Building young athletes up: Coaching winners on and off the field
By Greg Bach
Matt Kunz, a former walk-on linebacker and four-year player at Notre Dame, understands the intricacies of coaching kids as well as anyone through years of working with young athletes as young as 6 through the collegiate ranks.
He knows what works, and what doesn’t, when it comes to helping kids be their best both on and off the field.
“The question is whether the coach can put the team ahead of his own ego, because no coach has ever scored a touchdown or scored a basket or hit a home run, but they take credit for it a lot,” says Kunz. “And for some reason that fuels their sense of self worth but it really is not the way to go. The reality is that the players and the coach all work together in a system.”
Kunz is the author of Triumph! An Athlete’s Guide to Winning On and Off the Field, which is a guide for helping young athletes play with more confidence and a clearer focus, as well as prepare them for the many different types of coaches they’ll likely encounter along the way – both the good and the not-so-good. Plus, it’s insightful for volunteer coaches as well to gain clarity on what their role is really all about and the best ways to be a positive influence.
“I want people to realize that they all have self worth, and they can all contribute to the team, but so many times coaches think it’s about them and about them winning,” says Kunz. “Really, it’s about building an organization and the most important part of an organization is to build up all of the members within it.”
Kunz grew up playing a variety of sports and he had a closer look than most at the highest levels of the game as his father George was an All-Pro offensive lineman with the Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Colts. Later, Matt found his way to Sound Bend, walked on, and played four seasons for the Irish – three for legendary coach Lou Holtz.
“As much as playing and winning was important the thing that mattered more than anything else was how we went about winning,” Kunz says of playing for Holtz. “It was that we showed passion for our sport, that we followed the technique that our coaches taught us, that we respected each other, that we played together and that we had fun together. He always said at the end of a practice to go on and have a smile on your face and a song in your heart. Those were all important things to him.”
CORRECTING MISTAKES – START WITH YOURSELF
“In competition you’ll always find difficult situations that will come up and the question is how do you handle those as a coach,” Kunz says. “So a lot of times if I was giving directives to one of my players or one of my assistants, if they screwed up did they screw up because I didn’t give them the right direction? I always looked at myself first before I went after someone else. And I think that’s a common mistake a lot of coaches make. If a player fails that means the whole team fails, not just any one individual.”
COACHING TIP: BUILD YOURSELF UP BY BUILDING OTHERS HIGHER
“Believe it or not, simplicity matters more than complexity,” Kunz says. “And execution matters far more than strategy. If coaches can keep those things in mind then what they end up doing they really focus more on the alignment, rules and technique that the players have and less on themselves as the coach trying to devise something on paper that can’t be run by the kids that are out there on the field. I think that’s where ego comes into play and coaches think they need to be more than they really need to be. But if they focus more on building and developing the players themselves, then the coach himself will be successful – and that’s the irony of it. As much as a coach wants to build himself up that’s the opposite way to go – you build yourself up by building others up higher.”
SMALL STEPS PAY BIG DIVIDENDS
“When you get a group of kids together you really don’t know what you have and every season is different,” Kunz says. “What you want more than anything is for them to have an appreciation for the technique of the game and help them understand small victories and little steps lead to bigger victories down the road. I always like to tell my kids that small steps in the right direction are far better than any big step in the wrong direction. Both literally and figuratively, so when they start realizing that it’s ok to take small steps good things begin to happen – and that’s where patience plays in and consistency plays in and that’s where repetition plays in. So it’s important during those periods of repetition, which can be boring from time to time, to help them understand that those little things lead to the victories and the celebrations at the end. And when those victories happen then it’s important to celebrate those things.”
THE PERFECT PERSPECTIVE
“Being an athlete is just one part of being human, but being human is every part of being an athlete,” Kunz says. “You’ve got to keep sports in perspective that it’s just one part of our lives.”
Antonio Pierce, Super Bowl champion and linebackers coach at Arizona State, on pinpointing motives and inspiring young athletes to be their best
Monique Henderson, Olympic track great and college coach, on chasing improvement one fun-filled step at a time
Ole Miss sports psychologist Dr. Josie Nicholson on helping your young athletes deliver positive messages to themselves to perform at their best
Reinforcing effort, coupled with a heavy dose of encouraging words, can help young athletes enjoy productive and rewarding seasons