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)


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Motivation and the Young Athlete (Part 1)

   Here's the first of a two-part guest post from Dr. Tony McGroarty, a sports psychologist with whom I play basketball. In these articles, Tony discusses motivation and how it impacts the performance and development of young soccer players. Although the article is directed at the soccer community, his ideas apply equally to all sports. Tony's philosophy mirrors many of the principles I advocate in my writings, but he goes into much greater detail and brings a professional psychologist's perspective.


Thought, emotion, and movement are woven together to create the performance you see on the soccer field. You, athletes and coaches, love what you do! Right? I hope so. You work hard in practice and in competition year after year, persevering with a sense of joy. This, of course, is the ideal situation. It is ideal; but it is not unrealistic to expect a good dose of joy along the way as you accomplish the goals you set for yourself. It keeps you going, no matter what the pursuit. You feel motivated! Others say you are a motivated coach and soccer player.

What is motivation and how can the player and coach make it happen? Some things in soccer are clear because they can be measured: your time in the 40, the score of the game, goals per game average. Other aspects of the game are not so easily understood: shifts in momentum during the game, the appearance and disappearance of a slump, the experience of being in the zone. Motivation is likewise a perplexing concept. Because it takes place within the individual player or team member, it cannot be seen nor easily measured. When the goalkeeper spends time after practice on footwork, when the defender doggedly marks a forward for a full eighty minutes, when the two captains run and lift weights during the off season, we say those players are motivated. However, what we observe in the players' actions at practice, during games, and in the off season is not motivation. It is the end result of motivation which really is psychological activity occurring within the soccer player. Motivation takes place within the individual.

What is it that occurs within a soccer player that constitutes motivation? Thoughts and emotions are the two psychological activities continually at work within each of us as we go through the day. Motivation is a particular form of thinking and feeling about something we want to do.

External and Internal Sources of Motivation

Young children rely on adults to teach them how to think clearly and how to understand and properly express their feelings. Much of the motivation to play soccer, especially for micro through U-8, comes from the external world of important adults such as parents and coaches. As children get older, the source of their motivation to play gradually becomes more internal. But, throughout childhood and adolescence there is always a mix of internal and external influences on motivation. Even the youngest athlete is internally motivated to some degree and older players still require external sources of support to maintain their motivation.

External Sources for Motivation
Young children characteristically are motivated by external forces. External motivation refers to the situation where the player decides to play or to continue playing because of the influence of others or because they expect rewards or punishments. From the viewpoint of the child, the influence can either be positive or negative.

Positive External Motivation
Here are some examples of positive external motivation: the child plays soccer to please the parent, to wear a "cool" uniform, or to be thought of by friends as part of the in-group. These types of reasons for playing produce the joy of anticipation before the game and feelings of pride when others show enjoyment from the sideline.

Negative External Motivation
All forms of external motivation are not accompanied by such pleasurable feelings. Negative external influences also act to motivate the athlete. An example of a negative external influence is when the child keeps playing during the season because of fear. The player may fear that a parent would be angry and resort to punishment if the child did not finish out the season. The child might be afraid to lose friends for not joining the team. Sometimes, the child who is motivated at first by a negative force such as fear may actually learn to enjoy playing soccer and become influenced by the more positive sources of motivation.

Internal Sources of Motivation

As the child grows motivation matures. During the middle school years the U-12 through U-14 soccer player begins to show signs of genuine internal motivation to play the game. It's great benefit to the player is that there is less need to depend on outside influences to keep playing Internal motivation cannot begin to arrive on the scene until the child can think analytically and have control over emotions. On the middle school soccer team we often see fluctuations in the balance between external and internal motivation. One day the player is excited about practice or makes plans to go jogging. Another day this same child would rather play a video game or hang out with friends than go to practice or even play in a game.

Changes take place within the middle school player which support the internalization of motivation. They can think more abstractly. Abstract thinking ushers in the possibility of making a more realistic evaluation of themselves and others. Coaches and parents now begin to see the appearance of true competitiveness and authentic feelings of soccer competence. Self doubt may appear for the first time as a consequence of the young player's making a realistic appraisal of skills and finding areas of weakness. The U-13 players who understand their emotions better can, for example, use aggression appropriately without losing control and seeing constructive aggression turn to undermining anger. However, kids at this age still get too angry at themselves and others during practices and games.

One can expect the high school player to have methods for motivation in place. Internal motivation requires higher-level thinking for players to put setbacks into perspective and for working toward a goal far into the future. In order to counteract feelings such as boredom, frustration and discouragement experienced during the demands of a long season, the high school player will intentionally think about winning the state championship game to generate happy feelings connected to the win. But just because internal motivation predominates, it does not mean that the high school player is ready to go it alone. Although players U-14 and older can gradually make better evaluations of the performances of self and others and set realistic goals for improvement, they still need the support of others. In fact, the truly internally motivated player knows when help is needed and how to find it.

The Goal: Skills for Healthy Self-regulation

The key difference between the athlete who becomes internally motivated and the one who remains dependent on motivation from without is that the player who is internally motivated is less vulnerable to the inevitable setbacks and obstacles encountered by those who put themselves on the line and strive for excellence. Internal motivation develops when the athlete and coach plan strategies for improvement and find a network of people who provide support. Athletes still playing at the high school level have developed psychological skills which strengthen internal motivation through self-regulation of their thoughts and emotions. For instance, they can change doubt to hope by transforming thinking from negative to positive. They can control competition anxiety through the use of routines and self-relaxation methods. High school athletes look to their coaches for skill and tactical training and, just as importantly, coaches become a source for rebuilding the internal motivation which can be seriously challenged by the physical and psychological demands of playing at a high level.

Next Week: The Players Speak and The Coaches Respond!

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)