These last few days there has been a big media debate here in Sweden with regard to children in sport. Traditional structures and practices have been questioned and analysed as the question being asked was -why are an increasing number of children turning their back on organised sport? The debates have been interesting with many eager to provide input and opinions. To get to the heart of the discussion I think we need to ask the following questions.
Has the debate just been focusing on youth sport as adults and children when sport is also just children playing sport?
The child and adult in sport- Do they have the same motives?
It is generally accepted that sport is good for children. Participation is often associated with the development of many positive life skills. This is a common sound-bite used by clubs, politicians, governing bodies and coaches. However participation alone cannot guarantee positive outcomes. It would be more appropriate to say that sport is good for children under the right conditions. Over the last few years there has been a huge metamorphosis within sport. Major advances in sports science and in general a higher standard of training facilities have set new levels of expectation for elite athletes. There is a demand for immediate success and each performance gets pushed under the microscope of analysis. For better or for worse this is having an influence on all levels. This is no more evident than at grassroots level. Earlier than ever children are being exposed to the organised sport and funnelled through various selection systems judging their ability while they still have their milk teeth.
Children see the sport and how it is managed, coached and reflected in the club. They accept what they experience as the norm- so we need to ensure that the agendas and complexities of adults when “running” clubs do not affect them- Dr Martin Toms
Unlike adults who focus on particular goals, children seek instant gratification. This possibly explains why we adults often brush aside play as a waste of time as we have difficulty in seeing how it serves us and at times our children’s future. Today children mainly experience sport in adult organised environments. Many a child’s first contact with a sport happens this way. The race to the bottom is in full flow. At an earlier stage than ever we are minimising the child’s play experience and committing them to a practice environment. These are more than often environments where there is a single focus on one sport.
The problem is really with the adult. The fear of losing the player to another activity, we try to prevent this by forcing them to specialise or by making it logistically impossible for them to combine sports– Ulf Carlsson Goteborg Football Association
Many adults believe that children can only learn in adult created environments and now there is a risk that children are starting to believe this. Children need the opportunity to develop a sense of fun and autonomy (important from a commitment and motivational perspective), a feeling that they also have some control over their environment and development.
If you want to see what autonomy looks like then look at the face of a child that has just learned to walk. That is self-esteem growing- Jean Cote
Children thrive in safe to fail environments, just like the ones that they used to create by playing spontaneous “street” games, before we adults set limits on their everyday interaction with their environment. A good example of a modern safe to fail environment is computer games. There is no adult shouting over the child’s shoulder giving instructions and solutions. The child is allowed to fail and fail better, eventually finding their own solutions to problems. Better learning can occur when children are allowed to make mistakes. Children in these environments can be very creative. They seek out solutions through cooperation or as in the case of computer games, through the many different forms of social media that they have access to. There is a sense of ownership.
As coaches we need to reflect on what we do and the environment we create especially if we are not getting the desired response from players – Janne Mian
A safe to fail environment where mistakes and struggle are not judged because the player is more worried about personal development than judging others- Mark Upton
We need to ask ourselves, how is the child’s sport played and how is it experienced? We know that it has become more structured and certainly more competitive. Children want to win, they are competitive. They just don’t need adults to remind them or define it for them. Problems begin to arise when there is an early focus placed on children to compete on the same terms that adults compete.
It is the societal expectations through professional sport that has screwed up our focus on learning and development of children in sport- Lynn Kidman
You see, Youth sport has become big business. This means that it has become “adult business” with adult expectations, adult rules and driven by adult motives.
Sport logic is a bubble in many ways disconnected from the rest of life- Fredrik Sundqvist
So how do we move forward? Here are some “spontaneous” suggestions J
- Understand that children are NOT mini-adults ( One of the many mantras I learned from Dr Martin Toms)
- Coaching children is about relationships, how we nurture and enhance them.
- It is their sport not ours. We are there to facilitate learning and development
- Learning and development is non-linear. Therefore talent development is non-linear
- Understand that each child is unique. They are human beings with feelings and history. One size does not fit all
- A safe to fail environment, one that encourages process and values effort and perseverance is also a safe to reflect environment. Mistakes are a powerful part of learning. Children can reflect and develop their self- awareness.
- Find a balance between structured and unstructured practice and structured and unstructured play- activities. This is the real art of coaching children. Parents should play their part and encourage this balance. Play can also be spontaneous practice!
- Empower them!!!!!
Let us not forget that these children are individuals that form teams in clubs that are part of a community. How we deal with this is very important.
The child and adult in sport- Do they have the same motives?
Thank you to the following for inspiration