cool. As I said earlier, a team is a reflection of the coach. When players see you going buck-wild on the sideline throwing your hat on the ground, tossing your clipboard into the air, or stomping the ground angrily they will imitate that behavior on the field, which will only cost your team. Your lack of patience unconsciously gives your players permission to behave poorly.
I have seen a grown man in his early forties pick a ten-year-old child up by his helmet and yell at him for making a poor decision on the field. It was one of the most despicable acts I have ever witnessed in youth sports. What that coach wanted was a team of little robots obeying his every command without question or complaint. His lack of patience created a snowball effect for his team, and they kept making mistakes on the field. He got progressively angrier and angrier with them. Never realizing that their mistakes were a direct result of his actions on the sideline. Patience does not build character, it reveals it. That coach showed his lack of character. I challenge you to be patient and calm in the face of adversity. Your players will do the same.
Essential #3 – Self Control:
Too many coaches at the youth level lose their minds during games. They scream, yell, holler, heckle, and loudly complain about what is not going their way. In short, they act like petulant toddlers and it is more embarrassing than sad. I admire coaches with self-control. Those that don’t let anything faze them no matter what occurs. Self-control goes hand in hand with patience, but it goes deeper. Those that have good self-control understand responsibility. Take apart the word responsibility and you have “response” and “ability.” Self control is knowing that you have the ability to respond positively or negatively to a particular situation, and you choose to respond positively.
Your players will only demonstrate self control if you demonstrate it at all times. They will see your unflappable face in a tough situation and know that you are in control, even if you aren’t. This provides a huge mental boost to your players because they will know that you are watching over them carefully. Looking for any signs of a negative response to pressure or adversity. They will erase their negative thoughts and not get down on themselves or their teammates because you lead by example and expect your players to follow your lead.
Essential #4 – Perseverance:
Victories are not secured by talent or strength, but by perseverance. How long are you willing to keep going? That is the question, and if you think you won’t need perseverance during a youth sports season, you have another thing coming. If there were one virtue I would want a child to learn from a youth sport it would be perseverance. What a fantastic quality to learn at a young age! Imagine when that child grows up, what he or she will be capable of because they learned from their coach that it does not matter what happens to you, what matters is the indomitable will to continue.
In sports, perseverance is demanding the same effort from your players no matter what is going on during the game. That effort is what they will be proud of, and it is what you should be proud of. The score is irrelevant if your team put forth their best. Good youth coaches understand this concept and do not allow their players to dwell on the negative things that can and will happen to them during a game. They keep themselves and their players upbeat through encouragement and a little bit of sly misdirection.
The encouragement is hugely important because without it the young player will have no incentive to persist through difficulty. A youth coach must be a positive force in the life of the player, not a negative influence that teaches that it is okay to take shortcuts or cheap shots to win or get back at the winning team. I have seen and heard youth coaches encouraging their players to take another player out because that player was doing everything right on the field and being spectacularly effective on the field. Those kinds of coaches see kids as chess pieces. Some need to be sacrificed or taken off the board in order to win. These youth coaches will burn out their best player by keeping him or her in the game for the entire time at the expense of the rest of the bench. They will decide that the best player on the other team should be injured in order for his team to have a chance at victory. It is both sickening and decidedly wrong that an adult would use a child in such a manner.
Remember that your players internalize everything you say whether they realize it or not. If you choose to guide your team down a bramble filled path towards victory, you are not doing them any good. You are just teaching them that in the act of persevering, it is okay to view everyone else as a pawn.
Essential #5 – Honor:
Honor is a concept that is paid lip service by many youth coaches. I don’t care if you speak eloquently about honor to your team if your actions prove otherwise. If you grab a child by the helmet you are not honoring the game. If you berate the officials you are not honoring the game. If you tell your players to cheat and then complain about the penalties they receive by cheating you are not only dishonoring the game, you are a coward and a liar. If I sound harsh it is intentional. I cannot express in words the depths of my contempt for youth coaches that do not honor the game or the players.
The problem is that these coaches are usually great people outside of the game. They are cordial, respectful, and polite. Then the game clock starts and they turn into a monstrosity. Their behavior is excused because that’s not how they really are; it’s just the game that brings out their bad side. Guess what? The kids playing the game deserve to get the coaches good side at all times. Also, it is not just a game. It is a snapshot of life in sixty-minutes. Within the game contains every emotion that a person can experience, and if the coach shows poor character then the players will latch onto that and return it into the game and their lives off the field.
If we want our children to demonstrate honor in their lives, we must demonstrate it at all times on the field. We cannot take a second off. Honor cannot be cast aside for a victory. This is why I despise the “win at all costs” or “dominate the opponent” messages that many youth coaches teach through their words and actions. It is not honorable. It is loathsome. What is worse is that these coaches don’t seem to realize the impact they are having on these kids for the rest of their lives. You are an authority figure and if you do not carry yourself with honor you give permission to your players that honoring the game is lame and honoring your opponent is a weakness best left to the losers. What terrible lessons to learn at such formative ages.
A youth coach must protect, guide, and carefully watch over their players. You must do so through positive communication, a deep reservoir of patience, unshakable self-control, relentless perseverance, and a commitment to honor. You cannot pick and choose from these five essentials. They work in concert with one another to maintain the love of the game in the player. The most beautiful thing about youth sports to me is the players’ enjoyment of the game. The kids out there are out there to have fun. It is such a shame that there are adults out there who seem bent on ruining that beautiful experience until the player discovers the game is no longer fun. As a youth coach you have a major responsibility to shepherd these young players. After reading this, ask yourself, “Are you being a good shepherd?” If you answered no then change your behavior or find another hobby.