The Accidental Coach

Jack Hutsler
August 3, 2001

Have you decided to start coaching your own child in individual sports like bowling or tennis or team sports like baseball or basketball? Have you been asked to coach your child's team?

What will be your approach when you decide that it is time to start coaching your own child? What if you are told that your child's team will be disbanded unless a coach is found—and it all comes down to you?

It is quite likely that nothing you have ever done has prepared you for your first coaching experience with the young and the restless. If you are like many parents, you may have watched sports on television. You have probably observed the kids playing in the neighborhood. You may have even played a little sports yourself back in the old days.

Despite these meager qualifications, you could find yourself faced with a crowd of action-oriented children, all looking to you for guidance as they enter the athletic arena. This article highlights the coaching side of one of the more natural activities of young boys and girls—play. It does not focus on a specific sport.

What the Pros Know

The big picture for highly skilled coaches is that they usually know a lot about both the individual and team skills that make up their sport. They have the ability to present these skills to groups of players. They have well-formed plans of attack, know how players behave and react, understand the values inherent in their sport, and know the habits of those they coach with and against. Finally, they can adapt to varying situations and have a way of carrying themselves that suggests they know what they are doing. They know:

  • sport skills
  • team strategies
  • coaching methods or skills
  • how to plan practice sessions and games
  • safety issues

Most adults do not know much about these things. So, specific suggestions are offered here that will help parents get through this new opportunity without too many scars, either for you or your children or players.

Why Coach?

First, check what your motivating force is. Are you doing this for the child or for your own self-gratification? If you are doing this to help your children gain experience in the sport, get going. If you are doing this to impress others based on the performance of your child or team, then you need to rethink your priorities, or step back.

If you are contemplating coaching in an organized sports program, such as a soccer league, rather than simply coaching your own child, ask a few questions. Are the kids beginners or are they at some higher level of play? Are your players under 10 or approaching the more skillful teenage years? Is this an "everyone gets to play" or a "coach the best and bench the rest" program?

Parents should ask these same questions when looking into local programs for their own children. Does everyone get to play or is playing time guided by some other set of standards? Many beginner programs feature a philosophy were everyone gets to play equally. Fun is the name of the game.

If it is a "coach the best and bench the rest" program, the players and coaches usually put winning above all else. So do the parents. This level of play tends to be about recruiting the better players, teaching them all they can handle, and good execution. Unless there are some hidden agendas, the best usually get to play and the rest fill in if needed. Ask yourself if you (and your child) are ready for that kind of pressure, and whether that level of competitive play fits your temperament and values.

Three principles for new coaches to remember:

A. When working with beginners there are a few guiding principles to observe. First, present the most basic skills as best you can. If you do not know which are the basic skills involved in a particular sport and which are the more advanced skills, get a book or video or find the answers on line. Ask Jack provides this kind of information and it is free for the asking. Sport specific books are also found at Books Etc.

If you find yourself in a beginner-type "everyone gets to play" situation, the youngsters usually just play. Skills and strategies do not receive much emphasis. Programs like this are not highly instructional nor do they follow all the well-known rules. Games are modified to fit the kids. This is very similar to what might happen as you play with your own children, introducing them to the basics of a new sport in the driveway, backyard or park. Most everyone has fun doing this.

B. New skills can be presented to beginners in a "try this" kind of atmosphere. Keep the instructional moments short. That is, show them the skills without a lot of talk or lectures. For instance, show them two-handed and one-handed dribbling and shooting. Then just do it.

In the world of sport and physical activity, the most important factor in learning new skills is repetition. Talk does not produce skillful players. Proper practice of the proper skills produces skillful players.

There are two ways to create this kind of repetition. You can conduct drill sessions, what are termed drills and skills, or you can play games. Older players usually respond well to drills. Then, they want to use their skills in actual games. Understandably, the under-10 crowd tends to lose interest in drills. Drill sessions are not effective when your audience is not paying attention.

Play can be organized into all kinds of game-type situations. A pass leading to a shot or a give-and-go for a lay-up are game-type practice situations in basketball. Playing Tiny Tennis with your child using only the tennis service courts is a game-type situation for tennis. Running the bases and trying to score on a ball hit to the outfield is a game-type situation for baseball and softball.

C. Be positive. Do not badger, berate or scold your children as they attempt to learn these new skills. Instead, pat them on the back when they try and pat them on the back when they get it right. Ignore the errors of beginners for now and emphasize the goal of the activity (ie, to get the ball over the net).

Allow me to state this for emphasis. The primary objective of a parent when introducing a child to a sport is for the child to gain experience in the basic skills of the game in a way that is fun. It does little good for a parent to dominate or verbally chastise a child. In fact, this may just turn the child away from that game or sport. A second long-term objective is to introduce them to a healthy lifestyle that includes lifetime participation in sports and recreation activities.

These three main ideas (learn the basic sport skills, create action that is fun, be positive) will help the Accidental Coach move from the couch to the front lines. If you have not played with your child or have not worked with groups of youngsters in sports, then you may need to review these basic skills periodically.

When you find yourself leading the young and the restless, individually or in groups, be yourself, create a lot of action situations for everyone, and make it fun. Then, when you get a little breathing room, study up on the basic skills.


Jack Hutslar is the Founder and CEO of the North American Youth Sport Institute. He has developed training programs for international youth organizations that enroll over one million youngsters annually. Hutslar is the author of BEYOND X's and O's and Munchkin Tennis, both for parents and coaches. He is also the author of a free course online for parents and coaches. Most recently Hutslar has been introduced into the educational debate about competition and dodgeball in physical education by the national media.


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