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Kids Don’t Care How Much You Know Until They Know How Much You Care

BY JOHN KESSEL | Courtesy of www.teamusa.org

The core words of this important title are attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, John Maxwell and others.

For me, it has been a key concept that once again will guide me as I start coaching a 12U team at the U.S. Air Force Academy this season. My stepdaughter Elysse is the assistant coach of the women’s team there, where she and my wife pulled me onto the court this month.

I’m using a simple tool to help us learn about the young athletes I am going to coach. Here are two drawings that Jay Doty helped me with (meant to be printed back to back on a single page). Players will tackle these questions, and the answers will make me a better, caring coach who knows his players. They will allow me to help them know how much I care. You can find these in PDF form in our SportKit section.

Other thoughts are bouncing around in my head as I start this season, nearly half a century after I first was the head coach at Colorado College.

For instance, I have stopped using the term “my kids” and work hard to not say it in person, as these kids are simply not my kids.

I do not feed them, house them, get them to school, take care of them when they are sick, etc. That is their parents’ duty and thus those moms, dads and guardians get the right to call them “my kids.”

I teach them for just three hours a week. Given that short amount of time, I need to be more effective and efficient in guiding these athletes’ discovery, more so than even those great coaches at the higher levels, as my 90 minutes only happen twice a week.

I use the term “guided discovery” on purpose to remind us all that the deepest learning takes place when it is implicit–learned by the athletes without any coaching. This is how my dad, son and I learned to play the doubles game–with no coaches at all.

The same is true of how well you learn to ride a bike–implicitly. Riding a bike is so well learned that even if you haven’t ridden for years, you can simply get on a bike and ride. For those who believe drills transfer to performance, check out this video on the specificity of learning to ride a backwards bike.

At the other end of the spectrum is the coach I was in the 1970s, getting my players to explicitly learn. That means I told them exactly what to do (as I taught the way I was taught and had not discovered the science of motor learning yet).

This, of course, created a team of athletes who could not problem-solve for themselves, and who turned and looked at the bench after every error for the coach to “tell them what to do.”

I am glad our sport switches sides so that those athletes I was “coaching” could average out their head whirls to look at me for the answer on bench. After two games, they may still have a neck overuse injury, but hey, it will be a balanced one.

What helps your players learn almost as well as them figuring out things themselves is when we teach by guiding our players to discover/figure out the answer through questions (sometimes referred to as Socratic teaching).

I will take the time this week to make sure that any parents who hang around practice to watch, learn WHY we will be coaching this way, and it is not because I don’t know the answer. Indeed, I will be taking time to teach “my” parents about what we now know as more effective and efficient ways to learn, as it applies to parenting also.

Part of caring about your kids is knowing their names, yet having not selected my team, I will be putting their faces to their names on the court for the first time.

My wife is going with name tags. Fair enough. I will be doing a circle memorization game at the start of practice. You put your players in a circle, and you start with “I’m John.” My wife/assistant coach then says “I’m Lily; that’s John.” The next athlete then says “”I’m ____; that’s Lily; that’s John.” You just keep doing this lengthening process for each player in your circle. The players at the end get the biggest challenge, and if you know anything about your kids before things start, you can put the “right” players on your roster at the end for an early lesson. After the last player has finished, I name them in reverse order, part of randomizing to better learn.

Meanwhile, I just reviewed two of my blogs to better remind myself of my role in teaching:

I also re-read this adaptation of Haim Ginott’s teaching poem we adapted to share in IMPACT in a sports way, for it really is my response in the end that is part of the learning process.

These young ones will make thousands of errors, but none will be done on purpose; it is simply all part of the learning process. This constant rebound game (without technology-enhanced better equipment for that rebound) is hard. These new players will have failure after failure with a ball flying around that you can never catch and hold in play, except to start the point with the serve.

I have come to the frightening conclusion
I am the decisive element on the court 
It is my personal approach that creates the climate 
It is my daily mood that makes the weather 
As a coach, I possess tremendous power 
to make a child’s life miserable or joyous 
I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration 
I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. 
In all situations it is my response that decides 
whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated 
and a child humanized or dehumanized.

Looking forward to helping the game teach the game (over the net at all times) to these players. Thus one last sign for your gym, especially if, like me, you only have 180 precious minutes a week to learn the reality of our over the net sport: