Give them the freedom and they will surprise you.

So today will be one of the proudest moments as a father and my son could hardly sleep last night and I think the first time he has got up early since the last holidays.  For a number of years he has watched other children get up and collect the school’s coveted prize the Head Teachers Award and around 6 months ago he made the announcement that “Dad I am going to win that, I just need to find out what I need to do to get it”.  I have to be honest I didn’t think he would be able to achieve it, but he had his mind made up and during a recent parents meeting he made the announcement to his teacher’s surprise and asked what he needed to do.  He was given a list of things he needed to improve upon and off he went on his journey.

Well today he has achieved his aim and my wife and I are going to see him accept his award with the biggest smile on his face.  I can say without fear of contradiction that this was all his own work.  He made the decision to aim for the award, he found out what he needed to do, he planned it and then put the plan into action.  Not one other person can take any credit for what he has achieved it has all been done on his own.

This has got me thinking does this self motivation cross domains, can what he has done in an education setting cross into sport and vice versa, is this motivation an innate or genetic ability or is it a learned behaviour?  I am not a geneticist or a scientist so I will not go into any depth mostly because I don’t know but also because it will send you off to sleep but I will select from some anecdotal evidence.

My son comes to just about all my sessions and anyone who also comes will know we work from a very athlete centred approach whereby we ask children as young as 5 to think for themselves rather than having a coach hold all the power we like to delegate this power to the players.  With the youngest of children this might mean allowing them to set their own pitches, pick their own teams, set their own rules to the older ones analysing performance through video feedback and setting their own detailed plans for improvement. Through this self analysis my son spoke with me just a little before his decision to win the Head Teachers Award about his weaknesses in his football.  He had realised that due to his size he was being pushed off the ball and also that his burst of speed needed work. He then asked if he could have a personal trainer to help him work on these areas and would it be okay if he worked with the older lads so he could get used to it.  We agreed with everything and off he went, has it made a difference, probably too early tell and actually so what if it hasn’t this is not the important issue, what is important is that he is thinking for himself.

It is only now that I have made the link between the two.  Could it be that because he is constantly in an environment where he has to take responsibility for his own learning in sport that this has crossed to his education? Could it be that he is just genetically pre-disposed to being self regulated.  Having spoken to someone who knows a thing or two about genetics his comments were “you may have a genetic advantage or indeed disadvantage (thinking about a pre-disposition to certain diseases) but without the correct environment these genetics cannot flourish.” In other words you may be the fastest person on the planet but if you are not allowed to run what good is that.

Having looked at the literature and in particular Gamser’s work in this area although not 100% conclusive there are certainly strong links being found between children taking their self regulation skills used in sport to their education and vice versa.  Furthermore, she has found that an overwhelming number of elite athletes are also high academic performers and that one of the main reasons for this elite performance is the ability to self regulate.  But caution has been made that such self regulatory behaviour will generally only show in an “inspiring environment where individual goal setting is allowed”. Seems to be a link here between the literature and the views concerning genetics.

As a grass roots coach, can we use this in our domain as although we do work with some elite or aspiring elite athletes the majority of will not likely become such?  Not only can we use this approach I think we must; otherwise we are at best missing a trick at worst denying children a very important life skill. Lets not forget as a participation coaches we have a much bigger role to play than coaching sport.  How can we foster such an environment within our coaching, we must let go of the power, trust the children, inspire them, encourage them, let them make mistakes and let them learn from them. This is better known as an athlete centred approach  –  “the key to a successful athlete centred approach is one where the coach utilises this leadership style and empowers the athlete to learn and understand about their own needs and performances and takes ownership of the training regime.” (Arai, 1997).

I honestly think if we trust them enough and give them the freedom they will surprise you with the long term results.  My son has surprised me with the results of his hard work and I am off this afternoon to be the proudest dad in the room.

Pictures to follow.

Are we fostering an environment of creativity or stifling it?


Last week was my daughter’s parent’s meeting and I usually face these with fear, not because of my children underperforming or misbehaving or any other issue akin to this but because I normally have to spend the time biting my tongue and listening to how my children are not happy to being moulded into a one dimensional system that simply grooms them for the job market.

To my amazement and joy instead her teacher spent the whole time talking about how creative my daughter was, what a wonderful imagination she had but she only wished she would share it more with the group to help inspire the rest of the group to be more like her.  My daughter will often write stories or dances or make up plays and the teacher has now asked that she bring them in and show the class to see if the rest of the group would bring in what they find of interest and make the whole class a better learning experience for others and that through this each child might find their passion.  She then made an apology that since she has taken over the class they have spent more time in practical work and separating the class into groups and getting them to come up with their own challenges in subjects they find both interesting and also challenging. Apology, are you kidding me this sounds like classroom heaven, I asked if I could come back to school, I was not even offended when she said you are small enough to get away with it.


Last night she had to do a small piece of homework on Red Kites, the note in her homework book was remembering what we talked about today can you write a page of what you know about Red Kites? She sat there for about ten minutes writing a new song and when questioned she said I wasn’t really paying attention to what happened in class I was bored so I am not sure what to write. Now some might rush her off to the nearest behavioural clinic and diagnose her with ADHD or tell her off for not listening in class but she is 8 and cant be bothered to listen to what others know she wants to find out herself. So instead she spent the next hour and a half finding out everything she could about Red Kites on the internet copying and pasting and in the end she produced 23 pages of work. I think she could probably join the RSPB now, and is one of the UK’s leading experts in the subject. But not because of what she has been told what to do but because she has been given the freedom and inspiration to go and do it herself using the best possible tools for the job.

Can we use these tools in the coaching arena, are we there to inspire children to come up with the best results THEY can or simply replicate what the coach or manager knows? Should a coaching session be totally structured by the manager only looking for a narrow outcome or should it allow for multiple outcomes. Should we stand there at the front and tell them everything we know or do we first find out everything they know and challenge them to find out more? Do we teach new skills through detailed instruction or does can you get the ball from A to B and watch how they solve it get a better response? Most importantly what do they prefer and are all children different and can you adapt each session to allow for these differences in children? Our job like a teacher’s is to inspire the children to fall in love with the game, to want to practice and play and try new things without fear of failure or ridicule if they go wrong.

If as a coach we only allow them to do what we know we will only get replicas of what we know, if we coach a narrow outcome we will get a narrow outcome but if you allow players to come up with their own answers to exciting problems to solve you will be amazed with the results. It might be messy and chaotic and it might take some time to get results but what you will get is players who will think for themselves, take responsibility for their actions and hopefully take this into other areas of their lives.

Alternatively we can do what we have always done and get what we have always got.