If you are new to coaching you may be transitioning from your own competitive scholastic life to new professional pursuits. That is great news, especially if you are young. Let’s face it Middle Schoolers like young coaches- they like young everybody. Use that to your advantage, but understand your own inexperience. Gather advice from people that have kids, or have taught or coached kids for a while.
I am not saying I know everything about kids, but having raised three, I work with kids in the juvenile system and I have a few years of coaching under my belt that had provided perspective that I guarantee I did not have at 23-27 years old. That perspective can be summed up pretty easily. When something goes wrong- it can be weathered so stay calm. Convey that to your athletes, help them find their control over situations. This is still new to them.
For your athletes you are an adult contact and you may become aware of some pretty difficult situations. I have seen some very very bad stuff (not necessarily on my team) including significant loss in families and significant errant behavior. You are very important to your athletes when their lives are impacted by negative family or school issues. When I say you can make a difference in every way, even in the worst circumstances, I am not lying. But get support yourself. If you know of a severe situation get to the guidance counselors for a talk. Chances are the school is aware of difficult family situations and you are a new member of the team that will support the kid in question. If the school is not aware, they need to be in order to build the team that will support that kid in question. Your athletic director or athletic trainer (if you have one) may also be good people to help out, especially if you know of a situation where parents are behaving poorly specifically around sports training and competition. Do not try to handle these situations alone. First, it is not ethical to be a confidant of a student, in fact you must report if a situation may harm them or someone else. Also, you may have great ideas and advice, but checking in with someone else can help you talk that out and can better serve the kid in question. Your primary goal is to serve your athletes and set them up for success, not be their friend.
Happily, the majority of what you will deal with is the growing pains of adolescents. Insecurities about things that adults give no thought to abound in the 12-13 year old and it is hard to remember how important these are in the moment. Balancing your understanding of the external concerns of Middle Schoolers and their maturity level is tricky. You cannot just say, get over it and let it at that. So what can you do? You take the long view and use what is happening now to build resilience. Try not to comment in the immediate if you notice an athlete worried about something like if they have the “right” running gear brands, or if they are stretching next to the “right” person. Your active coaching will usually redirect those worries enough to be effective. Then, use team talk time to address some of it and let the athletes know what is important. This is one place you have a huge advantage as a young adult coach. Hearing what is important or not from a “cool young adult” makes huge differences to many kids. In the end, kids will work through their insecurities, be understanding while they do, reinforce good “worries” and address the other stuff sparingly. Use positives as well as concerns when talking to kids. It does not need to be one to one, like “I like this xy and z, but I don’t like this ab and c.” It can be done that way, if the situation calls for it, but it is ok, to just monitor your interactions and make sure you are giving much more positive feedback about everything.
One thing I ask of my athletes at this age is that they become aware of what I call “social capital”. This is basically the power they wield in a given social situation. I ask my athletes to think about their own leadership and how other may perceive others. I also ask them to think about how they perceive others and how that perception affects those students. They most likely have not thought a great deal about this in these terms. They each have social capital in different situations. Some have more and others have less, that is the nature of society. Don’t try to dole it out, try to help students make use of their power positively. I have had a handful of situations that went awry when I was not present that could have been avoided had one of the athletes simply said, “hey why don’t you cut it out,” or “hey let’s just get out of here.” You see where this goes. HOWEVER, DO NOT EXPECT ATHLETES TO MONITOR OR CORRECT EACH OTHER, just let kids know what they can do when they see a situation that is problematic. I have seen kids correct things. I have heard runners say to each other, “eh maybe that’s not a good idea,” or to me “coach, so and so wanted to run down that path, but we decided - not such a good idea, what’s down there anyway?” These are both examples of a potential bad situation having been corrected or redirected easily by teammates. This is leadership. Watch for it and help develop it by talking about it with your athletes. You will most likely not see a great deal of it in Middle School, but by planting those seeds they will start to think about it going forward.
Ok, so this is a lot of discussion about things that will come at you fast. I wanted to plant these ideas for you, a new coach, because you need to be able to address a lot of stuff quickly and if you have thought about it, you will do a better job. The rule of thumb is be kind and expect that from your athletes. But being in charge adds a new layer for you, teaching kindness and respect.
So how can you best integrate wisdom that you do not yet possess into your coaching. Use the optimism you do possess. While at 23- 25ish you are probably being told constantly that you are the future and that your opinions matter. You need to look at these 12 and 13 year olds as your future and that their opinions matter. BECAUSE THEY DO. As your athletes continue to become more and more self aware they need to continue to learn about their place among a group of others. Respect and kindness need to be constantly reinforced. When I was raising my kids I would tell them, “You are incredibly important, and so is everyone else.” When I started coaching, I also told this to my team. I do not just use the words- I also treat them that way. There is not a single kid on your team that does not deserve or need your attention, and there is not a single kid on the team that does not benefit from giving positive attention to others. Middle School is so much fun to be with kids, their self awareness grows by the day as they gradually look up and think about the adult they are becoming. You have a short window of that time with them. Enjoy it, make good use of it, and accept that you will make mistakes too- by watching how you deal with that, your athletes will learn a great deal. They see you as coach, at practice, out at the mall, even in the classroom. Just keep that in mind and you will be great.