Many coaches cite coaching legends as their inspiration for their particular coaching style. While my Dad and John Wooden are my two favorite coaches, I gained many insights into working with young players from the book Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. If you are unfamiliar with the novel, here is a brief synopsis from amazon.com:
In order to develop a secure defense against a hostile alien race’s next attack, government agencies breed child geniuses and train them as soldiers. A brilliant young boy, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin lives with his kind but distant parents, his sadistic brother Peter, and the person he loves more than anyone else, his sister Valentine. Peter and Valentine were candidates for the soldier-training program but didn’t make the cut—young Ender is the Wiggin drafted to the orbiting Battle School for rigorous military training.
Ender’s skills make him a leader in school and respected in the Battle Room, where children play at mock battles in zero gravity. Yet growing up in an artificial community of young soldiers Ender suffers greatly from isolation, rivalry from his peers, pressure from the adult teachers, and an unsettling fear of the alien invaders. His psychological battles include loneliness, fear that he is becoming like the cruel brother he remembers, and fanning the flames of devotion to his beloved sister.
Is Ender the general Earth needs? But Ender is not the only result of the genetic experiments. The war with the Buggers has been raging for a hundred years, and the quest for the perfect general has been underway for almost as long. Ender’s two older siblings are every bit as unusual as he is, but in very different ways. Between the three of them lie the abilities to remake a world. If, that is, the world survives.
I’ve read Ender’s Game at least a dozen times over the years, and every time I learn something new about the characters or plot that I didn’t pick up on in an earlier read. On my most recent reread I realized that the character Ender is an excellent example of how a youth coach can manage a team.
In the book Ender is given a team of young soliders to train and compete against other teams in the Battle Room. His team is filled with what the instructors’s at the Battle School believe are the dregs, or least capable soldiers. Under Ender’s tutelage his team, Dragon Army, goes undefeated in the Battle Room. They beat other armies by unheard of margins and still win even when the instructors stack the odds against Dragon Army. From this book I learned the following principles that I believe can be applied to any group of young players:
- Be loud for the group and quiet for individuals – Whenever Ender spoke to his army he always projected a commanding and strong voice. He gave orders loudly so everyone could hear, but did not scream angrily to get his point across. However, when he spoke with individuals he lowered his voice to a calm, measured level and gave easy to follow instructions for the members of his army that were having trouble with a concept. As a coach you need to be loud with the group, but there is no need to yell an answer at a player who asks a question.
- Find the leaders on your team and use them – Dragon Army was unique at Battle School because Ender gave a lot of control to his subordinate officers, known as Toon leaders. He wanted an army that was autonomous, could think for itself and adapt to changing situations. He did not want a group of automatons latched onto his commands without any deviation. Try to find the leaders on your team, or allow your team to vote on captains. Then use those captains in practices and games by telling them to give the orders on the field instead of you yelling them out to everyone. If you have a play called “Nitro,” have a captain on the field or on the sideline yell out the play. This will involve the leaders of your team, and give your voice a break.
- Keep things simple – Ender always gave simple orders. Be early. Be ready. Be focused. Youth players do not need to know the intricacies of a zone defense or an overly complex offensive formation. Plays should be simple to understand and easy to execute.
- Give broad orders – Specific orders tend to be restrictive. Ender always gave orders that were open to interpretation on how to achieve the objective. In lacrosse a broad order would be to pass the ball twice after picking up any ground ball. A specific order would be to always pass the ball to the left when starting your offense. Well what happens when the defense starts overloading the left side? Specific orders stifle creativity and ingenuity. Give your players broad orders and you’ll be surprised at what they come up with to score a goal or get the ball back.
- Your players are smarter than you think – When at the fields, I am constantly astounded by how smart and intuitive the kids are. One thing I’ve found after years of coaching youth players is that they can absorb a large amount of information if the instructions are simple (see #3) and direct. If your players are not getting what you are teaching it is not because they are stupid or slow. It is because something is amiss with how you are teaching/coaching. Remember principles 1-4 and you’ll be well on your way to coaching a successful team.
As I said earlier, I’ve read Ender’s Game many times for two reasons. One, I love to read and I thank my parents profusely for instilling a love of the written word in my life. Two, it is an excellent read that both kids and adults can enjoy.