I called to a GAA club last week that was hosting a Kellogg’s Cúl camp. It was hard to miss from the road with the pitch full of the distinctive bright and striking coloured gear.
Thousands of children up and down the length and breadth of the island are enjoying a summer of everything that is great about juvenile Gaelic football and hurling.
These summer camps are nothing new, but their popularity has exploded in recent years and are again providing serious value for money for families countrywide.
The gear and the child-minding are obviously hugely appealing to working parents desperately trying to fill the school holidays for their kids, but the continued growth of the Cúl camps also shines a bright light on what it is that children want through their interaction with sport at those young ages.
The camps work for a number of reasons, primarily because youngsters are learning and having fun in an enjoyable, non-competitive environment that allows them to play ball without the stress of having to win or be great for the frothing-at-the-mouth supporters on the sideline.
There are no aggressive adults abusing the referee during the mini leagues in the afternoon, some of the time the kids might even set the rules and referee the games themselves. Imagine that.
They’ll do some practice each day, nothing overly demanding, but they’ll work through the core skills and have the opportunity to develop the basics of the game at their own pace.
As much as possible, everybody will have a ball and won’t be spending too much of their time standing behind a cone waiting a couple of minutes for their next turn to briefly touch the ball.
A lot of the time, and within reason, the children set the agenda of what they want to do. They ask for the games they want to play, they pick the fun activities they like, they high-five their coaches, they smile, they laugh, they enjoy the chance to learn to play the game.
Nobody keeps the score in the games with any great accuracy, and the teams are constructed in such a way to give everybody a chance to play and contribute something positive to the game.
It seems like a pretty straightforward philosophy to employ around children’s sport - try to make football or hurling training the most enjoyable thing they do in the week. That’s the primary job of the coach.
It might be easier to write down rather than actually do, but that’s the challenge of coaching those young age groups.
It becomes especially difficult at this stage of the summer, most of the early season enthusiasm has waned somewhat as coaches, parents and players are wilting after all of the Go Games blitzes, camps, activity days, training sessions and everything else.
I’ve written previously about the need for coaching to embrace the idea of autonomy-supportive environments; something that can have a powerful impact on the development of players' intrinsic motivation as they get older and move toward more competitive sport.
That’s the type of internal motivation that keeps people practicing and playing the game longer and makes them far less likely to drop out of the sport.
One of the key elements to creating a sense of autonomy within young people is giving them the opportunity to feel that their actions are self-directed in some way.
That they are an active participant in whatever they are doing, and are being included in their own journey through the sport as opposed to just being constantly barked at or ordered around from pillar to post.
By giving children opportunities to make choices within reason, it can help to develop a sense of ownership over what they are doing. By asking for their input and following through on it can be hugely fulfilling for their sense of autonomy.
Think about the way we’ve traditionally operated at under 8’s and 10’s and all the way up… the kids bound through the gate on a Sunday morning and what’s the first thing they ask to do? ‘Can we play a game?’
And what’s the response they get time and again from coaches, ‘no, not now, but if you do all the drills and stuff first, we might get to play a game at the end if you do everything really well’.
It’s the classic motivation killer.
They are literally telling you what would make them happy at training and most of the time coaches do the exact opposite of what the children are asking for.
Coaching by reward or punishment is typical old-school extrinsic motivation and is one of the reasons our participation numbers fall off a cliff as players get older.
How powerful would it be if the coach said ‘Ok, I hadn’t planned to play a game straight away, but if it’s what you want to do, we’ll start with a game today. But we’ll do some ball practice after’.
Straight away the children would be feeling 10 feet tall. They were brave enough to make a suggestion, and instead of just swatting it away, the coach valued their idea enough to actually run with it.
That’s hugely empowering for children.
The argument you get back from coaches is that we can’t give the children everything they want all of the time and of course that is true. But it is ok to give them what they want at least some of the time.
After all, if a bunch of 8-year-olds want to come down to the field to play a few games at training, it probably isn’t that much of a stretch to accommodate their wish.
There are boundaries and constraints to this type of approach to coaching, and we don’t want to overburden young children with constant decision-making during the session.
We can design our training to allow for opportunities where they have brief moments to work independently and feel like they aren’t just being told what to do all of the time.
Working on all the skills, the fundamental movement, the fun games, doing everything on both sides, playing small-sided games, making sure everybody is involved… there’s a lot to boxes to tick to ensure the children are getting something out of the session and having fun.
It’s the middle of the summer and there’s been plenty of classic coaching done by now, if you want to keep the children more engaged in what you're trying to do, try to do more asking than telling, and more listening than shouting.
Let the children guide where they want to go for a while, and you might just be surprised where they take you.