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I wanted to share this excellent article and podcast from my favourite radio and podcast station, NPR on winning in childrens' sport. As you will know this blog as all about providing coaches and parents with thoughts and ideas to help make the sporting experience for children better and I think that this sums up some of the challenges we face in trying to tackle the 'win / lose' question really well.

Working to change children's sport can create some pretty vitriolic responses from some quarters of the population so I totally get where this is coming from and it almost exactly sums up my stance on the topic. In my experience, competition for children can bring out the worst in otherwise well meaning and perfectly rational adults (take a look at the comments in the article for some pretty pointed examples!) and any discussion on the subject often descends into some pretty ugly exchanges.

I don't think that sports organisations help the situation sometimes either. Last year a county organsiation announced that it was changing its county tournament structure so that it was a festval format and had no semi finals and finals so therefore no overall winners. The response kicked up such a storm that it made national TV!

I'm not surprised that it got this kind of reponse, change like this never goes down well and if you add the emotive aspects that comes with the 'win vs lose' discussion then you may as well light the blue touch paper and stand back!

Why not offer both experiences. A fully competeitive offer with semi finals and finals and shiny cups and a competitive offer with winning deemphasised that has no final but everyone gets a medal. They could then compare and contrast the experience for the players and the kids could experience both and judge for themselves which one was most suitable going forward.

What, give children choice? That's just crazy talk!

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Whenever I enter into a conversation about sport for young people, the discussion almost always ends up centring around the 'Relative Age Effect' (RAE). RAE is a cultural phenomenon whereby children who are born at a given point in the year (usually the 3 months or so after a cut off point for the purposes of age grades) are disproportionately represented among their peer group in representative age group teams.

The theory goes that these children are more cognitively and physically developed than their peers who are born later in the year group and so have an advantage over their relatively younger and less developed teammates.

Check out this video for a great example of a player with a major physical advantage over his peers.

A study by David Hancock, Ashley Adler and Jean Cote published in the European Journal of Sport Science in 2013, entitled "A proposed theoretical model to explain relative age effects in sport" sought to examine this phenomenon. In the study they propose that RAEs are more than just about physical advantage. They suggest that the effects are amplified by pretty powerful social influences driven by the influential people in children's lives which serve to increase the gaps between those that benefit from relative age advantage and those that do not.

"...social agents have the largest influence on RAEs. Specifically, we propose that parents influence RAEs through 'Matthew effects', coaches influence RAEs through 'Pygmalion effects' and athletes influence RAEs through 'Galatea effects'".

So what are the Matthew Effect, the Galatea Effect and the Pygmalion Effect?

'The Matthew Effect' is so called in reference to the book of Matthew in the bible which describes the 'rich getting richer' phenomenon in the 'parable of the talents', "For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath". In simpler terms, those who have ability are given extra support which increases that ability which in turn prompts more support.

Malcolm Gladwell provides an easily understandable explanation of this phenomenon in his bestselling book 'Outliers' (you cen get it in my library) where he describes the over representation of Canadian ice hockey players born in January, February or March (the 3 months after the cut off date for age grade teams) having a doubly disadvantageous impact as the players that are older and better are provided with additional training and access to more advanced coaching opportunities which reinforces the issue as these players improve more rapidly than other who are not given such access.

The 'Galatea effect' is a social experience where people's own opinions about their ability and self-worth influence their performance. This can often be seen as players evaluate their ability by comparing themselves against their peers.

The 'Pygmalion Effect' refers to the phenomenon in which the higher the expectations placed on people the better is their execution of a given activity. This effect was made famous by the film 'My Fair Lady' where Professor of phonetics Henry Higgins makes a bet that he can train a bedraggled Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, to pass for a duchess at an ambassador's garden party by teaching her to act as if she were a member of the upper classes.

So to summarise these 3 effects in practice we are presented with a perfect storm where:

  • Parents are throwing support and resources at their kids if they think they might be good at something. It makes sense that the player who turns up to everything and has access to best schools and coaching is going to do better than the player who doesn't. Just check out the car park of a junior sports tournament for an idea of what we mean

  • The player is viewing their ability and their potential through comparisons with their peers, If one players sees that they are better then their peers through being an early maturer then that has a powerful reinforcing action on that player (and presumably a negative response to those without that advantage)

  • Coaches are reinforcing both of these effects by paying more attention to those with more ability and raising their expectations. Players respond to this and rise to the expectations of the coach wheras those that do not recieve this patronage assume that they are not as good.

My latest newsletter to my subscribers I talk about this from a practical viewpoint as I am presented with these effects on a daily basis and I suggest a series of solutions to potentially help offset their impact.

My old employers SportsCoachUK have recently published an article explaining this is some more detail. Check it out here.

On the other hand a paper produced by Professor Dave Collins and Neil McCarthy from the University of Central Lancashire, recently suggested that RAEs may well be a necessary requirement for the development of talent. In the paper the authors studied the progression of players through a professional rugby academy and discovered that those who actually make it through to the pro ranks are actually more represented by those who are born later in the year.

One of the conclusions that they draw from this stems from the 'rocky road' theory which suggests that for players to truly develop their abilities they need to be presented with challenge which ignites a passion in them and fuels their development.

In this case the proposal is that the younger players are challenged by being smaller or less able which makes them adaptable, gritty and streetwise. The older players have it comparatively easy when they are younger and as such they rest on their laurels and don't develop as much as they could or should so that when size and speed and skill all even themselves out in adulthood, the ones who have had to adapt have the advantage.

I do know of parents that have timed the conception of their children to ensure that they benefit from the relative age cut off in education and sport so it is clear to me that some people take this very seriously. I have 2 children born either side of the education cut off so I will be interested to see how they both develop. Already, my son Evan, who is relativey old for his peer group is a bit of a cruiser while my daughter, Isla who is the youngest in her school year group is displaying grittiness.

Then again it could just be that Isla benefits from having to play catch up with her rough and tumble older brother!

I think that this is a complex topic but if coaches and parents are aware of the pros and cons then they can ensure that the affects of relative age challenges can be mitigated or even used to the child's advantage.

Diabo Johnson has already experienced plenty of Matthew, Galatea and Pygmalion effects in his short life. I write this blog in the hope that I can help players on both sides of these effects be surrounded by people who can ensure that their effects have a positive impact on their lives!

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After my debut podcast with Jeremy Boone (aargh do I really talk like that!?) I got a question from a coach called Jeremy Taylor who is the Director of Rugby at Denstone College, a top rugby school in England. (Jamie has an excellent blog check it out here)

"Stuart,

Listened to your podcast with Jeremy Boone this morning, really enjoyed it.

If I can ask, I was really interested in what you said about consequences during games. I was wondering what sort of consequences you have been using. How you felt it had affected the level of competition and if there were any situations that you aren’t using them?"

This article is based on my reply....

A lot has been said about the use of consequences in practice and I do know some coaches and governing bodies who do not like the concept. use of the word consequences conjures up images of kids being 'beasted' or punished which is an understandable fear but from my perspective I think it is an essential tool which, if used skillfully, can really aid in the development of skill and performance.

For me consequences create an outcome which creates intensity (see my previous post on that) and intensity creates mental engagement which builds skill. Too often I see players going through the motions by training in a way that is not game realistic. It is not surprising then when they get to the fierce competetive arena of the game that the skills break down. I hear coaches talking about this all the time when they talk about players 'reverting to type' under pressure. 'Reverting to type' is just inadequate preparation in by book.

Consequences create pressure and pressure creates a training environment that is closer to the real thing.

So how do I do it...

I like to use a mixed diet of consequences depending on the group or the situation. Just to be clear I only use consequences in training and practice activities not competitive games.

My favourite technique is to get the players to come up with the consequence themselves. A couple of weeks ago I asked the group to create a forfeit and they came up with singing! It was hilarious to see the losing team perform a rendition of 'let it go' from Frozen to the other team who all got their camera phones out to video it!

Another week, they decided that the losing team had to cook for the winning team at a forthcoming team social evening. Wow that was a doozy!

The other thing I do is use ongoing internal leagues so that as we get towards the end point of each league and the players are aiming to win or avoid losing the intensity rises.

At the start of the season I use physical consequence to build conditioning into training sessions. I use it as a way of 'gamifying' sessions that are focussed on the basics. It is always done with the players agreement as I ask them if they agree that conditioning will be important to achieving our goals and then I ask the to choose if they want conditioning within the session or separately (they invariably pick conditioning included). We establish the perimeters of the exercise together and set the goals. They then agree what they will do as a consequence if they fail to achieve their goals. It is amazing how high they set the bar!

If I do use a physical consequence, I present it as an opportunity to improve our performance by being fitter and stronger than any other team in our league. I find that getting the players training with the fear of the conditioning prepares our mindset and means that we are gritty and tough in games because we have been through worse in training.

I can't stress enough this aspect of 'selling the why' before going down tis route. The use of consequences has to be congruent with their goals but, used well, it is very powerful. I I have also found that this approach really builds team cohesion and develops team spirit as well as building character in young players, the sense of challenge and overcoming adversity is something that really grabs hold of some players.

I hope this helps

Happy Coaching

Stuart

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