Hollywood has produced its share of movies and television shows featuring a fictional youth sports team that starts off losing every game, discovers the secret of success, and turns the season around. “The Bad News Bears” (spoiler alert!) instantly comes to mind, as does “The Mighty Ducks,” and even the TV version of “Friday Night Lights” had a season in which the team struggled badly and won a state title a year later. We love an underdog story and want our young athletes to learn, improve, and succeed—and, as much as we sometimes don’t want to admit it, win.
Unfortunately, youth sports is rarely Hollywood: Plenty of teams start the season struggling and end the season the same way, perhaps never winning a game or even getting close. Some leagues de-emphasize winning and losing by not keeping scores or standings, but the kids generally know when the other team is scoring far more goals or runs than they do. This can wear on coaches, despite parents who fully support you, despite players who are having and fun and don’t mind the losses. Such struggles might drive otherwise strong coaches from volunteering again, possibly depriving the kids of a dedicated role model who is focused on their development in the sport.
One bad year shouldn’t be a reason to quit. Here are some ways a youth coach can move beyond a negative season:
Focus on the Kids’ Improvement
Improvement should be high on your priority list even with talented rosters, because a team can win a game via a blowout and show no signs it actually got better. With a struggling team, improvement is much easier to track—you will see how the kids evolve over the course of the season, from practice to practice and from game to game. Point that out to the players every chance you get. After a loss, highlight the positives: “I like the way we passed the ball today; your hard work at practice is really paying off!” Communicate this improvement with parents, directly and through your team’s website. Never lose sight that if the players emerge from a winless season as better players, you have succeeded in your job as a youth coach.
Highlight the Fun
The most important thing about youth sports is to have fun, right? Emphasize that—often. Ask the kids after a tough loss if they had fun, and if they say yes, answer, “That’s great, because I loved coaching you today!” Post pictures of game action and, especially, all the smiles on your team’s homepage. Note, fun shouldn’t be confused with goofing off, which can drive the most patient coaches crazy and detracts from learning and improving. If you have a group of kids that can’t keep still or stay quiet, you may need to get creative with practices so that the players apply their distracting energy toward developing skills to get better.
Develop Your Coaching Repertoire
Some volunteer youth coaches—especially those not familiar with the sport they are overseeing (this happens often with soccer)—simply don’t bring enough experience to know when their kids are improving or what constitutes a good practice. Furthermore, even the best coaches can learn new drills and techniques to teach their players. If your team’s development seemed to stall last season, put some extra preparation into the next by attending any coaches clinics your league offers, as well as by seeking out workouts and advice online. Some leagues post coaching resources on their websites—take advantage of these materials and see what works for your team when you return for the next season.
Start Fresh the Next Season
The comforting thing about a negative season is that, at some point, it ends; months pass, and you can start a new season with a clean slate. Start your first practice by telling the players, “I’m so happy to be coaching you again; there’s no other team I’d want to coach!” Then make that first practice as fun as possible, with a mix of drills and activities maybe not directly related to your sport (e.g., a parents vs. kids relay race, or popsicles after practice). You can get down to business in the second practice, but for this first workout, remind the kids why playing sports is such a blast. As the season goes along, focus on improvement, cheer the victories, and accentuate the positive in the losses (and, of course, keep it fun). No matter your team’s record, strive to create an experience the players, the parents, and you never forget.
How do you cope with a negative season?