There is little doubt that the culture of sports coaching has changed over recent years. Coaches, teachers, and indeed parents are beginning to acknowledge the fundamental importance of positive early experiences, as a foundation for lifelong participation in sport, as well as the notion that children’s sports ought to be fun!
It would appear more and more organisations are calling for new ways to exhibit sports, particularly to young people. However, are all organisations and coaches alike following suit? We would suggest not.
The increasing call for positive approaches to youth sports have been inspired by an acknowledgement that too many young people become disheartened with sports, chiefly due to the behavior and demands of adults, who should know better.
Parents blaring instructions from the sidelines; coaches criticising children’s efforts and placing too much emphasis on winning, over development and enjoyment.
Fraser-Thomas & Côté (2009) reported that negative early developmental experiences occur in youth sports. These were, but not limited to, poor relationships with the coach, parental pressure, negative peer influence and psychological challenges regarding the competitive aspect.
‘Coaching young children has little do with winning, it is to do with helping them to develop both as players and people’ (Ford, 1999). Regardless of the category of sports, youth and adolescents across the country engage in sports activities for the thrill and excitement that come with it; and in some cases, not anticipating the pressures, stresses, and strains that are typically integral components as well. When something is difficult enough for children, why do we add to the problem?
Although there has been an increase in the number of coaching education programmes, many coaches (a good proportion of whom are volunteers) still do not receive such instruction (Parker, 2010). Therefore, it is probable that many underestimate the influence they have on their young athletes and some may not be creating an atmosphere that best promotes the positive values sport has the potential to provide.
There is no doubt that the main reason children participate in sports is that they are enjoyable. Still, well-meaning parents, teachers and coaches frequently spoil sports by making them too serious too soon. Often inappropriate forms of competition are the problem. An Under 7s league fixture is turned into the World Cup Final, with appalling displays of behavior shown by coaches and parents in some cases.
Further, the coaching or training environment is often unsuitable, as children are instructed to participate in mind-numbing drills. “Drill” has become the single most common word we use to describe practice in sports, music, and academics, and this is a problem. The problem is not that “drill” is a bad word in itself. The problem is that it often sends the wrong message to the learner. It coveys a signal that a) There is one correct way to do something, and only one way, b) This group values machine-like repetition above all else.
Is there another way? How about “exercise” or “challenge?”
This suggests a more social, fun, and game-like approach. Difficulty is expected; mindfulness is required; innovation is embraced. This group values challenging obstacles, competing, and creating. It is highly recommended that the following questions should be asked before anything is carried out… “Would I enjoy this?”
Added factors have also been found to be significant, including children participating in a range of activities, rather than focusing on early specialization. It has been suggested that early specialization in a sport is necessary for later success, although evidence indicates that children who partake in a range of activities are more likely to carry on playing, and are more likely to find the activity that becomes a lifelong passion.
Research suggests that children under seven or eight years of age are primarily motivated by pleasure, general movement, and the total gladness of play. They do not place importance on competitive fixtures, unlike many coaches and parents, but rather they want to chase, hide and generally play freely, because it makes the children feel good. Correspondingly, these types of actions are suitable for the young children’s development, but that is not why children chose to engage in them. For young children, play is enough. It is critical that children experience these emotions, particularly in the early stages of sports.
Early experiences are imperative, setting the tone for everything else that follows throughout the sporting journey. Positive early experiences encourage further participation; negative experiences turn off children.