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Building Team Camaraderie with Young Athletes

"Every coach needs to know their individual athletes before understanding how the team functions as a whole."

By: Melissa Lambert, M.Ed, LPC, CSAC

Fostering teamwork among any group of individuals is not an easy job.  If you were to analyze coaches with successful careers they would tell you they didn’t win on talent alone. Geno Auriemma led the UCONN Huskies basketball team to seven national championships while John Wooden of UCLA secured ten national championships and is known as a genuine leader. Both coaches were shown to be great leaders in the world of college sports but what defines them. They knew and understood every individual on their team while challenging them in the right ways. They established consistent standards of performance and knew how to motivate their team despite personality differences. Most importantly they were not afraid to take risks to support them in their development to become better athletes. These same principles apply when working with younger teams but at a level that fits their stage of development.

Unfortunately many of today’s youth coaches are focused merely on recruiting and playing the most athletically talented.  A group that exhibits talent alone doesn’t necessarily correlate with team cohesiveness which is defined as a group of individuals who want to work together to achieve a common goal. A team with strong cohesion also has an emotional bond with one another as result of athletes’ investment to be successful as a unit and not just individually. When looking at top businesses, they are successful as a result of selectively choosing their team based on who works well together. The same applies with youth sports. Although they may not always be trying out for the team each athlete brings a variety of strengths that can benefit the group as a whole. Some of the most enthusiastic and hard workers are not always the most athletic, but know how to keep the energy up. While others who are self-disciplined challenge the team to hold each other accountable. Whether you are a new coach or building off an existing team, here are four simple ways to ensure strong team camaraderie.

Establish Team Rules: This is an essential step that should happen on the first day of practice. It sets a foundation of expectations for the team in order to achieve their goals. Rules should never be created with the coach alone, however there needs to be a baseline that guides athletes in creating their rules. As a coach there are several things to consider including the age of development, importance of autonomy, ownership by the players, modeling, consistency and accountability. If the coach doesn’t follow the rules or the athletes don’t hold each other accountable there is no foundation to work from resulting in poor cohesiveness. How you handle a six year old coming late to practice versus a teenager should look much different in consequences. Each athlete should know what they are responsible for and what they are expected to contribute. In today’s generation young athletes are often involved in multiple activities. The team needs to decide what’s acceptable and what’s not in attendance while recognizing the need for full participation from everyone. Rules should always create a safe and trusting environment for the team.

Create an Environment with Open Communication and Role Clarity: Every coach should know their athletes on an individual level including strengths, areas to develop and goals. Athletes will be more invested in the process when feeling cared about. This will also help in clarifying roles of all members on the team, whether it is on or off the field. There will be young athletes that tend to exhibit more leadership skills. They will lead by example athletically but also by their character. Some players respond better to peer instruction and support rather than from the coach. Others will be highly skilled but may not be self-motivated or disciplined. A great coach will utilize all of these skills to bring a team together and foster an environment of open communication. This includes paying attention to any conflicts and addressing them when they arise. When handled well, they provide further opportunity for growth in skill and character building. Coaches need to empower young athletes to solve problems themselves while teaching conflict resolution skills for the future.

Focus on the Vision: With any successful business or organization there is always a vision and the same applies with sports. Teams can be part of a bigger organization or be a representation of a school. Establishing a vision will set a foundation for the coaches, team and players. An important component of this is setting long-term directional goals. This will define the culture and expectations when building a cohesive team. Within the long-term goals there should be a variation of outcome, process and performance goals. Outcome goals include a number of team wins or hitting a specific time for an event. These will include both team and individual goals that the coach will establish with their players. Performance goals will be viewed as mastering a skill or increasing a percentage and process goals, which are often overlooked, are the behaviors and actions needed in order to accomplish the desired outcome. Every coach wants to be successful but will not reach the desired outcome without understanding the process it takes to get there. A vision statement should clarify the purpose of the team, set a standard of excellence, inspire enthusiasm and be easy to understand. All leaders of any team need to embody this message. If they are not connected and carry out the statement themselves through their daily actions the team will not either and therefore lack a sense of direction.

Foster a Safe and Playful Environment: This may not be a priority for most coaches when it should be.  In any organization if the environment is all work and no play than don’t expect big results on desired outcomes. This especially applies to the sports scene with the push for specialization at a younger age and an increase in sport specific clinics guaranteeing bigger, faster, stronger athletes. An important question for coaches to consider is what are the top responsibilities when working with youth? This should not include developing superstar athletes as the overarching goal.  Coaches play an intricate role in the teaching process while understanding the developmental needs of their athletes. This doesn’t mean challenging athletes, promoting hard work and teaching skills can’t be fun. However, in order for any athlete to reach their fullest potential they need to stay invested and be allowed ample opportunity for play both on and off the field. This may include incorporating various games into training sessions that also focus on skills. For example tag games are great for working on acceleration and deceleration techniques. Games that include goals such as hitting a set number in juggling, handball and relay races serve as team building exercises. In addition, events should be hosted outside of normal practice times, such as team dinners and other various outings that promote positive social interactions. Coaches who view play as a waste of time are missing several key learning components in building their athletes. These include communication, social skills, a sense of give and take, patience, perseverance and trust. Like adults who juggle numerous tasks the same applies for children and adolescents. They benefit from time away from technology, school and personal lives to engage with others in a playful manner. The end result is a stronger commitment to the team’s mission and mental clarity on the field.

Team cohesion never develops overnight and requires patience in the process. Every coach needs to know their individual athletes before understanding how the team functions as a whole. This will help utilize various personalities and strengths in order to build on areas of growth.  It’s important to recognize success, challenge appropriately and take risks when the team has established trust in their leaders. A coach who follows the vision and encourages direct feedback will have better camaraderie which will translate to desired performance outcomes.

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