Saturday, October 9, 2010

Great Moments in Youth Sports

Coaches, parents and sports fans probably have a few recollections of sports history made by chlidren. Nadia is a legend and still known by her first name thirty four years after scoring the first perfect ten in Olympic history as a fourteen year old. Although the Olympics are hardly a youth sports activity, Nadia's age at the time of competition would most definitely be considered young. Every year celebrations following a Little League World Series championship game are broadcast throughout the world.

These are great and historic moments on a global level. But, the truly great moments in youth sports are the day to day interactions between child athletes and the significant adults in their lives, parents in particular.

Greatness is determined on a personal level. What's great to a five year old soccer player may be different than what is considered as great by a high school soccer player. Remembering this simple principle can help parents and coaches enrich the sports experience for their children and athletes.

A great moment for our children is one that affects them personally in a positive way. These could be as simple as Grandma and Grandpa showing up for a t-ball game or as detailed as accomplishing the final step in reaching a long-term goal.

Significant adults in a child's life influence that child's perception of good vs. bad, great vs. terrible and important vs. unimportant. Children watch adults and how they react to situations. They give value to a happening in large part based on the reactions it draws from adults.

Consider these two scenarios. Suzy scores a goal and looks over to see her Mom jump out of her lawn chair clapping and cheering. Sally scores a goal and while running toward the sideline with her arms up in celebration, sees her Mom sitting in her lawn chair reading a book. Each girl scored a goal, but what will each bring away from the experience?

Adults have the ability to make every moment a great moment. Good performances are easy to celebrate. Average performances are sprinkled with moments of greatness, find them and celebrate them. A poor performance can lead to a great moment when parents show their children unconditional love. If a hug is the family tradition following a good game, it should follow a bad game as well. Be consistent with actions that say "how you play does not affect how I feel about you."

Coaches, parents and teammates' parents are role models and their behavior, more than their words, will affect the children on a team. Adults should think before they react with the first goal being to do no harm, in other words, watch your mouth. This should be quickly followed by providing positive experiences for the children involved. These experiences could be as simple as "good catch Johnny" or as involved as a sustained life lesson such as reinforcing persistence or improved self-discipline.

Children will learn from our non-reactions as well as our reactions. How would you like your child to react to what appears to be a bad call by an official? Consistently model the behavior you would like to see and your child will likely choose the same behavior. In the case of a perceived bad call, a non-reaction may be the best reaction.

Many great moments in youth sports happen naturally, but every moment can be a great one if handled properly by the adults involved. No one expects parents and coaches to be perfect, but it is reasonable to expect them to give every effort possible to make the most of all situations.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Behavior - Education vs. Rules and Consequences

We choose how we behave and our behavior comes with consequences. If we eat properly and exercise, we will benefit with better health, the ability to lead an active lifestyle and do more with our time. If we study, either formerly, or informally, we will be more educated. And, of course, misbehavior typically comes with negative consequences. Choosing to behave appropriately is an educational process. We learn what good behavior is and then we choose to behave that way (or not).
I’ve never been a big believer in rules with consequences. I understand they are necessary and I have rules at my gym that we follow and that have consequences. The larger the rulebook, the more police action necessary to monitor those rules and apply consequences. As coaches, we have enough to do without being the “gym police.”

In general, I expect each of my gymnasts to work hard, work smart, be a good person and behave appropriately. Natural consequences occur based on how much or how little these expectations are performed. If you work hard and smart, you will improve. If you’re a good person, you will have good friends and earn respect from those who know you. If you behave appropriately, you will be trusted.

If one of our goals as coaches is to help prepare our athletes to be great adults, then behavioral education should take priority over rules and consequences. We must teach our students appropriate behavior and help them understand why it’s important to act a certain way.

A Light Bulb Over My Head
Every now and then, I get criticized for not having more definite rules and consequences. Over the last couple weeks, some happenings at my gym have helped me more clearly understand why I’ve always been a “not too many rules” kind of person. For months my staff and I have been trying to improve the attendance habits of our gymnasts. A lot of girls were showing up a few minutes late every day and missing practice without good reason. So, I put an envelope on a bulletin board for each girl. Inside the envelopes were three cards. When a gymnast was late to practice, the green card was dated and sent home to be signed by a parent and returned the next practice. A yellow card was sent home when a practice was missed, and a blue card was sent when a practice had to be modified due to injury, emotions or attitude. Penny, who is always at the front desk, got to hear “There’s no way I can get my daughter here on time.” “What happens if we miss too much practice?” “Please don’t punish my daughter for being late. It’s not her fault.” In an effort to save Penny from all the questions, I put out a note to my gymnast’s parents explaining the card system. It was while I was writing this note that I more clearly understood why I’ve never had lots of rules with consequences. Here’s the note:


Helping our gymnasts develop good habits that will carry over into the adult world and be a benefit for life is a priority at Folger’s. There are few habits that will affect a person’s life more than their habits toward attendance. A person’s reputation is very much affected by their attendance habits.

Good attendance says these things about a person:
* What I’m doing is important to me.
* The people I’m participating with are important to me (my team, my co-workers, my company, my boss, etc.).
* I’m dedicated to this activity (gymnastics, work, school, church, family).
* I respect other people’s time.
* I am trustworthy. You can count on me.
* I have learned a significant amount of self-discipline.
* Doing what’s right is a priority for me.
* Etc.

Here is what we see as good attendance habits:
- Be on time to practice, meets, events, snack breaks, everything that’s scheduled into your day.
- Be at every activity you have committed yourself to.
- Don’t leave early from your activities.
- Participate fully while you’re in attendance.
- Let Mark or Penny know when you can’t do these things (before they happen).

Since we see attendance as a learning experience, we don’t have rules and policies that are set in stone. Our goal is to make sure that all involved (gymnasts, coaches, and parents) are well informed about the attendance habits of the gymnast and working together to make those good habits. Poor attendance habits will create consequences. Top among that list is a decrease in performance quality. Next on the list is a loss of trust and respect from teammates, coaches and others involved. These are natural consequences that come from not being punctual or committed to an activity.

The Card System

Green Card – “I was late to gym.” This card will come home to be signed by a parent each time a gymnast is late to practice. It should be signed and returned at the very next practice.

The Yellow Card – “I missed gym.” This card will come home after the gymnast misses a scheduled practice. It should be signed and returned at the next practice.

The Blue Card – “I modified my practice.” This card will come home when a gymnast modifies their workout due to aches and pains, injuries, emotions or attitude. It’s not a measurement of whether or not they complete their assigned workout. The blue card’s purpose is to monitor how often a coach must modify a gymnast’s workout due to these reasons. It should be signed and returned at the next practice.

Our attendance policies are all about education. Getting accurate information to all involved speeds the education process, and that’s our goal. Obviously, if a gymnast has poor attendance habits and can’t change them, she will be asked to leave the team. Children learn a lot from seeing the consequences that come to people who behave in ways that are not appropriate. Therefore, it would be a disservice to all our girls to allow one gymnast to continue poor attendance habits without an effort to improve.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Hall of Fame

I just got back from the Hall of Fame luncheon at USA Gymnastics Congress and three things mentioned from the inductees have stuck in my mind.

Kip Simons admitted he was a little trouble for his coaches Miles Avery and Peter Kormann and then immediately thanked them for not giving up on him.  See "Never Give Up on a Child", April 12, 2010 on this blogsite.  Although Kip was no child while at Ohio State, it seems his coaches had reason to give up on him, but choose not to.  Now, he's in the Hall of Fame.  That's the HALL OF FAME!!  A place where your name is put to stay forever and ever.

Kevin Mazeika mentioned that much of what he learned about coaching he learned from his father.  His father was not a gymnastics coach.  See "Mother's Day and what My Parents Taught Me About Coaching", May 9, 2010 on this blogsite.  It seems, if we are willing to listen, much can be learned from good teachers, good parents and good people.

Dominique Moceanu was thankful that participation in sports gave her opportunities to make a difference in the world.  See "Hidden Opportunities in Youth Sports" from this blogsite, March 17, 2010.

All of the inductees are exceptional athletes and/or coaches.  Although all had significant accomplishments to talk about, the speakers focused on comraderie among teammates and coaches, their families, and the friendships they formed along their journey to greatness.  Accomplishments create great memories, but frienships travel with you throughout life.  All of us, no matter what level of sport participation we enjoy, can reap those same rewards.

Thursday, June 24, 2010


As parents and coaches, what expectations do we put on our children? How do our expectations affect our children? It’s been my experience that one of the major causes of dropout in youth sports is children not believing they can live up to the expectations of the adults they are trying to please. But, as anyone who’s spent time educating children will tell you, kids have an uncanny ability to perform to high expectations. So, where does that leave coaches, parents and educators? How do we use high expectations to best serve the children we are coaching without stepping over the line to a point where the kids feel our expectations are beyond their ability?

Try remembering this saying and the L.I.K.E. acronym:

In order to teach a child, we must L.I.K.E. the child.

Listen to the Child

Inform the Child

Know the Child

Evaluate the Child

If we can do these four things, we will have the knowledge we need to keep our expectations at a level that motivates our kids without causing the hopeless or incompetent feelings that come with over-expectations.

LISTEN to the child. Find out what they want to get out of an experience. All children, no matter how young, have some idea of what they want in a particular situation. Listen to what they say and also pay attention to what their body language says. Remember, a smile says a lot without making a sound. If what you’re teaching is getting smiles, you’re probably on the right path. Encourage open communication. Your athletes should be able to come to you and say “I’m not comfortable with that” knowing they will get a supportive reply from you.

INFORM the child. Coaches are guides. Athletes come to us with goals in mind and want us to guide them in a way that will help them accomplish those goals. Informed athletes set more appropriate goals. Since we are the experts, we will provide most of the information our students need to help them determine where they want their sports experience to take them. We should give information freely, while being cautious not to impose our goals and expectations on the athlete.

KNOW the child. The more you get to know a child, the more easily you will be able to read their emotional states and be able to interpret their posture and body language into information that will help you guide them to success. Pay attention to your athletes before and after practices and competitions. Get a feel for their personality so that you can pick up on cues that something is not normal. If coaches or parents are over-expecting of a child, you may sense that in how the athlete trains, their energy level during practice, their posture, or their positive vs. negative attitude. Try to envision your expectations from the child’s perspective. A quote floats around in my head that goes something like this “there is no reality, only perception.” I’m not sure what famous person said it, maybe Dr. Phil. But, the point is that each person’s perception is their reality. Two people will see the same situation differently and each will accept their version as what’s real. While coaching Suzy and Sally, who are at similar ability levels, you may tell them you’d like to see them do cartwheels with straight arms and legs. Suzy may think “wow, I have a coach who wants me to improve my cartwheel and is telling me how.” At the same time, Sally may be thinking “Is he crazy! Straight arms AND straight legs. I don’t think so.”

EVALUATE the child. To keep our expectations at a healthy level, we must have a clearly defined evaluation system. Education is always progressive. With a consistent evaluation system a teacher or coach will be tuned in to the students progress, and therefore, be able to establish expectations that are challenging and in line with what the athlete wants to accomplish.

As coaches, we know kids “rise to the occasion” and typically live up to high expectations. We also know there is a line where high, challenging expectations become perceived as hopelessly impossible to achieve. Keeping our expectations at a healthy level is like climbing a mountain (with children) knowing there is a cliff at the top. We must climb the mountain, but stay away from the cliff. Fortunately, with proper training and a progressive curriculum, we can keep that cliff at a safe distance while continuing to climb.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Thank You - Region 3 Congress

Thank you to all coaches and judges who attended my presentation at USAG Region 3 Congress.  The "Root Skill Progression List" and "Front Tumbling Training List" from the presentation can be found in the "pages" list to the right of this post.  If there was something else you wanted from the slides, let me know and I'll add it to the list, or if you had questions, please send an email to

FYI, the region 3 administrative committee voted to bring congress back to Vail in 2011, if dates, hotel availability, etc. can be worked out.  What a nice place!

Thanks Again!

Thursday, June 3, 2010


     What’s right with youth sports, a lot, mostly the people, and in particular, parents. In the early stages of sports participation, the most important people involved are the parents of the young athletes. Parents play a large role in what sports their children will participate in, what organizations they will be involved with, and who will be coaching their children. They are the chauffer, wardrobe specialist, nutritionist, psychologist, personal manager and quite often the coach for their budding sports enthusiasts. They are the unsung heroes of little league.
     Of all the roles a little league parent performs, which is the most important? While many will disagree with this next statement, I’m going to say it anyway. The most important day to day role of a parent in youth sports (or any children’s activity) is the role of chauffer.  I know this seems to trivialize the parents' role, but consider these things before letting that thought take root. 
     One of the greatest benefits of sport participation is learning to develop good habits. With most of our lives scheduled to the minute, what is more important than habitually being on time and always fulfilling the time commitment we’ve made to a job, organization or team? Since children’s arrivals and departures are dependent on parents, their habits of being early or being late, fulfilling their time commitment or not, will come from their parents.
     Drive time gives parents an excellent opportunity to talk to their children with few distractions.  Communication is a key ingredient in the parent/child relationship. Take advantage of chauffer time to fulfill your duties as a nutritionist, personal manager, good listener, etc.  While your wearing the chauffer hat you have a captive audience.  Today's vehicles are rolling entertainment centers.  Do your best to eliminate some of the built in distractions that causes and spend some time talking and listening to your children and their friends.  Most children appreciate a pleasant conversation with Mom or Dad over watching a DVD on a nine inch screen.
     So, parents, relax. One of the greatest life lessons learned from sports comes from simply getting your children to and from practice and competitions on time. It’s simple, it’s easy, it’s necessary, it’s a basic ingredient in a successful lifestyle and it creates opportunities to talk (or just listen) to your children.  Keep up the good work!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Exceptional Student/Athletes! How do They do it?

How does a high school student train twenty hours a week in a sport, travel ten to eleven weekends a year to competitions, maintain a 4.0 GPA with honors classes, and become valedictorian of her class? I’m not sure, but I’ve seen it happen several times. Those of you reading this blog, I’m sure, are aware of the incredible children we see in sports. I am constantly amazed by the maturity of children and particularly teenagers who are involved in gymnastics.

How do they do it? What motivates them? Have they learned something we can teach all children to help them be more successful? Are these student/athletes pre-disposed at birth to have this kind of maturity and success or are their extraordinary accomplishments due to skills and knowledge learned from parents, teachers, coaches and mentors? If these are learned skills, what can we do to teach them to the masses? Which skills are most important?

Looking at the three valedictorians and the several near valedictorians I’ve had on my team recently, I see some commonalities. Of course, time management is near the top of the list of skills and habits. It is the web that holds the big picture together. Each of these girls are “ahead of the game” in self-discipline, something you would expect. Obviously, they have above average intelligence. They all sacrificed some social time, but not their social life. They are goal-oriented and seem to have a clear picture of what they want to do with their life earlier than most girls. They have a great sense of priority. Perhaps the one characteristic that sets them apart from most was their love of a challenge, in particular, the challenge of learning, whether gymnastics, calculus, anatomy or all of these. The knowledge gained from an activity was a motivator, but the process of learning, the thrill of learning something new and attaining goals seemed to be what drove them to success. The world of psychology would call them task-oriented.

Task oriented people gauge their success based on effort and how much they improve their skills or increase their knowledge. Winning and social acceptance are less motivating than learning from the process of performing the task, including their mistakes. Don’t get me wrong, task oriented people are competitive. Competition motivates them because it is a learning experience and a chance for social interaction. But, finishing in first place and gaining social recognition is not the driving force behind their participation. I believe this plays a key role in their stability, and therefore, their perseverance as students and athletes. People who are primarily motivated by winning and gaining social recognition (things that boost their ego) are more likely to ride a roller coaster of emotions causing them to enjoy activities less and drop out earlier than task oriented individuals. A person or team can not win all the time. Social recognition is fleeting and not guaranteed even if you are winning. I would almost argue that a person who wins most competitions may pay a social price due to jealousy.

So, is there something we can do, as coaches and parents to develop these traits, habits, skills and desires in our athletes and children? Yes!

We should focus on the process of learning more than the outcome, set goals based on this principle and teach our children to determine success based on those goals. Outcome goals are also necessary, but should be tied closely to the process goals. These outcome goals should be a tool to measure if the process is working the way we want it to. We should consistently reward effort and improvement rather than the final score. Effort and improvement are largely controlled by the athlete, but the final score is affected by many variables outside the athlete’s control. We should create an environment where mistakes are considered part of the learning process and will not be punished.

Why should we want our children to be task oriented? They will enjoy participation more. They will persevere in activities. Their determination of success will be largely under their own control, making the path to a successful future more clear. They will experience the thrill of learning and will be motivated by effort and improvement. Hard work, self-motivation, self-discipline, fun and more enjoyable participation all seem to follow the task oriented person.

But, what about those things that boost our ego, do we have to ignore them? Like most things in life, being at the extreme is not good. So, my answer to this question is, no. Don’t ignore the scores or the social recognition, just keep them in perspective and don’t allow them to dominate your child or athletes desire for participation and for learning.

These super student/athletes love to learn, whether in sports or academics. Much of that is innate, but it can be enhanced by the motivational environment they are exposed to. As parents and coaches, we influence that environment.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

First, Do No Harm

As a young coach I made a mistake that taught me a lesson I remember to this day.  I had been coaching a young boy in a recreational gymnastics class for a number of weeks.  He was working hard, I was working hard, but he just wasn't picking up any new skills.  One day in a moment of frustration I made a comment under my breath about his inability to learn.  My stupidity immediately hit me like a ton of bricks.  I spun around, and was thankful to see that no one had heard what I said.  My feeling of relief was tremendous and equalled the disappointment in myself.  What if he had heard me?  I would have never forgotten the harm I caused that child (I haven't forgotten the incident even though there was no harm done).  What if any of the other boys had heard me?  After all, I was a role model for the group. 

I didn't sleep well for a few days.  I began to realize that success is relative to the individual and that past performance and current goals play a large role in determining success.  While success for my class 3 boys team was learning double backs off high bar, success for this boy was learning how to stand up from a forward roll without putting his hands on the floor.  I began looking forward to next weeks class.  That student deserved more from me and I wanted very badly to give him more.  When he made that roll we celebrated, just like we did for the double backs.  From that point on, he experienced success more often.  He didn't stay with gymnastics long.  It was hard for him.  But, I hope he learned something good from his time in the sport.  I know I did.

A hundred successes won't make up for one incident that does harm to a child.  I was lucky.  My mistake was only noticed by myself.  I hope others learn from my mistake and understand the first mandate of a good coach will be to do no harm.  All other goals should follow.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother's Day & What My Parents Taught Me About Coaching

I've been educating myself as a coach for 30+ years only to find that the best things I bring to coaching I learned from my parents.  I'm always saying how my core philosophy has changed very little over the years.  I've sometimes wondered, if I'm constantly educating myself to improve my coaching skills and tools, why that core philosophy hasn't changed more.  Maybe it's because the most important lessons I try to teach in my gym are lessons I learned before deciding to become a coach, lessons learned from experiences provided by my parents while I was a child.  For example;

If you choose to do something, do it with full effort. What I heard from my parents was "if something is worth doing, it's worth doing right." When Nike came out with its "Just Do It" ad campaign, we quickly converted it to "Don't Just Do It, Do It Right" and it has become a mainstay slogan in our gym.

Unless there was an emergency, I was on time to every game and practice.  By emergency, I mean something like a car accident.

I may not get this one quite right, but it goes something like this "clean under your own doorstep before cleaning under others."  In other words, if you're going to criticize, look at yourself first.

I don't ever remember my parents yelling at an umpire, referee or official. I do remember them making a point that the parents who did were wrong in doing so.
Successful people are self-disciplined.  Do what's right because it's right.  Don't do something wrong just because you won't get caught.  It's still wrong.

My parents didn't try to coach me, unless I asked.  But, if the desire was there on my part, they made every effort possible to support my efforts, including building a pole vault box in the ground in our backyard so I could learn to pole vault.

Admit when you're wrong.

Treat people right.  I grew up in the baby-boom era and my neighborhood was full of kids.  This message was reinforced in every house on the block. 

The feeling you get from doing a good deed is reward enough.  So, do good when you can, without expecting anything in return.

If you cause someone pain, either physically or emotionally, you apologize and do everything in your power to resolve the situation.  And, you shouldn't make the same mistake again.

Hard work pays off. My Dad was a Safeway store manager and sixty hour work weeks were pretty normal. He'd cut back to thirty or forty hours if it was his vacation week (unless we could get him to go somewhere for vacation).

Success isn't based on WHAT a person does.  People with similar jobs do similar tasks.  Success comes from HOW you do those tasks and the standards you expect from yourself and others around you.

The most important coaching lesson I learned from my parents was to be a good role model.  People learn more from the way you act than from what you say.  My parents were great role models for me and my siblings and they were great role models for the kids who grew up with us. 
I no longer wonder why my core philosophy toward coaching has changed very little over the years.  Although my knowledge and skills as a coach have improved, the foundation that supports those has been in place for a long time.  That foundation was there for me irregardless of the career I chose.  My brother and sister have built careers on the same foundation.  When I strip away all the sports skills I teach and look underneath to see what I've taught my athletes that will benefit them for a lifetime, I hope to find this foundation.

National Champion!

Last Friday, Diandra Milliner became the level 10 national vault champion for the second year in a row, scoring a 9.95!!!  She added a national floor title to her resume` as well.

                  Jen Flores, Diandra Milliner and Jennifer O'bar

Diandra has been a gymnast at Folger's since she was in kindergarten and will attend Alabama University next year. Coaching an athlete from kindergarten to college is very rewarding. Jennifer O'bar who came to Folger's as a coach about the same time "D" came to us as a gymnast has been there for the whole journey and has played a big role in Diandra's success, as has Jennifer Flores who has been with us for several years now. Good Job "D" and good job coaches!!

UPDATE (4/29/2013):  Diandra won vault at the 2013 NCAA National Championships and placed second on floor.  The University of Alabama won the team titles at the 2011 and 2012 NCAA National Championships.  "D"s going to need a new jewelry case as she will now have 3 national champion rings and 6 All-American titles in her first 3 years at Alabama.

Rachael Morrison, our other JO National qualifier, placed 9th on vault and 15th all around.  Way to go Rach!  This was Rachael's second trip to nationals.  She has not yet chosen a college.  Rachael has been part of the Folger's family since before kindergarten.
Rachael Morrison and Mark Folger

Jen, "Rach" and Jennifer

Photos courtesy of Mark Baldwin, 2010 Folger's New Year Invitational

Monday, May 3, 2010

Feedback in Children's Sports

Parents, coaches, teammates, officials, the crowd, and the performance itself all provide feedback during and after a child’s sports performance. The chronology of this feedback is important. Understanding where we fit in the order of feedback given to an athlete will help each of us provide the most useful information to that athlete. I’ll use gymnastics as an example. Following a performance in competition, a gymnast will get feedback in this order, or something close to it:

1. From the performance itself (a self-evaluation)
2. Crowd reaction may play a role at this point
3. From their coach or coaches
4. From their teammates
5. From the immediate environment (other coaches or gymnasts in the area)
6. From the judge (a score)
(In a women’s meet they will repeat this process 4 times, once for each event).
7. From the awards ceremony (where did they place on each event)
8. From parents, family and friends who were in attendance

Every sport has its own chronology of feedback. In some sports feedback from an official is nearly immediate, “Strike three, you’re out!” putting it in front of information from a coach or teammate. In other sports, such as gymnastics, it’s delayed. We teach our gymnasts to set their goals based on performance standards, not scores. While judges are calculating scores we have an opportunity to give feedback based on performance and goals. This puts coach feedback in the line up before judge feedback, which works great for us.

For best results, all adults involved need to understand the typical order of feedback in their child’s sport and how it affects their role in the situation. A coach or parents place in the line up will have an affect on what type of feedback they should provide. A parent shouldn’t run to the dugout to tell their child to “watch the ball ‘til it hits the bat”, and a coach shouldn’t go home for dinner with the family just to say how much he liked Johnny’s diving catch in the second inning. A tuned in coaching staff can manipulate the order to a certain degree. And they should if that’s what’s best for the athlete.

After a game, Johnny has heard from his coaches, teammates, the umpires and himself concerning his performance. He doesn’t need technical information from his parents at that moment. What he’d probably enjoy is hearing what they liked best about the game. “Nice diving catch in the second.” Not technical information, just what made his parent’s happy. It would be good for him to hear what his parents enjoyed about how others played as well, as long as it’s not a comparison to his performance.

Not only should the adults involved be aware of the order of feedback given, but they should also consider the importance the athlete gives to each piece of feedback and should have a clear understanding of their role as a feedbacker (I think I made that word up, but it seems to fit, so I’ll run with it).

Pat Summerall: “John, this team has quite a feedbacker crew.”
John Madden: “I’ll say, have you been watching that middle feedbacker. He’s over here, then he’s over there, then he’s back down here. He seems to be everywhere. That young athlete’s lucky to have someone he can trust on his side. It’s seems like the feedbacker can read his mind and knows just what to say.”
Pat: “Ya, what about that blitzing feedbacker?”

John; “He’s always first on the scene, throwing encouragement everywhere, there’s still some lying on the field, see it over there. He mixes in a little technical or tactical information, followed by some more positive comments, and WAM, you’ve got a feedback sandwich. Makes me hungry, anyone seen my turkey?”
Pat: “Later John.”

John: “oh, oh yeah. And, those outside feedbackers, they cover their territory, analyze the situation and never leave their posts unless needed.

Pat: “Don’t forget those drop-back feedbackers.”

John: “Oh, of course not. Every kid needs his drop-back feedbackers. Those who drop-back, watch the whole scene and provide unconditional, positive support. This kid’s parents are great at that.”

Everyone plays a role in the process. Coaches and parents in particular, but also officials, teammates, parents of teammates, etc. need to consider:

- Where you are in the feedback line-up.
- What are the needs of the child athlete when they reach your spot in the line-up.
- Are you the right person to fill those needs or should another “feedbacker” take that role?

With a little practice you will get very good at this quick analysis and you’ll find that you are there when you need to be, not there when you shouldn’t be and comfortable knowing your child is getting the best feedback available.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Underswing 1/2 to Handstand or Bail to Handstand

Last week I came across a good discussion on about the underswing 1/2 turn to handstand on bars (also called a bail to handstand). There were a couple good videos showing two very different teaching methods.  I think you can find the video on also.  Both methods seemed to have created good results for the coaches using them. One was called the one arm drop drill. This is similar to the way I teach this skill.  I actually use 4 progressive one hand release drills. Each is mastered very quickly. Using these 4 drills for a few weeks before doing an underswing has helped my gymnasts get a good feel for the skill, understand how easy the skill is to perform, and easily go to handstand without a leg separation. I'm including a brief description of each step. Some look so simple you'll wonder why they're necessary and will want to skip them. DON'T. Each has its purpose.

Step 1: Getting the proper shape, understanding that when you let go with one hand before the other your body will turn, and learning where to look, are the goals of this drill. Have the gymnast look at the feet of the spotter (since there is no low bar to look at). I do this on the low bar to save time. You can do 6 or 7 girls in a minute, and the girls can learn to spot each other if you choose.

Step 2: Same as step 1, but on the high bar. Now there is a low bar to look at and the gymnast can get a real feel for the skill. I don't let the girls spot each other on this one.

Step 3: This is the step where you reinforce the one hand release to initiate the turn. My experience has been that when the girls start swinging into the drill they want to turn their body from the toes or hips. Don't let them. The beauty of the one hand release technique is that the gymnast has to do very little work to make the skill happen. Because releasing one hand at a time turns the body, there is no tap necessary, no torque on the lower body, and therefore less possibility of the legs separating. A tight gymnast simply lets her swing rise, releases one hand, then the other and FALLS to the low bar. If you spot lightly or a little later, you will find out if they are turning before releasing the hand. Push them up without turning them to see if they are trying to turn from the toes or hips.

Step 4: I only do this step a few times. As you can see on the video, the swing back down from the one hand release could get a little crazy. The purpose of this step is to make sure the gymnast can cast into the one hand release drill with the same technique as they used swinging into it. Once that has been established, there is no need to continue doing this step. I tell my gymnasts that it's easier to actually do the skill than it is to do this step. They usually agree.

Here are some notes to help you learn from my mistakes teaching this skill over the years.

- Teach this skill to a handstand. An underswing 1/2 to horizontal is a completely different skill than one to a handstand. So, why teach it twice?

- My girls believe this is the easiest skill of its value in the code of points (because that's what I tell them and because it is). Girls who compete this skill reinforce that point for the girls who are learning it. It takes very little physical effort to perform it properly.

- Do the skill over and over from a small cast before increasing the cast height or going from a giant.

- When it's time to do the skill without a spot, I use a mat over the low bar and/or have the girls do the skill to a padded deck.

- Don't have the gymnast tap or try to turn their body (all they need to do is let the swing rise, release one hand at a time, see the low bar and be tight).

- The arm doesn't drop away from the body on these drills (or on the underswing). Arms stay by the ears, where they will be in the handstand.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Goal Setting and Motivation

A sense of accomplishment increases motivation.  Success and accomplishment are relative to past performance and current goals.  Therefore, choosing appropriate goals plays a key role in consistent motivation.  I use a simple flow-chart I call the Progressive Motivation Cycle to remind myself and my staff of the relationship between setting goals and motivation.

The Blue Cycle is the preffered cycle.  When our athletes are rolling along in the blue cycle, life is great.  Accomplishing one goal is followed by training for the next goal, completing that goal successfully and repeating the process over and over. 

I don't want to delve too deeply into the nuts and bolts of goal setting except to say that goals should be:

*Written, so all involved understand them clearly.

*Measurable.  "I want to be a better free throw shooter" is not a measurable goal.  "I want to make 65% of my free throws this week in practice" is measurable and objective.

*Goals should not be too hard or too easy. 

*Goals should be progressive.

*Long term and medium range goals should be set by the athlete.

Choosing appropriate goals will keep our athletes in the blue cycle more often than not.  It is critical that the athletes set their own medium and long term goals.  I see it like this.  With good information, the athletes decide where they want to go in the sport and the coaches guide them to that point.  The athlete's decide where to go, the coaches decide how to get there.  The athletes get input from coaches and other sources to help them set their medium and long term goals and the coaches get input from the athletes to help them set the day to day, hour to hour, minute by minute goals for training.  As an athlete grows and matures, the overlap of these roles increases. 

Young athletes will easily set long term goals.  "I want to go to the Olympics."  "I want to compete in college."  "I want to qualify for the state meet."  Coaches should fill in goals between where the athlete is in their current development and the athletes nearest goal (qualifying for the state meet).  Coaches should also be developing goal setting skills in their athletes.  As these skills improve, there will be less and less "in between goals" for the coach to write.

Coaches can use these "in between goals" as a tool to keep their athletes operating in the blue cycle.  Write small progressive goals that will create a string of successful accomplishments.  Beware of goals that are too easy, but use as many small challenging goals as it takes to reach the big goals. 

Goal discrepancy simply means the outcome of the performance didn't meet the standards set in the goal.  This is the black level of the Progressive Motivation Cycle.  Since none of us, athletes or coaches, are perfect, all of us will venture into the black level.  What's important is how we react to our goal discrepancies and how we teach our athletes to react when goals aren't met.  The black level creates opportunities for education.  Look at the difference between the actual results and the goal.  Decide why there's a discrepancy.  Set a new goal and make plans for how to accomplish that goal.  Maybe the goal attempted could have been broken into 2 or 3 goals to make the learning process move along more smoothly and with more focus.  Maybe a particular training technique wasn't as effective as you'd hoped.  The old saying "learn from your mistakes" applies to this level. 

An innapropriate response to goal discrepancy will take an athlete (or coach) into the red level of the Progressive Motivation Cycle.  Frustration is usually the kick-off point for the red level.  Good coaches and mature athletes will learn to recognize frustration or dissapointment early.  This skill will help coaches pull athletes back from the red level before they decide to drop out, or begin misbehaving.  Athletes will usually follow the coaches lead in this process.  So, coaches remember, the behavior you model when a goal is not met will very likely be accepted as the most appropriate behavior by your athletes.  You may be frustrated or dissapointed, but you must get to WHY the goal wasn't met, WHAT the next goal will be and HOW you and your athlete will accomplish that goal.  As soon as those things are done, you are back in the blue cycle.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Me and My Gymnasts. Sometimes I'm teaching them. Sometimes they're teaching me.

Awhile back one of my best gymnasts seemed to be lacking intensity at practice. She was typically a hard worker and had been very successful the last few years. But, for a few weeks she had been hard to motivate. She was still getting a lot done during her training time, and doing well at competitions (high 37’s and low 38’s). But, she wasn’t her usual self. So, of course, I was trying to figure out why. Maybe she’s bored, I thought. She’s been a level 10 since eighth grade (she’s now a junior). Maybe she’s getting a big head, a case of over-confidence. She has had three very successful seasons in a row and has committed to a top college. Four local TV stations have done pieces about her, with interviews. Maybe she’s just getting lazy.  Or, maybe because of her immense talent and successful competitions, she thinks its okay to coast along.

One day I casually mentioned to her that we needed to step up the intensity and get it back to where it used to be. Several days later when things hadn’t changed, I called her over and talked to her a little more in-depth about maintaining her standards, setting appropriate goals, and that while she was coasting, other gymnasts were improving (typical coach-talk).

Her reply didn’t surprise me, but the emotion that came with the reply did. The content of her response was “I’m trying the best I can. I’m doing everything you ask me to do. I’ve got three honors classes that are keeping me up late. I’m training twenty hours a week. I almost never miss practice. I’m taking extra classes to graduate early.” The emotion in her reply seemed to say “why don’t you believe me. This conversation is upsetting me.”

My response to that was something like “it’s not going to get any easier in college. Your professors and college coaches aren’t going to listen to reasons why you aren’t getting things done, they’ll just expect you to get them done.” I should have immediately slapped myself on the forehead and said “duh, good response coach.”

I spent the rest of that night and the next day thinking about how poorly I had handled the situation. A week later, I can still see her face and feel the emotion from when she said “I’m doing the best I can.” And, I now believe she was. Maybe she should have said “listen old man, you’re not seeing the whole picture here.” She would have been right.

Some of the points I was trying to make were valid. College is not always easy and college athletes need to be organized, prepared, and diligent in their effort to succeed in their sport and in the classroom. There was no doubt that her intensity had dropped off a bit. But, dealing with those things weren’t the lessons that needed to be taught at that moment. The lesson that needed to be taught at that moment was delivered TO me, not FROM me. I’ve coached this gymnast since she was six years old. I should have trusted her. All I needed to do was ask her why things had changed over the last few weeks. The best solution would have come from good communication, not accusation. If her intensity in the gym had dropped off a percent or two it was very likely that she had stepped it up a few percentage points in her schoolwork.  The balance between those is not always perfect.  The two tend to ebb and flow together.  An important lesson that she is learning.  Unbeknownst to her, her emotion-filled reaction in this situation was a good lesson for me. I hope I learned enough to get an “A”.

This gymnast did graduate from high school early.  She left Wichita in December to join the University of Alabama gymnastics team.  In April, three of the twenty scores used by the Alabama team to win the NCAA National Championships were hers.  In May, she walked with her high school class at graduation as an NCAA National Champion.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Never Give Up on a Child

Coaches, teachers, parents, administrators, and counselors should never give up on a child. Children need and want guidance. They may not act like it, but they do. They may not overtly accept the bits of wisdom given to them by the adults in their lives and they may not act like the role models in their lives, but they are learning from both.

Many times after practice I have thought there is nothing more I can do for a child because (any of these reasons):

She doesn’t want to be here.
She doesn’t listen.
She can’t make corrections.
She doesn’t understand what we’re trying to accomplish.
She’s lazy.
She’s easily distracted (and, therefore, becomes a distraction).
She’s afraid of her skills.
She’s given up on herself.

I’ll admit. There have been times when I thought some of my gymnasts should give up the sport and do something else. Then I came to my senses and asked myself WHY some of the things on this list may be true. Why doesn’t she want to be at practice? Why is she easily distracted? Why is she not progressing?

There are a lot of variables that play a role in an athlete’s success/failure and persistence/dropout. I like to visualize these variables on a bar graph, each variable with its own level of competence. If an athlete is frustrated, unmotivated, and just not having fun, the cause is likely rooted in one of the areas represented by a low bar on the graph.

I’ve heard these thousands of times (and I’ve said them myself), “she just doesn’t listen” or “she just isn’t flexible” or “she’s lazy” or the one that inspired this blog post “I just don’t know what to do for her until she fixes (insert weak area here).” Whoa, stop the presses, rewind. “until SHE fixes”? Do we really want to tell our athletes “when you’ve fixed your problems, come to me and I’ll coach you.” Of course we don’t. It’s our job to look at the bar graph and help our athletes be competent in all areas. An extra amount of time and effort should be given to the lowest bars on the graph. After all, those are the variables which will most likely cause frustration, practices that aren’t fun, and dropout. The greatest gains will be made in the areas of least competence. A gymnast who improves her flexibility from 90% competency to 95% will benefit from that, but not near as much as the gymnast who improves listening skills from 20% to 40%.

As coaches, we get frustrated with our athletes. At that point, we can give support or give up. If you’ve found this blog, I’m sure you’re the “give support” kind of coach. Look at your mental bar graph for the athlete in question and find solutions to make those lower bars grow. A coach who pulls a kid back from a near dropout to watch her succeed over and over in the future is a well rewarded coach. It’s okay to ask yourself “what if I’d given up?” I hope none of us ever have to ask ourselves “what if I’d tried a little harder?”

(as a level 5, this gymnast was the slowest runner on my team.  Give up?  I don't think so.)

One more note. If we applied the bar graph idea to ourselves as coaches, what would it look like? What variables would be on my list and how competent am I in each? I’m not sure I want to look that hard at my coaching abilities (and lack thereof). But, I’m going to do that right now and see what I learn.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your comments and please visit again.

Photo courtesy of Mark Baldwin, 2010 Folger's New Year Invitational

Sunday, April 4, 2010


Why do babies poop in their diapers? Babies poop in their diapers because they lack self-discipline. At some point they will realize that dirtying diapers is not fun, smells bad, and can be quite uncomfortable, leading them to learn the discipline necessary to visit the little boys room or little girls room when necessary.

My point here is that self-discipline is something we learn, and like sports skills, it will improve with practice, training, analysis, goal setting and goal attainment. Can we as coaches and parents teach children self-discipline? Of course we can. We potty-train our children, teach them how to hit a ball off a tee, turn cartwheels, run a post-pattern, and we can teach them how to be self-disciplined.

You may argue that SELF discipline means doing what’s right whether someone is watching you or not, and you’d be right. The Encarta Dictionary describes self-discipline as “the ability to do what is necessary or sensible without needing to be urged by somebody else.” Some people may think that standing over your children and telling them right from wrong, what’s necessary or sensible will not teach them self-discipline, after all, that word “self” is a key component of the phrase. Those people would be wrong.

We don’t give our four year old a bat, ball and tee and say “here you are, figure out what to do with these.” And, we don’t send our children out into the world and say “go learn right from wrong.” Before our kids can choose to do what’s right, they must know what right is. That comes from education. Education from parents, teachers, clergy, coaches, family, friends, and people they trust. We can’t confuse matters by throwing the word “self” into the education and skill development process. Self-discipline is not self-taught, it is only self-administered.

Youth sports are an excellent environment to teach self-discipline. It creates opportunities to teach right from wrong and gives children experience with decision making where the consequences of a poor decision are not life-threatening or life-changing. With proper focus from a coaching staff, a child can clearly learn the benefits of being self-disciplined in a youth sport setting. Experiencing those benefits will hopefully encourage them to continue their education and skill development in this endeavor into adulthood.

Coaches, if we can put time and effort into setting goals and teaching sports skills that will diminish and possibly disappear with age, shouldn’t we also put time and effort into setting goals and teaching self-discipline skills that will last a lifetime?

When talking to my athletes about self-discipline I always refer to three points I’ve taken from a philosophy presented by Lou Holtz about creating a positive self-image. I believe they apply to self-discipline as well, because having strong self-discipline plays a key role in having a positive self-image.

1. Always do what’s right. (If you’re not sure what’s right find out from someone you trust.)

2. Always do your best.

3. Always treat others as you’d like to be treated.

Coach Holtz explains how doing these three things will answer some important questions that significant people in your life will ask about you. First, “Can I trust you?” The only way to earn trust is to do what’s right all the time. Next, “Are you committed to excellence?” Show the people whose lives are touched by yours that you are committed to excellence by always doing your best. And, last, “Do you care about me?” Living by The Golden Rule covers this one.

All of us are born with very little self-discipline and as our lives progress, we become more self-disciplined. It is a never ending process of education and skill development. We should be teaching those whose progress is below our own and learning from those whose progress is beyond ours.

Please visit again and feel free to email comments to:

Monday, March 29, 2010

A Coaches Greatest Gift

I’ve coached state champions, regional champions, and national champions. Watching athletes succeed in competition is rewarding for a coach. But, it’s not the greatest reward a coach can receive. Several times in my career, I have been approached after competitions by parents and coaches from other teams who have told me they really appreciate the way our coaches work with our athletes. These are the moments I consider my most successful.

As coaches, the greatest gift we can give our athletes will come from HOW we teach rather than WHAT we teach. Of course, it’s important to teach sports skills properly. But, in the big picture, the lessons learned from us as role models will last longer than the sports skills we teach.

Athletes, coaches, and parents love the results produced by hard work and good training. But it’s the process of attaining those results where learning takes place. The lessons children take from youth sports come more from the steps taken to excel in competition than they do from the competition itself.

Goal setting and goal achievement, self-discipline, perseverance, teamwork, and the joy of participation are just a few of the lessons learned from the process of preparing for competition.

Young athletes benefit when parents look past the results of competition to see what methods are used and what lessons are taught during the process of training to compete. Are the methods positive and progressive? Are the adults involved modeling behaviors and an attitude that you want your child to emulate? In addition to sports skills is your child learning lessons that are in line with what you are teaching them? Such as, how to be a good person, hard work pays off, etc.

Coaches, if parents are looking for these things because they are good for their children, we should be providing them for the same reason.

Please visit again and feel free to email comments to:

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Is There Anything Better than Watching Kids Excel?

I love watching kids excel. Initially because of the smile on their face and the excitement I know they are experiencing, but also because I know they have learned so much from the process of achieving excellence. I’ve always believed that all children need to excel at something, and that all children WILL excel at something if given a wide range of opportunities and experiences to find what they love to do. How does a child benefit from doing something well?

A sense of accomplishment
Motivation to continue the activity
Developing passion for an activity
Learning to set goals and be a progressive thinker
Learning the process of accomplishment
Recognition from parents, family and friends
Determining a career path (depending on the activity)
Friendships with other children who share common interests
It’s fun to do something well
This list could become very large, so I’ll stop here.

Parents should provide their young children opportunities to participate in a variety of activities. Exposure to sports, arts, academics, mechanics, building things, tearing things down, music, etc. will help children find activities they enjoy, most likely leading to excellence in one or more of those activities. Listen to your children talk about the things they do. Listen for reasons why they choose some activities over others. Find the activities they choose for the intrinsic rewards (the joy of participating, the thrill of meeting a challenge, etc.) and provide more opportunities to do those. Choosing activities for the extrinsic rewards isn’t a bad thing, but parents should ask themselves this question, “will my child continue the activity when the extrinsic rewards are no longer there?” If the answer is no, then parents have a few options. You can let them continue until the extrinsic rewards are gone and then let them move on to something else. This will happen a lot with children and isn’t bad at all, particularly if they have other interests that are intrinsically motivating. The second choice is to make sure the extrinsic rewards never go away (and increase in value). You guessed it, this isn’t a good choice. A third option would be to steer your child toward the things that appear to motivate them intrinsically or toward new activities they may enjoy.

Don't be afraid to let your child "specialize" in an activity.  Most literature you read will advise parents against allowing their children to devote their time to one primary activity.  I tend to agree, but if your child finds a sport or activity they love and are passionate about, let them pursue it whole-heartedly.  Keep them involved in other things, but if it's their choice to practice, play and compete primarily in one sport, let them.  All children will, at some point, begin to choose fewer activities and spend more time doing their favorites.  This natural funneling of activity, if not manipulated by outside forces (parents, friends, coaches, etc.), should lead a child to do what they enjoy the most. 

As children get older, peer recognition becomes a strong motivator. You can find arguments that peer recognition is an external reward.  And, you can find arguments that it is internally motivating. I tend to believe that recognition by others that you do something well leans a little more toward the intrinsic side of motivation than the extrinsic. A more accurate explanation would be this; although peer recognition is external, it comes after the activity was chosen and excellence achieved, meaning it’s just “icing on the cake” of a well motivated accomplishment.

Teenagers will choose activities based on what their friends are doing.  That's okay as long as the activities are appropriate.  A healthy mix of "doing what my friends do" and "doing what I love" is best.  Because friends tend to have common interests, those are often the same thing.  Encourage your children to continue doing the things they love even if their friends don't enjoy those activities.

All children will excel at something if given plenty of opportunities to experience a variety of activities.  Seeing the benefits of achieving excellence, we owe it to our kids to create (or at least not limit) those opportunities.  If we look hard enough, we will find excellence in every child and that is worth the effort.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Hidden Opportunities in Youth Sports

What opportunities exist for youth sports participants? Fame, fortune, multi-million dollar contracts? No. National teams, college scholarships, a few perks now and then? Sure, for some. If you look for opportunities created by children participating in sports, you’ll be able to make a long list, with the most obvious being developing friendships, learning life skills, and doing something you love. There are less obvious opportunities, one in particular that I want to discuss here.
When someone does something well, it draws attention to them. That attention creates opportunities to do good things for other people without expecting anything in return. That’s a “feel good” habit worth developing. Younger athletes look up to older athletes who excel at their sport. A simple compliment from one of these older athletes can “make the day” of the less experienced athlete. When you “make the day” for a child, you make the day for their parents as well, allowing one simple good deed to go a long way.

What’s great about this hidden opportunity is that excellence is relative. Like beauty, it’s in the eye of the beholder. A seven year old who does a nice straight arm, straight leg cartwheel is excellent in the eyes of the four year old who’s struggling just to get hands and feet placed in the right order for her cartwheel. That same seven year old may look up to a ten year old who does a cartwheel on the high balance beam. The ten year old sees excellence in the level 8 gymnast who does a roundoff on the beam to a layout back flip dismount, and the level 8 looks up to the level 10 who does the same but with a double twist. Because excellence is relative, opportunities are available at all levels of competence.

As our athletes progress, mature, and excel in their sport some will understand that opportunities exist to make a difference to others, with a simple compliment or with a significant contribution of time and effort. Some athletes haven’t given it much thought or don’t realize they are role models and the focus of other’s attention. Other athletes may or may not understand that the opportunities exist, but their personality is not one that is outgoing enough to take advantage of those opportunities, and that’s fine. As coaches and parents we should point out to our athletes and children that when they excel at something and that draws attention to them they have created a chance to do some good. If they want to take advantage of those opportunities, that’s great. If it’s “not their thing,” then that’s okay as well. My guess is most of these athletes are making a difference just with the behaviors they model.

I watch how easily the “little ones” in my gym pick out our top gymnasts and watch them in awe. And, I’ve watched those top gymnasts take a moment to say “nice cartwheel” or “I saw you make your pullover today” to one of the little ones, expecting nothing in return (except the cute smile, of course). And, I’ve had parents tell me how much it meant for their daughter to get that compliment. It’s a simple thing that makes such a big difference. Let’s make sure our athletes and children know these opportunities exist and how easy it is to take advantage of them in a small way or a big way.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Awards for Youth Sports

Help! I’ve been to many awards ceremonies for gymnastics meets over the years and I come away from most scratching my head and asking myself these questions. I’m hoping I can get feedback from parents and coaches that may help me find answers.

How did we get to a point where a two and a half hour meet is followed by a thirty to forty five minute awards ceremony? What’s best, giving an award to every child on every event, giving a certain percentage of the athlete’s awards on each event, or giving a gold, silver and bronze medal only on each event? If we know that intrinsically motivated children are more likely to persevere in sports longer, enjoy them more, and have a better chance of transitioning from youth sports to a healthy, active adult lifestyle, why are we putting such an emphasis on presenting extrinsic rewards following competition? Can our children base success on achieving their goals when we give the appearance that success is based on the number of awards they win and what place they take? What really creates opportunities for EVERYONE to celebrate, determining success based on your goals or giving everyone an award on every event, regardless of performance? What increases the long term desire to continue in a sport, determining success based on your goals or based on where you are on the awards stand? How meaningful is an award when you get one for just entering the competition? And, after we’ve answered all these questions, what can we do to make awards ceremonies better for our children?

Here are my thoughts on this matter. They will be considered by most to be old-school. I am quite willing to change my way of thinking about awards ceremonies if given good reasons to do so. First, as the amount of awards presented increases, either by number or by percentage of athletes who receive them, the value of the award decreases. Second, I believe children would rather not get an award than have to go up on the awards stand to receive a last place or low placing award. Third, we should not spend twenty to twenty five percent of our time at a youth sports event watching an awards ceremony. And, finally, if we want our children to reap the benefits of intrinsic motivation, we should drastically reduce the number of awards we present at meets.

What’s wrong with giving a gold, silver and bronze medal on each event and in the all around and a participation award or gift for everyone entered? If we keep age groups small, (less than ten children in a group) each competitor will have a pretty good chance of getting a medal (15 out of 50 scores would earn a medal). If a gymnast comes away without a medal, or they get only one, they will be very much in the majority, rather than the minority. When that child does win a medal, it will have meaning and create a sense of accomplishment. There are some additional benefits to this method. Entry fees can be lowered because the expense of awards will be less. The awards ceremony will be fast. No one will be called to the awards stand to get a last place award (or 15th or 20th). Our awards stands can be smaller (meet directors will appreciate this). Our children will learn to determine success by comparing their performance with their goals, creating opportunities for ALL to celebrate. Everyone in a competition can be successful by accomplishing their goals. The gold, silver and bronze medals should be used to distinguish the exceptional performances of the day.

I live in the real world and realize our awards ceremonies have evolved to a point where going back to a three medal ceremony is unlikely. But, I strongly believe we should look at every aspect of our children’s youth sports experiences and ask necessary and quite possibly unpopular questions about what’s best for the kids. And then, we must have the courage to do what’s right, every time, all the time.

Please visit again and feel free to send your comments to

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Nastia Liukin Super Girl Cup

I came away from my experience at the Nastia Liukin SuperGirl Cup with one thing embedded deeply in my thoughts. As much talent and competitive spirit as there was on the floor, what the girls seemed to enjoy most was their time together. They ate meals together, had a training session, and a competition. They were supportive and very appreciative of each other’s talent.

What makes a competition good? I believe it’s the people. If good people are involved, the competition will be good. My schedule will take me from Worcester, Massachusetts and the SuperGirl Cup last weekend to Great Bend, Kansas and a level 2 meet this coming weekend. As crazy as it sounds, I’m confident I will find the meets to be similar. The girls will enjoy their time together and because of the good people involved, the meet will be a good experience.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Children Want to Please Their Parents

My 30+ years of coaching children has led me to believe there is one absolute in the world of youth sports. Children want to please their parents. Yes parents, it’s true, and not just in the sports world. Although little Johnny may never clean his room, puts off his homework until the last minute, and “forgets” to take his dishes from the table to the dishwasher at least 5 times a week, when it comes to performance, whether little league, music, academics, or acting, little Johnny, more than anything else, wants to please his parents. I believe this is an innate trait in children.

You can throw other adults into the mix as well, just not with the same importance as a parent. Children want coaches, Grandparents, teachers, and other significant adults to see them excel.

When adults understand this and make a conscious effort to see how it affects children, they can use children’s activities to build or strengthen relationships and to teach important life lessons. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying use this knowledge to manipulate your child or athlete. I’m saying an understanding that children want to please the adults in their lives will help you create opportunities to share some love and to teach some important life lessons.

What kind of feedback do you want from the person whose opinion means the most to you? Although that person saw the good and the bad in your performance, what would you prefer to hear from them? Remember, more than anything else, children want to please their parents and other significant adults in their lives. Adults’ initial feedback following a competition or practice should focus on the positive happenings. Children should first hear about the things they did well. They should feel your pleasure in their performance from your feedback. And, that may be enough.

If your child brings up mistakes and errors, listen to what they say without being judgmental. Watch for an opportunity to reinforce an important lesson, such as persistence. “Maybe you didn’t turn a double play today, but if you keep working on it, they’ll happen soon. Your move at second base is getting better.” Or, goal setting, “you know the pro’s don’t shoot 80% from three point range, maybe that’s a little too much to expect from yourself, how ‘bout 30% in games and 40% during open shooting time?”

It’s critical that everyone knows their role in these matters. Coaches should coach and parents should parent. With children, approval from parents will most always trump input from coaches. If the coach tells Suzy her arms should be up at the end of a cartwheel, but Mom (without even thinking of giving coaching advice) says “I really like the way Jane puts her arms down at the end of her cartwheel,” guess what Suzy will do on her next cartwheel. You got it! The arms will be down.

Youth sports are filled with many wonderful things. The opportunity for children and parents to share some love and joy is one of the best. Your children are waiting for it, they want it, they’ll accept it, no questions asked. So, give it to them.

Please visit again and feel free to email your comments to: