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Picture the scene. You are coaching a session with an individual or a group of players, when a glaring technical issue with one of them catches your eye. You wander over to talk to the player in question as your audience of kids, parents and other coaches watch on, awaiting the stroke of genius you are inevitably about to share. You inform the player of their mistake before explaining or showing them what they could/should do instead. They try it, and it works. The crowd are impressed, they marvel in awe at your brilliance, wishing they were as supremely knowledgeable as you. You breathe a sigh of relief, you did it, that kid just got a little bit better thanks to you. Well done you.
Except, what did the kid learn?
Perhaps they learned a key point that will help them perform better in the future. Or perhaps they learned that they don’t know what they’re doing. Sure, they executed the skill well once, but they don’t know how they did it, barring some vague technical jargon that they don’t really understand anyway. Perhaps they learned that they are helpless, that they are reliant on others to progress. Or that they need instruction from senior figures to improve themselves, they do not have the power to drive a positive change themselves. Or maybe that they should unquestioningly obey authority, if others always know best then why ask questions of what you are told? Maybe I’m being a touch melodramatic, but we know how malleable a child’s mindset can be.
The point here is that when we engage with an individual – especially a young child – we are responsible for so much more than just improving their skills in the given sport. Of (in my opinion) far greater importance is the role we have in facilitating the development of a healthy and resilient personality. Again, maybe I overestimate the role a coach can have on a child’s personal growth or decline. Of course, there are more dominant factors, but that does not mean ours as a coach is negligible; subtle subconscious messages can be internalised exceptionally easily, especially with ongoing repetition. These can build a child up or drag them down, so it would be careless to pay no attention to this aspect of your interactions. While you should always be aware of what you say, it is of even greater importance to be aware of what is being heard.
So, to move away from all the doom and gloom into something a little more constructive, what can we do to promote a more positive development?
For me, it’s all in one word: Empowerment.
Picture the initial scene again, except this time when you go to have a chat with the child in question, you let them take charge. ‘What didn’t work out there?’, ‘what could you do differently next time?’, questions like these and many more like them are not a ground-breaking revelation in this community, I’m sure, but we are now putting a different slant on them. A child hearing these questions has to appraise themselves and their actions and produce their own development plans. Sometimes these plans are wrong, but you take a short-term hit for a long-term gain in a self-awareness skill that is crucial to much further reaching positive personality characteristics, including humility and empathy.
Picture another scenario, you are doing a drill or a game you have done multiple times before. The kids all chirp up as soon as you mention it, they know how it works, so let them prove it. Pick one, let them explain the rules or let them set it up. Initially they may struggle (I assure you there are many times I have done something like this only to be confronted by a few barely audible whispers or people forgetting what equipment we would use), but over time their presentation, composure under pressure and public speaking skills improve, as they continue to undertake more leadership or responsibility-bearing tasks. Empowering kids in these (and other) ways could fast-track their development of many of these ‘life skills’.
In a cricket session with 7-9 year olds last week, we ended with a game in which captains were rotated around at various times. They had only one responsibility, to set up their teammates in the fielding positions they wanted. To a man, they all did this by walking over to each individual and pointing to where they wanted them to go, so this week we’re banning pointing, and maybe next week we’ll ban the captain from moving around himself. I look forward to seeing what solutions the kids come up with as their problem-solving and independent thinking skills are put to the test.
This is a long process that doesn’t show an immediately visible improvement, and I am confident that there will be more hard times than easy ones, but the benefits to your players as people will more than compensate for those, and to paraphrase an All-Blacks mantra, ‘better people make better sportspeople.’
A final thought, consider how many kids who play your sport will go on to make a career out of it. I’d imagine it’s a very small percentage, so why not do this little bit more to make the experience of greater long-term value for the majority?
If you enjoyed this you can find all my other ConnectedCoaches blogs here.
I think you make a strong and clear point. I always say to my coaching students to coach the person first and the sport second; we call it social coaching. We do a lot of community coaching projects where empowerment is also an important topic. I would argue its perhaps not as easy as you describe but nonetheless there needs to be more moves towards it rather than the 'one size fits all' and 'I know best' kind of coaching. Actually bring your target group in on the decision making process and let them fully engage with it and influence it all. Then we might see some positive outcomes. The use of questioning that you mention at the start is also something I am keen to develop in my coaching students along with the participant centred games based approach which fits so well with your 'short term hit for long term gains' idea.
I enjoyed reading your article Elliot and Henry's response. Absolutely agree that the holistic development of the children and young people has to be a major consideration when we plan and deliver our sessions. In my "day job" of working with coaches who work regularly in Primary Schools, I put an emphasis on how effectively they adhere to the plan-do-review process. As part of this it is crucial that they plan effective questioning, both in terms of types of questions and the strategies linked to their delivery. Setting individual challenges around specific questions gives the children the necessary time to process the question and attempt to put a response into action; crucially the coach then has the opportunity to observe performance from a distance which in itself allows the child to work things out independently. Real empowerment takes place when they achieve some success and receive well-timed praise - a skill in itself for the coach to observe the improvement and reward the child at the right time and in the right way for that individual!
Although I appreciate the holistic development model, how does your model, Elliot, fit in elite juniors, superstars and pushy parents, that want a higher consideration for their child?do you use the same model, when team selecting?and how do you select a team captain?
Thanks for the response, Ralph. To start with your last point, team captains are never something I have been invoved with. In the teams I work with the team coach and team manager are separate so while I am part of a brief discussion the captain is not determined by me, hopefully someone else can help more with that point.In terms of the elite players, the principle is the same. If we are focusing on just children here, my experience has shown that just because a player is technically proficient does not mean he is mentally more developed, so this is still important to work on. It is my belief (no evidence, just a theory) that the players with greater mental skills (ie. problem solving, self awareness, independent thinking) have the potential to improve at a faster rate, as their development can be driven more by them than by the coach. This idea of player-led development is already common in coaching older players, so the transition between 'kids coaching' and 'senior coaching' (if there is such a transition to be made) is really quite smooth. The intention is to get a player to the stage where they can take charge sooner rather than later.In my experience, parents are the biggest challenge in this. It often feels as though people are watching you thinking you're not actually doing anything, but as yet I have never been called out on it and had to explain myself to anyone, although this may be helpful. Discussing your approach with parents is probably the most beneficial thing you can do, as this at least puts you all on the same page, even if they are not overly convinced by your ideas.
it may be your belief, but it has been backed up by lots of evidence
Good to know!
Really enjoyed reading this piece. Letting kids take charge of their own learning and direction hopefully helps them use sport to build the skills and responsibilities that will become useful later, either in sport or elsewhere.
Hello Guys, all good stuff.. I am involved with kids age 6-17 and even with adults and some elite cricketers. I can only add to this rather than repeating which already has been said in details. In most of the game our players have to deal with every thing is thrown at them on the field by themselves. so its the best teaching/coaching to develop them to deal with it by themselves. Unfortunately some bad coaching practices are in place where coaches think if they are making more points, if they are picking up more mistakes means they are doing their job well. However I have released to create a developmental structure for players and provide them all the tools and allow them to develop their game and allow them reflect on their game makes them better sportsperson, who are capable to perform much better in competitive environment.
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