Coaching Youth Sports: Lessons in Leadership

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“Leadership is a matter of having people look at you and gain confidence, seeing how you react. If you’re in control, they’re in control.” – Tom Landry

Coaching young kids at a particular sport sets everything in perspective. Your life becomes level set. Your mind becomes laser-focused. It’s humbling, yet exhilarating. I discovered that victory and defeat arrive with the same set of emotions. For a coach, if the team wins…you have to set a standard of consistence, patience, and resilience. And if the team loses, it’s a matter of establishing a standard that creates a passion to keep trudging forward, no matter the outcome.

Both winning and losing create opportunities.

In the public relations and marketing worlds, there are many similarities. Whether it’s trying to win new business or move a project forward for a client, each day introduces a new set of challenges and obstacles to overcome.

I have two kids. Hayden is 11 and is entering the 6th grade; Lola is 9 and is entering the 4th grade. Both play sports: Hayden plays football, while Lola prefers soccer. I’ve coached football for four seasons and soccer for one. I’ve been a sideline parent for about five years. While different, both sports influence the same style of coaching. And for the first time, I tried coaching both sports in the same season (and with both kids playing).

Here’s what I learned…and how I applied it to my professional life.

The most important lesson I learned while coaching is to just let the kids play the game. When this happens, the leaders rise to the top and effectively manage the level of intensity on the field. Each player’s talents immediately become enhanced. It’s amazing how this happens – both on offense and defense. I savored this level of coaching because it yielded the greatest reward. Each player knew their job. Each player loved their job. Each player wanted to excel at their job. And it all happened naturally without yelling, interfering or criticizing their choices.

Hayden joins Coach Alford on the field.

Hayden joins Coach Alford on the field.

When I first started coaching youth sports, I noticed that ALL the other coaches were on the field during play. It was allowable by the league because many of the young kids required immediate direction and guidance. I could easily peg this as micromanaging. Of course this method of coaching works and sometimes yields positive results, but it doesn’t allow for recognizable leadership and it most always weakens a team’s skillset. I discovered if you want to achieve success, allowing the true talents of your team to surface organically is the best approach. So I decided to stay on the sidelines. I let the kids play.

At first, this strategy made the parents uncomfortable. Many would ask, “Why aren’t you on the field?”

“I’m the coach. My team is on the field,” I would reply.

Then I would ask the parents to help cheer on the team and keep the kids hydrated…maybe even ask a few to keep score. And there was my next discovery: sometimes even the parents needed coaching.

Of course, I loved watching my own kids succeed at their chosen sport. I would never hide my enthusiasm for their moments of glory when they scored a goal or got an interception. But when the team performed beyond my expectations and achieved success together, I would become unglued with elation. I exuberantly cheered their victories, big or small.

However, the team would sometimes experience defeat. This proved to be my most important time to be a coach. Kids are easily discouraged and can’t see beyond the moment, especially when frustrated and under pressure. Reinforcing fundamentals and strategy helped, but that only goes so far. My team’s level of understanding increased when I emphasized the importance of team and unity.

Lola, ready to put Dad's coaching advice into action.

Lola, ready to put Dad’s coaching advice into action.

That was always the priority: teamwork. When going to the middle of the field for the coin toss, we went together. No one player stood above any other. And I always stood behind them in support. I was never first to shake the hands of the players and the coaches. I was never the first to leave the field after the game. I was last…because I was the coach. I was there to facilitate progress.

Over the years as a professional working in PR and marketing, I found my job to be extremely rewarding when I was allowed to actually do my job. Win or lose, the actual pursuit of the job and creating a final outcome was – at a minimum – where I discovered the most satisfaction and desire to persist.

PR and marketing are in the same arena as sales and business development. They move the business forward. They require the same leadership recipe: Patience, persistence and performance. And what happens when that recipe is applied? Each professional knows their job. Each professional loves their job. And each professional excels at their job.

When the team takes the field (office) and plays the game (the job), the leaders will emerge, talents will surface…and the coaches merely facilitate the team’s success.

“Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can’t lose.” – Eric Taylor (Friday Night Lights)