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What Coaches Should Know

Certification programs lay a foundation for volunteer coaches to work effectively with youngsters in organized sports

When MaryBeth Bash walked into the Andrews Air Force Base Youth Center to sign her son and daughter up for soccer back in 1999, she never expected to walk out a coach. After all, Bash, a pediatric nurse whose husband was stationed at Andrews, had never played one second of organized soccer growing up, or even coached a sport before.

But after learning that the program was plagued by a shortage of coaches and that there was a waiting list of youngsters craving the chance to strap on shin guards and take the field, she didn't hesitate to step forward.

She also didn't waste any time looking for help to ease her transition into the chaotic, challenging and unfamiliar world of planning practices and delivering pregame pep talks. Within the week, she had completed the National Youth Sports Coaches Association's volunteer coaching certification program that was offered on the base, and later, in 2002, she was named NYSCA's Coach of the Year.

Coaches, and the sports organizations for which they volunteer, are relying on certification programs like NYSCA's as never before. Making sure coaches understand the do's and don'ts of working with children in a sports setting has quietly nudged its way toward the top of the priority list for many recreation directors who oversee youth sports programs at complexes around the country. Consequently, the days of recreation directors simply handing rosters and schedules over to the coaches are quickly fading away.

Much of the impetus for this change is coming from the parents whose children take part in organized activities. Most parents are no longer satisfied with simply receiving information about registration dates and sign-up fees. They're taking a more active interest in other aspects of the program - most of all, they want to know who is coaching their child and whether the coach has had any training before he or she is allowed to step on the field with a group of impressionable youngsters.

While the majority of youth sports leagues offer certification programs on a voluntary basis, a growing number are requiring coaches to complete them before they are allowed to coach. This does not appear to be a hurdle for would-be coaches. A 1995 study conducted on volunteer coaches by Northern Kentucky University - surveying those who had completed a certification program and those who had not - found that an overwhelming percentage were in favor of certification programs. Seventy-eight percent of the coaches who had not received any type of training said that the requirement of a training program would not discourage them from volunteering; 85 percent said they would voluntarily attend a certification clinic if provided the opportunity to do so. Furthermore, of the coaches who had been trained, 85 percent said that a certification program had increased their skills and confidence in coaching children; 86 percent of these coaches said they would voluntarily attend another certification clinic even if they were not required to do so.

Regardless of whether coaches are working with 6-year-old girls' soccer players or 15-year-old football players, they are going to encounter a variety of challenges throughout the course of a season. They must know how to effectively communicate with youngsters who have vastly different personalities, backgrounds, talents and skill levels, and have sound methods for dealing with meddling parents and volatile coaches. Beyond issues of communication, they must also acquire nuts-and-bolts skills such as basic first aid and the design of effective practices - among the many vital areas that often are foreign territory for volunteers.

What, specifically, do certification programs try to teach coaches? Read on:

The importance of developing a coaching philosophy. Every volunteer coach's philosophy should be centered on fun and good sportsmanship. This is often easier said than done, since good intentions can be shoved aside once the season begins and scoreboards, league standings and championship trophies enter the picture. Coaches have to maintain their focus on the kids - not won-loss records - and avoid directing all of their attention at those who run faster, jump higher or catch better.

How to be an effective teacher and communicator. One of the most important characteristics of being a good coach is being able to teach. This means being able to present information clearly and correctly, giving children time to practice and offering them feedback on how well they perform. A good coach must be able to identify both efficient and inefficient performances, as well as analyze and correct any errors. Being able to do so will help players develop the skills that are necessary to perform in a competitive environment.

Every sport requires certain skills in order to achieve even a moderate level of success, and a coach's primary job is to help players develop them. The most effective way to build their sport-specific knowledge and skill, as well as their confidence and self-esteem, is to begin with a basic skill and make sure the child masters it before moving on to a more challenging skill. While different players will need to work on different skills throughout the course of a season, coaches will typically not have the luxury of being able to work one-on-one with each child because of time constraints. Consequently, it's important to choose drills that involve as many players as possible.

To keep expectations realistic. Coaches must take the age, experience and conditioning level of their athletes into consideration before placing any expectations on them. A coach should not fall into the trap of expecting players to learn everything about the sport during the relatively short amount of time that seasons typically last. Coaches should stay focused on the basics while building each child's skills.

To be fair to all players. An overwhelming majority of today's volunteer coaches - more than 85 percent - coach teams on which their own sons or daughters participate. Coaching your own child can be tricky at times, but if it is handled properly, it can be an extremely rewarding experience for both the coach and child. It's a natural tendency for some coaches to show preferential treatment toward their own children, perhaps by providing them with extra playing time, giving them more attention during practices or putting them in charge of special tasks. On the other hand, some coaches have the opposite reaction toward their children, and will go out of their way to avoid displaying preferential treatment.

How to deal with unruly behavior. It's a simple but unfortunate fact of life that most people, even the most rational ones, behave irrationally at times. Coaches need to be aware that such negative behavior is likely to occur - among parents and coaches, as well as the players themselves. Good coaches must be prepared to deal with these situations quickly and effectively. Problems that are ignored can undermine the attitude of the entire team and risk making the season miserable for everyone.

Important safety issues. While injuries are a part of youth sports and can't be eliminated, the chances of injuries occurring can be greatly reduced in leagues that have certified coaches. Volunteer coaches not trained in teaching the proper techniques of the sport can put their young athletes at unnecessary risk. For example, a coach who doesn't teach his or her young players the proper technique for heading a soccer ball will expose them to the risk of suffering head, shoulder, back and neck injuries.

Also in the area of safety, once coaches arrive at the field or court, they must inspect the playing area for potential dangers. For outdoor sports they should keep an eye out for hazards such as broken glass, uneven ground, loose rocks and raised sprinkler heads. Indoors, coaches should be on the lookout for wet or slippery spots on the court, or anything that could cause an injury during the course of play. Every player participating in the game or practice is the coach's responsibility and he or she should not rely on the opposing coach or a grounds crew to check the field.

Proper sportsmanship. Certification programs remind coaches that win-at-all-cost philosophies and poor sportsmanship drain the fun out of a child's sports experience. They also help remind the coach that his or her behavior toward opposing players, coaches and officials will be emulated by young players. A Purdue University study released a few years ago found that 83 percent of the girls and 70 percent of the boys polled indicated their coach was the most important influence in whether they would take part in aggressive acts or break the rules of the sport they were playing. One way a coach can set an example of good sportsmanship before the game begins is to walk over and shake the hand of the opposing coach.

The importance of a preseason parents meeting. How well a coach communicates with parents or guardians will have a huge impact on the level of everyone's enjoyment during the season. The first step in laying the foundation for a healthy exchange of information is for coaches to gather the parents for a meeting prior to the first practice of the season. This type of meeting serves several key purposes. It gives coaches the opportunity to introduce themselves in a casual atmosphere and provides a forum for them to outline everything from their coaching philosophy to their goals for the season. Taking the time to conduct this type of meeting demonstrates to the parents that the coach genuinely cares about the welfare of the participants and wants to ensure that the season runs smoothly. The more comfortable parents feel with the coach, the better the chances the coach will have an open and constructive relationship with them. The first impression coaches make can be a lasting one, so they should approach these meetings with the same diligence and care that they would if they were meeting an important business client.

How to deal with team problems. Problems involving young players can encompass a wide range of behaviors, including everything from disrespecting the coach's authority and rebelling against rules to showing up late for practice and failing to bring the proper equipment. Coaches hold the trump card when it comes to these situations, and that's playing time. The threat of sitting on the bench or being stuck on the sidelines for any period of time is usually enough of a punishment to warrant a turnaround in a child's behavior. Coaches can do themselves a huge favor at the beginning of the season by outlining ground rules for the team. By being clear and specific about the behaviors that are considered unacceptable, and letting the kids know the possible ramifications of these behaviors, the chances of dicey situations arising can be greatly reduced.

How to deal with problem parents. Being able to deal with all types of conflicts, no matter how serious or seemingly insignificant, is a vital skill for any volunteer coach. It becomes especially important during tense situations in which the approach you take can make the difference between diffusing a potentially explosive occurrence or adding to its volatility. What may start out as an insensitive remark can easily escalate into something more serious, such as pushing, shoving or full-scale brawling. Not only does such behavior put the combatants (and bystanders) at risk, it also sends a disturbing message to the children.

If a parent displays inappropriate conduct, the coach must address it immediately. For instance, if a coach hears a parent direct an unsportsmanlike comment toward a player, game official or opposing coach, it can't be ignored. The coach must let that parent know that such comments are not appropriate for youth sports and the positive atmosphere and good sportsmanship that he or she is working to promote. Oftentimes parents may not even realize what they are doing, and a gentle reminder to more closely monitor their language is all that is warranted. Sometimes the coach simply making eye contact and shaking his or her head in a non-approving way is enough to make the point. However, if the misconduct continues, a more forceful approach may be in order.

Most leagues give officials permission to ban offending spectators, as well as coaches and players, from games. Coaches need to be aware of all the steps that must be followed before having a spectator removed from a game, and although some leagues give coaches this authority, it is always best for them to do everything in their power to avoid exercising it. After all, banning parents from games is an extreme measure that is not encouraged. It is extremely embarrassing for the parent, and particularly the child, who has to witness his or her parent being reprimanded in front of friends and teammates.

Coaches who keep the lines of communication open and clearly outline what type of behavior they expect from parents will be taking a big step in preventing problems before they have a chance to develop.

Recreation professionals who actually step back from their programs and analyze how they are run often find that they have assumed - sometimes incorrectly - that their coaches know how to handle all of the issues and situations that accompany being a volunteer coach. Unfortunately, in today's litigious society, it has become imperative that coaches have a firm understanding of all areas of the sports they've chosen to coach.

Coaching a youth sports team is a challenging endeavor, but one that can be an enormously rewarding experience when coaches take the time to properly prepare for their role. Certification programs have proven to help coaches do exactly that.

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