- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 4, 2003

On a soggy New Carrollton soccer field, midfielder Kamal Knight, 13, is working on his “give-and-go” passes when he hears from the sidelines, “Put some speed on that pass, Kamal.”

It’s his coach — and dad — Richard Knight, giving him instructions on a play that didn’t work well when Kamal’s team of 12- and 13-year-old boys, the New Carrollton Cougars, recently played a scrimmage against another youth soccer team.

“We won, but there were things we could have done better, and that’s what we’re working on today,” Mr. Knight says.

He is not the only dad on the field. As the boys work on their passing game, their four coaches — all dads — shout out instructions and encouragement.

“You gotta be more aggressive,” one says. “Good take-down with the chest,” another says.

It’s a scene very familiar all across the nation, where many of the 4 million volunteers who coach more than 40 million youths in sports are parents, according to Positive Coaching Alliance. The Stanford University-based nonprofit group is dedicated to making sports a positive, character-building experience for youth.

How do these parents learn the game? Even more daunting, how do they learn how to coach sometimes unruly children?

“Five out of six coaches have no formal training,” says Shari Young Kuchenbecker, author of “Raising Winners: A Parent’s Guide to Helping Students Succeed on and off the Playing Field” and a sports psychologist, “but being a coach is such an important job, and I really encourage people to get training.”

Mrs. Kuchenbecker is an advocate of the Positive Coaching Alliance, which offers workshops for coaches nationwide.

Jim Thompson, director of the Positive Coaching Alliance, says, “So many youth coaches watch professional coaches who use the win-at-all-cost approach, but youth sports should be about education … which is what we teach.”

Mr. Knight says he learned by watching professional soccer and reading books on soccer strategies and game rules. “Of course, in my case, I didn’t really know soccer when I started coaching the game eight years ago. I had to learn the rules,” he says.

There are other ways to learn, too.

Mr. Knight, for example, has attended coaching workshops organized by the Maryland State Association for Youth Soccer, the governing body of youth soccer in Maryland. It has more than 120 affiliated clubs and leagues with more than 60,000 registered players and 5,000 coaches.

The organization also issues coaching licenses, which often aren’t required in youth leagues but give more credibility, he says.

Also, groups such as local Boys & Girls Clubs and local parks and recreation departments often conduct clinics for youth coaches.

Some organizations and leagues, including Mr. Knight’s team, require criminal-background checks of coaches, but Mr. Thompson says he does not know of a nationwide requirement to conduct background checks.

“But it’s certainly something that I would recommend,” he says. “And I know that more and more leagues require background checks. … You don’t want to gamble with kids in your league.”

Another hot-button issue, sexual harassment, is not widely addressed in youth sports, as far as Mr. Thompson knows; Mr. Knight concurs.

“Although I think the background check would work as a deterrent [for any offender],” Mr. Thompson adds.

Coaching girls

Across town, in a Capitol Hill neighborhood, 13-year-old fast-pitch softball pitcher Alexandra “Alie” Kolbe is working on her drop ball with her coach — and dad — Stan Kolbe.

“I’m working on my drop ball, which is tough because it’s kind of opposite to how you release the fastball, which is what you learn first,” Alie says. “But it’s great to have my dad helping me. I get a lot of time with him.”

Alie’s team — the Senators, part of the Capitol Hill Baseball and Softball League — practices once a week, but she and the other pitchers have to practice more, up to three or four times a week.

Sometimes Mr. Kolbe hires pitching coaches from the outside, such as college coaches, for $25 an hour and more to work with the team’s pitchers.

The young team — just 4 years old — is very competitive and has risen through the ranks quickly. It placed among the top eight teams during the World Series tournament in late July and early August in Orlando, Fla.

Some coaches say girls should be coached differently from boys — maybe with more sensitivity — but this girls softball team seems to bury that notion effectively.

“These girls are tough. They’re not afraid of going head-first if someone is blocking the plate,” Mr. Kolbe says. “I don’t think, as far as the fundamentals, they’re any different from coaching boys.”

Mrs. Kuchenbecker agrees. The coaching should be the same — built on encouragement and teaching life lessons as well as social skills — for boys and girls. In the end, however, boys and girls might take away with them different qualities from the game.

“Girls might learn to be more upfront and competitive by participating in team sports, while boys can learn to be better team players,” she says.

Mr. Kolbe says that whether he coaches girls or boys, the main thing is to create a connection with each player so that they all feel comfortable coming to him with problems or questions.

“I try to talk to every girl at every practice and somehow have a connection with them,” he says. “I ask about school or about that knee that got hurt a few weeks ago. …”

Mr. Thompson says this connection is a very important aspect of coaching.

“You call the kids by their first name, and you keep track of the good things they do, and eventually you will have kids who can’t wait to come to practice,” Mr. Thompson says.

Mrs. Kuchenbecker applies the same coaching approach to age differences as she does to gender differences: There are no differences.

“Coaches would like to believe that there is age-specific coaching … but common features outweigh any differences,” she says. Independent of the age group, “coaches need to use a respectful, affirming style.”

Many Little League teams don’t using scoring for their youngest teams, but Mrs. Kuchenbecker says that teaches something false about sports — that winning doesn’t matter.

“Children are very competitive, and there’s nothing wrong with keeping score,” she says, adding that it’s better to learn from losses and analyze what went wrong than pretend losses don’t exist. “I think that would be giving false feedback. … Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.”

Life lessons, great coaches

Coaches and sports psychologists say sports are a great arena for learning life lessons.

“I think soccer can teach patience, discipline, communication, trust,” says Marcellus Baylor, a coach with the New Carrollton Cougars.

mPatience because players sometimes have to keep setting up play after play without scoring and without losing faith in their ability, says Mr. Baylor, whose son Antoine, 12, is a midfielder.

The team has two more father-son combinations: head coach Majid Shahraki and his son, forward Amir Shahraki, 13, and assistant coach Johnny Whitmire and his son, goalie Sean, 12.

mDiscipline because it takes a lot of practice and frequent workouts to be a good player, Mr. Baylor says.

• Communication because soccer is a team sport and communication with fellow players is key in any win, he says.

• Finally, trust because trust is one of the cornerstones in teamwork. Each player has to trust the other players to do their jobs, or selfish and unproductive plays might result, Mr. Baylor says.

“It’s not important who scores the goal. The teamwork that results in setting up the goal so that someone can score is what’s important,” Mr. Knight says.

Sports are also great for building self-confidence. Mr. Kolbe has seen it firsthand in his daughter.

“My daughter used to be so shy she would not even raise her hand in class,” he says, “but now through pitching, she is much more outgoing. She says [softball] is what made the biggest difference to her.”

Good coaches can be lifelong teachers and a child’s most trusted adult, Mrs. Kuchenbecker says. However, coaching is a two-way street and can be just as rewarding, if not more, for the coach as for the child — even if it means at least 20 hours a week of unpaid work.

“It’s great to see kids excel and become more self-confident … and being a coach for your own kids is great because you get to spend so much time with them that way,” Mr. Knight says. “Plus, you know what they’re doing. I mean, this is an age when a lot of kids get into trouble.”

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