Sideline view: ‘If we only value success we are setting our children up for failure’

Sideline view: ‘If we only value success we are setting our children up for failure’

Like many other parents, my weekends consist of rushing and racing to get to games and training.

As a coach, I find it to be tremendous fun and extremely enjoyable; sadly though not everyone has the same experience.

Twitter has given me a wonderful tool for sharing coaching tips and advice with like-minded people — but the direct message function has opened a door into the frightening approaches that many patrolling the sidelines are taking when in charge of underage sides.

Here is a tiny snapshot of some of the horror stories:

  • U10 girls’ coach looking for a strength and conditioning programme.
  • U12 boys’s squad being brought to a spinning studio.
  • U9 coach shouting at girls practising handstands and cartwheels. “This is not gymnastics, any more of that and you’re out that gate”
  • Over half the players on a U9 boys squad quitting as the coaches were too intense.
  • The coach of an U11 girls’ side warning they would have to undertake a beep test following a defeat.

Now, like most problems that we encounter, there are solutions. First and foremost it’s of paramount importance to ascertain why children play sport. The fundamental reason children play sport is to meet friends and have fun. The next time you’re in a park or a playground, observe your children playing. What you’ll see is chaotic movement patterns, excitement, and self-directed play. Any time I watch my children playing with their friends I see running, jumping, climbing and general unstructured play. So when they come to be coached at training they hardly want to be waiting in a long line for a pass — nor should they be.

It could be argued that coaching is different today than it was 10 or even 20 years ago. And it’s a fair point to make. The days when the manager arrived with one ball and four cones (taken from the council workers doing roadworks) are a distant memory. In the eighties or nineties, there would be two teams picked, a ball thrown in and every player would have to fight their own corner for a kick. We can react in two ways as coaches. We can yearn for yesteryear when the only screen we had was a television and the only phone we had ensured making a call was a workout in itself! Or we can embrace the way the world has evolved for children and adapt accordingly. In doing so we need to maintain lots of variety in our training sessions. Children need more variety for a variety of reasons and as coaches we can meet their needs in many ways.

That starts from the moment they walk into training. We can smile and say hello, create a relaxed atmosphere and ensure first and foremost that every child is there to have fun. We could do a lot worse as coaches than to start every training session with a simple game of running, chasing or tag. It is simple, enjoyable and effective. Following a simple warm up we can move towards our skills — catching, kicking and shooting for Gaelic football or striking, shooting and lifting if its hurling or camogie. Each child can have a ball each, though I prefer one between two.

Pairing off with a ball creates sharing, a sense of teamwork and empathy for one another. It shows children that they don’t own the ball and their friends need a pass too. During the skills phase, the greatest gift we can give children is to applaud and encourage mistakes. Mistakes are fantastic as mistakes are part of learning. By encouraging mistakes we are not focusing on short term results but long term development.

For younger children (between 5-9) we must expose them to a selection of fundamental movement skills through fun and play. For example, designing training around a station format consisting of games, fun and skills will ensure the children are playing something new every three or four minutes. This is both stimulating and exciting for children. Boredom will not be an issue.

It’s a little bit like crowd control as opposed to coaching! But roll with it and don’t take yourself so seriously.

There are days when they’re just not listening and you will question your sanity! They’re running around, they’re thirsty, they’re hungry, they tell you they’re having pancakes for breakfast! And these examples are a brilliant indication as to what children want at training: fun games, a chance to see their friends and to chat. It’s an absolutely magical place to be. When coaching children we must also understand our role as coaches.

The role of the coach is to create a lifelong love of the sport where participation matters much more than winning. If we only value success, we are setting children up for failure. The statistics tell us that just 1% of children go on and play sport at a high level in their code. So does that mean the other 99% are failures?

Take, for example a GAA club who have 100 children at nursery level.

Now is success for a club the one child that goes on to play intercounty or the 99 children that stay in the club to play junior, senior, manage juvenile teams, become secretary or treasurer or mark the pitches? Success is relative to the people within the club.

As coaches to children we have a fantastic opportunity to create a love of the sport.

If you don’t take it too seriously, they won’t take it too seriously. If you’re calm, they’re calm. If you react the same way whether you win or lose, so will they.

Children need just one role model to look up to, it could be you.

Shane Smith holds an honours degree in sports science & health along with a Masters in primary education. He is the football coach for current Dublin SFC champions, Kilmacud Crokes.

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