The Secret to Coaching Youth Sports

The secret to coaching youth sports comes from retired, high school and college basketball coach, Dick Bennett. Here’s the deal: it not only works at all levels from youth sports to high school, college and pros; it can also be applied to all sports. It’s not just a basketball concept. The secret works for other team sports like soccer, softball, and lacrosse; and also for more individually oriented sports like tennis and cross country.

While simple in concept, it’s amazing how few coaches at the youth level seem to know how to implement the secret. The better college and professional coaches have it down, and it’s one of the reasons these coaches return their teams to the top rankings year after year.

Tips for Coaching Youth Sports

First things, first: what is the secret? Dick Bennett, the former men’s basketball coach at UW-Stevens Point, UW-Green Bay and University of Wisconsin (Madison) provided a succinct way to look at coaching with this one phrase (which is the secret):

“See the picture, sell the picture, paint the picture.”

Bennett had tremendous success coaching at the high school level before turning around three college, basketball programs. He knew what it took to be a successful coach. Let’s break down his secret to success.

Secret to Coaching – See the Picture

Coaches must start off with their own vision of what they want for a team. Some of what they want might be based on experience, e.g., what they know works for a team to succeed, some will be based on age and experience level, and some might be determined by the makeup of the team.

What is your vision for the team? Don’t focus on your winning percentage, but the things that are really important. Do you want your players to learn skills and advance their development so that they’ll be ready for the next team they play on? Do you want your players to learn some life lessons in the process of learning about the sport you’re coaching. You might also focus in on a particular area of emphasis, e.g. Do you want your team to be the best defensive team in the league? What’s the desired outcome of the season for your team? As Mr. Covey suggests, “Begin with the end in mind.” If you don’t have a vision for your team, do some research. Talk to some other coaches. Review coaching resources available. Read some books on coaching. Get some inspiration from great coaches.

Great seasons, like any great endeavors, typically start with a leader having a plan. Coaches at all levels, including youth sports, need plans. Plans can be simpler at younger ages; but you still need a plan. It’s good to have an overall plan for the season, as well as plans for your individual practices. The overall plan addresses the order you teach required skills, while the individual practices break it down to an activity level.

As a coach, you must sell yourself on the vision and your plan to get there. If you don’t believe in it, who will?

Secret to Coaching – Sell the Picture

Then, it comes time to sell in the players. Let your players know what you’re trying to accomplish. What are you looking for at practices. Share with them your approach and expectations. Sell the picture. Why do you think it will work? Give them some light at the end of the tunnel. What will be early indicators that our team is on the right path.

Although you might kick things off with a first meeting, it doesn’t stop there. You’ll need to earn the players’ trust, and that doesn’t happen at just one meeting. Some players may question your approach either directly or when you’re not around.

Selling the picture make take some time. And, they’re may be others whom you need to sell. In youth sports, that means selling the parents. Let parents know your vision and what you’re trying to accomplish. If parents are fully on board, it’s easier to have players on board since there won’t be the conflict between authority figures. Parents may be harder sales, but over time, a sound plan and approach will likely win them over.

Secret to Coaching – Paint the Picture

While seeing the picture and selling the picture fall heavily on the coach’s role, painting the picture is a joint role between coaches and players. Painting the picture requires both coaches and players to complete the necessary activities to accomplish the goals set.

Painting the picture happens predominantly in practice sessions. Players give 100%, coaches give 100% and working together, good things happen.

As Coach Bennett notes in the video, players remember what coaches emphasize. Are you emphasizing the right things? Players remember what’s emphasized.

Many teams will practice many of the same skills: shooting, dribbling, defensive footwork, rebounding, etc. What sets a great team apart from the others is frequently the quality of the practices. Are coaches committed? Are players committed? How does a coach keep players engaged throughout a long season? What makes some teams so fun to play for and others seem like a chore? A lot of that depends on how coaches and players paint the picture.

Where Youth Sports Coaches Fail

Youth sports coaches often make mistakes in the same general areas. A few areas to be mindful of:

  1. Coaches not thinking through their vision for the team. Too many youth coaches seem too enamored with winning, or pressured by others into focusing on wins and losses. A winning season doesn’t always translate into a great season for a player. Make sure your vision for the team is player-focused.
  2. Having a bad plan or no plan to support what you’re trying to accomplish. Consistently winging it is a tough way to build a highly functioning team. Make the most of your practice time. Come ready.
  3. Too much time devoted to scrimmaging at practice and not enough time devoted to skill development. For example, in basketball, five-on-five scrimmaging means only one ball is in play. Some scrimmaging is needed for game preparation, but especially in the early going, try to put a lot of balls into use. More touches for young players mean
  4. Not explaining well enough the “Why” questions as to why the team is doing things the way you’re doing them. It’s easier for others to buy in, when they understand what you’re trying to do.
  5. Boring practices. Add some fun. Add some life. As a coach, you should want your players to be in a can’t-wait-for-the-next-practice mode. Make each practice your masterpiece.


Mike O’Halloran, author of The Secret to Coaching Youth Sports, is the founder of and the publisher of the Well Prepared Coach™ line of sports practice plans, offseason training programs, and award certificates.

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