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What is more important, how you coach children or what you coach them? | Coaching Children (Ages 5-12) | ConnectedCoaches

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Coaching Children (Ages 5-12)

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What is more important, how you coach children or what you coach them?

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Dan Cottrell

Dan Cottrell, pictured, believes the ‘how’ and ‘what’ you coach are intimately interconnected

It is imperative that a coach manufactures an environment where players become responsible for their own learning. Introducing games and constraints is an effective way of achieving learning outcomes. It encourages participants to search and find solutions to problems, thereby aiding the development of new skills. While this approach requires minimal hands-on involvement from the coach, their input is nonetheless critical in ensuring its success.

  • Coaches can become so preoccupied with dispensing technical advice they forget they must also be able to excite young people and motivate them to learn in more effective ways.
  • How you coach and what you coach are inextricably linked. Creating and managing a sophisticated learning environment, using games and constraints (the how), can directly influence the development of techniques and new skills (the what).
  • The best coaches will look to create a fun, challenging and creative environment that gives their players the opportunity to learn and develop. 

New coaches can sometimes labour under the misapprehension they have a rooted responsibility to impart pearls of technical and tactical wisdom in rapid-fire fashion to their young charges. 

Either, they treat sessions like they are in a race against the clock to transfer these nuggets of practical advice, and are disappointed if they do not see immediate evidence of the impact of their explicit instructions on their learners.

‘Listen up folks, this is how to master the perfect technique. Look and learn, look and learn.’ 

Or, alternatively, they are afraid they do not possess a deep enough knowledge base to be able satisfy their participants’ apparent thirst for acquiring new technical skills. 

In time, the novice coach will (hopefully) come to realise that the learning process is a little more circuitous than that, and that by over-prioritising ‘what’ they coach they can be neglecting ‘how’ they coach, which can have far-reaching repercussions.

There is a wonderful blog written by Sydney-based ConnectedCoaches member Darren Wensor entitled The biggest misconception about coaching kids in which he argues ‘technical knowledge doesn’t impress kids but being passionate and likeable will.’

For Darren, the ‘how’ to coach means getting back to basics, with the most important qualities of a children’s coach being presence, voice projection, body language, group management skills, sense of humour and being able to tap into a repertoire of games and fun activities. Developing those areas should be the coach’s priority.

The subtle side of coaching

It is a subject that fascinates ConnectedCoaches Content Champion Dan Cottrell too, who is editor of Rugby Coach Weekly and a coach with Swansea Schools Under-15s.

Dan believes the ‘how’ and ‘what’ are intimately interconnected – with the former having a direct influence on the latter – and that it is therefore wrong to try and assign extra importance to one element over the other.

‘I think it is probably wrong to frame it like that,’ he says. ‘I think you need to have a holistic view. If you develop what to coach you have to develop how to coach at the same time.

‘There is no point being a brilliant coach [likeable, passionate, creative, a people person who can manage a group] if you don’t have a good grasp of what you are coaching, in terms of the technical knowledge. But it works the other way round too. The two go hand in hand therefore.’

Level 3 qualified coach Dan – a course tutor for the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) – explains that a lot of coaching is so subtle and nuanced that players don’t realise they are even being coached.

Players will carry out a technical or tactical move and think they have manufactured it themselves, when actually the coach has created the environment that has allowed them to develop that skill.

‘The best coaches do that,’ says Dan. ‘There are plenty of coaches people will listen to and then take their golden nuggets and apply them. But for best results, coaches should strive to create an ideal environment that gives their players the opportunity to learn and develop.’

Modify and adapt

By way of an example, you might be looking at developing a specific skill with your players which they can use to solve a problem arising in a game scenario. For example a ‘quick lift’ in hockey, so that when a player attempts to tackle you while in full flight, you can lift the ball over their stick and continue your run without breaking stride.

The coach could explain in detail what that technique involves – how the player should position their feet and body, how to align their grip, when to tilt their wrist, what angle the stick should be in the air before striking the top of the ball, and with how much force – and follow this up with an explanation of why it is necessary to use this technique sparingly in a game. 

Equally, you might engineer a particular environment in training that allows the players to discover for themselves how to execute the skill and when it is appropriate to use it in a game, with the learning happening on a subconscious level.

Putting the onus onto the player to explore and create opportunities for learning through a creative, games-based environment, rather than compelling them to listen to explicit instructions and advice, is an effective means of achieving learning outcomes and an example of when the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ become intertwined.

This ecological dynamics approach to coaching requires players to modify and adapt their behaviour under different environmental conditions and in response to external cues. The coach plays the part of primary observer, who is there to ask discerning questions and provide feedback.

In this coach-manufactured performer-environment relationship, player intentions, understanding and actions are interconnected and, as solutions are sought and found, so new skills are acquired and honed.

‘A good coach will recognise the developmental stage of the players before challenging them to move to the next stage,’ says Dan. ‘Some techniques may need a more formal introduction, where you might need a little blocked practice first. However, it is better if you can create the challenge and the players seek a new technique. Like a PS4 gamer who’s struggling to overcome a “monster”. They will be on YouTube to look for a solution. You can be their “YouTube” or “Google”.’

‘Equally, participants should have a purpose to understand why they are playing a certain game. That purpose is the challenge, or the problem to solve.’

Dan Cottrell

The wheel of success

Dan uses the spokes in a wheel analogy to illustrate the interlinked structure associated with optimal player development, and the importance of performers understanding every aspect of what constitutes a successful sportsperson.

What you coach and how you coach represent two spokes in the wheel. Other spokes include the environment you put them in, being introduced to competitive situations, the art of purposeful practice, to name just three.

‘If you don’t develop all these aspects at the same time then you can have an unbalanced player,’ says Dan – the gist of the analogy being that, just as an unbalanced wheel makes for a bumpy ride, so an unbalanced player cannot expect smooth progression on their sporting journey.

‘So it is not somebody who can spend hour after hour hitting golf balls down at the range. It is someone who can practice doing that, realise when to use the shots they have been developing in different situations on different types of course, and understand the pressure involved in the shot-making because they have been involved in competitions. It is also someone who can enjoy the moment when they are successful and enjoy it too when they have been unsuccessful, because then they realise what they can do differently to improve their chances of success in the future.’

Are your games inclusive?

Devising and utilising a portfolio of creative games is another example of the ‘how’ setting off a chain of events that impacts on the ‘what’ – with the formation of new technical and tactical skills a beneficial by-product of this type of coaching methodology.

‘My belief, like so many others, is that players enjoy playing games more than they enjoy drills,’ says Dan.

‘What I am fascinated in from a games aspect is that, while a lot of people have said this is the way forward, they have not really thought about what the games should look like or how they can be more effective.


‘Just look at kids playing games in the playground. Look how wonderful that is. Yet often those games are poor because they don’t give everybody a chance – they are not particularly inclusive – and often one or two kids will dominate.


‘I think we need to be more sophisticated in the way that we create games so they are more democratic.’

Take the popular game bulldogs. For those unfamiliar with the rules, one player (the bulldog) stands in the middle of the field, or game zone, with the others lined up at one end. The aim is to run from one end of the field of play to the other, without being caught by the bulldog. When a player is caught, they become a bulldog and the winner is the last player to be captured.

On the surface, everybody is having fun and each player is being challenged. But that is not actually the case.

‘This game needs to be adapted because in the end, the small fast kid wins every time,’ says Dan. ‘So in a rugby training context, large slow players don’t actually get much from it. It’s not inclusive and does not have a place because it is unfair to certain types of player.

‘A lot of coaches of young players don’t realise they need to give very few rules, then step back and let the game unfold and watch carefully, only stepping in if they need to clarify a point.

‘If you are in the middle and shouting instructions, geeing the players up and cheering them on, then you can’t do that.’

Observing allows you to analyse, reflect and note the impact the game is having on the group and the individual players. As the challenges evolve over time, so your players will discover a range of solutions to those challenges, helping their problem-solving and decision-making skills and seeing them evolve as all-round performers in the process.

Constraints inspire creativity

Imposing constraints in games optimises the learning environment.

Again, there is a bit of how to coach and an element of what to coach, in that constraints can help players develop techniques and skills and also determine the correct time to use it, but equally, how the coach implements the constraints is just as important.

‘Constraints create creativity,’ says Dan, who explains in simple terms how this works.

Give a football to a group of participants and stand to one side. If they are in an area 10x10 metre square, they will create a game. The constraint, in this case, is the size of the playing space.

Put them on a full-sized field but impose the constraint that they can only use one goal, and the group will create a different game. Headers and volleys for example.

‘So the constraint should lead to creativity. They are the currency on the environment that shape the way you play.’

Coaches will quickly learn that, with each constraints-based exercise they set, there is no one right way of doing it. You might say, given the metaphor used by Dan below, that there is more than one way to crack an egg.

‘How many times have you cooked a spaghetti bolognaise or lasagne and it tastes different every time.

‘In creating that dish you have probably used the same recipe, just maybe cooked the meat a bit longer, boiled the pasta a bit less, added a pinch more seasoning, added the onions a bit later. There’s no right way necessarily, but each time it tastes different.’

You can stretch this metaphor further and say that, the better coaches will reflect on what worked best for them, what didn’t work quite so well, and then recognise when and how to tweak it in order to get just the result they are looking for, in the context of developing certain core skills.

Dan says he knows coaches who have devised games that, years later, bear no resemblance to the original.

‘For a new coach working with young children, they panic the first time they use a game and it doesn’t look very good and doesn’t work in the way they expected it to. They will learn to recognise that they just needed to let them play the game as, weeks later, by working together they would have adapted and modified the game until they had found the right ingredients to make it work.’

Keep it environmentally friendly

So the message to new coaches is to slow down and reassess your coaching methods and priorities.

The emphasis should not be on whether players can mimic what you have shown them during a session. Transfer of learning is optimised if they can acquire the skill themselves through a sophisticated learning environment.

As Dan concludes: ‘We shouldn’t set out objectives that we want them to do this and learn this by the end of a session. It is better for us to keep creating a great environment so they enjoy themselves, keep creating challenges so they keep trying things out, and keep them involved so they want to come back next week and try again.

‘I think that is a more powerful way to approach it with younger players. And then that takes a bit of the pressure off the coach to feel the need to be pushing skills and new techniques onto their participants all the time.’

Any thoughts? Please leave a comment below.

Next Steps

If you enjoyed this blog you might also be interested in Dan’s blogs which you can find here.

UK Coaching (formerly Sports Coach UK) has recently launched a new ‘Coaching Children 5–12: The Next Generation’ workshop that translates cutting-edge research into practical ideas that coaches can use straight away. You can read more about the workshop in our blog Evolved ‘Coaching Children’ workshop shows industry is moving with the times

To find a ‘Coaching Children 5–12: The Next Generation’ workshop running near you*, visit the UK Coaching Workshop Finder.

*This workshop is available nationally but due to its newness you may not be able to find one running near you on the Workshop Finder. If you live in England, get in touch with your County Sports Partnership to register your interest.  Visit the CSPN to find your CSP. sportscotland, Sport Wales and Sport Northern Ireland run our workshops outside of England and advertise our workshops on their own websites.

Alternatively register with UK Coaching and you will receive a monthly newsletter detailing the latest workshops running across the country.


This blog is also available as a podcast on a number of platforms including Itunes. Listen here.

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Comments (1)


An excellent post, strange that this view on constraint-based and adaptive games is not mainstream practice amongst more rugby coaches, it is after all the main emphasis behind current RFU coach education and the emerging C.A.R.D.S. attributes initiative.

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