Coaching for the Love of the Game
By Greg Bach
Dr. Jennifer Etnier has endured a lot of sleepless nights in recent years, frustrated by coaches harming young players with their words and actions.
Many unaware of the damage they are inflicting.
And the experiences they are ruining.
“I just have a lot of angst over the way coaches are treating kids and I was so frustrated by my inability to stop it,” says Etnier, author of Coaching for the Love of the Game that was released earlier this year.
With three sports-playing kids, Etnier has seen all the good that oozes from positive experiences her family has enjoyed; but too often she was also seeing children ignored, insulted or demoralized by the actions of their coaches.
She wrote letters. Sent emails. And she spoke with coaches in efforts to help.
But one conversation at a time wasn’t a significant difference-making pace.
“I felt like I was putting buckets under a leaky roof,” she explained. “I wanted to write the book because I wanted a new roof. There’s lots of great resources out there and I just wanted to try to write something that might hit home with some coaches and might change the way that they interact with their athletes so that they have a better experience.”
Etnier is a professor of kinesiology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and as someone who has been involved in sports her entire life and coached youth sports, she knows how special the experience can be for all involved when it’s done right.
“If you are invested in the kids it can be the most rewarding experience ever,” she says. “And you can feel such great satisfaction and sense of accomplishment by progressing every single child and making sure they have a good time.”
We spoke with Etnier about many issues pertaining to coaching youth sports. Check out the insights she shared:
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What's the key message you hope readers take away from your book?
ETNIER: I think any coach can win over parents and kids if they make sure they show their love for the game every day by making it fun, keeping the focus on process and skill development, and just ensuring that everybody benefits from their time with that sport.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: If you had a moment to speak to a room full of new volunteer coaches, what would you stress to them?
ETNIER: Getting the parents on board with your coaching philosophy is critical. So having a meeting with parents and kids at the start of the season to say 'this is who I am, this is my background and this is what we are going to strive for over the course of the season’ will set the stage for things to go really positively. The next thing is if you are a new volunteer and you don’t know much about the sport, it is your responsibility to educate yourself. Seeking out resources is important. Third is seeking out a coaching mentor and having someone come demonstrate a practice. And fourth, remembering why you are doing it. You’re doing it as a volunteer because you love your child, or you love children in general, and you want them to love the sport. So if you keep that at the forefront of your mind at every practice, and if you see that the kids are bored at any point that should make bells and alarms go off that you should change the activity.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: How can coaches get kids to buy into the process?
ETNIER: Most kids care a lot about pleasing their coach, most kids want to work hard for their coach, and they want the coach to reinforce that. So if the coach is reinforcing working hard and effort and constantly focusing on process rather than outcome, then the kids will respond to that. They will do more of what is being reinforced.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Should boys be coached differently than girls?
ETNIER: The research literature suggests that there isn’t very much that’s driven by gender that would impact the way you should coach a team. So the argument I would make to all coaches is that every child that you are coaching is unique and they are unique regardless of their gender. So you are going to have little boys who are very sensitive and you’re going to have little girls who are very sensitive; and you’re going to have little boys who are incredibly competitive, and you’re going to have little girls who are incredibly competitive. So there’s going to be a continuum in terms of the personalities that you have.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: When working with older athletes are there any differences between males and females that volunteer coaches should keep in mind?
ETNIER: When you start to talk about a little bit older kids the female athletes do care a little bit more about the social aspect of their sport involvement than the boys, but that’s really a pretty minor difference because I think the way things have changed in the last 10 years is that boys do care about the social aspect as well, but just not to the same extent as the girls do. So as a coach I think if you can just make sure that there’s a little bit of time for that social interaction before practice starts instead of just blowing the whistle the minute that they get there. Give them a few minutes to socialize. Part of the reason why they are there is because they love to socialize with one another and then get into the practice. When you allow your water breaks, maybe give them just another minute or two so they can have fun instead of cracking the whip. It’s meant to be fun. I know that the coaching time you have with them is valuable, but it’s valuable from a holistic standpoint. We want them to have fun the whole hour they are with us.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Why should coaches identify learning objectives?
ETNIER: The vast majority of coaches are volunteer parents who are rushing straight from their 9 to 5 job to the field, and it takes a long time to plan a practice. When I was coaching and working full-time, I would have to find 30 to 45 minutes during the day to plan that day’s practice. But then when I got out there, of course the practice goes so much better because there’s a planned warm-up, there’s learning objectives for the day, and there’s a progression of activities that we are going to do that build the challenge and move up to the level of skill I’m hoping to achieve in this practice. Then across the season we have a plan that’s developmental and appropriate so that if the kids don’t have strong skills then we need to work on those skills before we even think about tactics. As children start to develop their skill sets and start to be more competent at the game then we need to start incorporating more tactical work into the session. So that may happen over the course of a season, or if you’re lucky enough to have a team for more than one season it might be something that you are spacing out over a longer period of time.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: In the book you talk about the importance of coaches taking a step back. What do you mean by that?
ETNIER: It’s hard when you’re a volunteer because you’re focused on the specifics of the process of ‘where I’m going to set those cones’ and ‘how am I going to do this?’ But if you can pull back from that a little bit and watch what’s happening. If they are having fun, then you don’t need to change anything. If they’re having fun and working on whatever skill it is you want them to be working on, then you have nailed it. But if they are not having fun then you need to change something. And if they’re not working on the skill that you want them to be working on then maybe you have to modify the activity a little bit. The really good coaches are the ones who are able to adjust an activity on the fly when it’s not working because it’s hard to plan an activity in the abstract.
Dr. Jennifer Etnier
Sian Beilock, a leading cognitive scientist and author of Choke, shares strategies you can use to help your young athletes perform at their best when the pressure crashes in during the big moments
Former Seattle Seahawks defensive back Jordan Babineaux, author of Pivot to Win, shares pillars that young athletes can lean on to lead successful lives, and more
Olympian Alexi Pappas, author of the page-turning memoir Bravey, shares her struggles with depression and how coaches and parents can normalize discussions about mental health and be difference makers for young athletes
Former world-ranked squash player turned bestselling author Ivy Pochoda shares powerful life lessons scooped up along her youth sports journey, and how meaningful it has been to have collaborated on books with the late Kobe Bryant