The coaching of kids is due for a revolution. Cultural and economic forces are driving youth sports toward increasingly competitive training and commitment at earlier ages. The result is stressed-out kids, parents, and coaches, high levels of burnout, lowered levels of long-term athletic participation, and missed development opportunities.
A brief historical Perspective
The challenging reality of today's youth sports has been propelled by forces both cultural and economic. First, the rate of participation in organized youth activities has increased annually for various reasons. There are the perceived social development benefits such as learning to work with others, learning to value others' skills, learning to work at something and improve, learning to lose without losing self esteem, learning to win gracefully, lifelong commitment to activity and fitness (and with our national obesity problem, we need this!), developing good work/study habits, enhanced social status, and the avoidance of drug use. Second, organized sports are supervised, safe activities at a time when many parents simply don't feel it's wise to let a few kids ride their bikes down to the local park to play soccer. So, parents enroll their children in programs, classes, and a whole panoply of activities for which their children show some enthusiasm.
With the rise in participation comes an increase in diversity. Once, just sports-oriented boys drove youth sports. Then came sports-oriented girls. Then came all the kids, physically talented or not, sports lovers or not. Today, in early youth programs, some team members are focused on winning and some kids are there to have fun. Some kids are so young they can barely count, but they know the game score. There are kids who love the sport as long as they're having fun. And there are kids out on the field who have a hard time kicking a ball or running a straight line, but are willing to learn. Appropriately, youth sports cast a wide net, and coaching for every kid is a challenge.
The second change in youth sports is economic. Succeeding in youth sports opens doors to colleges and to scholarships (and, in the rare case of real talent, to real money). Important? You bet. The rising price of a college education far outpaces the rate of inflation, making scholarship money more advantageous than ever. The money available for sports-related scholarships, thanks to alumni contributions, corporate sponsorship of collegiate events, and sophisticated alumni outreach programs, funds an increasing breadth of sports activities. In addition, college admissions are more competitive than ever. A college representative recently told a group of parents, "We're looking for depth and commitment." Not just in sports, of course, but in anything worthwhile.
The message, however, was clear: Don't let your kid be a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. And for many kids and their parents, a sport is the trade they seek to master.
1 I'm one of those parents. I have two girls and I wouldn't describe either as a "jock," but rather typical compared with their peers in their activity level. They play soccer (year-round) and dance (fall, winter, spring) and the younger child also takes ice-skating (fall, winter, and spring). The older child dropped ice-skating as her other commitments increased.
2 The probability of getting an athletic scholarship is still not, by any means, a good bet. But the need for, and lucrative terms of, scholarships drives demand and outweighs any rational calculation of the odds of getting one.
The solution lies is in changing the way we teach athletics. Youth coaching today is still rooted in traditional theories for shaping behavior, which results in two limited approaches: coach kids to perform their best, or coach kids to encourage continued participation, i.e., to have fun. There is, however, a new approach to shaping behavior that offers a new paradigm: peak performance while having fun.
Where we are today
(for a historical perspective, see sidebar to right)
Children are confronted, at an increasingly early age, with a choice about which path-up which sports ladder-they will take. For example, many kids "try out" for elite teams and squads in their chosen sport very early in their lives and are required to make an enormous commitment to that team. How early? What kind of commitment?
- Want to skate competitively? Be prepared; your daughter will have to drop all her other sport activities by third grade so that she can fit in sufficient ice time, private lessons, and tournaments.
- Want a shot at high school soccer? As early as second grade, a child can join a team that travels across the state to compete. By fifth grade, he should be playing on at least two separate traveling teams at the same time, playing soccer games both weekend days, and going to four separate practices during the week.
- College hockey aspirations? By the time a child is in sixth grade, there's a good chance he'll be playing more games a year than your local NHL team.
Today, the choice confronting kids (and their parents) is between the participation track and the performance track. Those who are "serious" about their sport increasingly choose the highly-demanding performance track. Parents and coaches who favor a less intense approach swim against the current. Culturally, Americans tend to favor choices that promote free, unfettered competition while putting in place a safety net for everyone else. As a result, towns with sufficient resources have dual structures: low-intensity programs for families who want kids of all abilities play together in low-stress, just-for-the-fun-of-it games through the middle school years, and the elite-team route for those who lean towards the development, promotion, and separation of talented and/or driven athletes from everyone else.
This dual structure approach does not help most kids, even the very talented, to develop. It is, in fact, detrimental to the majority.
Despite the early and active participation of many kids in youth sports, their enthusiasm doesn't last. Unhappy with the coaching, burned out by the stress, concluding that they can't compete with the few stars, or finding other interests more compelling, an astonishing 74% (estimates vary) of kids quit sport participation altogether by the age of 13. Consider this highly-typical case: a sports-minded enthusiastic 5-year-old announces after the end of her first season of gymnastics that she is quitting because "it's not fun anymore!" How can it be that a healthy, active 5-year-old girl decides that gymnastics-tumbling, balancing, swinging-isn't fun? While she was participating for the joy of it, her class was part of a feeder system designed to identify and develop competitive gymnasts. And it wasn't fun.
Moreover, research is beginning to show that while the skills of many players improve in the short-term with intense focus on a sport, long-term skill development for most children may be substantially diminished by intense training at an early age.
Why today's coaching doesn't work
Coaches in youth sports fall into three basic types. First, there are the volunteers, moms, and dads who help out kids in their communities' organized youth sports until the level of play becomes too competitive or the time commitment too intense. Many of these volunteers have some knowledge of the sport, having played it back in high school.
The guidelines given to these coaches emphasize "being positive," keeping the sport fun and the kids motivated. Many explicitly tell the coaches not to yell at children about what they may be doing wrong. When faced with teaching a pack of 8-year-olds out on a field, however, volunteer coaches often revert to instinct or replicate how they themselves were taught. In short, they teach through correction because coaching is about improving skills, and improvement, they believe, means correction. No one has given them the tools to think otherwise. On the other hand, some volunteer coaches are restrained and only provide encouragement. However, when coaches do not commit themselves to really developing the skills of every kid on the team, they become cheerleaders rather than coaches; supervisors rather than teachers.
The second category is comprised of the "vol-essionals"-volunteers who are progressing to the mid- and top-tier of volunteer coaching, and who have many of the skills of professional coaches. They have usually played the sport at the college level. They coach the travel youth hockey and soccer teams and organize the programs. It's not a fulltime job, but it takes up several days a week for practices and games, as well as evenings spent coordinating schedules. These coaches often take courses and proceed to the top tier of youth coaching. Eventually, they may coach other coaches. These are the folks who must decide whether the kids on their teams are playing to win, or to have fun. Are they playing for first place or just to "have fun" in the first place? Once the decision is made, they tend to adopt the coaching drills and exercises drawn from traditional results-oriented, correction-based coaching, or they focus on a "social" approach to coaching, one that makes it fun for the kids but may not result in much improvement.
Finally, there are professional coaches who coach or teach youth sports for a living. They may own and operate a dance studio, a gymnastics academy, or a soccer camp. Parents pay to have their daughters and sons taught by this person or at their school. Professional coaches earn their keep by producing success: titles, trophies, and scholarships. Their reputations depend on it. Few have the luxury of defining success simply as continued participation by the kids in the sport. At this level of coaching, if the training is not stressful, the coach isn't pushing hard enough. If you don't push, you can't get performance, and you can't win. And the alternative to winning, at this level, is quitting.
The bottom line? The pressure placed on youth sports from top to bottom to get performance benefits few kids. Youth coaches are given little advice and few tools to keep sports fun while developing the skills of a wide range of kids. Moreover, the current guidance offered to coaches today-coaching as cheerleading or coaching based on intensive time commitments and-correction-based teaching-sidestep, rather than resolve, the problem. Performance-based coaching burns kids out and participation-based coaching fails to adequately and consistently develop potential. There isn't an approach, yet, that produces both high performance and high enjoyment for a broad range of talent.
Do we really need to stress kids out in order to get top performance? Do we need to take the fun out of the program to challenge the top kids? Is it necessary for "promising" children, at ages 7 and 8, to make intensive commitments to unlock their potential? What if there was a way to coach youth sports that was easy for the coach, fun for the kids, and effective for the game? What if we had a program that could help kids to achieve their potential and still have fun? What if coaches at all levels were taught to use that program? What if sports organizations adopted that program? Then what?
Coaching would be revolutionized, kids would stay energized, and we would discover a new generation of healthier, happier, skilled athletes. It would revolutionize every level of coaching at every level. It would change the way children are taught sports in America
TAGteachingâ„¢ (operant conditioning with a market signal used in human development applications) can make it happen. In these pages, you'll begin to discover its power as applied to sports and sports teaching. You'll read about the transformation of a top gymnastics academy, the success and growth of the first completely clicker-focused dance school, and about the innovative approach of a volleyball coach to his team's skill development. Come in, explore these pages, come back often to see what's new, and sign up to learn more. Join the revolution.
Aaron Clayton is President of TAGteach International and KPCT; he coaches youth sports for his daughters and their teammates.