By Greg Bach
Mitch Henderson, Princeton’s head basketball coach, greets his players with energy, enthusiasm and a smile at practice.
That’s every practice.
And it’s all season long.
That needs to be part of your practice ritual with your young players, too.
“It starts with the way you walk into the gym,” says Henderson, the sixth-year coach of the Tigers. “I think coaches should be the first ones there and create an environment where you are excited to see them.”
It doesn’t matter if you’re coaching beginners, travel teamers or, in Henderson’s case Division I players, because all athletes need to know that their coach truly cares.
And that they really love seeing them and coaching them.
“I do these same things now,” Henderson says. “I really enjoy seeing my guys come into the gym and I talk to them and I’m excited about getting to work with them.”
As a collegiate player himself – Henderson starred at Princeton, was a team captain and a member of the ’95-’96 team that stunned defending national champion UCLA in the NCAA tournament – he knows how valuable a positive tone is to kick off a practice.
“The kids really respond to it,” he says. “And I think volunteer coaches should know this that kids really respond when they know that you are totally invested in them getting better.”
Henderson has lots of experience working with youngsters just starting out in basketball. Besides conducting camps he takes his Princeton team over to the local YMCA, where he and his players teach, connect and have lots of fun with more than 50 children involved in the YMCA’s afterschool program.
“I always tell everybody that one of my favorite things to do is to be involved with that age group because they are so much fun to work with,” Henderson says. “They want to be taught.”
Of course, kids want to see the ball going through the basket. That’s one of the true joys of playing.
But the art of coaching when working with young players is zeroing in on the fundamentals and honing those. Because without them opportunities for success later on are greatly diminished.
“You need to concentrate on the fundamentals and be consistent with the same messages,” Henderson explains. “I was surrounded by coaches who told me all the time that the best teams are good at the fundamentals and your path to success is by doing things right and paying attention to the details.”
That learning – regardless if it’s the fundamentals or another aspect of the game you’ve progressed to teaching – needs to take place in an environment that’s draped in fun to keep kids engaged and coming back for more.
Plus, coaches need to squeeze in time to talk and connect with kids about how things are going for them away from the court.
It’s a process that builds bonds, forges relationships and has life-long impact.
“I’ve been a part of team sports my whole life and now that I’m a coach I think about my grade school basketball coaches and I think about my junior high coaches,” Henderson says. “I remember the moments when there were 1-on-1 conversations and not one of those conversations has been lost on me through the years.”
Think about that the next time you gather with your team.
Your energy and your words and how truly invested you are in each young athlete on your team really does make a huge difference.
Mitch Henderson knows how much his coaches meant to him and the influence they had on his life.
Now he’s fully committed to having that same type of impact on his players.
And that should be a big part of your focus with your youth teams, too.
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