Coaching should make sport fun and beneficial for children

When it comes to coaching children, the focus needs to be on play and developing good movement skills, discovers Siobain Peters during her training course 

NOBODY is born a coach. As delightfully cute (and a little scary) as that might be, no baby has ever come bedecked with dangling clipboard and whistle. Big, angry red head... maybe. But those days of the roaring, jugular-bulging, hand-flailing coach are numbered.

Picture Timmy Ryan, the notorious GAA coach figure of the D’Unbelievables sketch. Wouldn’t want the likes of him coaching your little darling, would you? A little less José Mourinho, a little more Joe Schmidt. And please, definitely no flying boots, à la Sir Alex, as there are children at play here, and what they need is a really great coach.

Enter Coaching Ireland (CI), whose very aim, according its education development officer Liam Moggan, is “to help the governing bodies of sport to be independent of us”.

So people like me, who were dragged kicking and screaming into the world of under-8 Gaelic football coaching, now participate in courses run by CI-trained tutors, who teach us how to ‘coach’ our respective sports.

CI does not believe in coaching children as mini-adults. In an introduction to the coaching children series it states: “Too often, programmes offered to children in sport are scaled down versions of adult activities. However, children’s needs and wants could often not be more different from adults... it is therefore crucial that we as coaches understand these needs and wants and help children to fall in love with sports.”

That is where Lea-Cathrin Dohme and Sergio Lara-Bercial come in. Based at Leeds Beckett University in England, they developed the Coaching Children Curriculum, which CI now implements over a four-workshop series to provide coaches with specific knowledge, skills, and competencies to fulfil the needs of children.

According to Bercial, “There was a gap in terms of developing non-sport specific resources for those working with very young children aged three to 12, which was based around how to make the most of the sport experience for children.”

Or, put simply, fun is central.

I don’t know if you’ve ever witnessed a field of seven-year-olds, waiting to be ‘coached’, but the word ‘chaos’ springs to mind. CI’s Moggan says: “A good coach coaches the sport, while a great coach coaches the player.”

So when those players are little people with endless pits of energy, exuberance, and enthusiasm, there is no point roaring at them to get in line, and calmly practise kicking, or hand-passing, or swinging. Ain’t gonna happen.

What will happen will be blank stares, some giggling, and a few cartwheels for good measure.

That is because children play sport for fun and enjoyment. Dad might be over on the sidelines, fretting about junior’s chances of playing for the county, but these days, that is definitely not what it is about.

“The biggest change in coaching in the last decade or two is that we have finally realised that coaching and sport are not only for those who are trying to be the next Ronaldo or Michael Jordan,” says Bercial.

“Children need a base of movement skills before they do any sport specific- skills and coaches working at this level should have that at the fore of their mind even when working in a sport- specific environment.”

So that is why on any given evening across the country, you will see teams out jumping hurdles, tossing bean bags, and running through obstacle courses. Whether it’s hurling, athletics, or soccer, CI’s coaching children brief, aims “to equip children with both movement skills and love of activity, to remain active into their adult years and lead a healthy lifestyle.”

Parents might be scratching their heads on the sides, watching while the crazy coach has their kids bunny hopping around the place. But that “crazy” coach is sneakily teaching the youngsters how to jump properly, so that when they land, they will be inury-free. And better yet, those leapers have wide smiles on their faces.

According to Marie Murphy, professor of exercise and health at the University of Ulster: “Today’s kids are a generation like no other. They don’t go out to play, and as a result, they miss out on learning fundamental movement skills like hopping on one foot, jumping, balancing, etc.., and have to actually be ‘taught’ these skills.”

Murphy is worried about kids taking on formal sport-specific training at too young of an age. “I see it increasingly in ‘ball’ sports, such as rugby, Gaelic, and soccer — they are taking kids at a younger and younger age because the sport wants to get them in early, and also, parents want their kids to play the sport they played.”

Her words are a wake-up call to coaches everywhere — skip the target practise for the five-year-old, and instead focus on the basic movements, with a sideline of laughter.

Hey, go crazy and even get rid of the ball altogether for the training session. Old Timmy Ryan might choke on his breakfast roll, but even the crazed GAA coach, after telling his young players they are useless and to “pull hard, hard, hard into your man,” roars at them to “go out there today and enjoy yourselves.”

  • Next week: Coaches on the ground and what makes them tick


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