Youth Sports: A Lesson on Coaching Styles from My Dog

About the Author: Eric Cressey

It might sound like a silly way to start a fitness blog, but my dog, Tank, is lazy.

Tank can fall asleep anywhere, anytime.  This in itself wouldn’t be a problem, but he also happens to be a blend of two of the most stubborn breeds you can imagine: pug and beagle.  We’ve managed to train him out of his stubbornness pretty well, but he still absolutely hates walking up.  As such, he’ll generally stay in bed as long as he possibly can before he has to go to the gym with me.

In order to motivate him to get out of bed and come downstairs, I’ve exhausted a lot of options.  Originally, I could just call him; then, he got tired of that.

After that, I’d shake the bag of treats – but then Tank got tired of that after a few days.  Sleep was cooler than food.

Then, I’d knock on the front door as if a visitor had arrived – but he eventually smartened up to that.

Next, I would actually open the front door and ring the doorbell.  Tank’s now sick of that. Sleep is cooler than visitors, too.

So, nowadays, the only way I can get my dog out of bed is to physically go upstairs, pick him up, and set him on the floor in the direction of the staircase.  Some might say that his laziness is unparalleled.

I’d actually argue that this situation parallels what happens in youth sports nowadays. They often say that getting a dog is a stepping stone to having a child of your own, but I’d argue dealing with a lazy dog can also teach us a valuable lesson as coaches of young athletes.

You see, kids are just like Tank in that they can become desensitized to you.  Everyone has the story of the crazy little league or high school football coach in their hometown who always threw temper tantrums, broke clipboards, punched walls, cursed at players, berated umpires/referees, and treated everyone like crap.  All the players were certainly scared to death of these coaches for the first few months, and then the novelty of playing for a complete jerk wore off.  Maybe the screaming and yelling was used as a cover-up for a complete lack of knowledge, and people wised up to this reality. Or, maybe this individual just took all the fun out of what was supposed to be a game.

Regardless of how the initial excitement/fear wore off, rarely does one of these lunatic coaches have a favorable lasting impact on a kid.  It’s either because the coaches have very little to teach, or the athletes tune them out very quickly.  The coaches that impacted me the most were the ones who were the most compassionate and understood my unique strengths and weaknesses, but knew how the crack the whip at the right times.  Not surprisingly, they’re the ones who I stayed in contact with for years after I was done playing for them.  And, they’re the kind of coaches I see coming from the great teachings of the International Youth Conditioning Association, of which I’m a proud Advisory Board member.

If you scream, swear, and throw things all the time, athletes will get desensitized to you.  Nobody ever gets desensitized to a close friend, though.  Look at every bit of marketing research, too, and you’ll find that people genuinely like talking about themselves above all else.  That tells me that if you want to have a favorable impact on someone’s life as coach, you better be a very good listener before you even think about talking, let alone yelling. I’m a firm believer that you need to be their friend before you can be their coach. In watching my mother succeed as a high school principal, I’m convinced that this is something that carries over to any “authority” position; people need to like you before they respect you.

It’s not just enough to be popular, though; you have to be prepared. Tank is definitely “man’s best friend,” but that doesn’t change the fact that he wants to ignore me sometimes.  Along these same lines, if you’re going to be successful working with young athletes, you need to have different tools in your toolbox to motivate, inspire, make a point, or even just get their attention. There always needs to be a Plan B, and you need to be able to adapt your coaching style to an athlete’s unique needs over the course of his/her training career.

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