My Transformational Coaching Story
How attending to each individual child can help you do what’s right and not what’s convenient
“Leadership is unlocking people’s potential to become better” — Bill Bradley
A Brief Intro
My name is Alicia — Coach Alicia at Nutmeg!— and I co-started Nutmeg Soccer, a free kids soccer and life skills program in Toronto, with two friends named Javier and Jon in 2016. Back when Nutmeg was just a nice idea discussed over informal lunch meetings, the three of us didn’t have much of a vision of where this organization would go. Here we are, three years in, running our program 2 nights a week throughout the year in the Alexandra Park neighbourhood, serving hundreds of children with an all star squad of volunteer coaches.
Somehow, we have always attracted such great people to our organization, a characteristic of Nutmeg that I am very proud of. Many of our volunteer coaches, like myself, were drawn to the role by a desire to do good, to serve, to help change lives. Most of us have jobs that are not even in the realm of sports and just want to give back to the sport that gave us so much. This is an organization that people really want to be a part of, and I see that reflected in the level of coaches’ positivity and engagement at Nutmeg sessions.
The age group that we serve (6–12) is pretty dynamic and full of quirks. Sometimes we have 6 year olds that are crying all session and 12 year olds that are hormonal, sassy, and growing like weeds!
We really do care about the kids. I’ve seen coaches teach kids how to do a rainbow in one session, spend upwards of one hour with a child who won’t stop crying, and follow a child and their guardian to the hospital. At the end of a tricky, chaotic session, we come together to share our exasperation, but we still show up the following week, recharged.
Most of us are not equipped with behavioural management training, but we do the best we can to reinforce a positive, inclusive environment where the kids help each other, there is no bullying, and new children feel very welcomed. We have contacted external advisors for some tools on how to handle situations that are getting out of line, which have helped us build rules around tolerated behaviour and disciplinary action. But for the most part, we just keep on learning as we go!
Alicia’s story: Make kids feel seen and cared for
I am starting this blog because I believe in the power of genuine, authentic story-telling, and I believe that at Nutmeg, a not-for-profit organization with 30+ volunteer coaches on board, we have a LOT of stories to share. Stories of challenges, obstacles, shared laughs, feeling awkward, elation, gratitude, having to make scary decisions on the fly, imposter syndrome, and lessons learned from coaching! When recruiting coaches, the one trait that I look for across the board, is, does this person seem like a positive role model? I believe that with that foundation, everything else will come.
I also want this to be a tool that helps our coaches reflect more on their own coaching practice and on how they try to embody their own personal values, and Nutmeg’s values, in their coaching. It’s the little things done consistently that make a big difference. Once in a while, I’d like for one of our coaches to tell one of their most effective coaching stories. Here’s one of my own that I love ❤ …
Note: real names of the kids have been removed for their privacy.
Daniel: From shoulder shrugs to high fives and hugs
Daniel seemed like a sweet boy, but he was a very quiet boy — difficult to read. He was the heaviest boy at Nutmeg. In fact, our children’s sized pinnies did not fit him, and I had to bring some of my adult pinnies that I use to run pickup soccer games. It seemed that his confidence suffered.
We always end Nutmeg with a scrimmage for the last 15–20 minutes of the program — a sure way to end the program on a fun, high note! We split the gym into two games — by age and ability: older/more advanced kids, and younger kids. The main reason for this is for safety reasons. Some of our 12 year olds are quite fast and strong and will unintentionally pummel the small kids on a break with the ball!
So, Daniel was put in the scrimmage with the older kids. I was standing in between both scrimmages, pivoting my head back and forth to watch both games and make sure everything was going well, while our other coaches also encouraged the players. But I noticed something: Daniel was not even moving. His body language expressed a lack of confidence. He was completely unengaged and barely moving. Hands in pockets and shoulders hunched over, he just looked — sad. I had to think of something on the spot — I didn’t want this kid to be having a terrible time. I hesitated a lot and had an internal dilemma because I didn’t want to make him feel like he wasn’t good enough to be there. My gut instinct prevailed, and I went up to him and said, “Daniel, you’re coming with me to play in the other scrimmage”.
I asked him to take his pinny off, and brought him over to the other scrimmage where his friend Kyle was playing. His face immediately brightened up. Kyle arrived late, and came to sessions fairly irregularly, so I had not noticed their billowing friendship prior to this. I cheered Daniel and Kyle on as I saw them passing the ball, and as if an entire new child took over Daniel’s body, he scored off a pass from Kyle almost immediately! He ran over to Kyle in a fit of joy and they exchanged humongous smiles and high fives. I could not believe the transformation that I witnessed within 2 minutes, with one simple coaching decision.
Lesson learned: Be on the look out for behaviour changes in the kids and try to come up with immediate solutions. Even if it means pulling them aside to chat with them about their day. Do whats right and not what’s convenient. In this case, it would have been convenient to do nothing.
Interestingly, often times, it’s best to split up children who are friends and “really want to be together” because — especially at a very young age — they often just nag at each other and bother one another. In this case, because these two kids were older and more mature, it was best to put them together!
My next personal coaching challenge:
I would like to figure out: are we helping move kids to “the next level”? And what is that level? I think we do a good job of believing in kids and helping them believe in themselves from a soccer perspective, but we don’t spend enough time with these kids to “push them to the limits” and help them discover their own potential. Since we have never created a very strict environment, and kids can get very goofy and lose attention, I struggle with the question of: how much to push them and how strict to be.