How can I be a better coach for these kids?
January 31, 2022 1:55 PM   Subscribe

I'm coaching a kids' sports team (under 11s) and managing groups of 7-30 kids at once. How can I handle cheating, slacking off and gossip? I imagine these are things that come up in parenting but I'd especially love to hear from people who've coached kids' teams or teachers.

I've given examples of situations that have come up below. I'm not really looking for The Solution for these situations; what I really want is examples of approaches or strategies to choose from. I don't interact with kids in any other part of my life, so the responsibilities that come from being The Adult are new to me.


1. We're doing a drill/game that's repeated 3 times. One team cheats. If I see it, I reinforce the rules in the moment, "Hey, no [xx]!" Sometimes I don't see it and the other team complains afterwards, particularly if that team 'wins' the game. In this case I'd reinforce the rules for the next round - "remember, you can't [xx]!" and look out for it. But I remember my sense of injustice as a kid when people got away with things like this. Is this response enough? Should I penalise the cheating team?

2. Sometimes kids want to slack off. "My back hurts, can I sit out?" My approach is to treat them like adults. "Of course, if your back hurts, you should sit out. Let me know if you want to rejoin us", or getting them to be the passer. But I know sometimes they're just testing me. The last time I did this, the kid reclined on the ground, being distracting (they had to stay nearby as there was nowhere else they would be supervised), and I got more and more requests from the other kids to "sit out" or "go to the toilet". I know part of the solution is -- make sure the drills are so fun and engaging that no one wants to sit out! Is that it? Any other ideas for how to handle this?

3. Sometimes kids start to get left out by their group. My problem is not so much language - I always comment if I hear any actual insults - but more when I notice the conversation or the energy of a group seems to be excluding or targeting one kid. This is sometimes very subtle. Usually I'll stay with that group, deliberately include the excluded kid, and give the group a lot of energy and chatter until the dynamic is redirected more evenly. Is that it? Any other ideas for dealing with this?

Thank you all for any ideas or resources.
posted by happyfrog to Human Relations (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I coached kids for years, and learned to co-op issues. With situation 2 or 3 I would offer the kid two options, to continue or a second option that was another type of task entirely. It wasn't punishment. I would often delegate my own work, make them assistant coaches of this drill or that equipment. Or make them captain, I just made certain they understood, and the other kids understood, it was a temporary arraignment. The reason this works for the kid who is drifting off and for the kid under duress is that they both need a different situation to be in, and both need your attention in a different way. An extra referee means extra eyes ensuring the games and drills are fair. I had a shy kid run the stopwatch- very useful.

It's not a universal solution, but it's a low risk approach that only requires a bit of planning. You need a clipboard with a familiar drill or task laid out on it all ready to go. I had preprinted drills, and I also used a whiteboard that I could just draw it out right there. Even if I didn't have the whole situation sorted for them I made certain they felt like they were helping me.
posted by zenon at 3:46 PM on January 31, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: What you're already doing sounds great.

For the gossip and energy, you can create ground rules collaboratively.

"I want this class to be fun for everyone. What kinds of behaviour can help make a space fun? What kinds of behaviour can make it not fun for some people?" Nudge the convo to get them to suggest. "What if someone isn't getting a turn?" "What about little things, like who we look at? Or how our body language towards someone can make them feel?"

Make a big chalkboard list of acceptable and unacceptable behaviours, and post it. Give it a catchy name that's fun to say. "Coach Campbell's Kindness Kicks" or something silly. The next week, have it written out on a poster, read it aloud with the class, and maybe even invite them to sign the poster to agree to the code of conduct.

Then use the silly name to refer to it any time the energy shifts to nudge them back on track. "Kindness Kicks in effect! Today let's all be really aware of having inclusive body language, we're about to do a passing drill- perfect chance to make eye contact and connect with your teammates and have open posture as you play and pass the ball!"

You can also have them post-mortem it - "How did it feel to create these rules? What was it like thinking about how our non-verbal communication and eye contact can affect people?" "This is something you can do when you're a leader too! Work together to set up rules for everyone to keep things fair. Nice work team!"

Depending on the age of the kids, you can directly address specific students too. I had to set rules like this for a very emotionally open arts class I taught, and there was one student who was being super toxic - domineering with a type of performative fake charm thing that was really an ugly kind of control and power flexing on his classmates.

I pulled him aside and said, "I wanted to thank you for helping create those guidelines today. You're someone with really strong energy and a lot of potential to lead and be a role model, so I hope you'll consider really trying to put those guidelines into practice in terms of how you in particular can help create a safe space in the class. Your strong personality can really help set the tone." This was my polite and flattering initial way to tell an insecure teenager to knock off the toxicity - and it worked!
posted by nouvelle-personne at 4:49 PM on January 31, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I've never been a coach. But, I've been the adult in charge of some multi-day science camps with tens of slightly older kids. Sounds like you know more than me, so feel free to disregard this.

My personal feeling is that letting kids sit it out is fine. Some of them probably genuinely don't want to be there. (That was me pretending to give a shit about basketball as a kid. I was allowed to quit quickly; some kids aren't.) Some of them can't deal with intense social interactions. Unless you're giving them a grade that matters. . . who cares? If they're happier sitting out and it doesn't hurt anybody, that's fine. Kicking them out isn't better. Having them participate with resentment isn't better. Asking them in a private moment if they really want to be there and talking to their parents if the answer is "no" might be useful.

The excluded kid thing is really tough. My least-flawed approach has been to try to connect with that kid in private and let them know that someone is on their side and sees it. I'm not sure it's worked. Nothing else has done more good than harm.
posted by eotvos at 7:07 PM on January 31, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Re #3) I think you might want to observe group dynamics a bit more, before potentially doing some social engineering. Is it always the same kid who gets excluded? (If so, try to put him/her on a team that is even in number for partner drills). Alternatively, is it possible that one kid or several in combination tends to create exclusionary behavior? If so, maybe it's better to try to avoid that combo of kids when ever possible, or try to separate the ringleader from more socially vulnerable kids. ).

Re #1) Instead of making it a conversation about winning/losing, I think you can reframe the situation as demonstrating good sportsmanship/ taking a "growth mindset" approach. (I like the idea above about having some sort of collective ground rules.) "Because group two {exhibited a specific example of good sportsmanship} they get to go first for next thing, choose whether we should do activity A or activity B next, etc." Or if a kid expresses disappointment that her team lost because "the other team cheated" you can acknowledge that it is upsetting when other people don't play fair, but ask "did you do your best today?"Kid gets a high five if she responds yes, or a "well maybe you can work more on x next time. You did great today on y" if she responds no." You can also ask kids why do we play "by the rules" [you listen/respond to their answers] but also point out that people who don't play are cheating themselves from being the best athlete they can be.
posted by oceano at 8:40 PM on January 31, 2022

Re #2) There comes a point where you might as well call a short water/bathroom break for everyone. The length of this break is important. There should be enough time for everyone to use the facilities, but not enough time for kids to dawdle. The break should feel short, so to minimize the feeling of losing momentum of the session. Or maybe you need to consistently schedule a break during the session (if you haven't already). You can ask kids if they are sure they need to go (break was 5 minutes ago)/ ask if they can wait until the break (in 10 minutes). (Of course if they say they need to go, let them).
posted by oceano at 8:53 PM on January 31, 2022

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