All-Pro coaching advice: Rev up your excitement level at practice
By Greg Bach
Five-time Pro Bowl linebacker Hardy Nickerson brought energy and enthusiasm to the field throughout his 16-year NFL career, and he encourages today’s youth coaches to embrace that same mentality when working with their young players.
“If the kids know the coaches are genuinely excited about every single practice and excited about helping them reach their full potential on the field I think kids feel that and they feed off of that,” says Nickerson, defensive coordinator for the University of Illinois. “As a youth coach, and I always tell my coaches this, we’ve got to come to practice with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. And that’s contagious. When you’re having fun all of the other things just kind of come more easily.”
Nickerson, who recorded more than 1,500 tackles during his career and was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1990s, has coached a lot of youth football. He understands kids. He knows what they need. And he wants volunteer coaches to know that it has to be fun.
“No. 1, you are working with kids and you are there so that they can enjoy the game,” says Nickerson, a former NFL Man of the Year honoree for his outstanding charitable efforts away from the field. “Teach kids the game, be a good teacher, and have fun. Most importantly, more than anything else, have fun.”
Nickerson spoke with SportingKid Live and here’s what he had to say about connecting with kids, correcting their mistakes and what it was like having to tackle the likes of all-time greats Barry Sanders and Walter Payton:
SPORTINGKID LIVE: How should coaches correct a mistake a child has made without coming across as too critical or demeaning?
NICKERSON: It’s all in the approach. I think if you keep it positive and you have the sandwich, where you have the good things, you mention the things that they can do better, and then you sandwich that with some other good things to say behind that and I think that helps a ton. It helps keep their confidence level up and it also encourages kids to reach higher and play at a higher level.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Youth football has come under great scrutiny lately regarding safety concerns. Why is football good for kids?
NICKERSON: I think it’s a great sport and I think it’s a safe sport. In the sport of football there are so many things kids can learn. Sometimes you’re going to get knocked down in life but guess what? You get back up and you get back to playing. They learn the value of teamwork, work ethic, relationships. They learn all those things through the sport of football. That’s why I think it’s a sport that is just unmatched.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: How can coaches connect with kids?
NICKERSON: I’ve spent a lot of time coaching at the youth level and you just have to get to know the kids. It’s about getting with the kids and understanding their point of view and keeping the game simple and fun for them. My son started when he was about 10, and the kids knew that I coached everybody. It didn’t matter if it was my son or someone else’s son, I treated every kid like they were mine own. It was about having fun with them and teaching them football and all the positive things you can gain from playing the game.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What was your welcome to the NFL moment?
NICKERSON: My first experience was quite surreal. My first game we were playing a preseason game against the Chicago Bears and I was a big fan of Walter Payton. At the beginning of the second quarter he was still in the game and they ran a draw play and I remember running up and I call it my first tackle but I kind of grabbed hold of him and he dragged me for about five yards and I was so excited about it that I jumped up and said “Thank you, Mr. Payton.” That was my first experience and it was just great. It was everything that I had dreamed about.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: You faced a lot of great running backs during your career but who was the best?
NICKERSON: Barry Sanders was always the greatest in my book. And I’m saying that because I had to play against him twice a year and see his greatness up close as I had a front row seat. He was the greatest back I ever played against.
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