By Doug Abrams
When I tell friends that I began coaching in 1967, they usually guess that I am a bit older than I really am. That year, I coached a Little League baseball team in the Central Nassau Athletic Association in East Meadow, Long Island. The following year, I also coached a youth hockey team in the Nassau County Recreation and Parks Department program at Cantiague Park in Hicksville. But I did not graduate from W. Tresper Clarke High School until 1969.
When I began coaching, I was still playing in the baseball and hockey programs. Each team I coached was what we would today call a house league or rec team because travel baseball and hockey were only in their infancy then, at least on Long Island. I coached Little League for only two years until I graduated, but I have coached youth hockey ever since.
When I created mid-Missouri’s first youth hockey teams shortly after moving to Columbia in 1989, I remembered what coaching meant to me (and to the players I coached) while I was still in high school. I felt that encouraging teen players to help coach in the younger age divisions was a win-win, and I still do.
Youth leagues and associations should permit teen players to help coach, and I understand that many organizations do. Here is how our mid-Missouri hockey association maintained a successful Leadership Program that fully involved older players as assistant coaches with the younger teams. The model can work well in any youth sport.
A Model for Teen Assistant Coaches
At our hockey association’s pre-season registration, teenage players could volunteer to be assistant coaches in the younger age groups. We usually required volunteers to be at least 16, and either still active in the association or playing in high school competition. Occasionally we also included younger teens who seemed particular mature for their age, and they too performed well.
We were a relatively small association, and about a half dozen teen players would sign up to coach each year. To maintain a comfortable age differential, we would assign teen assistants to teams in the youngest age divisions, the mites (U 9) and the squirts (U 11). Some of the teams played house-level competition against other associations, and some of the teams played statewide B-level competition.
In both age groups, a capable extra coach was always welcome because players that young need so much personal attention. The adult head coaches did not seem to mind that the teens were usually inexperienced at coaching, perhaps because many adult assistant coaches were in the same boat. At the pre-season meeting with the parents, the head coach would introduce the teen assistants and explain that they too are learning while they generously donate their time.
State and national youth hockey governing bodies now have guidelines for teen coaches. In addition to following these guidelines, our association’s coaching director and board members would hold a mandatory pre-season meeting with the teen coaches to discuss what the association expected from them. This mandatory session was in addition to the mandatory pre-season meeting for adult coaches, which the teens would also be expected to attend.
We told the teen volunteers that coaching brings responsibilities, including these:
1) Role modeling. Keep your language and behavior clean because the younger players are listening and watching. Mites and squirts do not distinguish between adult volunteer coaches and teen volunteer coaches. You are their coach, period. In other words, you are a teen who has volunteered to act like an adult.
2) Attendance. Regular attendance is a must because at any age, players expect their coaches to attend most practices and games. Before volunteering, be honest with yourselves and your parents about how much time you can devote, given your academic and playing commitments. (Teen coaches often missed mite or squirt weekend games because they were playing on their own teams, but that was understood and accepted.)
3) Selflessness. Playing and coaching are two different roles. You have volunteered to coach; you have not volunteered to get yourself extra ice time for personal conditioning or for showing off. In mite or squirt practice sessions, do not join in drills except to instruct and demonstrate. When the team scrimmages during practices, your role is to instruct and blow the whistle, and not to play.
4) Professional distance. Like the adult coaches, teen coaches are not the players’ friends. They are coaches who show friendship. There’s a difference.
5) Attentiveness. Even adult beginner coaches sometimes tend to pay more attention to the most outgoing, personable players. The other players need just as much of the coaches’ attention, and sometimes even a bit more.
6) Liability. Coaches must minimize risks of injury to players. Be careful about what you ask the players to do, and be sure to help provide mature supervision on and off the ice.
7) Discipline. Mites and squirts rarely step out of line, but player discipline should be left to the adult head coach, who is best able to talk with parents. Even adult assistant coaches usually have reduced disciplinary authority.
8) Controversies. Disputes with parents and other contentious issues are often a part of youth-league coaching these days. If you sense that such an issue is brewing, or if you have actually become involved in one, talk to the head coach or a board member immediately so that they can handle it. Teen assistants should not be drawn into controversies with parents because the playing field is not level.
We urged the adult head coaches to use their teen assistants in a meaningful way, to treat them like any other assistant coach, and to mentor them so that their experience would soon begin to measure up to their youthful enthusiasm. At my own squirt team’s practices, I would frequently ask the teen assistants to conduct a drill or give instruction at the other end of the rink, outside my earshot. The teen assistants never let me down.
Why Use Teen Assistant Coaches?
Enlisting teen assistant coaches was plus each year. Before long, the Leadership Program became major part of the association’s format.
The teen assistant coaches got a taste of leadership and a chance to see hockey from a different perspective. Because teaching a great way to learn, they also learned from coaching; a player can learn plenty about how to shoot the puck, for example, when he has to stop and think about how to teach shooting to someone else step-by-step. Teen assistants also earned a credential that would strengthen their later college and employment applications. Invariably the coach or a parent on the team could later write a nice letter of recommendation for the teen coach. Some of the teens wrote their college application essays about coaching.
The mite and squirt players looked up to the teen assistants, who were somewhat close in age and playing on teams that the mites and squirts hoped to join someday. Players and coaches felt a bond because they had something in common.
The association benefitted from enabling older players to “give back,” and from creating a sense of unity and spirit that joined the younger and older age divisions. Teen coaches would often bring teammates and friends to the mite and squirt home games, and the mites and squirts would turn out to watch the teen coaches play their home games.
How successful was the Leadership Program? Many of the teen coaches still coach in their local youth sports programs years later. The flame is still there. That says what needs to be said.