Coaching a youth sports team is as challenging as ever these days. Whether it’s a T-ball team with 5- and 6-year-olds, an under-10 soccer team, or a travel basketball team with a roster of experienced players, coaches face a lengthy and imposing to-do list. Among the responsibilities are teaching skills, organizing productive practices, managing game days, instilling life lessons, and—most important of all—meeting the diverse needs of every child who is counting on you to make the season a memorable one for all the right reasons.
As you embark on your journey, who better to help you navigate the twists and turns that accompany a youth sports season than some of the most respected professional and collegiate coaches around—Joe Maddon, Karch Kiraly, Jenny Boucek, John Harbaugh, Ken Hitchcock, Charlotte Smith, and Sean Payton among others—who share incredible insight and wisdom in Secrets of Successful Coaching. Some of these coaches have reached the pinnacle of their sport, leading teams to Super Bowl titles and NCAA Championships; others have played under the bright lights and suffocating pressure of huge games before moving to the sidelines; and all possess that special touch when it comes to making a difference through the power of sports. They know the secrets to connecting with kids and the best ways of inspiring and motivating them, building their confidence, helping them learn from setbacks and disappointments, and what it takes to be a great leader and role model.
Coaching children in sports is a privilege, and an incredible opportunity to influence young lives both on and off the field. Secrets of Successful Coaching will help you be that coach that kids love playing for and learning from—and the reason they’ll remember you for the rest of their lives.
The insightful tips you’ll find in just one of the chapters in this book were delivered by a Super Bowl winning coach on a warm spring afternoon in Owings Mills, Maryland. And they are the reason you’re holding this book. I had traveled to this Baltimore suburb a few years ago, which is the home of the spectacular practice facility of the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, to interview long-time Ravens head coach John Harbaugh. He is one of fewer than three dozen men in the history-rich NFL to guide a team to a Super Bowl win. He’s also the only one who had to beat his brother to get his hands on that coveted Lombardi Trophy. In that drama-filled Super Bowl XLVII that was contested in the Superdome in New Orleans, the Ravens nipped the JimHarbaugh-coached San Francisco 49ers 34–31.
As the Senior Director of Communications for the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS), an organization I’m proud to say I have been a part of for a quarter century now, part of my job involves gaining the insights of coaches, athletes, and various experts that we use in our trainings and feature in stories we share on our free SportingKid Live website, nays.org/sklive, to help volunteer coaches, parents, administrators, and officials make youth sports the best they can be for all kids. This particular springtime trip to Baltimore evolved as we were putting together a new video for our volunteer coach training program, which more than 4 million coaches have completed throughthe years.
Earlier that year, I had reached out to the Ravens to inquire if Harbaugh, one of the game’s most respected leaders, would be interested in sharing his thoughts on some key aspects of coaching, such as teaching sportsmanship, cultivating teamwork, and winning and losing with grace, among others, that would help volunteers in all sports teach these important components to theiryoung athletes. When I later heard back from the Ravens’ media relations department that he was on board with this project, there was also an interesting request that accompanied the note: They asked that I send over thequestions we wanted to ask in advance. I was happy to accommodate, never imagining even for a moment that an insanely busy NFL head coach—a SuperBowl winning coach—would ever see them by the time we sat down with him. About two months later, I was at the Ravens compound, which sits on thirty-two acres and features three full-sized and immaculately maintained football fields situated behind a gorgeous 200,000 square foot training facility.I was accompanied by Patrick Engh, our long-time NAYS videographer. The Ravens were conducting their Optional Team Activities, OTAs in football jargon, which is just a fancy phrase for practices held for a few days during the offseason. Position groups were scattered across the three fields. Pads popped,whistles blew, coaches yelled, and trash-talking among the players punctuated the late morning air.
We were part of the media contingent numbering in the double figures, awaiting our chance to speak with Coach Harbaugh. The roughly two-hour practice ended with assistant coaches running wind sprints with the players across the width of the field, to cheers, jeers, and laughter as good-natured jabs and jokes were thrown around. Once players slowly began heading for the locker-room, the flurry of post-practice interviews began with Coach Harbaugh. He was swarmed by cameramen and reporters. Microphones and tape recorders jabbed in front of him. The NFL Network was there. So were local television crews, an Associated Press writer, a national magazine writer, photographers, local reporters, and many others. We watched the whirlwind of activity enveloping him while we set up for the interview that we had flownmore than 1,000 miles for. We were experimenting with the positioning of the chairs to ensure the proper angle to the sun when the Ravens’ media relations director came over and stuck a dagger in our plans. She began with “I’m sorry,” and my stomach flipped. What followed was catastrophic. She informed us that some of Coach Harbaugh’s other interviews were running long, compromising his schedule, and that we would only be able to ask a couple of questions from our list of more than a dozen. A couple. Translation: I was in big trouble. My stomach burned. And my heart hammered. We had spent a lot of money—well, a lot of the company’s money—flying to Baltimore, staying overnight in a motel, renting a car, and now we’d only be coming back with a couple of abbreviated responses. That’s not exactly a message you want to deliver to the boss. I felt my career disintegrating on the spot and would rather have been run over by a Ravens linebacker at that moment than return to the office and relive what was becoming a disastrous expedition. So, I began nervously pacing back and forth, meandering along the sidelines of the practice field where we had set up the chairs, wondering just how much we were going to be able to squeeze out of what was rapidly shaping up to be one colossal failure of a trip. I began scanning my list of questions, trying to determine which would be the most important ones to ask, since we were only going to be able to get Harbaugh’s insight on a couple of them.
Eventually, he made his way over to where we were set up, greeted us with a warm smile, and shocked me with what he said next. He asked one of the media relations staffers to run up to his office and grab the questions we had sent over roughly sixty days ago. Why? Because he had made notes on points he wanted to make. He had no intention of giving us generic responses, or to throw out answers on the fly. He took this interview seriously because of the impact it could have on volunteer coaches who saw it. It’s a moment that is seared in my memory. He not only made time for us, but he was fully committed to giving us his very best on every single question. He truly cared.
And man, did he deliver. Every question I tossed at him, he responded with insight and passion. He never glanced at his watch, looked at the media relations director hovering steps away to bail him out, or cut an answer short to move onto the rest of his day. His responses oozed enthusiasm. He even shared personal experiences from his days as a young athlete, as well as those involving his own daughter in youth sports, that provided a special touch. It was a fascinating conversation. I kept asking, he kept answering, and we got to ask every question on our list. And every response was pure coaching gold.
Through the years, I’ve interviewed thousands of coaches and athletes, and that exchange ranks as one of my all-time favorites. It also brings us back to what I shared at the beginning of this book. If John Harbaugh, son of a coach, a Super Bowl champion, and a parent of a child involved in youth sports, cared this much about helping volunteer coaches be the best they can possibly be for the young athletes they are working with, then there had to be other coaches in the professional and collegiate ranks who were just as passionate and caring about the best ways to coach kids and impact young lives as he was. So, my pursuit began to track down the very best insight from some of the most respected male and female coaches around. And the response to my efforts was amazing. The coaches who made time in their mega-busy schedules to talk coaching young athletes have won Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA Championships, Olympic medals, WNBA titles, a Stanley Cup—and many are Hall of Fame inductees in their respective sports. They are some of the greatest leaders their sports have known, and what they have to share can change lives at every level of sport. So, regardless if you are new to coaching and will be taking on a team for the first time soon, or if you are a long-time coach who has spent many seasons on the sidelines, the incredible insight these coaching greats share will help anyone enhance their coaching skills at any level, and in any sport. Consider this: as coaches, we expect athletes to embrace opportunities to learn, improve, and grow, and to use the feedback they get to fuel their pursuit of improvement and raise their performance. And the same mindset applies to those who take on the role of a coach. To be a high-quality coach, one who molds character and impacts lives, requires being a life-long learner and grabbing every chance available for using new ways to motivate players, run more engaging practices, be a more influential leader, and so on. One of the many fascinating characteristics that all the coaches featured in this book share is their unquenchable thirst for knowledge. They never stop searching for new and better ways to perform their responsibilities. They see every day as a chance to help not only their athletes improve, but to become better and more well-rounded coaches, as well. In these pages, you will discover the powers of coaching with a growth mindset and helping young athletes embrace the process. The wisdom imparted by these coaches includes the importance of bringing the juice—meaning high energy and enthusiasm to every practice; innovative techniques for encouraging and inspiring young athletes; and creative approaches for cultivating teamwork. You will learn the right ways to correct and motivate young athletes and how to use visualization to help them operate in a positive frame of mind. You will also learn how to overcome obstacles that can undermine confidence and sabotage work ethics and move past setbacks so they don’t affect future performances.
The coaches in this book foster a genuine love and bond amongst teammates and truly care about their performances and experiences with the team. They share the best ways for handling pressure so that it doesn’t disrupt focus and hinder an athlete’s ability to perform at their best. And they teach the importance of being a great sport in victory and defeat.