As a coach, your mandate goes beyond Xs and Os. One of the most important things you can do for your team is to ensure that player morale and team spirit is always high, win or lose.

Team spirit is not just for lower level youth teams either; even at the highest levels, a happy team performs better. There are many ways to maintain a positive team culture that fosters motivated players. Here are some of the most powerful ways to build and maintain team spirit that we’ve learned from working with so many teams across so many different sports!

Organize team building activities throughout the season

In the pros, teams host “rookie dinners” every season, where the whole team goes out to a fancy dinner and is sure to rack up a healthy bill — which is left to be paid by all the team’s first-year players. While you might not do this with a youth team, you can take lessons from this big league tactic and come up with a team tradition of your own.

Going to an escape room is not only a fun activity for a big group — it’s a team-oriented challenge that can teach you a lot about the mental makeup of your players. During the game, natural leaders will emerge from the pack to advance the mission for their team. Problem-solvers will shine in areas where they’re most talented. And as a coach, you’ll learn a lot about who can perform under pressure — and who can’t. Most importantly, however, you’ll see how well your players work as a team.

One of the best outings for a sports team, though, is going to see a game at the pro level — i.e. watching the very best players at the sport your team plays. It’s always a valuable experience for young, developing players to watch professionals play their sport. And there are little details that you, as a coach, can pick up on and apply to your own team that you might not be able to witness when you watch the game on TV.

For example, as a baseball coach, you might learn something about what the shortstop does in between pitches? As a football coach, you might learn how to work with your quarterback when the defence is on the field. And as a hockey coach, you can learn something bout facilitating line changes with a bench of 20+ players?

And when it comes to transporting your team to-and-from the team building activity of your choice, you might want to consider renting a school bus or minibus to ensure everyone gets there safe and in one piece. But make sure to check out a few of these resources before booking transportation:

Communicate

Keep those lines of communication open! In order for each player on the team to feel equally valued, it’s important that information is distributed fairly amongst all team members. You never want players to gossip, or for information to trickle through the grapevine, so it’s important to be transparent and up front about many things. Important team matters should be communicated in a professional fashion so that everyone hears the news, lineup, game schedule, or other things at the same time in the same way.

One method is to hold a weekly info check-in during practice where you can relay important information to your players all at once. That way, questions won’t be repeated and can be answered once and for all.

Of course, in 2019 and beyond, a lot of our communication is not done face to face — and that’s okay. Oftentimes it can be more effective to communicate via our phones or email addresses. You could start a WhatsApp group, a Facebook message, or a text chain for quick updates. You shouldn’t bombard or spam your players through these channels, though. So make sure to set rules on how often updates are sent, and who can and should respond. No one wants another dreaded group chat flooding their phone every day!

No matter how you choose to communicate with your team, you should do so regularly and have several methods and channels for doing so. Your messaging should be clear, concise, and organized in a way that you answer as many anticipated questions as possible.

It’s also important to avoid going outside the boundaries you set. For instance, if your own child is on the team, they might be privy to information before their team mates. That wouldn’t be fair for the other players, so you’d have to make sure to prevent that from happening. When it comes to communication, no one should receive preferential treatment.

Set realistic team goals

Maybe you’ve heard of SMART goals: Expectations that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bound. Goals that meet each of these five criteria have a greater chance of being achieved. And goals that are met (and surpassed) can bring teams closer together and set them off to a head start on the next challenge.

While youth sports are about fun, they’re also a way to prepare kids for real-life situations they’ll encounter later on. One of the ways you can prepare them for the “real world” is to teach them how to attack goals, especially as a team. When they enter the adult world, they’ll often be tasked with goal-setting and teamwork, and they’ll be able to draw from their minor sports experience where they hadn’t even realized they were learning applicable and enduring skills.

“Have fun”… but actually, have fun

How many times have you heard a coach say that the number one rule on his team is to have fun? Now, how many times have you seen a coach follow through on that? 

Often, all it takes is reading players’ facial expressions and/or body language to know whether or not they’re actually having fun. But at the end of the day, as you hear in so many preseason speeches, the goal of youth sports is in fact to smile, laugh, and make memories — along with developing skills and bonding with teammates. If it weren’t fun, we wouldn’t be doing it. So it’s one thing to set fun as an objective for the year — it’s another thing to make sure that sees through during the year. 

Have post-game treats at the ready

Who doesn’t love post-game treats? Sure, oranges at halftime are nice, but once the game ends and the physical exertion is over with for the day, a round of popsicles, donuts, or if the players are old enough, beers, is a welcome reward. Everyone loves the coach that surprises her team with a postgame trip to the ice cream parlor! That kind of thing might get tough on the wallet, so you can make a list and take turns among players (or parents) bringing or paying for the post-game snack.