7 things youth sport coaches should know

The interests and abilities of young athletes don't seem to be addressed by the single point of view found in most modern coach training courses. No matter what level of athlete a coach works with coaches training seems to be aimed at the elite level. Empirical evidence indicates that coaches who undergo training have career sights set on something more advanced than their present positions, so increasing a coach's practical knowledge would seem to make sense. But what about those coaches who coach only at the novice or intermediate levels? Do they need the same kind of knowledge as their elite level counterparts?

Before answering that question think about this one: What is the purpose of a youth sport developmental program? Is it to produce elite, high performance athletes, or is it meant to provide a foundational program for large numbers of children who may like sports but who may never reach the so-called elite level?

Countries that spend vast amounts chasing gold medals or trying to qualify for events like the World Cup might say that high performance is the purpose. They're wrong. High performance is a result of large, youth sport programs, not the purpose itself. To put it another way: Gold medals are an outcome, developmental programs are the process.

Developmental coaches need a different kind of training from high performance coaches. It's not that development coaches shouldn't seek advanced knowledge just that knowledge useful at the high performance level is rarely used or needed at the development level. Things like physiology, nutrition, kinesiology, and other subjects typically associated with high performance have little relevance at the development level.

Youngsters need a distinctly different program, a different experience, in order to advance through the various levels of performance in sport. The main thrust at the lower levels should be to create a passion for activity, one that brings youngsters back day after day and keeps them engaged so they will eventually reach their full potential.

Developmental coaches who try to utilize information gained in elite training courses end up providing programs that are both age and experience inappropriate.

So what do coaches really need to know? Here's a brief list:

They know sport fundamentals

This means the skills involved in the sport, not what to do but rather how to do it. Coaches need to realize that their job is to teach the fundamentals. Too often coaches look for young athletes who can already perform fundamental sport skills, then assume those athletes are 'talented' and work with them rather than teach the other athletes.

They know how to change the game so it's suitable for younger, smaller players

It's true that children are not just small adults but often when it comes to sport we see children playing in the same way as the pros, training the same way, playing on the same fields and courts, etc. Good youth coaches know how to change the game so that it is faster or slower as needed. They can change the number of players, the size of the playing area, or the kind of equipment used.

They can change the rules so that emphasis is on the continuation of play without constant interruptions due to rule infractions. Playing is fun, overemphasis on following rules reduces fun and interrupts the development of game sense.

They understand the long-term athlete development stages

Sport development pathways are similar to those used in education. In mathematics children learn arithmetic first, then algebra, geometry, etc. They start with the fundamentals and build. Sport is the same. Everyone learns the fundamentals and goes from there. The various stages of long-term athlete development (LTAD) are outlined in an earlier article.

They are able to make sport participation consistent and ongoing

We know from the research on expertise that the secret to expert performance is practice. Sport seasons that last for a few weeks and then close up shop until next year don't work. At the same time programs that do operate all year need to be fun, young athletes need to want to be there.

They know physical literacy is important

Almost all elite level performers have a multi-sport background. This is not necessarily in multiple organized sports but rather a background in many different types of activities, organized or not. Learning different kinds of physical movement skills leads to a strong foundation in physical literacy, which is important to an overall healthy lifestyle.

They are an advocate for physical activity

Not all the young athletes that coaches work with will go on to become top performers. Some will move into other sports, some will leave organized sports altogether. The greatest accomplishment of youth coaches is that the youngsters in their programs stay active, challenging themselves physically, and living a life that is long and healthy.

They understand their role as a transformational leader of young athletes

Most youth coaches deal with the same athletes over a long period of time, long enough to inspire and expand the young athlete's understanding of what sport can offer. Youth coaches who really understand this role become the Obi-Wan Kenobi character that athletes will remember long after they have left sport.

Coaching beginner athletes is different from coaching at the elite level. It's important that the training of coaches recognize this and adjust training content accordingly. Instead of focusing on a sport's technical aspects alone, emphasis needs to be placed on the soft skills needed to transform young children into athletes.