Let’s begin with a basic axiom of instruction: “Telling is not teaching.” If coaches have generally relied on just telling their players what to do, they’re probably going to be very disappointed by how rarely they do it at all or do it well. People learn skills best by having them taught using more than one learning modality. My experience is very few young players today are auditory learners. They need repeated visual and kinesthetic cues to have the skills being taught integrated into their behavior. In this regard, coaches must always remember the word ‘coach’ is a verb, an action word. They need to be able to demonstrate it well – daily.
Which leads me to a second axiom: “20 x 5 > 100 x 1”. Practice plans should have systems and processes integrated into them which require the mastery of skills on a daily basis rather than a coach ‘teaching’ something once or twice and expect that it has been covered. For example, players should not simply perform “catch play”, but should have a daily throwing and receiving progression where coaches teach them to master all of the good mechanics generally required to throw and receive a ball and, specifically, for all types of throws for their positions.
I think players need to be reminded that to be good listeners while instruction is being given they need to be still, have direct eye contact, separate from one another, and repeat what they have been told out loud or in their head.
Whether what a coach says is understood and integrated may also depend on when and how they say it. Youth coaches should save their post-game what we could have done better list until the next practice. Keep the post-game comments positive. Trust me, the players will not forget the other things and coaches and players will both have time to think about the game more objectively. Most importantly, the coaches will have time to “look in the mirror” so they can state their comments more constructively.
By the time most coaches have progressed through their own playing career and upward through the coaching ranks they have developed a particular “game face” for competition. Most high school and college players recognize that “the look” and tone of their coaches just prior to and during games and practices is not anger; it’s just a focus and intensity required in their minds to compete at their best. However, elite coaches recognize that certain players and circumstances may require a departure from the norm and a measured amount of levity may achieve better results.
I remember a time when I was speaking to a youth team prior to a game when I recognized they were looking at me with wide eyes. I listened carefully to the tone of my speech and realized they thought I was mad at them. When I explained to them what “the look” and tone were really about, they all gave an involuntary huge sigh of relief.
The most common flaw in practice design which leads to a disconnect between practice and game performance is the failure to end every practice with a game simulation or scrimmage where the coaches say nothing and simply observe what the players have learned.
Finally, I think if the team’s performance is not meeting expectations, it is helpful to re-evaluate the motivation, reward, and discipline methodology. Here are tenets to remember: (1) motivation is caught not taught; (2) use motivation by inspiration not intimidation; (3) reward the “winners” of practice competitions rather than punish the “losers”; (4) generally, give praise publicly and criticism privately; (5) always make criticism about the play never about the player; and (6) when “looking in the mirror”, remember anger is always about the person who is angry and never about whom the anger is directed.
Communicate well and you will develop champions, Champions for Life.