The Learning Stage: Youth Sports ABCs before PhDs.
“How was your game?” asks a parent to a ten year old soccer player. “Good” is the enthusiastic response. “Didn’t you lose?” chimes in the player’s twin sibling. “Yeah” is the dull acceptance of the fact. Two minutes later, another parent asks the same youth player how their game went. “I lost” is the disheartened reply.
This past weekend, I observed the above interactions at a youth soccer pre-season tournament, which I was attending as a spectator rather than a coach, supporting players I had coached previously. The conversations had me thinking, what do we as a sporting community define as success in youth sports, and what environment do we create when developing positive perspectives in youth athletes?
When a youth player plays sports, who decides how success in that sport is defined? Do we as mentors entrust enough responsibility to the players or do we assume that with our experiences and knowledge, we know best? I once watched as a young player who had no natural passion or love for sports kick, scream and cry before his Saturday morning game, forced to be there as the parents debated in uncertain terms that due to him being only eight years old, the player wasn’t mature enough to know what they really wanted, so they weren’t able to make a responsible decision whether he wanted to be there or not. In similar mentality, do we – parents, coaches, adults – inhibit youth athletes from being able to exercise their own ideas or develop their perspectives. In youth sports, who is the game really about, who gets to decide the purpose, the whats and whys of taking part and being successful? The vast majority of parents involve their children in youth sports with the intention that they have fun and enjoy an active environment. However, too often that vision is lost in competition, or rather the focus becomes less on youth player enjoyment and more about performance and results.
This past weekend, as a parent asked a child about their recent game, that child’s parent interjected and answered that the score had finished 5-0. So it was assessed that the player in question had a good game, meanwhile that player was given no opportunity to express an opinion of their own and their perspective wasn’t valued. All they can take away from the interaction is that if their team wins, they are successful. Does that make the opposite true, is success only that which can be expressed on paper or do emotions weigh in on what success is to a youth player? In my own opinion, I would argue emotions matter more to the development of long term success in youth players. However, especially at youth competitions, that’s not the mentality shown. Often, it is more about the scores and results, and the results are typically more of a concern to the adults rather than the kids. If reputations and success in competition matter more to adults than the youth athletes playing, then there is a problem. It is a wrong-doing that I regret to admit I’ve been selfish with in the past. At the end of the day, who wants the trophies and medals more, the children actually playing the game or the adults involved where silverware would gratify our efforts in facilitating youth sports. Are we dooming success with youth players to a finite few, or can we find a way to develop more successful children in sports if we create an environment where success is multifaceted.
With guidance from a mentor, I have recently discovered the power of language and it’s influence in sculpting perspective and positive mentality. Not just words, but also body language cues like smiling or hi-fiving. Taking the opening conversation as an example, “didn’t you lose?”, singling out an individual player from a team sport is then reflected as “I lost”. Children, like any human, often mirror the mentalities and attitudes they are surrounded by. While respecting their immature egocentric ‘me, me, me’ dispositions, we can still develop a culture that shapes a forward thinking and open minded perspective on what success is and it’s value in youth development. In my opinion, winning is not the be-all-and-end-all but success is a vital component of development.
Moving away from words that speak in definites can take away unintended pressures. A youth player is likely to be more comfortable knowing they “could” do something rather than “should” do something. There’s an unseen flexibility in the change of just those two words, allowing for a youth player freely to express themselves instead of needing to adhere to a certain code or conduct. Encourage focus away from negatives, particularly when youth players self-assess. While they may focus on what they “can’t” do, highlight what they can do, allowing them to find their success in different areas. If a player “can’t” make a long pass, but can make short passes or dribble with the ball, they highlight that success where they can consistently demonstrate a skill or technique. Play to their strengths. Promote their greatness in areas that they can be successful in. Creating an environment in which the youth athlete can define their own success in more than just black or white terms could help manifest a positive mentality early on in their sporting careers, and potentially develop players who can continually build success after success.
One of the rapidly developing aspects in sports in recent years has been the side of the game that focuses on psychological factors, with the ever growing influences of sports psychology and implementation of psychological skills training. With psychology being the study of human behavior, youth players have to be able to express themselves and behave based on what they feel. From there we can positively reinforce and develop genuine perspectives. To give an example, I’ve overheard a parent ask a youth player how they felt after a game they’d lost. The player responded they were good in a dispirited manner, to which the parent asked why were they sad – which is a reasonable emotion to have after a loss. In this scenario, and many like it, youth players express what they believe adults want to hear, not confident enough to communicate their genuine feelings or behavior. Can we do more to create an environment where youth players feel safe enough to trust not only adults but themselves to share their perspectives and opinions? To them what is their definition success, are they successful, and why do they hold those perspectives? An idea a fellow coach shared with me to develop youth player cognitive skills is as simple as asking the player how they felt they did, allowing them to reply, and asking did they want to talk about it. If they did, they are allowed to speak with no interruptions or influences that may change their thought process, and if they didn’t, that’s all that was said regarding the performance. It allows for players to not only reflect on their performances, but allows them a platform to honestly communicate their feelings independent of what an adult spectator may see looking from the outside in.
Success is measured easiest by achieving or completing goals. Those goals can be as one dimensional as winning, or other aspects of a youth players game can be considered. An issue with success measured by competitive results is the fact that it’s often external influence that can be the decisive factor. A youth player or team may play their best performance to date, however may not win. Does that mean that youth player or team is unsuccessful and has failed? In order to develop success and a youth player’s perception of success, in my opinion it’s important to task process goals. These are subjected much more on an individual’s ability and are typically easier to achieve. A balance between what is realistic and optimistic can be considered. Realistic goal setting will allow the player to consistently achieve their success and develop the youth player’s confidence. Combined with optimistic goal setting, which provides the youth player challenges and desire to achieve a goal that is currently outside their ability and succeeding will develop the youth player’s skill set. A basic progression of realistic and optimistic process goal can be a youth player simply successfully attempting an idea within the game, to then successfully accomplishing the same idea consistently within the game. It is important to value both what a player can realistically achieve within the game, but also continually pursue new successes so player development doesn’t plateau.
So who in youth sports can say who or what is success, and why is it successful. As role models and mentors, we have a responsibility to create an environment where we can develop youth players to take leadership for their own perspectives. We can guide and positively influence them as they grow, but youth sports is – or at least should be – about the children playing. They should be able to determine whether or not they are a success or not, as simple as if they feel good with a performance regardless of their results. We can coach them technical and tactical aspects of the game, however if they attempt none of it successfully, lose the game but loved every moment doing so, does that make them an unsuccessful youth player? I don’t believe so, however it’s not my place to say, all I can do is talk with them and discover their why in youth sports – it’s their perspective that’s important. If anything, it is our duty to appreciate that youth players develop at different rates. We can connect with their personal visions of the game, reassess our own perspectives and to guide the youth player to realistic successes, and every success thereafter.
In youth sports, there’s too much pressure to be the next successful athlete. To win or lose. A lot of a youth player’s perception on what makes them a triumph or a failure is adapted from the environment we create for them. The car journeys there, the half-time team talks, the quiet reflections away from the games. To give our youth players every success, let’s start with giving them many successes to achieve. That’s not to dilute the euphoria of scoring a goal or winning an Olympic medal, it’s to better appreciate the minor factors essential to get there. Let that perspective in youth sports be a lesson for life. Celebrate the aspects that have become almost insignificant, but without successfully achieving in the first place the long term successes would have been impossible. To complete a marathon, a runner must have learned to walk before they could run. To write a PhD dissertation, a student must begin by learning their ABCs. Remember, it’s all part of the learning stage. It’s important to celebrate their success, as a youth player sees it.
All feedback appreciated, both positive and critical. All opinions expressed are my own and are given with full appreciation of alternative philosophies and methodologies in youth coaching. Follow on Twitter @seanie_doyle.
Massive thank you, Sean for taking the time to complete the following guest blog.