Springfield's Chad Martel has coached these young players and said it sometimes takes a few years to get them running in the right direction. But Martel just wants to make sure they're all having fun.
While children are starting to play competitive sports at younger ages, coaches like Martel are facing new joys and new challenges.
"I'm a person that likes to run around and be athletic anyway. It works out for both of us, the kids and myself," he said.
Much of the rise in youth sports participation, according to the National Council of Youth Sports, is from athletes ages 6 or younger, particularly girls.
From 1997 to 2008 (the last study available), 58 percent of the organization's members noted a rise in participation overall, often driven by getting small children involved. The percentage of very young athletes participating in NCYS member programs rose sharply around the turn of the millennium, although it tailed off somewhat by 2008.
Working with young athletes presents challenges. Skill levels vary greatly. Some players have never picked up a ball before.
With younger basketball players, youth coach Gregg Lowis focuses on fundamentals rather than the specific plays and scoring points.
"It's not about the win now; it's about making the kid better," he said.
Martel started coaching 10 years ago when his oldest daughter began playing. It's rewarding when his athletes master a new skill or understand a concept, he said.
"You just see how proud of themselves they are. It makes coaching so much easier," Martel added.
From skating to coaching Ginnie Gietl agrees. She transitioned from skating to coaching almost 30 years ago.
From Erie, Pa., Gietl participated as a guest skater at the Nelson Center in Springfield, met her future husband and eventually started coaching there. Her youngest current athlete is 5, but she's had 2-and 3-year-old skaters in the past.
"It's so exciting to see them progress, to learn new elements, to go to competitions, to see them skate their very best," Gietl said. "I think it's very important for those kids to know that you have their best interests at heart."
With really young skaters, Gietl keeps things fun by incorporating markers, balls and pieces of candy to turn lessons into games. The newer skaters usually take lessons twice per week, while older, more competitive athletes are on the ice six days per week.
Though Gietl has been around skating for decades, teaching allows her to share her passion with those new to the sport. She delighted in her youngest skater winning first place awards at competitions. She said she loves "to see their faces light up when they finally figure something out."
Gietl becomes very close with some of her skaters, spending many nights helping them with their twists and turns. She trained one skater for 13 years, starting when the girl was 5.
That girl, now 32, is the godmother of Gietl's children.
"They're under your wings usually for a long time," she said.
After skating for 10 years, Yvonne Neale was 18 when she began coaching with Springfield Park District's Learn to Skate program. She's never looked back.
Neale's youngest athlete is just 3 years old. She said one of the biggest rewards is watching the children's personalities come out when they achieve something.
"They get very excited and then you feel like you've done something well, too," she said. "It's really cool when you teach somebody like the first time when they land an axel."
When Neale's 3-year-old student started skating last January, the young girl could hardly stand up.
She's now skating forward and backward and throwing some tricks into the mix.
Accommodating athletes Coaches must alter their strategies depending on the age of their athletes, Neale said. Adults and teenagers understand complex explanations and descriptions, but Neale switches up her dialogue for younger athletes.
For example, a move called the one-foot glide becomes a flamingo in the zoo because skaters stand on one foot to perform this. Neale compares the swizzle move to making Easter eggs on the ice because the feet move in a round motion. Simon Says also proves useful in teaching new skills.
"They usually come around and you kind of make it a game," she said.
"It's a little bit easier to teach older people but the small ones are lots of fun."
Neale removes some of the structure that might take the fun out of the sport for young children. She's also quick to compliment the youngsters on their accomplishments, even those skaters that are on the ice for recreation and not top-level competition.
"They might not be the one that's going to go to the Olympics but for what they're doing, that's a big deal," she said.
There might be another coach in the Neale household. Her 15-yearold daughter Sara, who has been skating since she was just 2 years old, continues to compete, but she'll soon turn her attention to a year-long coaching apprenticeship.
"I was definitely influenced by my mom," Sara said. "It's been a major part of my life since I was little."
In the gym Gregg Lowis' family has also bonded over athletics. Lowis first coached basketball at The Gym when his now 20-year-old daughter, Maria, started playing in the bitty ball division with 4-and 5-year-olds.
As Lowis continued coaching young athletes, he developed a mentality.
"Teach the kids the fundamentals.
Don't worry about the wins at the younger age. The wins will come later in high school," he said.
Lowis has also coached his other children: Nate, who's a senior at Sacred Heart-Griffin High School; Anna, an eighth-grader at Blessed Sacrament School; and Sofia, a fourth-grader at Blessed Sacrament.
"It is a way to spend some great quality time with your kids," he said. "We're pretty much at games constantly."
While basketball is a family aff air for the Lowises, Gregg said he plans to continue coaching when his kids have moved on. He loves that young players enthusiastically absorb the game.
"Everything's fun for them," he said. "It's fun to watch them look over at their parents and see the smiles on their faces if they do something really good. Every game there's something (funny)."
Lowis is careful to balance intensity with fun because he thinks coaches and parents sometimes push new athletes too much. He worries these kids burn out.
"My kids play year round but it's something I don't force on them," he said. "You can tell the kids that play for the love of it."
Elementary to college Though he's worked with college students, Springfield's Eric Watson currently coaches his 10-year-old son Mason's basketball team. He started working with this group of fifthgraders a year and a half ago and the Central Illinois Predators won a national tournament in Bloomington.
They played more than 100 games last year.
Basketball is serious business for these kids, and when the team loses, Watson said he loses sleep.
But he also knows athletics should be fun for children. He opts for jokes to help teach. For example, while they're on defense, he wants his players to have their eyes both on the opposing players they're guarding and the basketball. Watson loves to tease them when they chase opponents with no awareness of where the ball is on the court by asking if they'd follow the opponents into the bathroom.
"We try to keep it light to where it's not life or death if you don't win and sometimes that's hard because the kids put a lot into it," Watson said.
Earlier in his coaching career, Watson worked with kindergartners. After playing at Riverton High School and at Lincoln Land Community College, he returned after college and started coaching in Riverton.
Some older players resist help, but young children want all the help they can get, Watson said.
"It's still kind of a fun thing for them," he said. "They just find a lot of enjoyment."
Children's sports are becoming competitive earlier and earlier, Watson said. When he played, teams didn't play in games until fifth or sixth grade. Now, 4-and 5-year-olds suit up for games.
Watson worries these youngsters are losing time to focus on fundamentals when they have to start playing games right away. Thus, he tries to focus on the teaching and training whenever he can. He thinks children should learn to play first, before the sport becomes competitive.
If coaches and parents want athletes to enjoy sports long-term, they have to be careful about how they approach it, Watson said. It's hard to undo bad habits once someone develops them.
"We tend to expect so much out of them, and kids are developing much faster than ever before," he said.
For young players under Watson's guidance, practice isn't just about basketball. He also focused on respect for other people, sportsmanship and schoolwork.
"There's a balance of school. There are other sports. There's church.
There's social," he said. "You really try to cover all (aspects) of life."