The Balancing Act of Coaching Youth Sports
As the world becomes younger and more diverse, we are seeing shifts across the board in nearly every field, including one of the pillars of the US which is youth sports.
Some of my favorite people to speak with and have as guests on the Hotard Huddle Podcast are coaches. I have had a handful of wonderful guests including my old friend Matt Pinero who is Head Coach for St. Paul’s Wrestling, my cousin Mike Stant who is an assistant for St. Paul’s Football and most recently Herb DeLeon who coaches soccer for Isidore Newman School and Louisiana Fire.
Those podcasts are all interesting. While Matt and Herb are roughly my age, Mike is a bit more seasoned. He grew up playing football in the ultra macho era of sports being the 80s. He was a great guest to speak with because of his shifting personality on how he approaches the game compared to some of his older coaches.
I felt inspired to write this after speaking with Herb on the latest episode because of his description of the balancing act he has to fulfill in his coaching duties with Newman and LA Fire. It was a sentiment that Matt also discussed with addressing some his wrestlers. Feel free to listen to these episodes at the links below…
I remember growing up playing sports and watching my older sisters play soccer. The two sports I personally played growing up were soccer and baseball. Football and swimming were miserable fails for me.
Swimming I was embarrassed because I couldn’t stay off the lane divider in backstroke. Football, I was a glorified tackling dummy at John Curtis. In the last game of the season in fifth grade, my coach asked me to stay for the fourth grade game because I would get some playing time. He fulfilled that, but it was 4 plays making my total 6 for the season. Yay. I also played WR/DB and took 4 snaps at Defensive End. I was pancaked every time. Real fun stuff.
The first sport I ever played was soccer. I distinctly remember my team playing 3v3 at the Lion’s Club fields in Kenner, LA. One of the rules my coaches had implemented was one touch then pass no matter what. They did not want us dribbling to fulfill a team effort. Even at 4 or 5 years old, I remember thinking “that isn’t how you play soccer. This is stupid.” I can’t tell you much about that season other than that.
One thing I did know was sports were about winning. It was about beating your opponent…or so I thought. This is the mentality that has been the driving force behind sports until recently. From a very fundamental standpoint, it is not technically wrong. However, we are seeing a shift in sports being sold as the betterment of the individual in order to work toward a common goal of the team, which of course is in fact winning.
Sports are far more complex. They’re difficult and they are supposed to challenge you in many ways outside of the scoreboard. Assuming my children get into sports, this is something I as a parent am going to have teach them.
I wrote a column a few months back about learning to be a better team player much later in life. I gave up easily because I lacked confidence. When things got difficult, I wanted to quit. My parents had always taught me the opposite.
Speaking with Herb on my latest episode, he highlighted the balancing act that needs to be fulfilled. His job with the LA Fire is more developmental. He is working with kids under 10 where his main focus is to develop skills versus log the wins. His main focus with Newman is putting his players in the best possible position to win.
Speaking candidly, he seems to have a great grasp on that. He shared a hypothetical in the episode regarding the LA Fire. He said if little billy is great at scoring and plays up top, then he will pull back once ahead by enough. If they are ahead 4 or 5 nil and Billy has four goals, he will stick him at right back to learn defense or put him in the goal. He wants Billy to understand as many positions as possible. If little Johnny is primarily used for defense, now he will get his shot to get some time on the attacking side. He wants to develop his players to be well-rounded learning the fundamentals of skills and positions.
On the other side with Newman, his job is to develop players and win. He focuses more on the Win-Loss column while still adhering to his surrounding talent. He caters his strategy to the core of his roster. If he needs to park the bus and play behind the ball, he will. If he has more speed and size, he will use that to his advantage.
Speaking with these coaches, it is evident the needle has moved on what youth sports have become including the high school level. Unfortunately, that rubs many parents the wrong way. Thus we get the “sports are all about participation trophies” thinking. Well, to a certain point, yes and they should be.
Sports are rarely easy and participating is a win in and of itself. That should be highlighted up until a certain age. As I alluded to when I talked about my first experience with soccer, I knew sports were about winning. But there are complexities that come with winning and losing. It is hard to teach a young child to not do their best because they’re ahead by a large margin. You’re now muddying the waters of when and how to compete.
That balancing act doesn’t get learned until later in life.
So it becomes the coaches job to provide the balance of developing kids while not completely obliterating opponents to a certain age in order to stroke your own ego. There is a way to teach kids to compete while subtly not turning the knife so to speak.
You may have an echo chamber who scream “nah man, it’s their job to stop us. Stop handing out participation trophies to not hurt feelings.” Yeah it is true, but on the other side, you need to be able to teach humility to some degree. These are also young minds. Not everything in life is black and white including sports.
One of the stories I shared on the pod was playing fall ball. This was a fall baseball league where your record didn’t matter. The score more or less didn’t matter. But of course, we kept it in our heads. It was more about just giving a league in a season where baseball wasn’t an option. I played two years (9 and 10) and I got picked by the same coach, Bobby, great guy by the way.
Two of the guys on the team weren’t very good. We were practicing and I was at second base. There was a ball hit to right field in which our right fielder took a while to get there. It wasn’t for a lack of effort. He just wasn’t very athletic. My competitive side told me I can get there faster so next time I said screw it and got there. It was blatantly obvious I left the confines of my position to get it. One of the assistants told me to chill basically because they don’t play much in the spring and this was to help them. Much like my response to the coaches at soccer when I was 4, I thought “this is stupid. I am here to win.” Hindsight is 20/20. I look back and I think “damn, dick move on my part.” Sometimes, people competing is more important than the win column. That should be more accepted.
Some of my favorite videos online are of youth sports where kids help those and allow people a moment in the sun to shine. It’s real awesome to see. If someone gives it their all, you should have a certain level of respect for that person. You can tell later in life that some people still haven’t learned that.
I remember someone getting at pissed at me after they beat us 78-0 in a flag league. Yes, you read that right. Long story short, we got moved up to a league we had no business being in. The team we played against were faster, bigger and better athletes than most of our team. To make matters worse, they were using a flat ball making one handed catches easier which we just laughed at from the get go while they attempted to rub our noses in it.
They never took their foot off the gas pedal despite the fact I was throwing behind the back passes by the second half. To show my lack of caring, I chugged a few beers during halftime to get a buzz going as did some others on my team. The team kept playing stupid and talking shit. It’s fine. Well after the game when they continued as we tried to shake hands, I laughed at one of them and told them it must be tough knowing the highlight of your life is a flag league you pay to play in. Pro didn’t turn out too well did it? He got pissed and threatened to punch me as I laughed at him.
Looking at that game in hindsight brought me back to some of the baseball games I played in as a kid where the dogs weren’t called off even though we were up 14-0 or whatever the score was. I remember one particular game when I was 14. Easily the best individual game I had ever played. The team we played was bad bad. We won 31-1 and it was called after the 3rd for a 15 run rule. We literally doubled the mercy rule. I pitched and had 7 strikeouts and gave up one hit. At the plate, I went 6 for 6 with 3 doubles, 2 triples and a home run. I also had stole third on all 3 doubles and scored on 3 passed balls. There was no pull back from me or anyone on my team.
It may have only been 15 or so years ago, but sports were different. The culture was different. I wouldn’t even think of doing that now.
I still compete in adult basketball leagues. If my team is up by 20. By the 3 minute mark in the fourth, we are running out the clock. We typically don’t shoot 3s if we are that far ahead late either. Unless of course the other team is still trying to win, then eat shit.
All of that comes with complication of teaching kids between competing versus humiliating. Now of course there are situations where teams may not be trying to rub it in and it just happens, but those become easy to spot. For example in football, if a team scores by marching down the field with only running plays in the 4th ahead by 45, they can’t expect the RB to gain four yards and just fall.
That’s why it is important for coaches to find that balancing act.
It is a balancing act that coaches didn’t seem to have when I was growing up. That is not to knock them and say they were unworthy or bad coaches, they were just aligned with the culture of competing at the highest level at all times. I was fortunate to play for some awesome people. My dad always coached me in soccer and then later coached my baseball teams. During the vital years of youth sports (8-13). I either played for my guy’s Coach Ralph or Coach Scott. Love those two dudes to this day and still talk to their sons who happen to be good friends of mine.
That being said, there wasn’t any concept of calling off the dogs so to speak. Our best pitchers would pitch. If they were doing well, they would finish the game. Our best hitters would get the green light. We would still take a base on a passed balls or steal. That was the culture, win or lose.
Now one of the fortunate parts of the coaches I had (unlike stories I have heard from others and seen first hand), they understood that some days weren’t good enough. They praised effort. If the effort wasn’t there, then we got fussed at.
I still laugh about it to this day with my buddy Nick (Ralph’s son). We were goofing off for an 8:30 am Saturday game during warm ups when we were 11. It was the last regular season game where playoff seeding was on the line. It was a big game. When his dad saw us goofing off, he took the ball and called me over to the sideline where Nick was. He let us have it. He said and I quote “stop acting like children (even though we were), it’s time to put your big boy pants on.” He was right. We shaped up and we won the game that day.
The fact I can still recollect these memories from what seems like an eternity ago speaks volumes to the people I played for. The fact I still want to play sports at 29-years-old speaks volumes to the people I played for. While they may not have been what today’s coaches need to be in terms of finding the balance of competition and humility, we always had fun. Even through some of the bad times I had playing in school sports, the good times kept me coming back.
At the end of the day, that is what youth sports are about. Learning how to compete in every sense of the word and making good memories that will last a lifetime. If youth coaches focus on beating down the opponent to the point of tearing down self esteem, then they shouldn’t be involved in sports. That includes the high school level.
Not every kid is going to play compete at the college level, let alone professional level. Let them have their moment. Understand that not every day is going to get the best results. Understand when the deck is stacked against you and vice versa. Teach your kids to compete while finding the balance of when to pull back.
You as a coach aren’t getting a job in the NBA because your AAU or High School Team is beating people by an average margin of victory is 50 or more. You’re not getting up to the next level because you have a 10 year old who can score 60 goals in 12 games.
As for the parents, enjoy watching them. Nothing more. Nothing less. Your moment has also passed. Let your kid have theirs.
No, I don’t believe in participation trophies. In fact, I threw away a second place medal for baseball when I was 19 because there were only four teams in the league. I shouldn’t be rewarded for that shit. We shouldn’t always automatically give pats on the back for just competing. But, we also shouldn’t kill a child’s confidence because they didn’t win despite giving their best effort.
That is where the balance act of being a coach becomes vital. Knowing the player and their potential. Knowing the player and when they are giving it their all. Knowing your team and whether or not you are outmatched or you are outmatching the opponent. Knowing when to pull back and perhaps let others develop their own skills. Knowing how to approach each player individually during successes and failures.
There are many moving parts to coaching athletics. At the end of the day, the people coaching had their chance to make the most of it. Don’t rob children of theirs. The ones that don’t will leave a competitive blueprint and a memory bank that lasts a lifetime.