A Coach’s End of Season Checklist

Have you just reached the end of your youth sports season? The final game has been played, and there are no more practices until next year. Unless your league has specific requirements, you are fully within your rights as a volunteer youth coach to just hand out the participation trophies, return the league-issued equipment, and walk off the field/court/etc.

But if you are really motivated, then it’s not too early to start planning ahead for future success. Here’s a checklist of ideas (not all mandatory, or course) to improve the success of your league, your teams, and (most importantly) the children you coach.

  1. Trophy Party. Sure, a party is fun, right? It is also a little bit of a hassle, admittedly. You at least have to schedule a day, time, and place where most of the team can meet for an hour or so. If you’re lucky, maybe you have a team parent to help with the logistics. But beyond all of that, this is a really important step to show appreciation to everyone involved with your team throughout the season. Use it as the time to say a few positive things about everyone on the team to build them up and encourage them to participate again next year. Provide some token of appreciation to your assistant coaches to recognize how much harder your job would have been without them. Certainly, thank all of the parents for bringing their children out to play, and identify any of them who have gone beyond that to contribute to the team’s success. This relatively easy step should pay off by fostering a community of continued interest in the sport, and maybe even you as the coach. In turn, more kids will return next season eager to improve their skills and consequently the talent level of your team and the league as a whole will benefit.
  2. Off-Season Drills. With the trophy, you might consider handing something out to each child/parent on your team to give them ideas for practicing in the off season. This can be as simple as a written note suggesting that they spend 30 minutes per week doing something related to the sport. Just put an image or two on the paper with some creative fonts and hope that they put it on the refrigerator to serve as a visual reminder that maybe will cause them to practice more often than they otherwise would have. Or, if you have the time, you can get more specific with outlines of particular drills that a child can do alone or with a parent or friend. With younger athletes, you don’t want to go too overboard here. But something that you can fit on one page (or maybe two) is fair game.
  3. Travel Team Advice. How do kids get better at a sport? Generally, by practicing and playing it more, ideally with good coaching. Assuming you are a “house” team coach whose season has ended, I suggest you be aware of what travel teams your league supports for players in your age level. Some of the parents on your team will already be aware of this too, to a greater or lesser extent, and will be considering whether to pursue travel for their kids. Even if those parents happen to know more about the sport (or the particular travel teams) than you do, you have a unique perspective to offer. Let’s face it, parents know and see their children differently than others do. They may either over- or underestimate their talents. Having just coached these children for a few months, you have some idea of how they can perform and probably even what their potential is. Depending on the age and level of your team, you likely won’t be giving each parent a detailed analysis of their child’s current and future prospects in the sports. But you should at least be receptive to have a positively framed conversation with parents who seek your advice about what their child should do to continue to improve with the sport. And, if there are children who are obviously ready for a higher level of involvement, then you might at least make sure their parents are aware of opportunities such as travel teams or other off-season development programs that your league or other organizations in the area may offer. However, especially for younger children, be careful not to push travel programs too hard, as there may be many reasons why parents choose not to go in that direction. And you generally should not bring up travel teams directly with the players (unless they are on the older side, at least), as participation on those teams can be expensive and potentially beyond the budget of some families of children who have the talent to excel on the field.
  4. Player Notes. If you really want to stay ahead of the pack, you should consider writing down what you observed about players this season. Obviously, you should start with all of the players on your team. You know a lot about their strengths and weaknesses right now. Don’t assume you will remember all of that by the time the next season begins. A lot will happen between now and then. You should also write down something about any other players you saw play, especially if they really jumped out from the crowd, either positively or negatively. If you were keeping a scorebook in your league, then you may already have some record of this, but use the scorebook as a starting point and add narrative details to the extent you can. Depending on how your league works, you might not have any control over who’s on your team next year. But if you do get to be involved in picking the teams, this information can give you an advantage. Leagues work differently, often with nuances based on player age/experience. So your goal might either be to select the best team possible, or to help make sure that all teams are relatively balanced. Either way, the more information you have available the better. Then once you have your team and start practicing, you will hopefully have some past-year information on at least some of the children you are coaching. This will give you a head start in helping lead your team to improvement and on-field success. If you follow this process over several seasons, you will eventually have background information on many of the players in your league to guide you in team selection and developing the young athletes.
  5. Parent Notes. If you are diligent enough to keep notes on the players (or even if you’re not), don’t forget about the parents. A good youth coach doesn’t have a problem with a less athletic child who gives good effort and listens. But problem parents can really drag down a team. So if you were unlucky enough to have one or two of those adults involved with your team, make a note . . . just in case you’re lucky enough to forget by next year!
  6. Coach Notes. Finally, don’t forget to evaluate yourself. Start with the positive. What did you do that really worked out well. What drills should you be sure to repeat next year. What practice times really worked, how long should practices be? Then be honest about what didn’t work. Where did you go wrong? What was a waste of time? Write it down. Really. This should be the first set of notes you pick up and read before the next season begins. Don’t rely on your memory. You don’t want to repeat the same mistakes if you don’t have to. Even if you’re just a casual, volunteer coach, you want your participation to go as smoothly as possible, so you should always be seeking to improve.
  7. Plan To ImproveIf you’ve made it this far, then perhaps you really are taking this coaching thing seriously. You may even be motivated to take some affirmative steps to make next season even more successful. Take some time to think about what you can do to be prepared for next season. Are you going to be coaching an older age group as your child moves up? Will the rules change? Will the athletes have to learn new skills? Do you know how to teach those skills? If not, or if you’re not sure, create a plan to make sure you’re ready. Read the rules for the next league or ask the league commissioner if the rules aren’t available. If possible, talk to a coach from that league. Once you know what you’ll need to know, see what’s out there to teach you what you need to learn. Look for guides online. Watch training videos. Be on the lookout for coaches’ clinics and training courses. Don’t feel like you have to learn everything or be a perfect coach. But if you love coaching, then you will probably enjoy getting better at it. And if you don’t enjoy it, then you might decide that it’s time to leave the coaching to someone else. In that case, look back at those parent notes you made (item 5 above) and make sure you don’t end up on someone else’s list next year!

Always remember: you’ve done the most important part by coaching this year. Many people appreciate you for having made that commitment. If you are able to coach again in the future, that will be welcomed too. I wish you the utmost success and fulfillment in that noble endeavor?

End of Season

Time to go home?

New Rules Tackle Sports Injuries

Two totally unrelated governing bodies have recently acted to address sports injuries among young athletes.

On June 23, 2016, the Erie County (New York) Legislature has passed a local law requiring adults involved in organized youth “contact or collision” sports (coaches/referees) to take an online course on how to recognize concussion symptoms in children. “Contact sports” are defined as those “in which the participants necessarily come into bodily contact with one another.” “Collision sports” are defined as those “where athletes purposely hit or collide with each other or inanimate objects, including the ground, with great force.” Those two covered categories seem to encompass most sports. Though, golf and swimming, it seems, may not be covered.

The law passed by a vote of 10-1. The lone County Legislator to vote against the requirement expressed concern about the amount of time volunteers already spend supporting youth sports programs. The law will be enforceable by the Erie County Health Department through fines on youth sports organizations that cannot document compliance with the training requirement.

On July 12, 2016, the National Federation of State High School Associations announced a change in baseball pitching restrictions to shift the focus from innings limits to pitch counts. Each state will be expected to create its own specific pitch count guidelines, including the amount of rest between appearances. The New York State Public High School Athletic Association has indicated that it expects to vote on new pitch count rules in early 2017.

If you coach or have a child playing baseball, you should take pitch counts seriously at all levels. Some local house leagues even require that all players get a chance to pitch at lower age groups (once you first move beyond tee ball and coach pitch). Little League Baseball has already established pitch count rules based on age. Babe Ruth Cal Ripken Baseball, however, still uses innings restrictions rather than the number of pitches thrown as the default, but allows affiliated leagues to substitute pitch count restrictions during local league games. Whether or not your youth baseball league is affiliated with a national organization, hopefully it has put its own pitch count rules into place. If not, you can refer to PitchSmart guidelines sponsored by Major League Baseball to help you make an informed decision regarding your players.

The pitching restrictions target one particular sport. If you are not involved with baseball, then the pitch count rules will not directly affect you. By contrast, concussions can occur in almost any sport.

Football, ice hockey, lacrosse, and wrestling result in the most concussions at the high school level. For girls, soccer produces the most concussions, followed by basketball and gymnastics. The lowest concussion rates occur in swimming. For a more detailed discussion of this frequency data, check out this New York Times blog.

With or without specific rules in play, parents should never feel pressured to put their children at undue risk. Whether with respect to an arm or head injury, it’s better to miss one game than a whole season. More importantly, it’s better to lose a game than to jeopardize physical well-being potentially for the rest of a child’s life.

For coaches and parents looking to be better informed on the critical concussion issue, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides a free HEADS UP Concussion in Youth Sports Training Course.

Keeping Score To Get Ahead

On July 10, 1990, the Major League Baseball All-Star Game was hosted by the Cubs in Chicago. Lights had been installed at historic Wrigley Field just two years earlier. The IMG_1060game’s rosters included 13 players and one manager who are now in the Hall of Fame. There was a rain delay in the 7th inning. The American League ultimately won 2-0, with the National League held to only 2 hits. I was 10 years old.

It seems possible that this was the first time I watched an All-Star Game. I know it was the first time that I kept score of the game . . . but it wasn’t the last.

Somewhere along the way of playing baseball myself, I had already learned the basics of filling out the scorebook. There are as many scorekeeping systems as there are scorekeepers. But typically it includes drawing lines in the shape of the diamond to track where on the base paths each hitter advanced as a result of each plate appearance and noting how each out is made.

I’m not really writing this to teach anyone how to keep score. Instead, I’m writing to encourage everyone to try it. More specifically, I’m suggesting that young ballplayers should experiment with keeping score–and there’s no better game to do it for than the All-Star Game.

Okay, so keeping score of this particular game can be considerably more complicated than the average game. Why? Because both teams will make numerous substitutions in an effort to get virtually every player onto the field. Back in 1990 (and until recently) All-Star Games in National League ballparks didn’t use the designated hitter. That meant even more lineup moves (including myriad double switches) to avoid having pitchers try to hit against the best of their counterparts. So, at least this is slightly less of a hassle than it used to be.

However, the All-Star Game offers some perks for a young scorekeeper in training. Here are some of them:

  1. The game itself is fun to watch, especially because all of the best players are playing.
  2. Keeping score forces kids to pay attention to the names of the players and familiarizes them with the best, the ones you should want them to emulate (on the field, anyway).
  3. It really doesn’t matter who wins the game (unless your child happens to care about home field advantage in the World Series).
  4. It’s fun to use the scorebook to predict who will win the game’s MVP award, something that isn’t awarded in other games.
  5. It’s a more memorable experience than keeping score of game 74 of a team’s 162 game regular season schedule!

Of course, the main point isn’t to train kids how to keep a great scorebook. Rather, it’s about getting them to enjoy the game itself, learn more about it, and hopefully improve their own performance.

Keeping score of the All-Star Game became an annual tradition for me all the way up to college. I can even remember a game in my early 20s when a good friend drove an hour from out of town to visit so that we could watch and score the game together. That was my first time doing so electronically, on my laptop. He used the good old-fashioned paper method. And, if only for nostalgic purposes, that’s what I suggest you teach your children to do. (But that doesn’t mean you can’t easily print a scorecard from the web!)

New to Soccer?

First of all, I think it’s time to stop pretending that Americans don’t play soccer. Data from the Census Bureau show that in 2009, more than 13.5 million Americans played soccer. By comparison, only 11.5 million played baseball, and less than 9 million played tackle football. More people in this country played soccer than tennis or volleyball too.

IMG_0883I don’t really mean to get too hung up on numbers, but, again, Americans (meaning specifically those from the USA) do play soccer. In fact, we even watch soccer, with the English Premier League becoming particularly popular (now averaging over 500,000 U.S. viewers per match on NBC networks).

The problem for now, I suppose, is that we still aren’t all that successful at soccer (or football, but this isn’t the time for a verbiage debate) at the top levels (in fairness, I really mean men’s soccer here, since the U.S. women’s team has already experienced considerable success on a global stage!). There are undoubtedly many factors that contribute to our lagging men’s soccer prowess. One may be that we have many relatively enticing alternatives (in sports and otherwise) that other countries don’t have. But that doesn’t mean the USA doesn’t want to be good at soccer. To be sure, it’s clear that many soccer associations at various levels are focused on improving the overall level of U.S. soccer talent.

So, I think, here’s where we come in. Sure, we’re going to let our kids play soccer. Even those of us (like me) who barely played ourselves. But how do we approach a sport that we may not prioritize or at least don’t have as much experience with?

Based on my experience, let’s start with the basics:

  1. Buy soccer ball.
  2. Give ball to young athlete.
  3. Encourage athlete to use feet to move soccer ball around.
  4. Repeat 3.
  5. In lieu of or in addition to 4, enroll athlete in (relatively) non-competitive soccer program that will facilitate 3.
  6. Watch soccer, on tv or (better) in person.
  7. Encourage athlete to participate in 6, especially with you.
  8. Evaluate whether athlete seems to enjoy the above.

If you get through this process and your child still wants to play soccer, then you have many potential options open to improve their skill.

There are plenty of soccer clubs in Western New York (especially in Erie County) that will enable a child (over the age of 3, at least) to play soccer on a year-round basis (if desired). And that’s even before you get into “travel” and similar teams that require tryouts and serious financial investment.

My children (under the age of 8), for example, have taken soccer “classes” through our town’s recreation department and played on organized teams in each of the spring/summer, fall, and winter seasons. Now, to do so, we have bounced around among various clubs, because they don’t all offer sessions in all of the seasons. At the “house” level there is, as far as I know, no reason not to move back and forth from league to league (assuming you and your child already want to spend that much time on soccer).

Most of the clubs have both the standard “house” league and travel teams. Whereas travel teams were relatively unusual/limited when I was young, they have seemingly become the norm for youth athletes with a moderate level of skill and passion to compete. The Buffalo & Western New York Junior Soccer League is the primary starting point for travel soccer in this area. Through this league, children ranging from age 8 to 19 can participate on a club team that travels around the Buffalo metropolitan area to play other (more or less) similarly skilled clubs. Even if your child isn’t ready to play travel soccer, this league’s website identifies many of the most established soccer clubs in the area. So, if you haven’t already found a place (or the right place) for your budding soccer star to play, I’d suggest you start here.

For now, I’m not going to try to identify all of your soccer options in Western New York. But, for those looking ahead or ready to move to the next level, there is also a Thruway Soccer League. As the name suggests, this league is organized to foster competition between and among soccer clubs (including some based in/near Buffalo) from across a wider geographic footprint in Upstate New York. Consistent with the commitment necessary to undertake the greater travel burden, this league generally features a higher level of competition than that found in the more localized leagues.

Well, don’t just stand around, hit the pitch! (Yes, that’s meant as a soccer term.)

Youth Sports in Western New York

Sports are a significant part of my life year round. I started playing t-ball (three decades ago) when I was 6 years old. I’m still active, on occasion, through softball (at which I’m not too bad) and golf (at which I am too bad). I started coaching baseball (sporadically) before I had children of my own. Now (often) I coach them.

Having moved to the Buffalo area just over 10 years ago, I am still relatively new to the Western New York youth sports scene. In any event, I’m sure youth sports here have changed significantly from when I was kid.

House leagues. District teams. Travel leagues. Camps. Clinics. Whoa, this is serious stuff. Not just get your mitt out after a nine month hiatus and hit the local baseball diamond.

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I’ve realized that it is going to take some effort to better understand how to best guide my children through their athletic pursuits, at least as long as they remain eager to pursue them. Through this blog, I will try to share what I discover. Maybe someone out there will find it helpful to them too!