I recently did a coaching clinic for a local girls softball league who is getting ready for their Fall season. It was well attended by about 20 coaches, mostly dads and a few moms, who were enthusiastic to take their coaching skills to the next level. I was impressed with the thoughtful questions they asked me and quickly realized that the agenda I had prepared, full of drills focusing on skill development, was not what these coaches needed most. The majority of their questions were about practice planning, team building, and supporting their players who are girls ages 8 to 13. Here are my takeaways from the coaching clinic.
The #1 goal of a recreational league coach– At the beginning of the clinic I posed the question “What is the number one goal of a rec league coach?” and had the coaches chat with the people next to them about their ideas.
“Building skills,” said one coach.
“Having fun,” said another.
“Making sure the players are learning and prepared for high school.”
I loved hearing all of the responses and all of the coaches in attendance had their hearts in the right place when it came to coaching. I even heard one coach say what I believe is the most important part of being a rec league coach. Retention.
At the grass roots league level, giving young players a memorable and meaningful experience is the most important priority for a coach. Coaches should be creating an environment for their players to have fun and feel a part of something beyond themselves while being physically active. When players have a positive experience, they want to come back to play the next season AND will likely bring a friend with them. This is how sports grow.
Plan your practice, but be flexible– I had a number of questions asked about how to run a good practice. My first piece of advice is to have a practice plan. If you show up to practice without an agenda, it will be hard to keep players engaged if you are thinking of things to do on the fly. One of the most painful things for me to watch is a rec league practice where two or three players are actively doing a drill and the other ten players are standing around watching. To avoid this, I shared some best practices with the coaches, starting with planning different activities in 15 minute increments. Young players have short attention spans and it is better to have too many things planned than not enough. If you do not accomplish the goal of the 15 minute block in those 15 minutes, that is ok! Move on and come back to it next practice.
I also suggest creating a circuit of drills with different stations and using parent volunteers for help. This will help keep players moving and they get to practice a range of skills instead of just a few. To end practice, bring the entire team together to play a game. We want players to leave practice remembering that they had fun and feeling good about selves.
Having a practice plan will help the coach be efficient and the players progress, but I also give the advice to coaches to be flexible and go away from the plan when needed. Watch for what I call the “peak of fun”. If players are doing really well in one circuit and having a good time, roll with it, but there is a difference between fun and silly. If players have gone past the fun part of the drill and are now being silly and unfocused, that is when it is time to bring the team together and switch to the next part of the practice plan.
Team building exercises– It is important for coaches to be intentional in the beginning of the season to build their team and their team culture. Many rec leagues have players from different schools, backgrounds, and skill levels because everyone is welcome. I encourage coaches to go slow in the beginning of the season to set routines, demonstrate drills, and be clear about expectations, so when the season picks up, the players will know exactly when to expect when they arrive at practice and the team can get going quickly on the day’s tasks. Going slow to go fast sets a strong foundation for the entire season.
I had a number of coaches ask me about different team building exercises and I want to encourage coaches to build at least one team bonding activity into each practice. Here are a few ideas.
Pair players up with a player they don’t usually talk to. Set a timer for two minutes and have them find three things they have in common with each other. When two minutes are up, have each pair share something they learned about the other player with the entire team.
Bring note cards and pens to practice. Ask the question “One thing I want the team to know about me is…” and have the players answer the question on the card with their name. They can write anything from something funny like “I love cheese” to something personal like “I feel nervous when I mess up.” This encourages vulnerability and brings the team closer.
Popsicle practice. Everyone loves a popsicle at the end of a practice! This will get players smiling and talking about things other than their sport.
Two truths and a lie. Have everyone on the team say or write down two truths and one lie about themselves. Then the team has to guess which one is the lie.
Make a Tic Tok Video. Players ages 12 through college LOVE Tic Tok. Give the team a few minutes at the end of practice to film a positive and age appropriate dance video to post on Tic Tok. You can also use this for your league’s marketing!
Accessory making. Bring supplies to a practice to make headbands, hair bows, bracelets, or bag tags. When you look good, you play good, and teams unify over having matching accessories.
If you are interested in more team bonding activities send me an email! I would love to hear your ideas too. I hope everyone has a wonderful fall season.
Video Resources from the Coaching Clinic
Coaching Clinic Opening Discussion Video– Practice planning, team building, how to communicate with players
Softball Contact Points Video– Hitting off a tee