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.

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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.

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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.

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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Finding the Good in Youth Sports

While much discussion and printed material concerned with youth sports focuses on negative issues and circumstances, let us not forget what’s good in the world of youth sports. As is usually the case in life, good things evolve from the involvement of good people. Caring, enthusiastic, and energetic people are abundant on the fields, courts and in the gyms of our children. Look around and you’ll see them.

You may have to look hard at first because the negative influences tend to be more visible. But, keep looking and you’ll soon realize that the good is the majority, an overwhelming majority. Watch the coaches, parents, and officials. Do you see the smiles, the support, and the caring attitude that so many bring to the sports setting? Can you see past the frustrated and the overzealous? If you can, you’ll find the role models that make children’s sports such a fantastic learning experience.

Look at yourself. Take some time to consider your actions and the behaviors you model for the children in your life. When others look for the good in youth sports will they find you? If you’re dedicated to youth sports enough to have found this blog, I’m guessing the answer to that question is yes.

I’m excited to be blogging on the topic of youth sports. I don’t consider myself to be an expert, but I do consider myself to be experienced. I’ve had some great achievements and I’ve made plenty of mistakes. After thirty plus years of coaching, I have some definite thoughts about what’s right with youth sports, why we love sports and how we can help our kids love them too.

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