What Makes a Youth Sports Coach GREAT?


Inspiring • fair •  skilled • trustworthy—words that describe a great coach. Last week I wrote about Bully Coaches; this week I look at the flip side, the awesome coach. I was inspired to write about what makes a coach great (if not outstanding) after reading an article in the WSJ about  a former Division I college basketball coach Jerry Wainwright who sends 300 to 500 handwritten notes with inspirational messages each week to former players, other coaches and managers.  Wainwright carefully chooses the message (usually it’s a quote), that is personally relevant to the recipient. Pretty awesome!

Granted, not all coaches can send handwritten messages, but there are other traits and actions that make a coach great, that go beyond being fair and skilled. I share here profiles of three outstanding coaches; real coaches that two of my three kids had over the years of playing sports in club, varsity and house leagues.  I describe what made these coaches great—my aim is to recognize coaching behaviors that bring out the best in kids, not just as athletes but as individuals.

Three Outstanding Coach Profiles

1. Take One for The Team. Both my sons played house league hockey—which meant a different volunteer coach each season. For the most part, they were all good. Though Coach Tom, the coach of my oldest son’s team when he was 16, was different—he walked the talk of the saying, ‘there’s no ‘I’ in team.  The team consisted mediocre players at best (of which my son was one), though there were two talented club players who played house league that season for fun.  Yet Coach Tom treated all players equal—focused not on individuals, but the team; he acknowledged assists more than the goals, gave equal playing time across the board, and curtailed ‘puck hogs’ by making the ‘hog’ sit out a shift or two. It was all about the team—no megastars allowed. Over the season, the team’s progress was stellar.  And this team, the team that Tom built, much to everyone’s surprise (except Tom’s) won the league championship.

2.  Coaching Winners. Another team (same son) house league again—with players aged 13 to 14 years old, covered the spectrum in terms of skill and ability. Players who had just learned to play hockey, to ones with tough family situations, including one boy who drove himself to practice (with a hardship driver’s license).  It’s no wonder the team lost—a lot. Yet it didn’t phase their coach. Coach Rob was positive, upbeat, supportive, and tried different hockey drills at every practice that must have needed the patience of a saint.

What made Coach Rob outstanding was not just his patience and positive attitude, but how Rob recognized each kid’s situation and figured out how the team could help that player. With our son it was providing confidence, for another it was playing hockey even though his single-mom couldn’t pay for it (Rob raised funds from other families to cover the boy’s expenses), for another it was a way to stay out of trouble. For Coach Rob it was not about coaching to win championships, but about giving each player a chance to win just by playing.

3. Individuals first—Students second—Athletes third.  My youngest son played varsity golf in high school. High school sports are tough, because even though NCAA guidelines state that academics come first, it doesn’t always work out that way. Golf especially is not a sport conducive to academics when during the season kids can miss one to two almost-full days of school to drive long distances to golf courses and play 18 holes. It wasn’t uncommon for my son to get home at 8 pm or later. Yet the two coaches walked-the-talk that academics came first—my son often would ask to miss a tournament if he had a math test, or a heavy work-load for that week. He wasn’t afraid to ask—there was never an issue. Another varsity player’s parents worked with the coaches to help get their son’s grades up by the coaches having the player sit out several tournaments, even though his GPA technically allowed him to play.

The coaches stressed time and again that golf was just a game, it wasn’t about winning, but playing with integrity, and bringing that integrity to school, to life.  My son had a tough decision in his junior year, to play on the golf team or start a (unsanctioned) bike team. One of the golf coaches mentored him through the decision; ‘follow your passion’ was his advice, do what you love, and do it with integrity. My son didn’t play golf that season and started “Hart Racing’.  He found his passion. Thank you Coach!

There are many, many good youth sports coaches and a handful of GREAT coaches that can have a significant impact on our kids not just as athletes, but as individuals.  These are the coaches to recognize, acknowledge and thank.  THANK YOU!


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