One of the biggest challenges facing coaches in youth sports today has to do with the generation of young people they are interacting with. “Me generation” parents have, in some cases, raised youngsters to feel positive about—and believe in— themselves. This is a good thing in many ways, indeed.
What can sometimes happen, unfortunately, is that without guidelines—and consequences for certain attitudes and behaviours—these young people sometimes believe they can do as they wish, and can, in a sense, “do no wrong”. They are not accountable and if anything goes wrong it’s someone else’s fault. In the world of youth sports, this perhaps makes coaching youngsters a tougher job than ever before.
One question to ask is whether or not coaches are coaching this way in response to pressure applied by the parents of the athletes they coach.
Building big egos or positive self-confidence?
With the above reality as a backdrop, whether young “athletes”—while playing for fun or at a more serious, ultra-competitive level—become better athletes, better people and develop strong character has a lot to do with the adults that are around and influence them. Parents, teachers and youth coaches in particular have a deep and lasting impact—an impact that can be positive or negative.
While developing a healthy ego is a good thing for everyone, when one’s ego development conflicts with or overrides the good of others, it’s not necessarily healthy. In youth sports terms, a coach can look to build true self-esteem without creating a selfish, arrogant or “I’m better than” attitude in the young people they work with.
Creating arrogant egos and missed teaching moments
• Too many youth coaches praise athletes when it isn’t really deserved. For example, a lazy player who didn’t work hard and spent the game blaming teammates, but who scored a goal in a hockey or soccer game, is rewarded for the goal, because it helped the team “win”. His/her behaviour is forgotten, only the goal and result is rewarded. This reinforces to the young athlete that the only thing that matters is scoring—not everything else that goes into building a successful team. Unfortunately if the coach is successful in trying to combat this mentality, all too often parents are the ones sending the inappropriate message.
• Allowing a player to exhibit negative behaviours on the field of play without dealing with those behaviours is unhealthy. This is particularly unacceptable if the coach’s reason for not dealing with the behaviour is that the player is more “talented” than others. If “talented” players are allowed to get away with actions that harm the team, everyone suffers—and that young person begins to believe they can behave as they wish, regardless of how this affects others.
• Not working with a player to improve their skills because they are bigger or faster than other players at a certain stage in their development (and they are already good enough to help you “win”) or conversely, ignoring a player because they are deemed “too small” is a disservice and isn’t helping those players. This kind of coach seems to care more about winning, and not about developing all their players to their fullest potential
Building real confidence
Some things to keep in mind:
• Encourage your players to work hard to become as good as they can be but strive to accomplish this in a positive, supportive environment.
• Identify things a player does well and comment on those things, not only on areas for improvement.
• Stress your appreciation for genuine effort rather than outcome.
• Allow your players to make mistakes. This is how they learn. Belittling a youngster publicly because they make an error doesn’t help their learning curve. If anything, for many young athletes it damages their ability to learn and function well the next time.
• Speak privately with players to discuss things they need to work on.
• Coach and parents should have realistic expectations and those expectations should be agreed upon before every new season starts.
• Emphasize the importance of training because good practice habits lead to skill development and positive outcomes—for all players.
• Always remember that young athletes remember positive—or negative—interactions with adults for a long, long time.
Youth sports should be about fun. Everyone says that, but many—coaches, parents, administrators—don’t act this way. There is no question too many athletes nowadays are catered to, allowed to act in ways that should not be accepted, because coaches want to win—when winning should be secondary to helping young boys and girls develop character while learning about the ups and downs of life through sports. Many youngsters (and parents) have a sense of entitlement, because they are constantly rewarded by outcome, rather than by behaviour, attitude and effort.
The coaches who focus on the latter, rather than sheer talent and outcome, are helping to build true character and real confidence, rather than just creating even bigger egos.