In many ways, the first practices are the most stressful for both the coach and the team. Coaches still aren’t quite sure what they’re getting themselves into, and for the kids it’s like the first day at school, full of unanswered questions: What’s the classroom look like? Will my teacher be nice? What’s going to be expected of me? And then there are the kids who show up and think it’s playtime, with no expectations of learning anything, just horsing around as much as possible out of earshot of Mom and Dad.
But a coach can quickly ease these doubts and false expectations by getting organized. The key is to go into each practice with a plan and take charge of the situation from the first minute. If the plan doesn’t work right down to the second, don’t fret. At least you will have a sense of what you want to accomplish at each practice and how. If you get through most of it, you’ll have done a lot, and you’ll have taught the kids more about basketball than most of them have learned in their entire lives until now. But if you come in disorganized and unsure, that can set the wrong tone for everything that follows. A few minutes of planning can make all the difference between a great practice and a waste of time.
Just as critical as having a plan is having a personality. A coach needs to meet her team halfway, not as a remote authoritarian but as an approachable teacher. You’re not their pal, but you are their guide. Your aim is to help the kids learn to enjoy and respect a great game, not buff up your ego with a string of wins on your way to the Youth League Coaches Hall of Fame.
Break the ice with your team at the first practices by getting to know each player by name. By putting their minds at ease about who you are and what you expect, you can pave the way for a fun, productive season. Nobody likes an uptight coach who wants everything done just so from the first day. Strive for improvement, not perfection. Make it clear to the kids-and yourself-that you’re there to help them develop whatever talent they have. You’re not expecting all of them to be stars, but you are expecting all of them to have a positive, productive experience.
That goes double for the first few practices. You aren’t going to mold a great team with a handful of practices. Instead, you’re forging a relationship with your team and the individual players that will allow you to achieve success over several months. You’re setting a tone and giving the players a sense of who you are and what you expect. You’re also getting a sense of who your players are and what they’re going to need from you to learn the game. What happens in the first practice will dictate in many ways what happens in the second. You’ll begin to understand how much to challenge the kids and how much to nurture them, and then you’ll be fine-tuning the balance for the rest of the season.
From the start, instill confidence. Many of the kids will be bewildered when they realize that basketball involves a whole lot more than putting the ball in the hoop. Some will be intimidated by the disparity in talent. A few will be itching for a chance to show off. Let them know right away that it doesn’t matter what they do or don’t know about the game. What matters is how much they learn, starting today. Hustle is everything. Assure them that if they try hard, everything’s going to be fine.
This is an excerpt from Survival Guide for Coaching Youth Basketball.