Every athlete is different, and as a coach, you must focus on providing adequate instruction to each player, regardless of their learning style. This may mean that you are consistently explaining concepts in different ways or providing written documents for some players while drawing diagrams for others.
No matter their learning style, players are all entitled to a solid education and in their sport. To help players really progress, you as a coach must take players through a range of educational situations, from things as simple as practicing motor skills such as hand-eye coordination to much more complicated concepts such as game strategies and player cooperation.
The point of practice and competition, especially at a young age, is to learn and grow as a person and a player. As a coach, you are in a unique place to help players learn new skills, refine existing skills, and solidify already learned skills.
To really understand the instructional strategies necessary for youth sports, let’s look at some guidelines.
The Importance of Teaching Progressions
If you were an occasional jogger, you would never think of running a marathon without training first. In this same way, you cannot look at your team as if they are ready for your hardest concepts and strategies without first preparing them in practice and competition.
Teaching progressions are a common and respected method for increasing skill, improving team morale, and seeing positive results. Progressions start small and teach a basic skill or concept. After mastering that skill, players progress to the next level, which often builds off the first skill or adds a layer of complexity that challenges the players.
Progressions help both coaches and players. Coaches who use progressions can see weak spots in their teams, because they know when the team gets stuck on a specific part of a skill or a particularly complicated drill. By recognizing the problem, coaches are in a better place to refine their drills and see the results they desire from their players.
For players, progressions help build confidence and good technique. By continuing to do what a player knows well, coaches prove to players their abilities and help them build self-confidence. The repetition that comes from progressions also helps players cement their fundamental skills and become stronger players.
Progressions can be used in any sport and should be based on best practices in teaching and learning. As a coach, you know the “best practices” for your team because you have seen what works for them and what doesn’t. When you explain something in a certain way and are met by blank faces, you know that you did not explain correctly. This is not a best practice. When you find a method that your players understand and that gets results, you have discovered a best practice. Build your progressions based on that and you will have little trouble seeing results from all your players in a short time.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
We have already discussed that no two players are alike. Just as one learns well one way, another learns well another way. As the coach, it is your responsibility to help each player learn, regardless of what style works best for them.
Teaching in multiple styles puts more work on you as the coach, but it also encourages you to develop your creativity and expertise as a teacher and coach. By requiring you to describe things in multiple ways, use examples as well as written text, and connect with each player, you grow as a coach and as a leader.
To help all players learn properly, include instructional processes that incorporate the five senses. Verbal, visual, and tactical strategies help all players engage and hold on to important concepts. Verbally, you can explain out loud to players what you want them to learn.
Visually, you can show them through graphs, diagrams, or pictures from other teams properly executing the strategy. Tactically you can get them involved, giving them something that requires movement or touching something physical, such as the equipment you use every game.
Mix It Up in Practice
Players learn in a variety of ways, and activities should be designed that let them learn in their own ways.
Problem-solving activities help players get to know one another, trust one another, and work together to solve a common issue. Provide activities that require cooperation and teamwork to accomplish, such as blindfolding half the team and requiring them to still complete their usual warm-up routine.
Encourage learning through other fun methods, such as game-based learning. Players love to learn when they do not know they are doing it, so keep them in the dark by providing them a fun method for instruction. If you put something in a game format, players will focus more on teamwork, competition, and showing their brilliance than what they are learning, and you will see better results and happier players.
If you keep players involved in and excited about your activities, you will help them learn, improve, and develop necessary sport-specific and life skills.
Plan Your Practice Time Wisely
All skills, just like habits, take time to acquire and internalize. Experts say that it takes 21 days of repetition to create a habit. Learning a skill is not different, and coaches must take this into account when planning for practice.
As the coach, one of your biggest focuses is going to be on increasing the skill level of your players and helping them acquire new skills. To give players the most time to learn skills and internalize them, plan practice so that it gives players enough time to repeat their exercises and see their mistakes.
If you plan a softball practice that is focused around strength training, you cannot expect your players to improve their throwing accuracy or their sprint time. If you have a goal and a necessary skill for the day, make sure to plan for practice time so that players know and understand what the most important part of the practice is.
Retention is a bit harder, even if players have already learned a skill. Retention comes from constant repetition, though usually not in the same practice session. If you want to ensure that all players get a good start off the block when swimming, you must have them practice starting at nearly every practice. Even just a few minutes a day will help cement these valuable skills and keep you from having to re-teach them later when you discover poor technique.
Let Athletes Demonstrate
Peer demonstration leads to several notable benefits. Coaches gain the flexibility to focus on issues other than describing and demonstrating a skill. This gives them time to view how the team works together, how players respond to each other, and how well the technique is performed during the practice.
For players, peer demonstration holds another benefit entirely. For the player demonstrating, it builds confidence in their skills and helps them learn to be good leaders. For the players watching, it encourages good technique, positive results, and team morale, as they look up to that player demonstrating for encouragement and leadership in the future.
Finally, peer demonstration gives players a sense of commitment to the learning process and a responsibility for its success. Because players now have a significant role in the learning process, they will naturally work harder to respect the system and continue improving. It gives them a stake in their own learning and helps them feel in control of a process that often leaves them in the dust.
Use Technology to Analyze and Improve Performance
Technology has fascinating uses in the educational process and some of them can be applied specifically to coaching. Many of these uses have already been incorporated into traditional practice routines, but some have not and deserve time and attention.
Stopwatches are especially useful for sports practices. Though not revolutionary, stopwatch technology has greatly improved, giving coaches the abilities to monitor multiple players at once, stop and start the watch more precisely, and better analyze trends based on stopwatch memories.
Video recorders help players understand what they are doing right and wrong by showing them exactly what they are doing. By videotaping practices and performances, you can work with athletes to identify technique errors, address playing style issues, and fix necessary problems. This is especially helpful when watching an entire group. Just because you do not notice something when you are watching a group for the first time does not mean that you will not be able to see it on tape, later as you review and analyze.
Technology continues to improve, and steps such as digital players help identify incorrect body positions and make necessary adjustments. While most often used in sports such as golf at this point, this technology can be applied to many other sports, if you have the time and money to discover its benefits.
Understand Motivation and Morale
Team motivation should be one of your biggest concerns as you plan practices and skill instruction. Consider how players will feel when you describe the plan for the day. Does it get them energized and excited about being there? Does it make them anxious and nervous? Does it insult them by acting like they did not learn something the first time?
Correcting errors is an essential part of being a coach, but consider the issues surrounding it before you make a practice plan. How will players react to this type of criticism? Is there a better way I can present the problem so as to get maximum participation and interest from players? Why am I choosing to address the problem in this way?
By answering these simple but important questions, you can more effectively lead your team and keep them excited about the sport and their part on the team.
Selecting which skills to re-teach is also a hidden motivation-killer. If you choose a skill that players already feel proficient at, they will view your decision as an insult to their abilities, even if you feel that they are mistaken in their sense of proficiency. For this reason, you must consider motivation when you decide when and how to select techniques for re-teaching.
By no means should you avoid addressing something even if you have addressed it before, because sometimes players just do not “get it.” Be kind but firm in your explanation for choosing that technique and work to get everyone positive about the event. Encourage players with praise and good feedback, and help everyone see that relearning a skill is nothing more than reviewing it, fixing any problems that may have developed, and moving on.