Establishing behaviour boundaries
(with thanks to Bob Christensen)
Ideally, the behaviour policy should be written in stone at the beginning of the season, and then consistently followed throughout the season. I, like you, used to start out pretty "relaxed", and then clamp down as the season progressed. I found this to be ineffective, since even a single play who gets "out of hand" can ruin a training session, or even a game.
Kids, particularly this preteen age, NEED and actually want firm boundaries. It is human nature for these kids to seek out the boundaries. This is the age where their universe grows exponentially in a very short time. They WILL push and push to try to figure out where the boundaries (between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour) are. This is completely natural. You would really have to worry if you did not see it!
Your job, as coach, is to establish the boundaries (and they do have to be appropriate), and then "set them in stone" so that the kids, which will be pushing the envelope at different rates, will KNOW exactly when they reach the boundary, and that boundary will not change from day to day.
Different ages require different approaches, slightly anyway. A U6 player will be pushing the envelope of, for instance, violating the personal space of another player....maybe pushing, or kicking the other players ball away when working on individual 1 ball=1 player exercises. A U12 may do the same thing, but probably for a very different reason, especially if it is a girl, you are likely witnessing the preteen/teen version of bullying. And U14 or U16 may do the same thing, for yet another reason.
The "rules" have to make sense to the players. U12 players can, and do understand about belonging to a group. They probably already have cliques at school, and maybe even on the team.
It is YOUR job to make belonging to the TEAM vastly more important than belonging to some "lesser" group. It is NOT easy. I coach young players myself. I coached a U11G comp team last summer, and regularly coach Jr. High 8th grade teams (girls in spring...starting in a few weeks, and boys in the fall). There is a BIG difference in maturity between the U11 and U14 (8th grade) girls.
There will be an even bigger difference between this same range in boys. But I DO involve the players in the decision-making process early on....what will the focus of the season be (screwing around and socializing, becoming better players and forming a TEAM, winning the most games, etc). If you have never included your team in this process, you are missing an important team-building building block.
Then, you need to establish a set of "rules" that will allow you to meet the goal you set as a team.
For instance, don't be surprised when the team decides to really buckle down and work hard to become the best players they can in the short season (pretty common decision if you sort of "guide" them to it ;~). I tell my players that this will require a lot of hard work on my part....developing training schedules, practice plans, helping individual players, helping "the team", getting the parents into "our" mind set, etc. I am willing to do this gladly, but it will not work if I can not communicate on the field to the player, and communicate through the players regularly to the parents. On the field, I cannot get my message across if others are talking. And if we are really going to become the best we can be, I cannot take away valuable training time to explain training exercises to players who were not listening the first time (but I will gladly explain to anyone who doesn't understand after listening to the initial explanation - that is "my bad" for not explaining it clearly enough the first time ;~) I think you can see where I am going with this. Make it all fit into the master plan that the PLAYERS came up with.
Now, since you are on a roll, letting the players "help establish" the policy, go with it! Talk about consequences when the rules are broken. I am always shocked with the general consensus, which is nearly always MUCH more strict and draconian than I would ever dream up on my own! Man, kids can be tough on themselves ;~)
Your job, as coach, is to keep them focused on making the consequences "logical". Logical being a consequence that naturally stops the behaviour while maintaining the dignity of the offender. For instance, pushups are rarely a "natural" consequence.
They are a punishment. If players are talking while I am trying to explain a complex training exercise, what does pushups have to do with anything?? In this case, I simply stop talking. I cannot and will not compete with the chit-chat. It usually takes about 5 seconds for some of the more focused players to realize what is happening and "inform" or "remind" the offender ;~) So the team does most of the self policing, as Michael noted. This keeps you from being the "bad guy" in most cases.
Sometimes, it does not work textbook perfect. To continue with the above example: OK, I've stopped talking, and instead of some focused players reprimanding the offenders, more players join the chit-chat. I continue my silence, eventually maybe putting my hands on hips, or crossing my arms (this usually gets their attention). If not, I simply walk away and tell the players: This is your team. When you are ready to take your team goals seriously, let me know. I have yet to have this fail. Usually, a couple key (serious) players will take control and rein in the team. Once (with a 8 th grade boys team, another story), I actually left the field and began watching a game on an adjacent field. The team actually started a scrimmage (with pinnies and all), but after about 10 minutes, they huddled, and a couple of players came over, hat in hand to ask me to return and coach them (hmmmm, looks like I found my captains ;~) You cannot leave young kids alone, but you get the idea....Make it their responsibility.
Bottom line: Let the team belong to the team. Let them be part of the planning process. Let them be responsible for the lions share of the policing. You are a coach, not a baby-sitter or policeman.
Make the rules fit into the goals of the team. Make the consequences logical extensions of breaking the rules. Make sure that the consequences are designed to remedy the situation, not punish a player. Preserve the dignity of the offender.
Even extreme nut cases and true trouble makers can be dealt with quite easily (well, easier anyway ;~) using this type of policy. It becomes clear to the TEAM that if someone is disruptive, they are hurting the TEAM goals. It then becomes much easier to apply the extreme logical consequences of reduced playing time (hey, you have not mastered this concept because your were busy sitting away from the team so as not to disrupt them. Even if you DO understand the concept, you did not help your team-mates who could have used your expertise, so they deserve the playing time now so that they can practice it in a game situation....catch my drift?). Even being cut from the team becomes much less personal when team goals are used as the reason.
Finally, most of these concepts will work well with boys or girls over the age of about 10, when the kids can begin seeing the "big picture" (maybe a bit older for boys). This type of policy works extremely well with girls teams, but I have also had very good luck with boys teams as well. Boys DO require some slightly different mind set. They can be real knot heads as they enter their teens.
But the same basic approach seems to work well.