Youth Sports: The Importance of Effective Coaching

Youth sports coaching is a sensitive topic for me and I don’t write about it enough.

Reading through enough of my blog posts, it is evident that I have had to struggle with self worth due to having ridiculous expectations placed on me. Though this was aimed, for me, at academics, the subsequent attitudes I developed concerning success and failure bled through to all aspects of my life. This included sports, and should serve as a cautionary tale about the power of stressing winning and dominance rather than improvement and mastery.

If you leave this article with nothing else, let it be this:

Be very aware of how you interact with children you are coaching. It is that important! I think we can all recall at least one really bad experience we had with a coach when we were a child…don’t be that coach.

I vividly remember a horrible experience during a little league game. I was batting and I made contact with the ball (which was rare, in and of itself), sending a ground ball toward the shortstop. After a brief moment of shock at having actually hit the ball, I began to sprint towards first base. In my peripheral, I saw the shortstop field the ball and make the throw to first. I was short of the bag, so I did the smartest thing I could think of…

I slid. Feet first.

I sent up this huge plume of dirt and dust and time halted as everyone watching the game waited for the cloud to dissipate. When it did, I was laying in the dirt, about two feet short of the base.

My coach, incredulous, blurted out: “What are you, an idiot!?!?”

I didn’t play Little League much longer after that. I stuck around for the season, but I would often claim to be hurt, or not feeling well in order to not play. When I did play, the sliding incident led to my coach becoming extremely Pygmalion prone with me. Translated in English: he expected me to mess up everything that I did, treated me as such, and created a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The coach meant well. Truly, he had the best intentions. He was a loving father that wanted to help out the town and spend more time with his son, who was also on the team. When you look at collegiate coaches at the Division I level, a degree in some kind of Sport Psych or leadership/coaching (often a Masters) is required. Most recreational league youth sports, municipal budgets simply do not allot for hiring coaches and must rely on the good nature of volunteers to ensure that the league is coached and supervised. You can’t blame this on a parent just trying to help out; they aren’t trained in this type of leadership and don’t know any better.

The irony here is that these developmental years are of critical importance to children and can have ripple effects that reverberate well into adult years. In a very real way, the quality of interaction that children receive is magnitudes more important than interaction at the collegiate level.

Some sort of training for coaches needs to be conducted. I have spoken of Coach Effectiveness Training (CET) before. CET was introduced in the 1970’s by Frank Smoll and Ronald Smith as a way to train volunteer coaches on the appropriate ways to administer practices and coach games. They noted that most youth coaches simply relied on skills they had gathered from their youth coaches, with no actual formal training. Using techniques from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Smith and Smoll developed a system of coaches training that taught youth coaches how to interact with children positively, how to determine how children are perceiving their actions, and how to correctly provide constructive feedback. As well, the training shifted the focus of youth sport away from winning and encouraged coaches to stress skill improvement, giving one’s best effort, and having fun (Smith, Smoll, & Curtis, 1979).

One of the more interesting aspects of CET is the marked increase in overall happiness and enjoyment of youth sports participants, relative to the amount of time required to train coaches, which was around two hours total. In fact, where normal sports would see an average of 35% of athletes quit between each season, CET trained teams saw an average of 5% of athletes quit between seasons. Yes, that is not a typo: a 30% reduction in sport attrition resulting from one 2 hour training session (Barnett, Smoll, & Smith, 1992). Clearly, educating coaches on the psychology of leading children is highly effective.

The Power of Fun

“Having fun” was one of the areas Smith and Smoll stressed heavily for coaches of youth sports.

Ordinarily, I avoid the use of the term “fun”, as it is nebulous and subjective. It is, however, an important concept, particularly for youth sports. Within the context of a motivational theory such as Self Determination Theory, “fun” doesn’t exactly qualify as something that bolsters intrinsic motivation, yet fun activities keep people coming back. More specifically, when an individual views something as “fun” or enjoyable, they are more likely to proactively choose that event for future engagement. Autonomy is an extremely potent booster of intrinsic motivation.

When we look at sport, it is actual an evolution of an activity that begins early in life: play. Play is what young children do. Watch them sometime, it is amazing to watch: there is no extrinsic motivation to play, it is unstructured, imaginative, and has no rules or constraints (Hurd, 2011).

Play evolves into ‘games’. Games can still be imaginative, however now we are moving into applying more structure to the activity. Games differ from play in that the usually have a definitive beginning and end. Additionally, games are not as free-form as play and will have a set of codified rules and some kind of scoring system.

Games have a winner, clearly. This becomes very interesting when you are observing a group of children at the playground. Quite often, arguments and disagreements result from older children (or, at least, developmentally ‘older’ children). Playing ‘games’ with younger children who are unable to cognitively understand the concept.

Sport, essentially, is derived from both play and games. Admittedly, I need to dig a bit more into evolutionary psychology to fully understand the reasons behind this evolution from play to games, but in all cultures, in all locations, and in all eras, there have been sports and competitions of some form. When viewing the lessons that can be learned during competition, and their crossover into life, I would postulate that sport is a very component of the human condition

Being derived from play, it could be argued that the basis of sport is fun. Yes, this is overly simplistic, but it is an avenue worth exploring, particularly when we look as statistics for youth sport engagement and examine the most commonly given reasons for discontinuing participation in sport.

The most common answer given here, in children under 11, both boys and girls is “Not having fun”. By and large the most commonly cited reasons that children quit playing sports is because they aren’t having fun anymore. We are still in a place where 70% of athletes will quit sports before they are teenagers (O’Sullivan, 2015). We can do better. We must.

Interestingly, poor relationships with coaches also make a perennial appearance on the statistics. The dynamics of coach/athlete relationships can be complex, but there is definitely a relationship between the way the coach choose to interact and whether or not the evolution remains fun and enjoyable.

What this means is that a coach, possibly even more than parents, is in control of more variables that affect the way youth athletes view sport and whether or not they continue to play.

This isn’t, of course, 100% true in all cases. Using myself as an example, even if I had the most effective coaches in the world, that still would not have cancelled out the Ego oriented home climate that I had. In these cases, the Master Approach to Parenting in Sports, described below, could prove invaluble.

Training Programs and Practical Coaching Considerations for Youth Sports

For coaches or parents looking for CET, this type of training has since evolved and is available through the Youth Enrichment in Sports website as the Mastery Approach to Coaching (MAC). Also, for parents looking to know how to deal with their own youth athletes, the Mastery Approach to Parenting in Sports (MAPS) series is also available. All evidence based and proven in the field.

Also, the following practical tips may prove helpful:

  • Design practice sessions that are challenging, and enjoyable for all levels of athlete.

Children’s skill levels for sport will vary wildly in recreational leagues, so create different groups of drills that are progression based and allow each athlete to perform within their optimal range. This prevents outliers from being bored or having anxiety and keeps things exciting at all player levels.

  • Make skill acquisition and improvement the focal point, rather than “winning at all costs”.

Athletes, regardless of age, want to feel the thrill of winning. The key, with youth athletes, is to foster a mastery orientation by stressing improvement and attaining new skills, rather than just winning. This will reduce ego orientation tendencies and lead to less attrition and better sportsmanship.

  • Reward hard work and outstanding effort.

Similar to above: Make a point to enthusiastically praise hard work and children who are giving their best possible effort.

  •  Work with athletes to create both individual and team process goals.

Give the athletes an active role in the process of goal setting. Even as children, we still have the need for autonomy. Set the tone by giving them a sense of ownership for their goals. Avoid setting goals for youth athletes based on what you, the adult, think their goals should be. Another one of the most commonly stated reasons children provide for quitting sports in a lack of ownership and control of their own athletic pursuits (O’Sullivan, 2015), so be mindful about giving youth athletes a role in goal setting and be sure to not try to claim their success as yours.

  • Spend equal time with ALL players, regardless of skill level or amount of playing minutes they receive.

Children are not dumb. If you spend more time with the players with more advanced skill sets, this will be noticed. This also fosters an ego oriented climate and reduces athlete’s self-worth by making them feel as though they are not important if they are not one of the top players on the team. Be aware of this and ensure all children feel like they are a necessary part of the team.

  • Every. Child. Plays.

If you are not giving every child playing time in a youth league, you are not effectively coaching. This creates an ego oriented climate where children learn that they only play of they if they are exceptionally good and that only winning matters. As well, many children learn at a slower rate or are “late bloomers”. The child you are benching could have the potential to be a superstar if played and developed, but could quit sport because you didn’t give them a chance. Think about it.

  • Do not punish youth athletes for mistakes.

Rather than creating an environment of resentment and fear by punishing mistakes during practice or competition, teach athletes to view mistakes as a part of a larger process of mastery.

  • Be aware of Pygmalion tendencies. Avoid prejudging players outside of a sport specific assessment.

It is very easy for us to become biased based on a child’s past performances or behaviors, or prejudge a child based on a multitude of factors. No one is immune to this and awareness is key. Be mindful of your attitude towards your youth athletes.

  • Encourage social activities with the team outside of the field of play.

Pool parties, pizza parties, attending each other’s birthdays, etc. Use social events as a way for team members to get to know each other and bond. Feeling like a part of the group is important for all teams, but critically so for children’s teams.

Wrapping it Up

Being a youth sports coach can be one of the most rewarding endeavors imaginable, but it is also a great responsibility. How children are coached can have lasting effects in many other domains of their lives, and, as such, interaction at the coaching level should not be taken lightly. To be the most effective coach you can be and ensure you lay the foundation for a lifelong mastery orientation, use the resources discussed in this article, along with a healthy dose of self-awareness and common sense.

These children are, quite literally, our future. We owe it to them to give them the best set of life skills that we can, and participation in sports is a critical component of that.

References

Barnett, N. P., Smoll, F. L., & Smith, R. E. (1992). Effects of enhancing coach-athlete relationships on youth sport attrition. The Sport Psychologist, 6, 2, 111-127.

Hurd, A. R., & Anderson, D. M. (2011). The park and recreation professional’s handbook. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

O’Sullivan, J. (2015, May 5). Why kids quit sports. Retrieved November 28, 2016, from http://changingthegameproject.com/why-kids-quit-sports/

Smith, R. E., Smoll, F. L., & Curtis, B. (1979). Coach effectiveness training: A cognitive behavioral approach to enhancing relationship skills in youth sport coaches. Journal of Sport Psychology, 1, 59-75.