Selecting the right coach for your junior athlete

Coaching junior sport should be simple but we are continually listening to a debate about scores, winning and trophies versus development.

WORDS: Jenny Williams, OAM DipT, BEd, Grad Dip Psych, BBSc Hons, MPysch (UniSA)

So much so that I was chatting with a dad who was so excited as he was coaching U12s this year and he could concentrate on winning. Kids could play in their correct positions and they could concentrate on having a wonderful premiership season. Wow, I love this man, he is a great bloke but when I said it was the wrong approach for juniors, he was genuinely taken aback as I am one of the most competitive people he knows and come from a family of winners.

You see I am all for teaching kids to love the scoreboard but at junior level that is so much more important in training than it is in games as it teaches good habits but allows for MISTAKES as part of development.

Yep, learning that mistakes happen and getting it back or getting the next one is the key to the success of champions and not dwelling on the mistake is a key.

Mastery and expertise

Let’s start with a really important factor in development. Mastery and Expertise. These two factors are paramount in development of young players but are often neglected in coach selection. Coaches are often well meaning & have COACH on the back of the uniform, but it doesn’t make them an expert unless they have done a lot of coaching/ teaching/children management before. Behavioural psychologists call it the “Halo” effect when we give a great player or ex-player the job as a coach and expect them to be good at it. Coaching is simply a different skill, and some have no idea of progression, as development was easy for them.

Balancing the scoreboard

We also evaluate junior coaches on wins or losses without any evaluation criteria. This includes where the playing group sits on the bell curve for TECHNICAL, PHYSICAL, PSYCHOLOGICAL and SOCIAL development versus other teams. In lay terms, are our players as big and strong, do they have lots of experience, do they have older siblings or parents who have spent lots of time with them, do we have team dinners and most importantly do we know about each other off the field?

Great junior coaches CARE about the players, themselves and the result in that order. As age and standard progresses, the result will become more important BUT if you care about player development and them as young athletes the results will come.

At training a great coach will have little competitive drills, fun activities and feedback to help players improve. They will allow scoring but have methods to ensure teams are even, better players use their non preferred side as a priority and that everyone has a chance to be the hero for fun. (Have a shot for goal with 10 seconds to go.) Great coaches encourage players to dream about winning the game by great offence or even a great defensive effort. This should all be fun, and the same players shouldn’t always start. The result can be red frogs for winners at training but there should NEVER be punishment activities and great coaches will ensure everyone has a win. Kids are inherently fair and if some are disappointed that they, as best players, sometimes start on the bench, talk to them about why and what they can do while they are there. (Look at opposition, what foot does each player prefer, can they dodge both ways?) That is teaching them to notice, which is an advanced skill. Get the best players each training to spend 10 min teaching someone not so good a new idea or skill. This is about being a great teammate.

Beyond the sidelines

Parents and grandparents can also be involved. First, they need to be part of the team philosophy as to what is being developed as a club. It isn’t about them or their dreams, it is about developing healthy, happy young players who are brave in getting better at training and in games. Many have played and although not experts are a source of help in simple skill drills. The proviso is that they can never be grumpy and should always be encouraging and a voice for good. Negativity creates fear and fear restricts courage and learning. If being moody or grumpy strikes a bell for anyone reading this, please understand that you will smother the potential of others even though you have great intentions to make them superstars. Parents should also be informed that one of the team guidelines is that they can only give 2 pieces of feedback to their child. (So, make it thoughtful.)

Most parents are not experts and I see so many young players who get a full rundown or lecture in the car going home. They hate it, it makes them feel small, but they don’t know how to tell dad (occasionally mum) as they pay for the uniform, fees etc. 

If ex-players or parents are involved as helpers, then it is important that you all get together for a team dinner and some fun. Watch a movie, go bowling and talk about life. Learn about each other, let the kids order and help them with saying please, thankyou and finding out names of those who serve you. Being bold, caring and learning to be colourful can be a key to performance but they can be practised off the field too.

Patience and persistence

It should also be mentioned that we need to help kids be patiently impatient. Some will want to be in a hurry but most often they burn out. It isn’t until our late 20s early 30s that we become masters in our sport (later for coaching) but the reality is most athletes stop playing in their late teens, so they never get there. Persistence is another factor that counts. The artist Macklemore’s “10,000 Hours“ and  Smashmouth’s song “All Star” are such good songs with beats that match being in the zone. “You’ll never know if you don’t go, you’ll never shine if you don’t glow.” Teaching children to match head and heart is so important but takes specialised knowledge and help. So much time is spent on technical skills but psychology and social skills are paramount in selection and performance and most often are left to chance.

There are so many aspects to appointing, evaluating and helping coaches, that clubs should spend time and effort into making this a priority. So many young lives can be affected and often many big personalities around the club are involved. If your club truly wants to be a winner on and off the field then putting time, money and effort into setting up guidelines and coach mentoring is invaluable.

Evaluating junior coaches

This is a very short basic guide to having everyone improve and helping clubs have a harmonious environment where young people can become “the best they can or want to be”.

To make it easy for the worth of a junior coach here is a simple solution and will see numbers grow.

Kids are not experts in technical psych/social/physical aspects of coaching but they are EXPERTS in their own feelings. 

Ask them:

  • Did you have some fun? 
  • Did you learn/try something new or hard every week at training or in the game? 
  • Did you make friends or have time with friends? 
  • Do you want to come back next week/year? 
  • Did you learn about heart rates and how to stay calm? (Connecting head and heart can be simple and should start in juniors)


If you have any questions please look at my talks on Youtube. If your club would like to have help in setting up coach evaluation and teaching tools including player evaluation sheets for those in senior grades please get in touch with me.

Jenny is an Organisational Psychologist and an elite level coach with a background in sport science, physical education teaching and consultancy. She was inducted into the SA Sports Hall of Fame in 2013 for her achievements as an Australian Captain/Coach in lacrosse and State representative in 5 different sports. Jenny won 41 of 45 elite level finals (including a world championship) and gained her psychology masters with a thesis examining the behaviours of champions. In 2022 Jenny was awarded an OAM for her contribution to psychology and women’s sport. 

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