Fun is a great motivator.
Ask any young athlete why he plays a sport, and you can bet a steak dinner that “having fun” will be part of his answer. However, somewhere along the way, sports programs, coaches, and parents forget this crucial element and start focusing on other objectives.
Unfortunately, the research shows that around 70% of athletes quit playing by the time they reach 13. And the reason why?
“It’s just not fun anymore.”
If you happen to coach kids in the 4-9 age range, it’s a little easier to stay focused on fun. Let’s face it, attention spans are short, skill levels are low, and typically kids in this age category are being exposed to team participation for the first time. So, fun HAS to be a central component of their experience.
When you look at the other end of the spectrum—collegiate athletes—mastery of skills HAS BEEN accomplished and that in itself creates a sense of fun for the athletes. Who doesn’t enjoy being good at something?
That leaves us with a large middle section. Typically athletes aged 10-18 are working on their technical skills. And it’s during this period that FUN gets edged out of the sports picture.
But learning the skills required to improve does NOT have to come at the cost of fun.
Using the acronym C.H.E.E.R, here are 5 tips coaches—of kids during this highly technical phase—need to know to keep their athletes in love with the game.
1) Create Clever Ways To Get the Drills Done
Muscle memory is the coveted goal every coach has for each of his athletes—and REPETITION of properly performed skills is the way to get there. Yet just the mention of “drills” elicits the “boring” response for many kids.
So what’s a coach to do?
Always approach this part of practice with a “think-out-of-the-box” mindset. Of course, each sport will require sports-specific activities. Make it a goal to get the necessary repetitions done but in different ways each day. For example, your week could look like this:
- Monday—Individual drills
- Tuesday—Groups work together
- Wednesday—Mock competition
- Thursday—Athletes paired off
- Friday—Individual drill-work
Varying up how you execute the same drills will keep it interesting for your kids. And creating clever ways to get the work done will distract from the monotony.
2) “Hire” a Daily Helper
Coaches typically are dealing with athletes that have:
- Varying skill levels
- Different competitive drives
- Contrasting behavioral tendencies
- Distinct emotional needs
- Dissimilar backgrounds
It can certainly feel like he has to have a multiple personality disorder just to reach every athlete.
Additionally, young kids naturally see things from their OWN perspective—and this can be a very limiting viewpoint. What better way to solve both issues than to assign a different athlete, each day, to be your assistant.
Giving every team member a chance to stand side-by-side with the coach—making decisions, giving instructions, and helping to encourage—not only makes practice more fun but opens that athlete’s eyes to the coach’s perspective.
3) Encourage and Acknowledge a Good Work Ethic
Not every athlete will progress in their skills. Some will just struggle—and that is never a fun space to be.
However, every athlete CAN LEARN to work hard. Coaches that consistently encourage and “call out” hard work, give every athlete something attainable to strive toward. And that is fun.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when you are growing strong work ethics:
- Make a point to give a shout-out for at least one athlete that worked hard during each practice and competition
- Always be specific in your praise—”Bobby your sprints looked really strong today.”
- Recognize an athlete of the week (or month) based on the EFFORT they put forth
4) Engage Each Athlete Personally and Individually
It’s fun to feel a sense of value and belonging. And coaches are in large part responsible for the overall view the team has toward each individual.
It might seem easy to show appreciation toward the star athletes on your team OR even toward those you just seem to connect with. For the others, it may take a bit more effort.
But engaging every one of your athletes on a personal level really just requires intentional effort and the right questions.
Try these ways to help each athlete feel included:
- Find one-on-one moments throughout practices where you can boost a child’s confidence with a kind word
- Ask questions like, “What was the highlight of your day?” or “What’s your favorite part of this sport?”
- Learn what you can about their home life, then use that info to have more specific conversations
5) Reward the Team As a Whole
Tangible rewards are part of every kid’s love language.
Acknowledging the whole team for what they accomplish together is a fun way to strengthen bonds and keep everyone motivated.
Many coaches do a good job of this after big events. For example, it is common to stop for lunch after a win at an “away” game.
However here are some other ways you can reward your team, while still keeping it simple:
- Surprise the team with popsicles or small ice cream cups after a hot practice
- Plan a fun pool party or BBQ half-way through the season
- Allow the kids to play a different game‒like frisbee golf—at the end of a challenging week
C.H.E.E.R. Your Team On And Always Keep It Fun
Most coaches don’t need a complete overhaul when it comes to their coaching approach. However, refocusing on FUN can only benefit those who are in this technical phase of skill development.
Keeping that 70% still playing past the age of 13 allows so many more kids to reap the MANY benefits of athletics.
Which of these do YOU need to apply to your team or program?
Create Clever Ways To Get the Drills Done
Hire a Daily Helper
Encourage and Acknowledge a Good Work Ethic
Engage Each Athlete Personally and Individually
Reward the Team As a Whole