Motivating young athletes can be challenging, but by getting everyone involved and making it fun, you can help both your team and players improve.

The secret to challenging young players to improve is simple - build their confidence while having fun. It is important to remember they are just starting their careers. They are not being scouted or going for a college scholarship yet. Players at the youth level actually retain more in a fun and positive environment because there is no pressure or stress. Here are a few pointers to help you challenge your players to grow.

1. Make sure you are supportive both at practice and during the game.

It all comes down to building their confidence. We all have a competitive side and love winning. That’s why it's important that the players see you clap for the other team when they make a touchdown or pull your players flag. By acknowledging a good play, you demonstrate good sportsmanship. You can talk about being a good sport until you are blue in the face, but if you don't practice what you preach everything you said goes out the window. Acknowledge the team for their hard work just as much when they lose as when they win. Positive reinforcement, even when the outcome is negative, will build the player’s confidence and they will want to improve on their own. When molding youth it is important to remember they watch and learn from your actions, not just what you say.

2. Include players of every skill level.

How do you challenge a player to get better if they are always sitting on the sideline? It’s important to rotate all the players on the team and not just put your backups in when the team has a lead. It is OK if a player stands in the same spot the whole play. It is OK if it takes what feels like an eternity to get your center to turn around so he isn’t head-to-head with the quarterback. Game experience is the only way for players to learn what a game is actually like.  Telling a young player what to do or having them watch the game from the sideline versus actually putting them in the game and showing them what it is like is a completely different learning experience. It challenges the player to grow outside of their comfort zone and allows them to improve.

3. Challenge players with fun homework.

No one likes homework, but if you put a spin on it to make it fun they will start asking for it. If you know the players need to improve in a certain area but are having a hard time getting the parents to help outside of practice, give them an assignment so they can do alone. 

Here are a few examples:

  • Have them find a friend to play catch with, and if they can’t find someone, have them throw the ball up in the air and practice catching and tucking the ball.

  • Encourage them to race their friends, a pet or their own shadow to work on speed, or play tag with their friends.

  • Practice catching the ball with one hand to work on hand control, etc.  

Provide a reward for their extra effort, such as Freeze Pops or dumping water on the coach if they beat the coach in a dash! Your options are limitless.

4. Engage players by having fun.

Who wants to go to practice to get yelled at? Make it fun by giving cool nicknames and if you aren’t creative let them pick their own. Different examples are:

  • Wrestler names

  • Last name only

  • Color - Mr. Blue

  • Cartoon characters

  • Superhero names

When I coach my daughter’s 4 and 5-year-old soccer team, I call the goal the bat cave. It can be something small that excites them.

5. Have an End Goal in Mind

The first year my son joined flag football was the first year for his team, so every player was new to the sport. I had to assess what the first thing all the players needed to learn: hiking the ball and pulling flags. I couldn’t expect the players to learn a play if no one knew how to play center. If the team couldn’t hike the ball without it touching the ground, the whistle would blow and we couldn’t run a play. Second, players had a hard time not tackling or pulling a flag without grabbing clothing. We practiced by playing a couple games at every practice. The team improved every time. I broke it down into pieces and addressed it at each week’s practice and slowly added something new to work on.  By the middle of the season, the players were playing like a team. 

Again, it’s OK not to win every game as long as the team is improving. The first time we won, the players were so proud because they knew we believed in them from the beginning of the season and we took the time to build their confidence.

The time and effort you invest into building up the confidence of a youth player has lasting effects. You might not experience the growth you want while they are young but you are the one lighting the spark.  Have fun and create an environment that encourages them to grow.

Please share how you challenge your players to improve with #HudlSpark.

Anthony Stone is a Physical Education teacher at Gregory Elementary School and Quarterbacks Coach at Boylan High School in Rockford, Ill.  He is also the Defensive Coordinator and Assistant Head Coach for the Women’s Australian National Outback 2017 Team & writes blogs for Firstdown Playbook. 

In July 2016, he was named to the Hudl 100 list. He has presented at IAPHERD, the top physical education convention in Illinois, on how to get students moving with his Games Galore presentations. He has also presented at the Chicago Glazier Clinics on quarterbacks & special teams. He was the Defensive Coordinator for the 2010 U.S. Women’s National Tackle Football Team, winners of the IFAF Women’s World Championship in which Team USA did not allow a point in three games with an overall score of 201-0. Stone has coached in the CIFL and the IWFL Leagues as well as Beloit College (Linebackers/Special Teams Coordinator) and Rockford University (Quarterbacks/Wide Receivers). 

Stone has also coached football at the youth, middle school and high school level. He will be putting on fundamental youth football camps around the world in 2017.  Please contact him to bring his “Back to the Basics Youth Football Camp” to a city near you.

Follow him on Twitter @Coach_Stone_MT.