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Tips for Coaching 3 to 5 Year-Olds

Good coaches help their athletes learn their sport, improve their skills and grow in respect and confidence. These features are especially important when coaching younger children, 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.

Schaefer outlined some coaching tips for working with 3- to 5-year-olds:

First, remember children in this age group:

  • Are acquiring a sense of identity and building their sense of independence. Some may have separation anxiety. Coaches should encourage involvement and stress inclusivity of all team members. If a child is hesitant to leave a parent, try getting down at their level to introduce yourself. Once they seem comfortable with you, try holding their hand and walking over to your team together. Check in with the child periodically during practice to see how they’re doing and ask them if they’re having fun.
  • Are learning to socialize with peers, to share and take turns and routines.
  • Are developing more refined and coordinated fine and gross motor skills. Be flexible. If kids don’t get something at first or it's evident they are confused, try teaching or practicing another way.

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In addition, here are 17 tips for coaching kids in this age group: 

1. Teaching through play. Make learning fun. Play games that teach a needed skill or turn drills into fun games. Some examples include:

  • “Race” around the field with the kids, with coaches coming in last.
  • Play Red light/Green light;
  • For a basketball drill, play “Fox in the henhouse.” If caught, hens become foxes until one is left)

2. Expect short attention spans. Breaking a practice into 10-15 minute segments may be useful. Use redirection to focus kids who are off task, and be prepared to move on if you sense a lot of frustration or boredom.

3. Maintain interest by minimizing down time. Demonstrate and explain things in the simplest and briefest terms. Teach in small groups if possible. Assistants can set up next drill/game to save time.

4. Don’t be afraid to have everyone be silly. Help your players have fun and overcome any fears by playing silly games.

5. Repetition is needed. Build general skills step by step (e.g., kicking, throwing, batting). Remind them each practice about the basics of each skill.

6.Teach and re-teach basic rules of the game as you go along.

7. Demonstrate what you want them to do and explain with specifics. Coaches can be a model of being active.

8. Make sure all kids get to play various positions. Also make sure they at least touch the ball (safety considerations trump this).

9. Teach them where to be and what their responsibilities are. Remind them of responsibilities during the games.

10. Help them to enjoy and take pride in what their body can do.

11. Focus on improvement. 

12. Have the kids brainstorm names for the team. Take all suggestions and have a secret vote (eyes closed, raise hands).

13. Make it clear to parents what you expect their behavior to be. No screaming at your kid or the ref.

14. Model for or communicate to parents ways they can play with their kids at home to practice any new skills you have introduced.

15. Give praise and approval through specific verbal expressions and nonverbal gestures (high fives). Use “Great hustle!” rather than “Good girl!” Give praise to all players for their effort as well as their successes. Make sure that the ratio of positive comments to corrective feedback is at least 5:1 or better during practice, after practices and games.

16. 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.

17. Find an inexpensive way to celebrate the end of the season together.

From GameChanger and Tom Glave.

Coaches Toolkit by GameChanger


Baseball, Softball, coaching tips