Saturday, November 8, 2014

Is Your Child Ready for a Key Team Role? (Part 3)

   Here's the third and final post in our three part series on how and why certain kids get to play key positions such as point guard, pitcher, and quarterback. In this post, we take a look at how pickup games can help your child develop key skills, and the role you play in helping your child become a better player.

In the prior two posts, we discussed some reasons why a child is selected to play a key team position, and also discussed the role coaches and organized sports play in the development of the skills needed to play these positions. As mentioned, organized sports programs cannot realistically give each child equal time in key positions. But there is still an alternative for each child to develop their skills—self-directed pickup games. And there are also other ways in which you can provide your child the best opportunity to succeed.

The importance of pickup games

Some of the most valuable lessons a child learns in sports are ones not obtained from adults in an organized sports program. Instead, these lessons come from a child’s interaction with his or her peers while participating in neighborhood pickup games. [See The Role of Organized Sports in Your Child's Life for an in-depth discussion of the importance of self-directed sports play.]

These games usually vary in their level of competition. Different groups of kids provide different opportunities to play various positions and team roles. With older more experienced children, your child may play a relatively minor role. “Fairness” is not usually the primary concern of children in these games. Kids want to compete, have fun, and make sure that they have enough players to play their game. In balancing these needs, they decide who plays what position. And this usually means the young beginner doesn’t play the key positions until he or she demonstrates the necessary abilities.

But in other games with younger, less talented players, your child may be the "best" point guard, pitcher or quarterback for that group of kids. In these games, your child has the opportunity to develop his or her abilities in the more important positions—to put into play the skills taught in organized sports programs and individually practiced. And when your child returns to organized play the next season, he or she may be ready to play a key position at a more competitive level.

This is one of several reasons why parents should promote opportunities for their children to engage in self-directed pickup games.

What you can do

Besides providing your child with the opportunity to play in pickup games and participate in a good organized sports program, what else can you do?

If you played your child’s sport when you were young, you may be able to provide valuable skill instruction and guidance. It’s no coincidence that a high school coach’s son or daughter often develops into a skilled player deserving of a key position and team role.

At an appropriate age, individual lessons from a skilled instructor may also benefit your child. These instructors can provide tips, techniques, and insights that a child would not necessarily learn on his or her own (or from a volunteer coach within the typical organized youth sports program).

And finally, try to maintain a balanced perspective on your child’s journey in sports. Fight for your child’s opportunity to grow and be his or her best. If you feel your child’s coach is unfairly favoring other children, pull the coach aside and discuss his or her reasons for placing your child in a more minor team role. The coach may believe it’s in your child’s best interest to play a team role in which she or she can enjoy some success.

Also, understand that a fun, successful sports experience for all of the team’s players may require your child to now play a certain role. As your child matures, learns new skills, and demonstrates talent, opportunities will naturally emerge for your child to play a more important team role on his or her organized sports teams.

Copyright © 2014 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

If you enjoyed this article, you may like my book: The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the Best Youth Sports Experience for Your Child

($8.95; Kindle: $2.99)


Monday, October 27, 2014

Is Your Child Ready for a Key Team Role? (Part 2)

   Here's the second in a three part series on how and why certain kids get to play key positions such as point guard, pitcher, and quarterback. In this post, we take a look at how organized sports and coaches impact your child's opportunity to develop the necessary skills to play a key role.

Having provided some general background on who gets to play the key positions and why, let's move on and discuss how youth coaches impact your child's development.

How organized sports help (and hinder) development

At the earliest ages, kids are taught fundamental skills by adults—often by volunteer coaches who both enjoy the sport and understand how to play and teach it. Under their guidance, every child ideally has an equal opportunity to play each position.

But as the examples in the previous post illustrate, youth sports are structured play involving interaction between the team’s participants. Sometimes it may be necessary for a coach to play certain children more at a given position to achieve any development of team play.

Youth coaches face another obstacle with their youngest players. Because of their inexperience, these children may struggle to learn one position and associated skills, let alone multiple positions. For these children, a coach may believe it’s in their best developmental interest to focus on a single role for the current season.

As a child develops and gains experience, he or she may begin to demonstrate abilities to play a key position. But an underlying characteristic of most participation-based programs is that kids of different ages, sizes, skill levels, and innate athletic ability, are grouped together. Expectations of what makes up a "fun" and successful experience vary. Although a child may have developed some skills, he or she may still be underperforming relative to other children and the level of competition. And playing a child who is overmatched at a key position invites failure for both the child and the team. With limited practice time and the importance of certain roles to a team's opportunity to succeed, it's simply unrealistic for a coach in the typical youth program to provide every child with equal time at the key positions.

As the above paragraphs highlight, there are barriers in organized youth sports that may work against your child’s opportunity to play an important role and position.

But organized sports can provide your child with the instruction needed to play that “glory” position. Your child may quickly assimilate this knowledge and become his or her team’s point guard, quarterback or pitcher. So let’s now discuss the coach’s role in developing your child’s ability.

What to expect from your child’s coach

Your child will benefit most from a coach who uses the Teach Everyone Everything (TEE™) approach in practices. This coach teaches all of the fundamental skills to every kid on his or her team. This instruction incorporates both the demonstration of a skill and the equal opportunity in practice for each child to practice the associated technique (usually via a drill). Through this means, every child is provided the skill instruction that is required to play any position in the game. This does not mean that each child receives equal time at every position in practice scrimmages or games. Your child may still only play a relatively minor role on his or her team. But through the TEE approach, every child does receive the instruction that can unlock their potential to play any position.

Your child’s coaches should always look for opportunities to challenge your child. There are sometimes opportunities in practices and games where a coach can give kids a taste of playing a key role. And for the occasional child who develops quickly, a coach should expand the child’s team role during the course of the season.

One of the most important characteristic to look for in your child’s coach is his or her ability to create a fun environment that inspires your child to want to play the game, learn more, and practice. In the end, it’s your child’s natural abilities, desire, and acquired skills that determine what position your child plays. But a coach who opens your child’s eye to his or her potential is an important factor—especially for those children who may not be as athletically gifted.

If you feel that a coach is not giving your child an opportunity to fully develop his or her talent, you may be asking yourself, "Do I have any other options?" In next week's article, we'll finish this series by looking at how pickup games and the choices you make can improve your child's opportunity to learn a sport in a way the maximizes his or her chance to play a key role.

Copyright © 2014 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

If you enjoyed this article, you may like my book: The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the Best Youth Sports Experience for Your Child

($8.95; Kindle: $2.99)


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Is Your Child Ready for a Key Team Role? (Part 1)

   Here's the first post in a three-part series on how and why certain kids get to play key positions such as point guard, pitcher, and quarterback. In this series, we'll cover the importance of primary roles to a team's success, the skills a child needs to develop to play key positions, and also touch on the fairness issue of playing time.

A while back, a parent posted a comment and asked, “How does my child develop expertise in an important role unless a coach is willing to rotate the player roles?” This is a fair question. Parents recognize that more attention is often focused on the athletes who play the key positions on their team. And when parents see the same kids continually playing the primary roles, they may feel it’s unfair that their child is not afforded the same opportunity.

So let’s take a closer look at why certain kids play the “glory” positions, whether this is unfair to other children, and how you can help improve your child’s opportunity to play an important team role such as quarterback, pitcher, or point guard.

Who plays the key positions and why

Success in team sports often hinges on the performance at key positions. In the NFL, it’s understood that having a “franchise” quarterback substantially improves the odds for a team to reach the Super Bowl. Championship basketball teams often have a dominant center, talented point guard, or both. Excellent hockey and soccer teams usually have forwards who can score and an outstanding goalie.

In competitive youth sports, the same principle holds true. Because youth leagues often bring together children of different age groups, the effect of dominant players in key positions is substantial. A team lacking talent at these positions will likely not compete for the league championship.

Participation-oriented youth programs usually require skilled players to occupy certain roles—not just to engage in balanced, fun competition, but to also achieve some semblance of teamwork and opportunity to play the game in a way that benefits all of the team’s players.

Placing a young football player at the quarterback position, when he has neither the strength nor accuracy to make a downfield throw, will not benefit the more experienced receivers on the team. A young baseball pitcher who can’t throw the ball over the plate will walk player after player, ruining the game for his or her teammates. And a point guard in basketball who has difficulty dribbling will continually turn the ball over to the other team. His or her teammates will never touch the ball, become frustrated, and lose interest in playing (no fun).

So even in participation oriented youth programs, there are valid reasons for coaches placing their more accomplished child athletes in certain positions. (But at this level of play, there are usually opportunities to give a less-skilled child a taste of playing a key position.)

Individual factors that lead to success

Gaining expertise at a key position, and developing the necessary skills to play the associated team role well, is a process that develops over time and with a number of influences. A child’s natural athleticism, interest in playing sports, age and size relative to others, all affect a child’s overall ability to play a key position. These factors are often also the ones that determine how far an athlete can climb up the ladder of competitive success. But for many children, these factors vary throughout the developmental years. The youngest child of course becomes the oldest at some point, a change often accompanied by increased physical stature and ability.

The other main influence on a child’s ability to play a key position is the set of skills a child has mastered. Although natural physical ability is certainly helpful, many important sport skills are learned. And through practice and repetition, these skills are mastered. There are many examples of physically inferior athletes who have enjoyed enormous success because they both understood their position and mastered the requisite skill techniques.

How does a child begin the process of learning these essential skills? Today’s parents usually expect organized youth sports programs to provide the instruction and initial opportunity for their child.

In next week's article, we'll look at how organized sports and a child’s coach impact the development of your child’s ability to play a key position.

Copyright © 2014 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

If you enjoyed this article, you may like my book: The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the Best Youth Sports Experience for Your Child

($8.95; Kindle: $2.99)


Friday, September 19, 2014

Teach to the Level of Your Players

   A good friend of mine was in the stands watching his nine-year-old boy playing baseball when he heard his son’s coach yell, “Don’t step in the bucket!” The coach’s comment was directed at a young player who was struggling to hit the ball. Each time the boy swung his bat, he first stepped away from home plate with his front foot.

Upon hearing the coach’s instructions, the boy looked back at the coach with a confused expression on his face, and then looked around his feet searching for the “bucket” his coach had referred to. The boy had absolutely no clue what his coach was talking about. Although my friend recognized the disconnect, the boy's coach unfortunately did not.

Adapt Your Language

A player’s age, experience, talent level, and personality, determines the content of your instruction and the way in which you communicate information to the player. You need to evaluate your players' level of understanding, and adapt your instructional language accordingly. For some kids, typically beginners, you may need to further simplify your instruction.

In the example above, the coach should have recognized that his player did not yet understand the idioms (i.e., sayings) that are commonly used among more experienced baseball players and coaches. In this instance, the coach should have instructed the player to “step toward the pitcher” when swinging at a pitch.

Link Language to Concrete Actions

One of the responsibilities of a youth coach is to not only instruct players on technique, but also introduce them to the culture and language of the sport. Whenever you use sports jargon during a practice that younger players may be hearing for the first time, elaborate on its meaning and demonstrate the associated technique.

For example, when I instruct my players on how to rebound a basketball, I first describe and demonstrate the technique of “boxing out.” I then have each player walk through the various elements of the technique (pivoting, placing your body against your opponent, moving as necessary to keep between your opponent and the basket, and then releasing to go after the ball). Finally, we perform a live drill, where groups of two players put this technique to practice. After going through this process, everyone on the team has a clear understanding of what “boxing out” means and I can use this phrase as needed to quickly communicate with my players.

Be Extra Sensitive to Your Beginner's Needs

As mentioned above, simplify skill techniques for beginners. Concentrate your instruction on the skill's most important fundamental aspects. Always provide specific advice and instructions. Use the sandwich/Oreo cookie technique to address problems (what was done right – the problem – best action). For absolute beginners, struggling younger players, and children with more sensitive personalities, soften the criticism and emphasize the positive. Older, more experienced players, on the other hand, respond well to constructive criticism—especially when they understand that you appreciate their talent and have higher expectations for them.

Whenever you instruct a player, you should always try to match both the content of your instruction and your communication style to the needs of the individual player. Don’t assume that your younger players and beginners understand the jargon common to your sport.

Copyright © 2014 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

If you enjoyed this article, you may like my book: The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the Best Youth Sports Experience for Your Child

($8.95; Kindle: $2.99)


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Playground Playbook

   I was contacted recently by Todd Rosenthal, author of a short book for young children titled, The Playground Playbook. Todd does a nice job of explaining the basics of playing pickup games, and does so with language and drawings that are suitable to the youngest readers (ages 6-10). The book begins with introductory chapters on how to "Get in the Game" and "Understanding How Games Work," and progresses to game-oriented advice in "Game Behavior" and "Game Strategies."

I found one chapter, "Find Your Role," especially appealing. In my book, The Young Athlete's Guide to Playing Sports, I discuss at length the importance of every young athlete understanding the concept of team roles. Knowing what you do best, how your abilities fit with those of your teammates, and having the willingness to play the necessary role(s) to help your team win, is a key to success in both organized sports and pickup games. Todd also addresses this topic and does a great job of describing how each young child can figure out what type of player he or she is.

Here is an excerpt from The Playground Playbook:

Chapter 4 - "Find Your Role" (PDF file)

The Playground Playbook is available on Amazon. As an excellent introduction to pickup games, I wholeheartedly recommend this book.

Copyright © 2014 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

If you enjoyed this article, you may like my book: The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the Best Youth Sports Experience for Your Child

($8.95; Kindle: $2.99)


Thursday, August 21, 2014

Motivation and the Young Athlete (Part 2)

   Here's the second of the two-part guest post from Dr. Tony McGroarty, a sports psychologist with whom I play basketball. In this concluding post, Tony discusses motivation in the context of specific feedback given by young players and coaches themselves. Although his data is older, newer studies have resulted in similar findings (e.g., the importance of FUN). As in the first part, his ideas apply equally to all sports.

The Players Speak

If we have the prudence to ask, players will tell us what conditions create motivation to begin playing in the first place, what conditions create the motivation to continue playing and what conditions lower that motivation, sometimes to the point where they drop out. The Athletic Footwear Association sponsored a survey of youth sports participation conducted by the Youth Sports Institute at the University of Michigan. They did ask some kids - 3,900 boys and girls, grades 7 to 12, to be exact. The number one reason both boys and girls gave for playing sports was "To have fun". The first two reasons for quitting a sport were: "I lost interest" and "I was not having fun". The number one change which would bring players back to a sport they quit was, "I would play again if... practices were more fun". The lists follow.

The 12 Most Important Reasons I Play My Best School Sport

1. To have fun 1. To have fun
2. To improve skills 2. To stay in shape
3. Excitement of competition 3. To get exercise
4. To do something I'm good at 4. To improve skills
5. To stay in shape 5. To do something I'm good at
6. Challenge of competition 6. To be part of a team
7. To be part of a team 7. Excitement of competition
8. To win 8. To learn new skills
9. To compete at higher level 9. For the team spirit
10. To get exercise 10. Challenge of competition
11. To learn new skills 11. To compete at higher level
12. For the team spirit 12. To win

The Coaches Respond

These findings speak for the soccer players we are charged to train. They can be seen as guides which steer us in the right direction while developing a mission statement for the organization or a philosophy of coaching. The kids can tell us so much about what they need in order to begin playing soccer and to continue in the game. Their words can be used to help us formulate a set of principles youth coaches can use to increase player motivation.

Coaching Principles
The overriding goal of soccer coaches for all age groups is to find the balance between being an external source of motivation and encouraging the growth of internal motivation. How this is done depends on an assessment of where the athlete is in the process and then judging how much external motivation is necessary to help the player improve.

Another guiding principle for the coach is to make the expectations for the players clear and challenging, yet attainable. Coaches should strive to introduce new skills and tactics which stretch their players' abilities; but not so far that the players become too anxious about failing. On the other hand, coaches should avoid making the expectations too low because the players will learn nothing new and become bored.

The principle of providing encouragement through the use of positive feedback is more complicated than it appears. It turns out that giving players only positive feedback does less for their motivation than mixing it with honest criticism of their play. Players who receive honest feedback about mistakes as well as instruction on how to improve their game are happier with the sport experience and their coach than are those who are only praised. This is not criticism in the form of putting the player down. It is constructive in that mistakes are identified and corrected. In this way the player is clear about how far off the performance is, about the proper way to execute the skill, and about what to do to improve.

The method of offering feedback when a player has made an error or when trying a new move but does not have it down quite right is called the "sandwich" method of offering constructive criticism. Teaching the player how to do it correctly is sandwiched between two evaluative statements. For example, lets say the defender failed to offer support to a teammate on defense and the error in judgment led to a goal against. The coach could make the following three statements: "Where's your head? We went over that yesterday in practice. You have to pay more attention in practices." he coach using the sandwich method to teach the same player would make these three statements: "Jimmy, you didn't support Alex there. When Alex steps up you need to stay connected on the inside. You'll get it next time!" This second coach's statements convey specifics about what the younger, and sometimes the older, player needs from the coach to maintain motivation--to learn new skills and see that the coach has confidence in them. As athletes mature and gain experience through playing time, similar phrases become internalized and are used by players to criticize, correct and encourage themselves.

Coaches who adopt the principle of teaching players to think for themselves and to learn from the consequences of making their own decisions will have athletes who learn faster because they are more focused and better able to evaluate themselves and others. Soccer is a game of instant decisions requiring players to be creative on the field. Coaches who are constantly yelling instructions from the sidelines inhibit their players' ability to think for themselves. The players are distracted from what is happening on the field because their attention is directed at the sideline, not on the here-and-now flow of the game. There are some things coaches can do to promote focus, communication and creativity in their soccer players. Most teaching should be confined to practice and half-time. Coaches can help players focus on the flow of the game by being as quiet as possible during the scrimmage at the end of practice and during the game. When a player comes off the field or when the team gathers at half-time, self-evaluation can be encouraged by asking what is going well and what needs to change before the coach launches into instructions. If an important adjustment must be made during the game, the coach can tell the captain or the closest outside midfielder to convey the message to the team on the field. This approach gives players opportunities to practice leadership and effective communication.

Fairness and consistency are very important principles for promoting internal motivation in the younger athlete. If players go in and out of the game using rolling substitutions and learn they will play an equal amount of time regardless of how they are performing, then each player will feel relaxed enough to try new skills during the game without the fear of being taken out because of a mistake. Effort is emphasized over immediate results, success is defined by player improvement rather than by goals scored or wins and healthy risk-taking is the norm rather than the exception. This approach most closely resembles the atmosphere of a neighborhood pick-up game where the kids figure it out by themselves. The coach who teaches skills and allows the kids to play the game accelerates the "figure it out" part. The players do not need the coach to show them how to have fun.

If we let our young athletes "play" the game, we can learn a lot about human potential from our players--and have fun in the process. When the players and the coaches have fun at practices and games they will be motivated to be with the team again next season. That kind of success is a great source of motivation which makes winners of us all.

Dr. Tony McGroarty is a clinical and sport psychologist in the Pittsburgh area. He welcomes your questions and suggestions. Please contact him at: or (412) 983-1790 or 242 S. Highland Ave. Pittsburgh, PA 15206.

Copyright © 2014 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

If you enjoyed this article, you may like my book: The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the Best Youth Sports Experience for Your Child

($8.95; Kindle: $2.99)