Performance consultant gives advice to coaches on working with youth athletes

David Ragan, a Mental Performance Consultant based out of Greensboro, recently spoke to a large group of youth basketball coaches from all over Alamance County, including a significant number of coaches participating in the Mebane Recreation and Parks leagues. Ragan’s message was to keep youth athletes motivated by giving them specific terminology that makes them feel expert, finding them roles within the team concept, and constantly reminding them that you’re proud of them and love watching them play. 

Earlier this fall, a collection of youth basketball coaches came together from all over Alamance County to the Kernodle Senior Center in Burlington, where they were provided extensive information from local youth athletics administrators and a local sports counselor on how to work with children. 

Aaron Davis, who heads the Mebane Recreation and Parks Department, stressed the need for coaches not only to be good to their fellow coaches, but to find ways to keep players engaged in the game even when they’re not in the lineup at that particular moment. 

“I think this is a long time coming. I’ve been in Alamance County now for ten years. I’ve seen a lot of basketball games. I believe in sportsmanship,” Davis said. “No matter what happens, I need to be good to my fellow coach on the other side. We can do that in a lot of different ways. The bottom line is we need to teach the kids the right way to do things. If we can teach them the right things, and show them how we’re supposed to do it, then I think everyone will have a lot more fun.” 

Davis encouraged the coaches to have their players on the bench cheering for their teammates who are on the court.  

“The goal is at the end of the day, all these kids leave and say I’ve had fun tonight. Whether they win or lose,” Davis said. 

Jason Witherspoon, a representative of the Alamance Athletic Cooperative, indicated that not only is athletic participation in decline around the country, but it has gotten considerably more difficult in recent years to fill referee and officiating positions, who have had enough of what has been happening in the stands. 

Witherspoon explained one revolutionary idea that took place in a youth athletic league in New Jersey, where the parents were implored to pick a player on the opposing team and point out positive things that player did. 

“They tell them (the parents), I want you to tell this kid (on the opposing team) three awesome things that they did tonight. And here’s what happened - the parents weren’t fixated on their kid, and whether or not everything in the world was fair around their kid. Because they were investing in another child. And all of a sudden, the intensity was completely different. That was a baby step,” Witherspoon explained. 

“The next step they did, is every game they went to, all the coaches bought into it. They filled out their names, and they handed them to the other coach. His coach hands them out and says, ‘Hey, watch this kid on the other team.’ All of a sudden, the kids aren’t looking at the other team as enemies. At the end of the game, parents from another team came up and spoke  something positive to them about the game.” 

“How can we improve this thing for everyone? That’s the goal. It’s not about Graham, or Mebane, or Burlington, or the county. It’s about everybody in the county. How do we give everyone the best experience we can?” added Kris Kloepping, City of Graham Youth Athletic Supervisor. “That’s not something that is unique to us. It’s a problem nationwide. There are a lot of problems in youth sports.” 

Kloepping mentioned the Aspen Institute’s Project Play (, which was prominently featured this summer in television advertising during the Little League World Series. 

“It’s still fairly unknown. But if you watched the Little League World Series, there were a bunch of commercials this year. If you saw the #dontretirekid commercials. That’s Project Play. The goal is to keep kids in the game,” Kloepping explained. “There’s a lot of reasons that kids leave the game. There’s a lot of things that we can help with, if we just put our minds together and try to do the right thing.” 

“Project Play is parents and leaders from different sectors that have a shared belief in the power of sports to build healthy children and communities,” he added. “We think that we can all get there together. Physical Literacy is giving the kids the basic skills so they can be an athlete for life. It’s not about can you get on a middle school team, or a high school team. It’s about how do we keep you playing for life? And a big part of that is joy. You’ve got to have the joy to keep playing.” 

Kloepping explained that Physical Literacy focuses on abilities, confidence, and desire. On the local level, coaches and athletic administrators are working to keep the children playing recreation sports despite the flourishing in recent years of private and for-profit travel and club sports teams. 

“Focus on teaching them the right abilities. Give them the confidence. And then keep their desire to play. That’s how we’ll keep them playing for a lifetime,” Kloepping said. “Rising costs and commitments. How do we deal with that? There’s a lot of competition through travel sports, and various different factors - private companies that are trying to run basketball programs. One of the things we can do is revitalize our in-town leagues. And that’s what this is. We’re trying to revitalize what we all do by working together, and providing the best experience we can for the kids.” 

David Ragan, a Mental Performance Consultant based out of Greensboro, spent time talking with the local coaches about a variety of proven strategies to keep youth athletes motivated and inspired. 

“The first thing that I see is that kids want to feel expert. And I say it that way on purpose. Not necessarily kids want to “be” expert - that’s maybe what they think they want. But kids want to feel expert,” Ragan explained. “We have the opportunity as coaches, to help kids feel that way. A really small way we can do this when working with young kids is not to ever try to dumb down the language. That slows down their potential to be able to feel like an expert. That’s a small thing, but it’s small things that make you feel expert.” 

“Give them some verbiage - some terminology,” Ragan added. “Give them a drill that you tell them you found it from the USA National Team’s website. We can tell them that. It’s a small thing where they think, I’m practicing the same way that that Olympic teams practices. There are drills that they do that are very basic. Even your warmups - you can say you do the same warmup that the Charlotte Hornets do, or the Duke basketball team.”

Ragan demonstrated the power of sport in building the motivation and self-confidence of children through one study that was conducted that provided inner-city children in a low-income area the equipment and knowledge to play the game of squash.  

“There’s a study that’s tremendous. It was talking about kids from a low-socioeconomic area, and they were taught how to play squash. Squash is already a minority sport, but it’s a pretty small sport relative to basketball or soccer. The people that do play it are typically in high-socioeconomic areas,” Ragan said. “When these kids that learned how to play squash, on day one they learned the rules and knew what they game was. They went to school the next day and told their friends - I spent time learning how to play squash.” 

“Immediately, they’re experts compared to everyone else in the room. Nobody else knows how to play squash. The students that were pulled out of this saw improvements in their own perceived self-confidence, and teacher-perceived self-confidence, in grade performance, and in behavioral areas. All of these things happened instantaneously, because they became experts at something. Coaches have the ability to empower students to feel that way. Utilize that to your advantage.”

Ragan implored local youth coaches to find roles and niches for players, and to explain how those specific roles can help the team. Young players feel more connected and motivated when they feel they have a specific role.  

“You’re allowed to put them in positions,” Ragan said. “You’re teaching them roles that exist on the field. Don’t feel the need to have to back off and say, ‘Oh, just go out there.’ We’re allowed to still give them roles. We miss out on opportunities to really help kids really be driven towards a sport. You have the ability to give them a word that nobody else knows in their group of friends. Give them a chance. Give them time. 

Ragan told a story of the Boston Red Sox, and a system their pitchers and sports psychologists implemented called “Red Light/Green Light.” 

“The Boston Red Sox, when the “red light” came on, the pitcher stepped off the mound. Just for a second. If the pitcher is missing his spot, missing his spot, missing his spot, getting frustrated. Starting to feel where he’s having some self-doubt. Step off the mound. Put the red light on,” Ragan explained. “He (the pitcher) is the only one who has to know this. You don’t have to call time out. You don’t have to make a big scene about it. He doesn’t have to look over, being nervous to his coach. Put the red light on. Step off. He is the only one who had control over that, but he chose to do it. He has now taken control. He has now identified his emotions. He has now identified where he wants to get to. Step back on the mound. Green light. Now I’m in control of the timing. All of your players have the ability to do this.”

Ragan suggested to keep things moving along for youth athletes, so they don’t dwell on bad plays or missed opportunities. In addition, he suggests keeping kids motivated by finding ways for them to secure small victories over the course of games and practices. 

“Some of these kids, they’re afraid to make mistakes. We’ve all seen this happen,” Ragan said. “They’re terrified. They’re hiding on the field or on the court. They’re shrunk away from the game. We have the ability to tell kids, ‘You can take control of this.’ A lot of times, emotions that go off the trail are way in the future, or in the past. I can’t believe I missed that lay-up. I’m still thinking about that lay-up, and it’s four plays later, six plays later, three games later.” 

“Kids want to feel empowered,” he added. “Kids want to feel in control. Kids need to know what step they are going to take. They want to feel like there’s another step to take. If they’ve missed that wide-open lay-up, if you’ve told your players transition defense is just as important as scoring points, then when they miss that point, they can immediately move to the next phase of play. You have a chance of winning by being the best defender. They can immediately win again. And you want to give players small wins constantly.” 

“Don’t allow them to freeze on a play. Because if that happens, they get to stay and ruminate on that same failure, that same mistake. Give them that next win right away. If a kid makes a mistake, give them that next step. There’s always next steps. Don’t ever make it feel like that was the end. Always encourage them with the next step.”

The ability to keep kids focused on the next play - teaching them to have a short memory on the court or the field - is paramount, in Ragan’s opinion, to keeping youth athletes motivated. 

“Motivation dies in moments. Not over time. Self-confidence dies in moments. Not over time. Fear develops in moments. Not over time,” Ragan explained. “You don’t have 10-year-olds that think, ‘I hate the fact I’m shooting about 10 percent lower than I should be.’ They’re thinking about missing that one free throw when the game is on the line. That’s the thought they’re wrestling with. We have to protect the moment by telling them what’s the next step. Moving along. Don’t pause on that play. 

Ragan added that research has shown that there is a straight-forward concept that every player best hears, to get the most that they can out of each sports. 

“We know the benefits that sports provide. Here’s the phrase that goes with that context,” Ragan said. “‘I’m proud of you, and I love to watch you play.’” 

“What that says is not I love watching you win. Not I love how good you are. Not I love watching you succeed, excel, be the best. I love watching you play, and I’m proud of you. We have the ability to communicate those things.” 

“The burnout potential, and the motivation falls apart when that motivation is pushing up against the wall that’s saying I hope somebody will notice me. I hope somebody will be proud of me. I hope somebody will care about my time,” Ragan continued. “I hope somebody will recognize that I’m doing this. That I score these points, make this shot. That’s when motivation fails. Kids do not have much trouble maintaining motivation when they are not trying to push anything up the hill. There’s no pressure in that.” 

“The parents and the teachers and the society tell the kids that grades - a number next to your name - is the be all, end all when it comes to school. It’s the same society context/parent setting that tells a kid, you need to do anything it takes, by all means possible, to get that grade. And that’s what cultivates cheating in academics. It’s the exact same thing in sports. It’s the thing that causes that cutthroat mentality. That “win at all costs” mentality. We have the opportunity to insulate these kids from this.”