I love coaching children...it is a real privilege. I honestly believe that it is one of the most fun things that you can do. Yes it's a challenge and yes it has it's ups and downs but if you want to do something that gives you a genuine sense of contribution and personal well being I challenge you to find something better than coaching a group of children. When you are standing on a sideline watching the play, worrying about making sure that everyone gets enough pitch time and whether they will be able to compete against the much bigger, more experienced kids they are playing against and one of the kids turns to you and starts telling you all about the laser quest she is going to do for her birthday party a week later, it kind of puts things into perspective. I smile, crouch down and and say, "wow that sounds awesome...now, see this game over here, tell me what is going on and what you are going to do when you get on?" I have to raise my voice a little bit...not in any kind of chastising way...just to make myself heard over the noise coming from nearby. About 15 yards away from me are the opposition 'coaches'...they haven't got time to be talking to the kids on the sideline, they are in the zone...they are passing on their knowledge to their players...they want to make sure that they are all following the instructions and doing the 'correct' things. "Charlie, pass, pass to Liam...pass to Liam...PASS IT." "Maria...watch out for him...watch out for him....good tackle....pass it". "NOOOOO! Sam...don't do that!" They are what a great coach and communication expert, Reed Maltbie (check out his TED talk on communication here) calls 'joystick coaches'. They want to control what is going on on the pitch and their instructions are designed to ensure that the players do what they want them to do. Now some readers might be thinking..."that is fair enough isn't it...the children don't know what to do. They need to give them instruction otherwise they wouldn't be coaching and the children wouldn't be learning...they are kids after all...they don't know what to do!" This is where I would differ...telling kids what to do isn't coaching...telling kids what to do is instruction...and I would argue that following instructions isn't learning...the kids aren't making decisions...they aren't exploring the best way to do something...they are just trying to comply. In my view, getting kids to comply with instructions isn't coaching...coaching needs to have an element of learning and development within it! As a general rule I try and be really quiet on the sideline (not easy for me!). If I do say something to a player it is in the form of a question.... Olly where is the space? Reuben who can you pass to? The questions are designed to raise their awarenes and to engage their minds, the question needs to be answered with an action, they have to think about what to do... An instruction, on the other hand, needs to be obeyed, carried out, followed. It involves no mental engagement...it doesn't encourage thinking and understanding. I don't want the players to follow or obey...I want to help them become more aware... I want to draw their attention to things that they might not be aware of and make them more aware of the problem they need to solve. I want them to explore how they can solve the problem through play and exploration... I want to help them to learn! I like to think of it like a detective story and I am the crime writer...I am asking them to solve a mystery...the mystery that is the game...I provide them with clues to help them solve the mystery but they have to piece together these bits of information to work out how to solve the mystery. Instead of a 'who dunnit' I present a 'how dunnit'. If I give them the answer too soon by instructing them or telling them what to do then where is the intrigue? What is the hook to get the individual engaged and wanting to find out more? Where is the satisfaction of solving the mystery? After each game we explore how they solved the problem...I help them to review the things they did to find a solution. I see this as a gift...the gift of problem solving, the gift of awareness. By becoming aware of the problem they can start to develop the tools to tackle the challenge. It's like when Sherlock explains to Watson how he arrived at a specific conclusion...all the little clues that he picked up that wouldn't be noticed by anyone else and how he pieces them all together... except in this case the kids are the amazingly intuitive Sherlock...and all to often, I am the bumbling unaware Watson... Just as Watson is constantly amazed by Sherlock's ability to see and sense the solution to the problem...I am amazed by their ability to identify what they need to do and to work it out for themselves. It is so rewarding to see some of the things they come up with...the creative ways that they try and play the game...some of the techniques they come up with to get the ball where it needs to go...some of the ways that they try to pass to find the space...how they get out of tight spots... It is genuinely a joy to behold! It is truly wonderful! There is only one snag.... They lose all the time! This isn't actually a problem for me...I just love watching them play...I am enthralled by the things that they try and do. I love seeing them struggle to work things out...sometimes I can actually see them wrestling with what to do...they are waiting for the picture to look right...they are trying to find the way. Quite often they try to do something but they don't quite get it right. Quite often this results in the opposition getting the ball and scoring. I just applaud them for the effort...this is the only time you hear me get vocal on the sideline..."awesome guys...that was a great effort...try again..." I can see other coaches staring at me like I am mad...my team has just conceded a goal...why aren't I telling them to do something else? What kind of a coach am I? What would I actively encourage my players when they fail and suggest that they do it again? But that's the point isn't it? The learning comes in these moments...they tried to do something but they didn't quite get the execution right...I definitely don't want them to stop doing it just because it didn't work out...I want them to do it again and find a way to succeed. Whenever this happens I think of a brilliant quote that I heard from Professor Carol Dweck, when she spoke at a conference I organised for a load of rugby coaches...she said, "we need to free children up from the tyranny of now...and lead them towards the power of yet". What she meant by this was that children should not be stopped from doing something because they aren't able to do it at that moment...they should be encouraged to try again so that they understand that there is value in the struggle of learning and improving. Instead of thinking "I can't do this..." they think..."I can't do this YET!". They aren't deterred by the failure, they don't shy away from it...they embrace it and use it as a means to get better. If we correct them and offer solutions too quickly then they just take the easy way out and follow orders...they can opt out from engaging in the learning process. And I can't deny them that opportunity...I don't want to short change them by making it too easy...I want them to receive the gift of learning and getting better. And that, in my opinion, is what coaching children's sport should be all about...learning...exploring...developing...improving...trying hard...getting things wrong...trying again...getting them wrong again...trying again...finding the way... And competition is like a test...it is a way of testing what they have learned...it is a way of measuring progress...it is a way for me to see how the children are developing their understanding of the game and how they are creating methods to exploit that. Competition for children shouldn't be about seeing how well they can follow orders...how well they comply...how well they do what they are told. Where is the fun in that? Where is the exploration? Where is the joy? And just as importantly...where is the skill acquisition? This is the problem with competition...it becomes about the result...as coaches it is easy to start doing things that are counter to our goal of developing the players abilities because we are fixated on the outcome. It would be really easy for me to give the players structure, get them to practice playing within a structure, give them the tactics and the solutions and we would probably win some games. But that would rob them of the learning opportunity... So we learn and we lose and we learn. As the World Cup winning coach of Jonny Wilkinson, Dave Alred, once said "learning happens in the ugly zone".
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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!
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/