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Tips for Coaching 9 to 12 Year-Olds

When children hit their preteen years, their bodies — and attitudes — are growing and changing at different rates. This can be a challenge to coaches working with 9 to 12 year-olds.

This age group can take on more teaching and responsibility but still needs a coach to encourage good sportsmanship, teamwork and new skills, according to Dr. Barb Schaefer, Ph.D.

Schaefer got her doctorate in school, community and clinical child psychology and is now an associate professor at Penn State. She was a three-sport athlete at Swarthmore College outside Philadelphia and remains active in community volleyball leagues and karate. 

Schaefer has coached her children for the past 10 years in a variety of sports and knows the importance of age-appropriate coaching.

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Schaefer outlined some coaching tips for working with 9 to 12 year-olds.

First, remember children in this age group:

• May still have a fear of failure and of social difference or ostracism. Children worry about their abilities and inabilities in comparison to their peers, and they may become overly self-critical. Make sure to mix up combinations of kids, and separate those who try to insist on playing together. Provide multiple opportunities for new teammate bonds and potential friendships to develop.

• Have improved memory, decision-making and problem solving skills. These can be used to work through potential game situations. Ask them questions about what to do in situations and let them problem solve.

• Are growing at different speeds, often with girls starting to mature before boys. Be body positive and accepting of all body types (especially for girls). Help kids appreciate what their body can do, and that fitness can always be improved with practice, time, and effort.

In addition, here are 16 tips for coaching kids in this age group.

1. Keep the fun alive in practice and games. Mini-skill sessions in small groups are beneficial, rotating groups and coaches every 20-30 minutes. Games like red light/green light can be expanded to all the colors of the rainbow matched with various skills: e.g. green=dribble, blue=bounce pass to peer, red=chest pass to peer, purple=pivot in triple threat position. While games like Knock Out can be fun and desired, often the majority of the team is doing nothing productive while they’re “out” and the top players are often the same.

2. Maintain 5:1 positive to corrective feedback during practice, after practices and games.

3. Don’t allow moodiness, attitudes, giving up or tantrums on the field. No kid should be allowed to use profanity or scream at other players on either team.

4. Deal with correction privately if possible. If issues recur, take the kid out to calm him or her down and/or provide other appropriate consequences.

5. Warm up properly with dynamic stretching.

6. Do body weight exercises (pushups, squats) with the kids to help them build strength in upper body and lower body.

7. Keep in mind that as their bodies are changing and having growth spurts, kids all need to adjust to their new, bigger feet and limbs. Some may seem slower or clumsier all of a sudden. If something hurts (heels, knees, elbows), rest it!

8. Teaching new basic skills can be fairly structured and direct. Follow with immediate practice and corrective feedback. Lots of repetition of skills helps build muscle memory.

9. If some kids are more advanced, teach them all the more advanced skills. Some athletes will get it now, some may get it sooner or later, and some won’t as they just aren’t ready. 

10. Teach skills (safely) with their eyes closed to learn proprioceptive and kinesthetic internal cues beyond typical visual cues.

11. Help players get used to physical contact of contact sports. Help them understand how physical contact is part of the game and what is fair and what is unfair.

12. Focus on vision of the field and communication between players.

13. Concentrate on team-based play rather than individual play. Practice game situations. Pause as needed to remind players what to focus on.

14. Make it clear to parents what you expect their behavior to be. No screaming at your kid or the ref. Kids should look to coaches first. Don’t let parents’ egos get in the way of kids’ fun.

15. Work with parents of kids with special physical or cognitive needs to include them and make accommodations as needed. Pair up or triple up all players with buddies for each practice to work together and help each other learn. Rotate and mix combinations each week.

16. Find an inexpensive way to celebrate the end of the season together. For example, water balloons, ice cream outing or go see the local varsity team play. 

From GameChanger and Tom Glave.

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