Coaching children’s sport is a great contribution many mums and dads make to support their children and their community.  Most parents take on duties as coaches or as opinionated supporters without some grounding in the science of growth and development.  This means that they have good intentions but can be misguided in how they create an environment for children to learn and grow.

Coaching is something I am passionate about and have spent the last 10 years researching, practicing and trying to improve my own coaching both at work and in sport.   Along the journey I have found a couple of great sources which have helped me better understand the science of coaching.  These include:

  • The work on growth mindset by Angela Duckworth and Carol Dweck;
  • The work on talent development in the book Talent Code by Daniel Coyle;
  • The work on game sense by Shane Pill (Adelaide based Academic);
  • The work on role modelling and child development by Steve Biddulph;
  • Learnings from completing my coaching accreditation with Australian Football; and
  • The work on psychological development, self-esteem, growth mindset and high performance which underpins the Human Synergistics diagnostic tools I use for leadership coaching and developing high performing teams.

Pulling these sources together I have summarised what I see as the key elements to effective coaching in junior sports.  These are also applicable to work place, schools and elite sporting environments as fundamentally our needs as adults are not materially different from being kids.

However, in reading this blog please ask the following question.  In 20 years’ time will you be more proud of your kids for winning games in junior sport or junior premierships, or will you be more proud if they have developed lifetime skills of teamwork, a growth mindset, healthy self-esteem and resilience?  If it is the former, then it is likely you won’t be aligned with my thinking in this blog.

The biggest blocker for junior coaches, can be the approach that the coach and parents need to win.  A coaches inner need to win and prove themselves, can unfortunately trump the children’s opportunity for learning and growth.

I must also be transparent in that I have been guilty wanting to win, and letting that get the better of me.  It is not easy to control our own egos, but we must remember as coaches we are also learning.

# 1 – The number role of the coach is to enable an environment that kids love to practice and play  

Put simply – the more children love practice the more they will practice.  The more they practice the more they improve.

Most kids will naturally develop a love for practice and love for the game if it is something they enjoy.  It can be encouraged and supported but it cannot be forced.

Many kids fall out of love of playing sport and most sports have a spectacular dropout rate during early high school years.  This in part is due to life factors where kids have other interests, but is largely due to the fact that they have been pressured by coaches and parents to play and win, rather than to develop an intrinsic love of practising and playing.

All the pressure to win games or be the next AFL, NRL or A League player at the age of 7 means nothing when a child quits at the age 12.   Winning is important to parents, coaches and a small minority of highly competitive kids.  For the majority of kids, they just want to play and have fun.

For most kids the love of the game comes from a couple of factors:

  • spending time with friends;
  • kicking some goals; and
  • being involved in the play as much as possible.

Coaches kill the love of the game when:

  • training is boring, excessively structured and excessively controlled;
  • coaches have favourites and give their favourites more opportunities and more attention (usually because they are the better players); and
  • coaches put too much pressure on the result rather than focusing on improvement.

#2 – We learn when we are challenged and are making mistakes 

Too many coaches and parents believe that repetition is the basis for learning.  This is true to some extent, but learning is accelerated when kids are constantly challenged.

We call this the challenge point whereby training drills and games are not too easy and not too hard.  The aim is to challenge kids to make decisions under pressure so that they make mistakes and learn, but not make it so hard that kids lose confidence.

As a general rule, the error rate in training should be the same as games.  Drills should not reflect perfection but reflect the nature of decision making that occurs on game day.

It’s the basis for the game sense method whereby drills should simulate game day scenarios and be under game day pressure so that kids make mistakes similar to what they do on game day.  This enables the kids to develop better decision making and skills under pressure.

When kids are standing in lines, running between lines or listening to coaches rant they are learning very little.

Training time is precious and should be maximised so the kids touch a ball as much as possible and make as many decisions as possible in a short period of time.  This means keeping groups small (groups of 4 to 8) so that kids are involved as much as possible.  It is not a practice match (where kids hardly touch the ball) but is simulated small group scenario’s under pressure.

On game day this means rotations are must. Coaches love putting their best players in the most influential positions.  This is wrong not only from an enjoyment perspective (as kids who are stuck in the back line for example feel they are treated unfairly) but also wrong from a development point of view as kids are not getting challenged in different situations.  The better players eventually become complacent being in the same position all the time and they are no longer challenged.  Likewise developing players get bored not being involved in the play, they feel they are not getting a fair go and lose the love of the game.  Both the more advanced and developing players are disadvantaged.

I encourage coaches to have the self-restraint to not pigeon hole kids into positions, and then let them rotate for as long as possible.  Eventually your sports clubs need to win and the healthy egos of overly competitive parents will pressure you to focus on player players in set positions so you can win more games in the short term.  However, the long term cost is that kids will develop slower and lose the love of the game.  I personally would love to see coaches continue to rotate kids up to the age of under 16’s or under 18’s.

#3 – The best form of learning is intrinsic

Intrinsic learning is where I learn for myself, not get instructed or told by a coach or parent.

Daniel Coyle found in this in his research on coaching that the best coaches did not say a lot.  Great coaches spent their time creating scenarios and situations for kids to learn.  They often asked questions and debriefed with kids on what they had learnt, but they didn’t rant and rave.

When you are talking as a coach, the kids don’t learn.  In fact, they only retain less than 10 % of what you say vs retain almost 75 % when the practice a skill.    Research shows learning comes from applied practice not reading or listening.

Given that for most competitive sports the key skills kids required are decision making and skill execution under pressure the game sense method of training is critical for this intrinsic learning.  Making as many decisions and executing skills under pressure as often as you can be critical to accelerating development.

We learn best in targeted and intentional play scenarios

Scenarios should be small groups (so kids touch the ball as much as possible) and simulate game day decision making and learning.  The coach may change aspects of the scenario to teach different aspects of the game and techniques, but all training should be under pressure making as many decisions as possible (note this is not scratch matches but small group scenarios of 4 to 8 players so that kids are involved all the time).

Coaches should provide feedback, but this is with the purpose of learning.  Standing on the ground yelling at players, giving big speeches at training or before games, and overloading the kids with complex feedback at quarter time doesn’t teach them much.   Focus on simple learning points (1 or 2 max) per game and recognise the kids learn over time.

Parents and coaches should not place any pressure on kids to win or be the best player.  Don’t discuss winning or losing or whether your child is the best player.  Rather ask questions like “did you have fun today”, “what did you most enjoy about training”, “it looked like you had fun today”, or “my favourite part of the week is watching you play sport”.  Reflect the joy of sport in how you engage with your children.

#4 – Feedback should focus on the process not the result

Many coaches focus on the result – i.e. a great kick, great goal or great win.  The problem with this is kids can’t learn or grow from this feedback.  The message they receive is win you win “I love you” and when you don’t win I am disappointed in you.

Many parents think this creates resilience by hardening kids for life’s disappointments.  Sadly, it couldn’t be further from the truth and sets the kids up to feel like a failure when they make mistake, and ultimately have a fear of failure.  Later in life they stop taking risks and when they fail they take it personally rather than learning from the experience.

A coach and parent’s focus on result (both positive validation and negative) modifies a child’s thinking so that they feel they are only loved if successful or if they are obedient, driving a lifetime fear of failure, need to prove oneself, need to fit, or need to keep people happy.

Resilient people and high performers don’t fear failure because they don’t focus on it.  High performers focus on the process and focus on learning and improving.  It’s what leads to a growth mindset which focuses on improving rather than perfection.

Coaches should focus on the process not the result.  In fact, great coaches should never even discuss result and just focus on process and getting better each week.  This is just as applicable at elite level as kids, which is why professional coaches will always discuss the process in media conferences (as frustrating as this is to most fans).

Processes are the things that players can control such as effort, intensity, 1%ers, preparation, team work, defensive actions, and intent.  I call these the “controllables”.   Focus on the controllable and the result will take care of itself, but recognise some days the result won’t go your way (which is great for learning as you are at the challenge point).

#5 – Talent is developed not born

Nothing frustrates me more than coaches playing god and picking the prodigal player that they think has natural talent.  Passion, perseverance and a growth mindset always overtake talent.

I have a daughter with dyslexia.  She often says to me “daddy I have to work harder than the other kids”.  My response is “sweetie that is your strength”.

This is why rotations are so important.  When you choose Johnny to be a midfielder, or to be a pitcher at every game you are playing “god”. It is unfair and you have failed to recognise that the unconfident kid you have shoved in the backline or in the outfield has more potential as they are prepared to listen, learn and work hard if they are given the same opportunities.

From a personal perspective, I grew up in one of the most successful junior football teams.  We won 4 premierships and played in 6 grand finals in 6 years.  We never rotated and played the same positions for 6 years straight, training 2 nights per week.  However not one single child went on to play SANFL or AFL football, and most of us gave up the game by the age of 12.  Reflecting on this, I am not sure I would define that a success as it relates to my original question at the start of this blog.

I understand that junior coaches want to win games because you are living out your dreams of being a Kevin Sheedy, but your role is to develop kids and provide opportunity for all kids to learn and love the game, not just those kids who show early talent.  These lessons and insights are not just relevant for junior sport but are equally applicable for teams, organisations and projects.  Create that learning environment for people to grow and prosper through the appropriate coaching and support from all leaders in your organisation.