COACHING TIPS: The Long-Term Bonding Benefits of Youth Sports
How Team Social Events Create Team Bonding in Youth Leagues
By Doug Abrams
More than 40 years after I played my last youth hockey game, I remain grateful for the skills that our coaches taught us. Skills instruction enabled me to play in college, and then to coach a few thousand youth leaguers in winter leagues and summer hockey camps for years afterwards.
Skills learned in youth leagues, however, fade with time. My hockey skills don’t matter anymore, but the friendships I made in youth hockey have lasted a lifetime. Long after I strapped on the pads for the last time, I still remain in touch with many of my teammates and many of the players I later coached.
Coaches and parents serve their youth leaguers best when they help the players finish the season with new friendships that may not develop solely from attending games and practice sessions. Even on local teams whose players already know many of their teammates from school or the neighborhood, players are unlikely to know everyone at the first pre-season practice. You would be amazed at how many youth league seasons end with players barely knowing the names of everyone in the locker room. After months together, anonymity seems like a wasted opportunity.
This column discusses how the adults can help teammates develop lasting friendships on and off the field.
Periodic Team Get-Togethers
Parents and coaches can encourage new friendships by conducting periodic team get-togethers away from the field throughout the season. Attendance at these social events should be optional, but they produce immediate and long term dividends – immediate because team bonding can translate into success on the field, and long term because the players’ social friendships can outlast the final game.
Start with a “get acquainted” barbeque or similar pre-season gathering for all the families. After that, bi-weekly or monthly events during the season might be almost anything that the players or parents would like to do together – a movie, dinner at a local pizza restaurant, attending a local minor league or college game, or a trip to an amusement park, for example.
The coaches can organize the events, or they can let one or more parents take the lead. I have found that parent-organized events work best (with the coaches attending too), but the adults can decide which approach seems more comfortable for everyone. At younger age levels, an event may be for the entire family, or it may be primarily for the players and their parents. At older age levels, players might wish to get together without their parents, though a few parents should attend team-sponsored functions to provide adequate supervision.
Practice Sessions and Games
Periodic team get-togethers do not end the story because the coaches themselves should encourage new friendships during practice sessions and games. Here are some ways to do it.
At the pre-season meetings with parents and players on our youth hockey teams, the coaches explained the short-term and long term benefits of team harmony. At the first practice session, personal introductions preceded instruction in skills and strategy. The coaches would go around the room and have each player give his name and hometown. On the ice or in the locker room early in the season, we encouraged players to ask new players for their names until everyone was on a first-name basis. Simple perhaps, common sense perhaps, but it works.
For practice sessions and games alike, the coaches insisted that all players suit up in one locker room, even if the ice arena had more than one room that players could use. With at least one parent providing supervision, the locker room experience was for the players’ camaraderie until a few minutes before the team hit the ice, and then for the first few minutes after leaving the ice at the end.
During practice session drills that required players to pair off in twos or assemble in small groups to work on individual skills, the coaches would insist that players run through the drills with different teammates each time, and not always with the ones who were their “best friends.” If the need arose, the coaches would call the players together to explain why mixing during drills would help avoid cliques that could bring the team down and leave some players feeling like outcasts.
Even at the youngest age levels, players can understand the value of team unity when the coaches and parents explain it to them. Among players guided by adults who are sensitive to the longer view, this understanding can grow as the season progresses.