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Advice to Coaches: Involve Players In Planning Practices

Athletes should be active partners in their own development

Catcher looking for a signFor quite awhile now I have been asking players who come in for lessons this question: "Why are you here today?" Astonished, they look directly into their parents' eyes, as so many children and teens do, for their parents to provide the answer.

I interrupt and say, "Sorry, Mom & Dad cannot answer that question." Invariably, after a long pause and much thought and soul searching (not really -- they just mentally kill the appropriate time needed to appease me), the players struggle to  dribble out such incredibly simplistic statements as, "I'm here to get better," or similar hackneyed phrases, none of which can hide the fact that they have no idea why they are at this lesson or practice that day!

The point is that student-athletes rarely know why they are getting private lessons. They have not given it the slightest thought. They just show up. Mom and Dad scheduled the lesson. The players are just told to get in the car. They enter the academy, and like a car on cruise control, they just go through the motions.

If we are to expect more from our students we have to teach them more. No one comes to our academy to maintain the status quo or master the ordinary. Athletic training involves much more than athletic skill. If we are to use sports to its most educational and social advantage, we must dig deeper into what appears to be obvious. We have to structure training in those areas that have been assumed by many. Training opportunities are right in front of us as parents and coaches every day. We just need to take the necessary time to seize the teaching moment. How are life skills learned through sports? What is the plan? Where is the curriculum? There is none. It is assumed that athletic values, leadership and responsibility are learned by merely participating in sports. How? By osmosis? Nope, just like anything else, there has to be a written plan.

Getting in gear

Players need to become engaged in decisions about their own athletic career.

It is important for players to approach a practice with one or two specific, personal goals. As you would expect, that takes some  thinking in advance. Parents need to manage that process at home; sometime after the last game or practice, not on the way to  practice. Parents need to ask probing questions to engage the player in thinking about what is in the player's best interest. Treat the discussion as the player's "career" choices.

I can tell you with the confidence of 25 years of teaching players, that when a player comes to me and asks me, "Can we work on this today, coach?" he is more attentive, motivated, and engaged. The higher the level of engagement, the higher the information retention level will be as well.

I do not want develop athletic robots. Players must have the right and the responsibility to question, disagree and suggest. A good teacher knows how to handle disagreement. It usually manifests itself in a misunderstanding, in the truest sense of the word. A player not given intellectual respect or freedom will not engage, will not risk public criticism, and will become a robot. The easiest management style in the short run is, "Shut up and do it my way!" In the long run, though, it produces a poor life experience and deprives an athlete of the wonderful opportunities that sports provide.

I am well aware that these conversations need to be managed from a leadership prospective. An absolute priority is for the team coach or the teaching professional to create a secure educational environment to allow the player to offer input. Do not kid yourself: this is VERY hard for old-school or older coaches to do. It leaves them vulnerable, and some coaches are petrified about losing control. Experience has shown me that the easiest way to maintain control in the teaching relationship is to engage the player's intellect. (There is way more to talk about on this specific subject. Another article will be forthcoming.)

In my experience coaches who cannot commit to this style of communication always give a lack of time as the excuse. Sorry, I never buy it. People always find the time to accomplish a task, if that task is important to them personally.

If you are a coach, try beginning practice by telling players the entire practice plan. You probably have it written down already.  Just hand it out. It is the responsibility of a good coach to know the skills his players need to develop. In that plan include a time period where the players decide what is best for the team or them personally, based on the last game. If players have a hard time speaking with coaches, they should write down the skills that are important for them to learn.

At the high school level, some have forgotten exactly what the term "Extracurricular Activity" means. The concept was developed to incorporate classroom education into activity that applies personal knowledge and leadership assets into real personal experience. That includes technology as well as communication skills.

Unless you are in college or the pros (and many coaches say it even applies at the college level), sports is a process not a product. Stop, don't think for a moment I am diminishing competition. Competition is a vital and an integral part of the process.

What happens if your child refuses to engage? Maybe you want that specific sports experience more than they do. Talk about it.

So here is the plan: Talk to your student athlete. Create a secure educational environment. Solicit their opinion about what they need to know and how they feel they can learn. Then make it happen. You'll be surprised at how quickly they become engaged!

Please remember, it's not about our past; it's about the player's future.