Coaching Second and Third Graders
Coaching Seven and Eight-Year-Olds
Last week, I dove into the exciting world of coaching the very young. Now, it could be argued that seven and eight-year-olds are also very young. And they are. I am mostly going to draw upon my experience as a little league coach working with kids in GameTruck, and through our Bravous Youth Esports programs.
Just to summarize, if you are working in a municipal, or elementary school environment, you are likely to run across this age group. While most of what you will know about working with older competitors may apply, I wanted to give you a few tips about working with this age group.
On the Cusp
As before, I think this is really about grades more than age. In this group, we are talking about second and third graders. What is wonderful about this age is that many of these kids are very determined. Especially if they have an older brother or sister. Parents often bring the siblings along and the younger child follows the older one. I know this happened in my family.
As a result, you often see the younger player feeling fiercely determined to do what their older sibling is doing. And they can almost do it… with one catch. Two actually.
- They don’t want any help
- Most of the time, they can’t read
The ‘not wanting any help’ is mostly admirable. The determination to do it themselves speaks of independence and initiative. However, it is the second attribute that causes the problem. Very often, to figure out a video game, you have to be able to read. If it is a game they have played a lot, this is usually not a problem. However, if you veer off script, showing them something they have not played (a new game) or a mode they are unfamiliar with (a new competition format), this can cause these players a lot of stress.
Principle One. Centered and Grounded
I feel now is the time to introduce my first principle of being an effective coach. The movies love to show the coach as this cantankerous grouch screaming at players and threatening them. Like a drill sergeant, they use shame to motivate. However, if you look carefully at some of the highest performing teams and the coaches behind them, you almost never find that persona.
Think about Pete Carrol of the Seattle Seahawks. If he’s yelling, it is at the umpires. But more often than not he is smiling, cheering, building up his team.
Think of Nick Saban, and the unbelievable program he has built at Alabama, is famously quoted for “trusting the process.” He is not known for chewing out players.
But let’s move away from football. You could look at Basketball and John Wooden, or Phil Jackson and his many rings. But I think if you watch the little league world series and pay attention to the coaches, you will see what I mean. The coaches are grown men coaching little kids. What you find is that they are all supremely composed.
Great coaches, (I believe the greatest coaches) have one indelible leadership principle firmly in hand.
They are centered and grounded
One of the things a coach has to do is to create an environment where others can flourish. In the world of psychology, there is a concept called, “holding space.” It means you are present and focused for someone. While hopefully coaching is not “therapy”, what it has in common is that when someone is struggling, a stable, non-judgmental, supportive person can “hold space” for them to find their footing, to grow, to move forward.
Being centered and grounded is a foundational principle for a coach, because it gives you access to the mental resources you need to solve problems. As a dear friend, Stephen Fairely once told me, “High emotion = low intelligence.” As Rudyard Kipling wrote in his famous poem “If”:
If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
It is an ancient and nearly universal principle of leadership, that human beings respect and respond to people who can “keep their heads” when emotions, tension, anxiety threaten to sweep everyone else away.
Amy Cuddy, in our famous Ted Talk on Power Poses, and later, in a follow up article which successfully refuted the criticism of her work, pointed out that people do not respond well to aggressive reactionary leaders. Her goal was to give people the tools to face difficult situations with their best selves. She tweeted this quote:
“Stand up straight and realize who you are, that you tower over your circumstances.” ~Maya Angelou”
Again and again we find, and the science supports, that the most effective leaders are calm, level headed, and in a word, centered. You could also say, grounded. This principle of being strong and stable is especially important with kids.
A ball of raw energy charged with emotion
Little kids with their raw emotions, boundless energy, and developing social skills need all the space we can hold for them. They literally seem to bounce from rail to rail as they learn how to navigate the complexities of learning a new skill, trying to develop their own identity, and learn how to negotiate with peers and adults. There is a lot going on for these kids.
Fortunately, if you can remain calm and stable, second and third graders usually respond well to this. Think of yourself as a bridge. Can you bear the weight without bending? Without breaking? If so, they can trust you. And trust opens the door to being able to help.
Usually, the antidote to working with kids this age, unlike their younger siblings, is to give everyone a clear step-by-step directions. At this age, they may not be ready to know why things are the way they are, but they are ready to do. And you want to keep them busy and focused. To the extent that you can make everything a game, you can help hold their interest.
And that is one way to think about it. You are constantly directing their focus. This age can focus for a much longer time than kids just two years younger, but most of that is a reaction to what they have been shown or what you direct them to pay attention to. Once they start to get bored, they can easily get distracted. So it is best to keep practices and games short, with lots of variation.
More playing than talking
As with most players, but especially players of this age, you want to prioritize action over talking. I mean, prioritize their action, over your talking. As a coach, it can be super tempting to break something down in detail for a player, but at this age, they just want to do.
Make your practices and game times a series of short, interesting drills that can help them improve skills, or at a minimum help them learn the basic mechanics of the games they are trying to play. At this age, they don’t strictly need to know how everything fits together, just that everything fits together.
The first principle of coaching any age really, starts with being calm, centered, and grounded. This is especially important when you are dealing with younger players who can become frustrated easily. Amplifying their frustration by adding your own — well I have never seen that make a situation better. What I have seen is that grounded coaches can hold space for players that need to find their own emotional footing. What’s more, at this age, kids are looking for role models. It is not a small matter to demonstrate for children on how to handle challenges in a calm and centered way.
Next week. I will talk about coaching the fourth and fifth graders and introduce my second principle in the coaching mindset.
- Nick Saban: Do Your Job And Trust The Process. (2018, June 2). Constant Renewal.
- What ‘Holding Space’ Means + 5 Tips to Practice. (n.d.). The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center. Retrieved February 22, 2021
- Foundation, P. (2021, February 22). If — By Rudyard Kipling. Poetry Foundation; Poetry Foundation.
- Power Posing Is Back: Amy Cuddy Successfully Refutes Criticism. (n.d.). Retrieved March 9, 2020
- Amy J Cuddy’s Twitter