Coaches are tasked with many responsibilities, and right at the top of the list is teaching kids how to play their best. Breaking this down further, a big challenge for coaches is helping kids actually execute sport skills in games that they previously worked on in practice, and helping kids overcome common sport anxieties they experience. It is in these very moments that coaches often yell out things like “Focus!” or “Relax out there!,” but do kids know what these instructions really mean?
What coaches say — and what kids hear
When a coach prompts kids to focus or relax, the coach knows what he or she means. For example, a coach may watch her team commit fouls on three consecutive plays and shout out “Focus!” with the intention being for kids to pay better attention to their role and assignment. Similarly, if a coach notices that his team is overly-anxious, it’s likely the coach will instruct the team to relax and play their game. In both of these examples the coach is providing appropriate instruction, but do kids always know exactly what the coach is asking them to do?
Verbal messages from the coach can become even more challenging for kids to interpret when non-verbal behaviors and body language don’t match the request (i.e. an animated coach telling his team to relax), and in these instances kids often end up doing, ironically, more of the unwanted behaviors (i.e. kids become even more anxious watching a screaming coach telling them to relax). Once this type of coach-athlete communication establishes, it often leads to a closed loop of communication where the coach yells out instructions, the kids are confused and become even more nervous, resulting in the coach having to deal with even more frustration seeing that the kids simply aren’t getting it.
Teach kids exactly what they are to do
The first thing every coach needs to do is a self-assessment to see if they really know how to do the very same things they are expecting their student athletes to do. For example, what does “focus” really mean? Every coach should take a moment to think about that question, as well as identify specific techniques to use in order to address a focus problem. Similarly, telling a kid to relax is great, but only if the kid has the knowledge to quickly calm his or her mind and body. Coaches need to ask themselves do I know how to immediately relax? If so, am I properly teaching these skills to the kids I coach, versus simply yelling out a command that won’t be effective because kids don’t know what to do.
- Teach your in-game prompts ahead of time in practice. If you regularly instruct kids to think and act in specific ways, do you cover this in practice? For example, a kid will far more likely learn how to relax in games if you teach him in practice how to use deep breathing, imagery, or positive self-talk.
- Prepare kids just before games start. While covering the X’s and O’s is a big focus of pre-game preparation, it’s also important to briefly cover the human performance prompts you are likely to give. For example, if you know you are going to regularly tell kids to focus, model for kids what that means. Coaches can teach kids that proper focus means letting go of the last play and placing attention to the next play, including your assignment and how you will execute the skill.
- Reward kids for success. When you see kids successfully carry out your instructions, reward them with hearty praise! It’s no small thing to see a nervous kid quickly calm himself down and get back in the game again, and this is a great skill that works off the field as well — especially with tests and class speeches.
As adults, we sometimes know what we want kids to do in order to help themselves improve, but we sometimes forget that often the words we use can come across as vague and confusing to kids (in fact, many adults use words like focus and relax and don’t know exactly what they mean). Rather than compounding matters by continuing to expect kids should just know these things, take time out to teach them so that they can improve the next time out.