This series of tweets between Ian Poulter (flamboyant, spiky haired golfer and Ryder Cup legend) and Dan Ashworth (Technical Director at the FA, and very nice bloke) got me thinking about this whole subject of winning and losing in children's sport.
Then this article appeared in this month's Rugby World which was framed as a debate on the subject with the 2 debaters being an u10 club coach, Dave Parsons and ex-international rugby player, Andy Halliday who is involved in the junior section at Esher Rugby Club.
It is endlessly fascinating to me how polarised any discussion on winning and losing in children's sport can become. It's clearly an emotive subject but the nature of the discussion is concerning as it often descends into a 'name calling' 'pointing fingers' style argument where all rationality seems to go out of the window. Some of the responses become very angry and the language used can be quite ugly.
I know the media need to position things in a certain way to drive readership rates but I do think that they are a part of the problem.The way the debate is usually framed is as follows....
You have the 'Hardcore right' who say that children should learn how to win and lose as this is an important life skill that helps them navigate an increasingly competitive world. These individuals further propose that some of the moves within organisations Involved in children's welfare to restrict or stop competitive activities are another example of 'nannyism' in an ultra politically correct world that has become too soft and is part of the breakdown of society.
Then you have the 'loony left' arguing that winning and losing is damaging to children's self esteem, putting many children off sports for life. Moving away from competition allows children to enjoy physical activity without the pressure of winning and losing and thereby encourages more children to become lifelong participants. The emphasis on winning at all costs encourages kids to be selfish and not care about others which fuels the 'dog eat dog' mentality of some of the nations disenfranchised youth.
For me, neither position does the debate justice because they both miss a pretty crucial point....what do the kids want?
A report from the Aspen Institite in America called 'Project Play: Reimagining youth sports in America' states that;
"Fewer than 1% of sports sociology papers have examined youth sports through the eyes of children".
Amanda Visek and colleagues at George Washington University have recently examined this question in detail and discovered that:
"9 out of 10 children say 'fun' is the main reason they participate in sport".
Their research asked children to define fun and they came up with 81 different reasons. Top of the list were 'trying your best', 'when the coach treats players with respect' and 'getting playing time'.
'Winning' was ranked 48th most important and 'earning medals or trophies' was ranked 67th.
This study has not grabbed any media attention over here and yet it is pretty fundamental to answering the question about the relative role of winning in sport. what this tells me is that winning should definitly be part of the sporting experience for children but it should not be placed as a high priority. If we are keen to keep children involved in sport and away from sedentary activities that are all too prevalent then we have to make sure that we are providing something that aligns to what they want.
In the Rugby World article Mr Halliday bemoans that fact that people talk about children as 'customers' but in today's world that is exactly how we should view things. If we want children to choose our product, sport, then we have to make sure that we provide an experience that it aligned to what they want. I we choose to ignore this and continue to provide the game based on an, 'in my day' or 'when I were a lad' mentality we will continue to see increasing rates of drop out from sport and the obesity epidemic will continue to grow.
For a great podcast with Amanda Visek on the 'FunMaps' research go to the 'Coach Your Best' podcast with the awesome Jeremy Boone http://www.athletebydesign.com/avisek1/
I am very fortunate to be able to mix with some really excellent people. One of them is Ric Shuttleworth, Elite Coach Development Manager at the RFU. Ric works with professional coaches in the premiership rugby academies enhancing their ability to develop skill in young rugby players. I guess you could call him the 'Yoda' of skill acquisition!
Ric's philosophy is based on the 'Game Sense' or perhaps more accurately the 'Constraints Led' model of coaching. He suggests that skill should never be developed outside of a game like training environment, rather coaches should always challenge themselves to create what the successful Australian Hockey Coach, Ric Charlesworth calls 'designer games' so that players are learning and developing skills while inside a game like context so that the acquired skill is learned in an integrated sense rather than isolated.
Each time I get to chat with Ric I get some new nugget of coaching gold...here are a few that I describe as 'power moves'.
1. Let the players find the solutions.
2. The information should come from them to us.
3. We want mistakes. Mistakes are good.
4. Ask a question but don't expect an answer. Allow the activity to be the teacher, let them find the solution within the activity.
5. Manipulate time and space to create pressure. Players who have played a lot of invasion games are good at this.
6. Information dictates technique - the development of the skill should never be done in isolation of wider information. Otherwise the skill breaks down.
7. Expression and creativity is prized over conforming to a model. Innovation must be part of it.
8. Technique based KPIs are not important. Process is key, how committed to learning are they?
9. Establish the aim of the session based on the problems. List the problems and then work backwards towards the solutions.
10. Work out the methods of learning based on low, medium and high pressure options. Slide between these to illicit the best learning model for the individual.
11. Players want you to be in control. But you must break the control cycle. Don't offer feedback...force them to solicit it.
12. Todays’ generation get told what to do a lot. They are not used to making decisions.
13. Try to Structure 'unstructured' practice.
14. Encourage the players develop the games or solutions or constraints to solve the problem. Make them critically evaluate tactical approaches and make decisions accordingly.
15. Create repetition without repetition.
Check out this video I found of the F2 Freestylers tranfering their skills from football to rugby. I know that some of these things take a number of takes but they are impressive none the less!