Foundations for Athletic Success
Bio: Kirk is the author of "Becoming a True Champion: Achieving
Athletic Excellence From the Inside Out" (forthcoming publication
from Rowman & Littlefield, 2012), and the blog "The Athlete's Sports Experience:
Making a Difference." Both his book and blog are written
for the purpose of making a difference in the loss of perspective common in youth,
high school and collegiate levels of sports.
Organizing practice and game strategy, knowing the X’s and O’s, proper drill work
and conditioning — these are just a few of the various responsibilities that encompass
the job of being a coach. And this doesn’t begin to touch on the coach as motivator,
character builder, and sometimes counselor and parent figure to the multitude of
young athletes under his direction.
Add to all of this the many game and practice issues (injuries, playing time,
player position, field/gym availability and scheduling, etc.) that present themselves
throughout a season and you have yourself one tough, stressful job. At least, that
is, if you want to be good.
With all that goes on in a coach’s world, it can be difficult to stay focused
on the right path to put young athletes and teams in the best position to reach
their potential — something all good coaches want to do.
So, what if there was a way to enhance the probability that athletes would achieve
success without adding a lot more coaching responsibilities to the mix? What if
a shift in one’s philosophy or, better yet, a refocusing of one’s efforts might
be all that is needed to put the odds in the athlete’s favor? And what if this shift
in philosophy, or refocusing of one’s efforts, not only increased athletic and team
potential but also made for a learning environment that was more enjoyable and rewarding
I would say that would be a good thing!
With that in mind, listed below are four less-discussed coaching practices that
not only encourage the proper mindset in young athletes but also help build strong
connections among coaches, athletes and teammates.
Creating situations so that athletes must take ownership of — and thus responsibility
for — their own success will pay big dividends inside and outside the athletic arena.
When coaches encourage their athletes to set individual and team goals, they become
owners of those goals and feel a sense of responsibility to achieve them. This can
even be applied to short-term daily objectives (mini-goals) that athletes expect
to accomplish before they finish practice. This is especially true when working
toward mastering pieces of their skill set. At first, this might take a little direction
from the coach; however, it is something that (once taught) can be left up to the
How do you know when athletes are starting to take personal responsibility for
their success? They take the initiative to improve their skill set on their own;
they ask for extra things they can do; and they simply don’t want to leave the gym
or field, showing a willingness to stay and finish daily objectives that were not
It is vital that there be a strong training focus on fundamentals (both skill
and movement fundamentals) of the game, no matter what the sport or level of play.
This is a concept that should take precedence over any strategy of the game until
athletes have mastered them. And even once mastered, they still should hold a strong
place in an athlete’s daily training so as to maintain a solid base of support for
continued growth and improvement.
This is an often-neglected component that too many coaches dismiss to focus more
on strategies or plays to win the next game. It is a mistake that leaves holes in
an athlete’s foundation, and these are the kinds of holes that allow bad habits
to develop, limiting the ultimate potential that an athlete or team can achieve.
It’s much better to include a concentration on fundamentals, which develop athletes
over the long term.
Athletes and competition go hand in hand. It is this fact that behooves us to
utilize the competitive spirit in athletes as a means to reach higher levels of
execution and performance. The more a coach can set up practice sessions where athletes
are competing with each other, and/or for something, the better and more intense
their efforts will be.
Whether it is with numbers of properly executed skill-improvement drills, team-oriented
scrimmages, decreasing one’s sprint or drill times or increasing one’s numbers during
conditioning, any of these can be set up where athletes are competing for something.
Find ways to give some type of incentive for athletes who best their scores or win
these mini-competitions, and watch what happens. You will not be disappointed, and
neither will they.
After teaching for 32-plus years and coaching during many of those years, I see
one thing that stands out above all others when it comes to students and student
athletes. And this includes working with them, both on the athletic field and in
So what is this one thing that stands above all others? It is an aspect that former
students and athletes readily reveal when asked why they consider someone the best
coach or teacher they ever had. It is the fact that the athlete and/or student felt
that their coach or teacher actually cared about them as a person.
Oh, sure, they want a coach who is able to inspire and motivate them, who knows
the ins and outs of the game and who can actually make them better. But more than
anything, they want someone who truly cares about them beyond the athletic arena.
They want someone who is genuinely concerned about, and interested in, who they
are as a person. The more a coach can demonstrate to his or her athletes that they
are not just chess pieces in a game, the more that coach will get out of them. Athletes
who have coaches like this will go to the ends of the earth for them.
Not meant to be a comprehensive list, these four practices, when centered at the
core of one’s coaching philosophy, can markedly increase your young athletes’ ability
to reach their potential. The positive training environment they help to create
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