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Pushing children in sport …
Is it encouraging mental toughness or a risk to drop out rates?
As a Sport Psychologist, one of the questions that I often get asked by coaches on our NLP sport practitioner courses, is about how we encourage junior athletes to ‘play up’ a level to encourage a greater level of responsibility and mental toughness and to get them comfortable in playing outside of their comfort zone.
Although I work mainly with high performance / elite sport, I’m heavily involved in participation too, having been chair of my hockey club for over 6 years and have worked with the club to encourage more adult participation through schemes like ‘back to hockey’; encouraging Mums back into the game after a long break.
This has been a successful and encouraging journey, and whilst not without its ups and downs, has definitely paid dividends for the club.
Alongside this, our juniors section has grown hugely, and due to the efforts and enthusiasm of a whole host of dedicated volunteers, we have a vibrant and thriving juniors section, with excited and keen youngsters, all making hockey a major part of their lives – hopefully for many years to come.
So the question moving forward is:
Should we be pushing our younger players to ‘step up’ or are they better staying within age/current ability levels?
Clearly there will be differences between players, so it’s not a straightforward answer, but an area of research we can look towards is the concept of Flow and being ‘in the zone’.
For adults and children, effective engagement will drop off when we’re not being challenged at a level that’s right for us. Too much and we get anxious and make errors. Too little and we’re bored and lose enthusiasm.
We’re all looking for that ‘optimal experience’ that gives us a high level of satisfaction from what we’re doing … if not, we’re more likely to go off and do something else!
So what does this mean for coaches who see kids needing that little bit extra?
Although there’s no ‘right’ answer, other factors need to be taken into consideration:
What is the ultimate outcome you have for your players? Is it enjoyment? Keeping them participating? What about physical safety and injury risk? Are you likely to ‘annoy’ others by the decisions you take: Parents? Other players? Senior players in the club? Success and promoting high performance?
And what about coaches aspirations? Is it always about the child?
Clearly there are many things to consider, but as someone who believes in both participation and performance, if managed carefully, then a club can have both.
Creating an environment that facilitates flow ….
Identifying what individual players need … and set them challenges that match that need. If this means segregating players out, so be it, and do it with ….
Transparency … being open about what is required to play at certain ‘levels’ or in certain squads. Knowing what’s expected of each player, promotes …
Opportunity for all … make it clear that everyone can aim for your performance squads – that’s it’s not just about the coaches decision (particularly with community clubs that promote inclusion), but about offering the level of coaching that’s right for the player. This helps with …
Selection for performance squads … players ‘select’ themselves by meeting your criteria, as the balance between challenge and skill is being offered to push the player. For those that don’t meet the specified criteria …
Offer a parallel option for coaching that is set at a more appropriate level … this helps to avoid ‘I’m not getting the same options’/’why is my child not being paid attention to’/’I pay the same subs as they do’ complaints. Do this with care, and you help offset the ‘I’m not good enough’ situation which can result in a drop in self esteem. Other things to help with this are ….
Make it clear movement between squads is a given … by running what appears on the outside, the same coaching options as the performance group, the opportunity remains to create flow, encourage enjoyment and participation and promote effort and ‘stickability’ …. benefits to this are ….
Encouragement through effective feedback …. Children respond well to feedback about the effort they apply to tasks, more so than if they’re told they’re amazing/clever/outstanding etc, which often leads them to dropping out for fear they can’t reproduce the same level or better next time. By running a parallel coaching, children can apply effort, at a level that’s right for them, and by doing so, may develop into a much better player than previously thought, simply because they’ve had the opportunity to get into their flow, without being over challenged based on the skill level they have at the time.
Obviously there are many factors to developing younger players, and the argument isn’t about elite v non elite or competition v participation …. All of these can be achieved … it’s just about the way in which you communicate your goals and outcomes.
By recognising that everyone can achieve flow, no matter what their level, by having this as your outcome, then your aspirations for success will stand a much better chance of becoming a reality … and your recognition and reward will come from having players who go the extra mile …. Whatever level they’re playing at!