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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- Plan To Improve. If 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?