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Coaching styles: Understanding what your players will respond to

Coaching styles: Understanding what your players will respond to


By Connor Fogel

As a top tier field hockey player Tara Zollinger was hooked by the competitiveness of the sport.

And the third-year Syracuse University assistant coach is continually reminded of all the reasons she fell in love with field hockey in the first place when she’s coaching young field hockey players ranging from 8 to 18 in Howard County, Maryland, which she has done since 2010.

“When people think of the sport they just see a bunch of girls hitting a ball around but it’s a highly technical sport and there’s so many small little techniques and little tricks that you learn along the way to be able to have skill and dynamic skill,” says Zollinger, who won back-to-back national championships as a player at the University of Maryland and helped lead Syracuse to a national championship last month. “And that is something that I really liked – that it is always challenging – that there is always a skill to be learned.”

And that’s where the essence of coaching comes in. Regardless if you’re coaching beginners, a travel team or elite athletes like Zollinger works with, it all comes down to making connections with athletes and figuring out the best ways to help them enhance their skills in a positive atmosphere.

“When you first start to learn how to teach players you are going to learn what style of coaching they respond to best and what kind of learners they are,” Zollinger says. “It’s the coach’s responsibility to start to learn how that individual takes in information. Find out what their learning style is and adapt your coaching style to match it for different needs.”


Being a coach comes with many responsibilities, and while understanding the kids is one key responsibility, Zollinger strongly believes that coaches have the responsibility to be good role models for the kids not just as athletes, but as young women, too.

“As coaches we have a responsibility to be good role models and women as well,” she says. “And I think especially as a coach there’s not enough women coaching women in the industry. It’s super important, being in this role, that I am very privileged to be able to have a job where I have an impact on young women’s lives every day and I take it personally as a responsibility to uphold high standards of sportsmanship and making sure that I am leading by example in that way.”

As parents take on coaching roles, Zollinger points out that it’s crucial for them to be aware of, and understand, the impact they can have on the lives of their young players by both their words and actions. Youth sports are not just a place to learn a fun, competitive game, but also where important life lessons can be shared.

Zollinger has been impacting young lives through field hockey at all levels for many years now. Besides her work the past five years with young athletes in Maryland she was a coach with the USA Field Hockey Futures program and spent two summers coaching summer camps in Barcelona, Spain.  

For more great insight check out what Zollinger had to say about making practices fun, playing defense and teaching kids to embrace all roles on the field:

SPORTINGKID LIVE: How can coaches make practice fun for kids at all levels so they don’t dread coming?

ZOLLINGER: A lot of people play sports because they have a competitive side and a competitive spirit. And so I think making sure that practice has some competitive component to it and it doesn’t just get mundane with repetition or a lot of tactical things.

SPORTINGKID LIVE: Not everyone can be a team’s leading scorer, so how can coaches help kids embrace a certain role on the team and take pride in being part of the team rather than being a specific scorer?

ZOLLINGER: I think that in our society we’re all about statistics. Who has the most shots, who scores the most goals, and this and that, but I think it’s very good to identify what the role on a team is. And you have to show them their value of their role. Because I truly believe that every single player, regardless of minutes played or goals scored, has certain value to their program within their role.

SPORTINGKID LIVE: Especially at a young age, kids don’t exactly get excited about playing defense, so how can coaches help them embrace that part of the game?

ZOLLINGER: Everyone always says defense helps win championships. I really do believe that. And individual defense in particular is key for all areas of the field, whether you’re a forward or a midfielder or obviously a defender. But I think just really breaking it down to key points helps them to remember and keeps them interested. So one thing I always do with individual defense is to give them three key points about it regarding their body shape, their stick position, and then what skills they’re using in order to defend.

Connor Fogel is a sophomore at Syracuse University.

Field hockey Practice Defense Role Model Connections

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