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Letting Kids Run Practices Increases Fun, Builds Team Spirit

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Girls playing lacrosseOn Saturday, March 27, the world observed the fourth annual Earth Hour, a global event started by the World Wildlife Fund. During Earth Hour, cities, towns and individual families from around the world were encouraged to turn off all non-essential lights from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m.  People in more than 92 countries participated in a global call to action for, and to demonstrate the urgency of, climate change. It was amazing to watch coverage on the Sunday Today show of all the cities that powered down their lights, from Paris to Prague.

Sitting quietly in a room lit only by candles I had a chance to ponder the impact on world energy consumption that all of us, acting as individuals, accomplished together.  It got me thinking about thinking outside the box to create change and how I could do the same thing to change youth sports, as MomsTeam have been doing since 2000. What could I suggest that individuals could do at the team level that might have an impact across the country?

The first idea that popped into my mind was my suggestion that coaches step out of the coaching box and let the kids themselves run a part of every sports practice.  In other words, just let them play.  I have been suggesting that coaches let kids run practices on a regular basis for a long time, both in my book Home Team Advantage and on MomsTeam.  Here's what I said:

Some of the best practices my teams ever had were those where I followed a "games-based" teaching approach-where I stepped off the field and told the players to take over the practice and do what they wanted, to organize the practice themselves, so long as they had fun. They would usually decide to play a skill game, one of about twenty-five that I use to develop skills without drilling. The only time I stepped in was when I saw that a certain skill could be taught in order to help the play.

As I was thinking about the importance of unstructured play, it just so happened that in my email inbox was a note from a friend in New York who heard about a group at the State University of New York (SUNY) called Youth Sports New York which is organizing an event they are calling SANDLOT DAY 2010TM. According to the group's website, the "goal of Sandlot Day 2010 is to give young ballplayers in organized leagues the gift of pickup baseball that their coaches and parents experienced. From this one day they'll get personal memories that last a lifetime, a sense of ownership of the game, an ability to organize themselves, and so much more."

I think Sandlot Day is an excellent idea, but why just one day? Why not allow the kids to run a part of every practice?

If you coach youth sports, I know what you were thinking: turning over a part of every practice to the kids is simply unworkable. You can't teach the kids what they need to learn unless you micromanage every second of the hour to hour and a half the practice runs, filling every nook and cranny with teaching tips and drills.

But just ask the kids who played on my soccer teams, especially the players who were told by the town travel soccer club that they weren't good enough to play travel soccer but who, after playing on one my teams, went on to play high school varsity soccer. I bet they would say one of the reasons they continued playing was because letting the kids run practices and engage in  free play builds team spirit, gives them a chance to experiment without fear of being corrected by the coach, to be creative, to take chances and try new moves, and ultimately to do what kids everywhere have been doing for fun since the beginning of time: play.

As Mother Teresa said, "We cannot do great things on this Earth, only small things with great love." Turning over a portion of every sports practice to the kids may sound like a small thing.  But given the fact that one of the principal reasons kids drop out of sports is that they aren't having fun, I bet it could go a long way to making practices more fun.  If enough coaches made it a regular part of their practice routine, maybe, just maybe, it would catch on across the country.  As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his best-selling book, The Grassfire Effect, this is how to ignite change.

So, my question to youth sports coaches out there is, Have you ever let your players run a practice? And to parents, I am wondering whether your child been on a team where the coach let the kids run the practice? How did it work out? Let me know at delench@momsteam.com.