Hi this is my first “blog.” I am a full time sports coach and currently an ITTA Level 3 Coach and Tutor. I think I will need to be more concise!
As a coach I am always learning even after 25 years I am looking to improve, refine and define what I am trying to achieve. To that end I am going to try and put down some of those ideas and I would welcome any feedback you the reader would like to give.
Over the last number of years I have been working with a lot of very young children from ages of 5 to 12 years old. This is due in part to the fact that my 4 children are aged between these ages. As a parent I have been trying to learn how best to encourage and develop their ability to think clearly about what they are doing and what they want to achieve. I have had a number of conversations that lead me to believe that there are many out there who feel that children have to be certain age before this should be dealt with. I am not talking about sitting down and formally trying to teach them psychology but I do think a thought patterns start at a very early age and that some of these can be addressed in an indirect way.
The merits of competition often divide parents, coaches and teachers. Some feel that all competition is bad for young children, I feel that there are many forms of competition and that some are inappropriate and some are beneficial. Often I think it comes down to what is trying to be achieved through competition and the goals that are being set, if these are inappropriate then I agree that competition for the vast majority of children is a negative rather than a positive experience. Simply put competition is often about winners and losers, winning being a good thing and losing a bad one, if this is the case then I feel that competition for young children is nearly always a negative thing.
However most children naturally compete, my children compete for attention, I don’t consider this a bad thing I feel it is a totally natural part of family life. Trying to juggle the level of attention between 4 kids is an important part of my parenting skills. Coaching children is not a million miles away from parenting. Trying to impart knowledge, keeping their attention and rewarding good behaviour are all necessary skills. It is obviously much easier to be a coach as you are focused on the teaching of just one skill. Or are you?
It is too simple to judge ability by those that win against those that lose and by doing so I think the emphasis is focused in the wrong area. It is far harder to determine potential as it requires the coach to be more subjective in their assessment. As a coach I need to make that judgement and be aware of each player’s individual abilities.
As an example I have players who can win points and matches but I am also aware that they are managing to do so even though they may well have developed inefficient technique. The balance between what is effective and what is efficient is an important aspect of coaching and requires careful consideration. What is effective as an under 10 may well become ineffective as they progress to an older age group. A 9 year old that wins by consistently blocking and pushing may well struggle as they begin to play against older players that are able to take the initiative. Trying to change the habits developed at an early age are far harder than teaching correct technique initially.
I feel setting appropriate goals is a major factoring in developing a player. I use a six layered proficiency scheme; the first level (Contact & Co-ordination) is used as an introduction and can be achieved at a very early stage, ideally within the first 6 to 8 weeks of training. The second level (Developing Technique) introduces the four basic shots while level 3 (Combining Shots) builds to the next level. The next 3 levels are usually kept for older players; Consistency & Accuracy, Accuracy, Footwork & Movement and the final level is Refining & Perfecting. The advantage of using a proficiency scheme is it solely focused on developing a player and rewarding correct technique rather than on shots that can win points. However in my experience players still manage to compete with each other over passing the various levels! I also present a “Player of The Month” Award in each of the clubs I train in and I emphasise that this award is for various player qualities rather than for performance goals.
I mentioned that in my mind there is a difference between appropriate and inappropriate competition and I would like to outline that difference here. Simply put appropriate competition provides every player with an opportunity to experience success no matter what their level of ability. This can be achieved in various ways and requires the coach to be creative in their development strategy. Firstly I think it important that a player in competition develops their technique against similar standard players, obviously in training the higher the standard of your training partner the better. I have come across an attitude where coaches and parents feel that playing at a higher standard of competition will “toughen them up.” I think this is a very risky tactic and the “sink or swim” attitude can often dent the confidence level of the majority of players. If you have a reasonably large squad of players you may well succeed in developing a small percentage and in coaching terms this might be considered a success if one of the players manages to “swim.” However I think this is coaching at its worst and unfortunately in my experience prevalent within a lot of sports and contributes to a high level of drop out from sport in general. If you lose 10 players for every 1 you “succeed” with then in my opinion however high a level that player attains it is too high a cost to pay.
The main reason for competition is to give a player a chance to implement what they have learnt in training. I set a simple goal for each player to try and achieve at least an 80% of their ability target. This means that whether they win or lose a match their goal can be obtainable and not dependent on the performance of the other player. A player can play at 80% of their ability and still lose to a player of higher ability and still achieve a level of success that they deserve. To target a finishing position is inappropriate in a sport that is “combative” by nature as the “winning” factors are outside the control of the individual. In sports like athletics it is easier as times or distances can be recorded as “personal bests.” This level of ability is subjective but even at a very young age a player can be aware of their true level of ability especially when helped by their coach. It is also important to make players aware that their “potential” level of ability is higher than what they are likely to achieve at the present time and this is what they are training to achieve.
I also like to set technical goals for players. For example I would encourage a player to try and introduce a “new” shot for the first time in competition. This could be a practiced serve or a combination that was achieved during regular training. For example a goal could be to play at least 5 forehand top spin drives during a match. The emphasis here is not on winning the point but using correct technique. This is especially effective when a player does find themselves playing a player of a higher level.
Reward and praise cannot be underestimated. Criticism can be a sharp edged sword to a young player and can undermine confidence which does not benefit the development of any player. Praise for the attempt is as important as praise for the completion. Telling a young player what they should have done to “win” a match immediately after losing is poor coaching, emphasising what they managed to achieve is far more productive in the long run. Correcting poor technique and tactics can be addressed during training sessions.
Within competition it is also important to allow players to make mistakes without criticising their efforts. This is extremely important as it all too easy with very young players to make them dependent upon your guidance as a coach. This robes the player of vital independent development and in the long term will undermine their confidence as they will become dependent upon the approval of their coach which in turn will stunt their development as a player.
So what are the practical aspects of all this theory?
As a coach
As a parent