6 Tips to Motivate & Connect with Young Players

connect and motivate youth athletes

For all the youth coaches out there, I have a question for you:

What is the first thing you did when you found out you would be coaching a youth basketball team?

If I had to venture a guess, I would say a lot of you thought about a few things:

What offense am I going to run?

What are some drills for practice?

How big is my team going to be?

Who’s going to be my best player?

All valid questions when embarking on a new season with a new team.

I’ve been to my fair share of coaching clinics and have seen some of the best coaches in the game present. All clinics essentially cover the same things: on-court execution.

Drills, offensive sets, defensive principles, special teams plays…all great stuff. But I would like to make the argument that many of us are thinking about this backward.

I have become a true believer that basketball specifics are not nearly enough to make a good coach and I would even go so far as to say that, by overemphasizing these things, we have made ourselves worse as coaches.

I think it’s time the coaching world put a MUCH stronger emphasis on helping coaches learn to connect with and motivate their players. We must teach our coaches more leadership and psychology and less game strategy and practice drills.

You can be a basketball savant when it comes to X’s and O’s, but if you can’t connect with and motivate your young athletes, not only will you not win games but you will be squandering an opportunity to have a great impact on your players’ lives…and that should be the ultimate goal.

Below are 6 tips to help youth coaches motivate and connect with their young players.

Tip #1: Be Curious

I know when I first coached, I went into my first practice thinking,

“I’m gonna tell these kids how it’s gonna be! I’m gonna set team rules and strong expectations. I’m going to cover this offense and do these drills. Me, me, me…”

My approach was all wrong. I should have had the strategy of simply asking questions as practice went along.

What are their names?

How about their nicknames?

Where do they go to school?

How long have they played basketball?

What do they love about basketball and why are they playing?

Asking questions will not only serve to help you gain some insight into what makes your players tick, but it will also show your players that you are interested in them as people and not just players. This will lead to a stronger bond.

Curiosity does not only mean asking questions. Coaches should be fanatical about observing.

What does a player’s body language tell you about them?

How do they interact with their parents and teammates?

How do they respond when you correct them? How enthusiastic are they?

Chances are we do a lot of this naturally, but being intentionally observant can be extremely helpful.

Tip #2: Hold your Players Accountable

basketball accountability

We always hear it, but children subconsciously view discipline as a form of caring. If you don’t hold them accountable, you don’t care about them.

Of course, holding young people accountable the right way is extremely important. Take some advice from Dr. Becky Bailey, an expert in child developmental psychology.

“Learn your seven powers as adults.

Among these powers is your ability to see discipline as an opportunity to teach rather than a disruption… and to stay in control of your own actions, creating a safe environment for your children.

Consider: an adult who is out of control is perceived by a child as a threat to his or her safety. As part of this stage, you’ll learn how to self-regulate your own emotions and actions.”

I’m a big fan of calm, assertive discipline. Of course, when frustration sets in being calm and assertive is much easier talked about than put into practice. But, it’s practiced by some of the best coaches in the game, including Brad Stevens.

I also believe that times have changed. A new generation of young players differs greatly from past generations. The Bob Knight style of the constantly angry drill sergeant, for right or wrong, is fading away.

Coaches that are only looking for reasons to scream and berate their players all because they believe “that’s what coaches are supposed to do” are doing themselves and their teams a disservice.

Tip #3: Develop a Growth Mindset

What is the most effective type of praise you can give a child?

Telling them they are great?

Telling them they are talented?

Telling them they are special?

All of these forms of feedback have been scientifically shown to have negative consequences. As youth coaches, we need to focus on helping our players develop a Growth Mindset…that is, help them develop the belief that they, through hard work and determination, can develop as a player. As Dr. Carol Dweck (she developed the concept of Growth Mindset) says,

“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment,”

As coaches, we can do this by praising the process, not the child’s ability. For a perfect example, check out the video below starting at the 5:32 mark:

More on the topic of praise below!

Tip #4: Be Prepared, Organized and Enthusiastic

Have you ever played for a coach that is constantly in a bad mood?

Have you ever had a boss who acts as if he’d rather be anywhere else in the world than at work?

It’s not very motivating and it probably doesn’t inspire the love for the company that is necessary for you to thrive at your place of work.

The same applies to youth coaches. You’re not going to be rosy or happy-go-lucky all the time, but practicing positive enthusiasm will go a long way with your young players. More ways to practice this below.

Also, coming into every practice and game organized and prepared will show your players that you put time and energy into your coaching away from the team.

It’s important to you and should be important to them. If you want them to put effort towards the team, you must be the one to demonstrate it.

Tip #5: Celebrate Small and Large Successes

This blog from the University of Ohio has some great insight into young players and success:

“Young people want to feel successful and have fun. Pointing out how they’ve improved will only encourage them to keep striving for more. Celebrating successes shouldn’t just happen during a game or competition. If players finish a tough drill, or stick out an activity longer than they ever have, use these opportunities to acknowledge an athlete.

It can be really hard to keep a loss from bringing young athletes down. This is why it’s so important to keep an eye out for improvements and bring them to light at the right moment. When working with young athletes it’s important to point out their minor achievements since many may not recognize them on their own.”

I love to tell our coaches to actively look for things to celebrate.

Want your players to set good screens?

Next time someone sets a good screen in practice make sure you point it out to the entire team. You should enjoy the look on a young player’s face when being called out for doing something small.

A quick story that’s worth sharing. I was coaching a 4th-grade game a few years ago and just for fun I called a timeout and brought my team to the bench.

The reason for the timeout wasn’t obvious to many. But when my team got to the sidelines, I pointed out how awesome one of our passes had been the play before and told them how well they were playing, then sent them back in. They smiled and laughed, but the bounce in their step on the way back to the court was fun to see. A wasted timeout? Maybe. But, maybe not.

My last tip for celebrating successes is to celebrate them enthusiastically. Have you ever played for a coach who was incredibly passionate when telling you all the things you’ve done wrong, but who’s version of positive feedback is a simple “good job”.

Again, I believe we have this backward. Youth coaches should put an emphasis on delivering positive feedback with as much intensity and enthusiasm as when they’re angry.

One last story to illustrate this point. When I was in 5th grade, I played baseball for one of the all-time greatest youth coaches. Although I hated it, he used to make me pitch. In one game I was on the mound and going through a rough inning at a crucial point in the game.

I walked a batter, hit a batter and then gave up a home run…our lead was down to 1 run. I was on the verge of a breakdown. My coach came out to the mound and talked to me calmly.

I proceeded to strike out the next 3 batters and get out of the inning. On the way off the field, my coach huddled the team outside the dugout and, in front of everyone, looked at me and said “Son, your balls were THIS big out there!” while holding his hands out wide. “Great job! Great job!”

He was more excited for my success than I was and he showed it….and I’ve never forgotten it!

Tip #6: Make EVERY Player Feel Valued

Two years ago, I had the incredible pleasure of hearing General Martin Dempsey speak at a conference. Gen Dempsey served as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2011 to 2015.

During his talk, he told a story about being in his first meeting with President Obama. When Gen Dempsey failed to give his input on a topic of conversation, President Obama called him out. Obama wanted…no, he expected… everyone in the meeting to be involved and part of the team.

General Dempsey currently has a book out entitled Radical Inclusion in which he states “persuading members of the team that their contributions matter is critical to success.” This is particularly true with young people. The desire to belong is innate in all of us, especially children.

As a coach, it is imperative that you make a strong, conscious effort to make EVERYONE feel valued. Ask everyone questions. Praise all of your players in one way or another. Discipline everyone. Let each player know their role, why it’s important and that you value it strongly.

You can do this through one-on-one conversations, in team huddles or on the practice court. But creating a culture of inclusion is imperative.

I hope you find these tips helpful and if you have any others, please don’t hesitate to share.

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