Properly motivating 8U softball players is a key component to winning games. I’m not talking about just a big rah rah speech before a game. The motivation has to come from the atmosphere you set at practice as well as the attitude you portray during games. The keys to building a winning spirit are enthusiasm, positive reinforcement, building a competitive fire, and having fun.
The most important key to properly motivating the 8U athlete is the coach’s attitude towards the player’s performance. The coach must be positive, upbeat, and ENTHUSIASTIC. Sure, 8 year old players are going to make a lot of mistakes. Where you will win or lose the player is in how you handle those mistakes. Use positive reinforcement by saying something like, “ I could see you really hustling and trying your best on that play. The next time this happens (then instruct her what she should have done).” Then conclude with another positive statement like, “but I love the effort you made on that play.”
Understand that 7 & 8 year old players don’t make mistakes intentionally. Also, they probably haven’t played the game long enough to just react on a play. When a play is occurring their little minds have to process what is going on and they have to think about what they are supposed to do. Also understand that when they make an error, they usually know they messed up and they feel terrible about it. Your job is to let them know they tried hard, what to do next time, and build their confidence back up. An 8 year old player should NEVER lose confidence or be sad because of something the coach said to them.
At this age, softball may very well be the first sport they have ever played. Therefore you may be challenged with instilling the competitive fire and sense of urgency of athletic competition. Try to turn several of your practice drills into games. For example, see which pair of girls can throw the ball most often without dropping the ball, or after each successful throw and catch they have to take one step farther apart. When you have the team practice running, divide them into teams and make it a relay race. If you are practicing catching fly balls, again divide them into teams and keep score of which team catches the most fly balls.
By turning practice drills into games it accomplishes three goals. First, it gets in the practice and skill building required to become proficient. Second, it turns boring practice into a game and kids are all about playing games. This will really help in keeping them focused on the drill because instead of practicing, they are playing a game. Third, this helps build their competitive spirit. Everyone wants to win, including 8 year olds.
A coach can choose to use a punishment or reward system. In 8U softball there is NO EXCUSE for punishment. Every action by the coach needs to be positive and rewarding to the child. On several occasions we would offer small rewards for great plays or for getting a hit in a game. Have you ever seen how hard a child will work to win a pencil or piece of bubble gum or a sticker? You might just be amazed. For an investment of about $10.00, you can load up on pencils, stickers, and bubble gum and create a reward grab bag for them to pick their own prize.
I honestly believe that coaching wins more games in 8U than in any other age group. The winning formula for winning those games will be the skills you teach them, the strategy you use in your line up, and the level of fun and confidence you have instilled in them.
Let me also say that winning individual games isn’t the only WIN you are looking for. Just this morning I received an email from a parent about his daughter who is now a sophomore in High School and playing on the Varsity team. Yesterday, she hit her first over the fence home run, and the dad had to let me know. Can you imagine how proud I am for her? The WIN here is that the love of the game and the enthusiasm for softball has stayed with her all of these years. The Win for me is not that she hit a home run, but that at 6:00 a.m. I had an email from a parent that HAD to let me know about it. Now that’s a winning moment!
Make no mistake about it, since you are the brave soul that volunteered to coach this mess of girls (akin to herding cats), you are in the position of teaching them to work hard, be enthusiastic, be resilient, and love the game.
Now, Go Get ‘Em Coach!!!