Management Lessons from Youth Sports

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 10, Issue No. 3
June, 2011

By Dan Coughlin



A few weeks ago I completed a really enjoyable five-year experience of coaching my son’s recreational soccer teams. I was an assistant coach and a head coach for him from kindergarten co-ed soccer where we used Nerf™ soccer balls in indoor soccer through fourth grade all-boys soccer where things were starting to become a bit more like competitive soccer.

If you’ve ever been in this situation, you probably have seen a number of parallels from this experience to that of being a business manager. I encourage you to coach a youth sports team even if you don’t know that much about the sport. You will learn a lot about yourself and about human dynamics in scenarios that are hard to duplicate anywhere else.

Relationships with Players/Employees

In the end, being a youth coach is extraordinarily fun to do because of the relationships with the players. It is truly priceless to watch kids literally go from holding hands during a game to working as hard as they can at practice after practice. As the memories wash over me of the multiple personalities and situations I encountered with the kids, it brings back nothing but smiles. Being with kids, at least for me, was pure fun. It was about trying to help them improve and encouraging them along the way. As they got older, it was about trying to teach them how to maintain focus and intensity and stay aggressive throughout an entire practice or game. Whether or not they improved in what they were trying to do was always the primary measuring stick of success for me. If the players worked hard and improved, then that’s where the fun came in. It was just so neat to see them do things better and better and better and become more confident in their abilities. This created a sense of camaraderie and coach/player relationships that last for a long time beyond any one game or season.

Almost every business executive and manager I’ve ever talked with has said to me that the favorite part of his or her job was the relationships with employees. The excitement of working together with other people to try to achieve a certain outcome creates situations that you can never have if you are just discussing situations at a cocktail party or on a committee. Watching employees evolve over time as they aspired to achieve great results is one of the main reasons why people go into and stay in management positions.


There is an aspect of youth sports that generates endless opportunities to see human dynamics happen in extraordinarily fast time frames. It is called ‘dealing with parents.’ The vast majority of parents in youth sports are wonderful to deal with. They are appreciative of your volunteer efforts and allow you to guide their children in the ways that you think are most effective. However, and this is where the real learning happens, there are some parents who with the best of intentions will barge into the coach/player relationship and unleash an endless amount of criticism to the coach and direction to the players that is both unsolicited and undesired during the games and after the games. It is not uncommon for parents to stand three feet away from a coach and yell out directions to all of the players even though the parent has never attended a practice and has never played the sport before. This is all done with the belief that the parent is doing the best thing for the kids, which is what the goal of parenting is.

The most precious thing in the world to every parent is his or her child. Consequently, parents will intervene in youth sports and not blink an eye. They will send excessive emails filled with criticisms to volunteer coaches who live a few minutes away. They don’t realize that these volunteer coaches are doing the best they can for their child. All they know is that they need to protect their child and to make the situation the best it can be for their child. Parents will yell at their kids and at other people’s kids about where to go during an entire game and never have it dawn on them that this is frustrating to the coaches, and even some of the other parents. Through it all, it is essential that the youth sports coach maintains a very high degree of patience and positivity in public. Through the crucible of coaching kids and dealing with parents, you will develop much greater levels of patience and self-discipline. Those refined characteristics can then be applied in the business world.

In business, managers experience these same types of unwanted interventions from their employees, peers, and bosses. Suddenly people who are not responsible for a group or who have no experience in the activity will start telling members of the group what to do and how to do it. They will give unsolicited criticism in the name of ‘tough love’ or ‘just trying to help out.’ Throughout this unwanted chaos, the effective manager remains patient and positive and only sorts out these problems behind closed doors.

If you ever really want to understand yourself better or to understand what motivates people, I encourage you to coach a youth sports team. You will learn in real-time situations how and when to intervene in situations that can be enormously frustrating. The primary source of this frustration will come from your interactions with other parents. However, that’s a good thing because it’s hard to recreate these types of situations in normal day-to-day business activities. You can then take the lessons you’ve learned from these youth coaching situations with parents and use them in business situations.

For example, when you are giving an important business presentation there will occasionally be a heckler in the crowd. If you are used to having people yell at you while you are presenting (i.e. parents telling you what to do during the game and in front of the players and the other parents), then it’s much easier to stay patient with the heckler or know-it-all in a business situation. At first it may seem a little shocking to have another adult step right in front of you while you are coaching at a practice or a game, but once you get the hang of dealing with situations like that you will find that it is a very useful skill to have. There are many more examples like this where you have to think quickly in responding to unexpected circumstances in youth sports.

Understand the Roles Involved

In youth sports, adults play a variety of roles: head coach, assistant coach, parent, and referee. Each role has a purpose. When everyone involved performs their role in a given youth sports situation, the experience can be extraordinarily good for the players. The problems occur when people don’t understand their roles or intentionally step out of their role because they feel they would be much better at someone else’s role than that person. This can create utter chaos, enormous frustration, and a lot of wasted time and energy.

The same thing is true in business. It is very important that everyone involved in a business situation understands his or her role and focuses on fulfilling the responsibilities of that role. When front-line employees start changing the strategic direction of an organization or when a CEO steps in and tries to do everyone’s jobs, you will quickly have an organization filled with problems. Whenever you enter a new business situation, work to clarify your role and responsibilities and then operate within that role.

Create Classroom Situations

I define a classroom as any place where people come together to learn how to improve their performances. To me, the main objective of youth sports is to create as many classroom situations as you can. I learned a LOT from my players over the past five years and hopefully they learned from me. This is one reason why I enjoyed the practices more than the games. In a given practice we could create a dozen or more situations for the players to learn how to improve their performance.

In business, managers do not produce results. The biggest myth in all of business is that a CEO delivers results. Managers guide people who produce results. Front-line employees produce results. As a manager, your primary job is to consistently, although not constantly, create classroom experiences so that both you and your employees can learn how to improve future performances. If you do that on a regular basis and if you’ve hired good employees, you will have an impact on future performances within your organization. Don’t just assume success will happen because you’ve hired good people. Create classroom situations where people steadily learn how to perform better and then give those individuals the freedom to deliver better performances.

Expect Opposite Reactions to the Same Approaches

As a youth coach and as a business manager, you will drive yourself crazy if you try to predict how people will react to your style. Many youth coaches have told me that one day they received an e-mail thanking them for doing a great job of coaching the kids and three weeks later the same person who complimented them will go behind their back and tell all of the other parents that they are a terrible coach. In business, you will receive praise when you think you bombed and criticism when you thought had done your very best work.

Responses from other people are what they are. Listen for a bit, see if there is anything you can learn from the feedback, and then move on. Don’t let it attach itself to you. This can exhaust you in volunteer coaching and as an executive or manager responsible for generating better results.

Conclusion: Go Coach

Go be part of the solution in your community. Go volunteer to try to make a difference in the lives of kids in your community. Many kids don’t get a chance to play because no one was willing to step up and coach. It can be a frustrating experience at times, but in coaching other people’s children you will learn a LOT about yourself and that will help you to be more effective over the long term in your professional life. You will also build some wonderful relationships with kids that you will never forget.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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