The Youth Coach’s “Theater”
By Doug Abrams
A few years ago, I happened to watch a pee wee hockey practice conducted by a coach who spent nearly the entire hour-long session barking instructions at his 11-12-year-old players. The players seemed willing to follow directions even if the coach spoke in a measured tone without a steady shout, but the coach never gave them the opportunity.
I did not notice whether the players were tuning out, but I would not be surprised if they were. Barking does not resonate for long because nobody likes to be shouted at incessantly by people who are charged with leading them.
“You don’t lead by hitting people over the head—that’s assault, not leadership,” said President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who knew a thing or two about military and civilian command. President Theodore Roosevelt explained his own success this way: “People ask the difference between a leader and a boss. The leader leads, and the boss drives.”
“Knowing” and “Earning”
It is helpful to think of youth league coaching as part theater, with the practice or game venue as the coach’s stage and the players as the audience. Once the coach understands the game and how to motivate kids, the coach puts on a performance. Mere understanding is not enough.
This column offers a two-part formula known to anyone who has ever been successful on stage. First, the coach must “know the audience.” Second, the coach must “earn the right” to the audience’s continuing participation.
First: Knowing the Audience
As a threshold matter, the pee wee hockey coach did not know his audience. After the practice session, I asked him why he was so loud and boisterous for the whole hour. “That’s what pro coaches do,” he responded, and he sincerely meant it. “Vince Lombardi was gruff with his players, and he’s in the Hall of Fame,” the coach explained, “I’m just trying to be a good coach.”
I am not sure that the hockey coach was right about Lombardi and the pros, but he was surely wrong about kids. Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers and Washington Redskins were adults, and pee wee hockey players are . . . well, pee wees.
The pros today are elite multimillionaire adults employed by multimillion-dollar (and sometimes billion-dollar) corporations to provide public entertainment that earns profits for owners and shareholders. Lucrative media deals, corporate sponsorships, personal endorsements, and cities’ economic fortunes ride on winning and losing. When coaches yell at a pro, the multimillionaire still gets paid handsomely.
Youth leaguers are not miniature adults or pint-sized professionals. They are children with youthful emotional needs and cognitive capacities. They are growing, learning and playing, not working. Without fat contracts, national media coverage and audiences of millions, children play for fun and fulfillment to an audience consisting usually of only family and friends. The children’s physical and emotional welfare, and not financial reward, is the bottom line.
Some youth coaches miss the distinction when they lead youth leaguers for the first time. Then some become creatures of habit and never temper their approach. Much of their knowledge of sports comes from the professional games they watch on television, attend in person, or read about in the newspapers. Youth leaguers are different.
Second: Earning the Right to the Audience
Once coaches know their youthful audience, they must earn the right to that audience. Similar to most other rights that must be earned, this one demands hard work and careful attention. Just because a person speaks does not necessarily mean that anyone will continue listening. Similar to theatergoers who may leave before the curtain falls, players may disengage before the end of the season, the coach’s final act. Coaches retain the right to an audience only when the audience wants to stay put.
This frank recognition, drawn from humility and not entitlement, should motivate anyone who seeks rapport with an audience, including youth league coaches. Writer Catherine Drinker Bowen used to keep a simple sign posted above her desk as she created her well-crafted biographies: “Will the reader turn the page?” Youth league coaches should write something similar atop their notebooks and practice agendas: “Will the players come back for more?” As Ms. Bowen understood, the right answer does not come from taking the audience for granted.
Dave Snyder, my hockey coach at Wesleyan University, taught me about “voice control” when we did some clinics together after I graduated. Be firm but fair, authoritative but not authoritarian. Theater instructors similarly stress voice control as a path to successful and effective communication.
When I coached youth hockey, I used voice control to speak on the ice in the same tone of voice that I would use with the players on the street. I would raise my voice when I needed to be heard some distance away, but never to intimidate or to win false respect. Find a youth coach who remains convinced that barking wins respect, and you have found a coach who is either insecure or inexperienced, or both. When coaches maintain voice control and treat players like fellow human beings, respect follows if the coach deserves it.
“50 Percent of the Performance”
Mastery of theater remains important for youth coaches because open lines of communication remain important. “No coach has ever won a game by what he knows,” said former Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, “It’s what his players know that counts.”
When Shirley Booth won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1952, she shared the credit because “the audience is 50 percent of the performance.” The percentage may be even higher in youth sports because the audience is so impressionable. “All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It. All the youth sports world certainly is.