Tuesday, June 26, 2012

"Framing" Your Child's Sports Play

   Every child wants to be successful. As a parent, you obviously want your child to have fun and succeed in youth sports. A barrier to this outcome, however, is that most participation-based youth sports programs (and many neighborhood games) are comprised of children with unequal levels of ability. Whether these differences are based on talent, experience, age, or body type, they generate moments of failure for many kids. Overmatched beginners, players having less athletic ability, and teams missing key components, will all struggle to compete. In a purely win-loss scenario, there are lots of losers in youth sports.

Good instruction and organized programs well-matched to your child’s current skill level can of course provide your child with a better opportunity to enjoy success. But even as your child progresses down a normal development path, he or she will likely face many difficult moments. So when your child is frustrated, disappointed, or otherwise struggling, how can you and your child’s coach help?

Your Child’s Perceptions

Social psychologists refer to “framing” as a process of understanding and explaining events relative to the context (circumstances) in which they occur. As a parent you ideally see the bigger picture—the changing nature of your child’s participation in sports throughout his or her developmental years.

But a struggling child is unlikely to see past the reality of his or her current shortcomings. He or she doesn’t see personal differences and flaws as “having character.” And the future is distant to a child who is picked last, made fun of by other children, or feels unable to compete. It’s not surprising that many of these children develop a negative view of playing sports.

Through the use of framing, however, you and your child’s coaches can help bring a more balanced perspective to your child’s view of his or her youth sports experience.

How Coaches Can Positively Frame Competition

If your child’s coaches are good teachers, they will provide both essential instruction and a positive, supportive learning environment. To create this positive setting for beginners and lesser players, they will commonly frame each player’s performance relative to other children of similar age and ability. With a chance to contend, each of these children will naturally begin to enjoy competing, giving his or her best effort, and striving to become better.

Where possible, a good coach breaks down contests into smaller ones, finding opportunities for each player to succeed. These “contests within a contest” enable a coach to frame the competition in a way that benefits every player. For example, during a basketball practice, a coach might have his players run a “Suicide” race where each player progressively touches lines further down the court, always returning to the starting baseline. There are always one or two children who will win the race and likewise lose it. Although this drill may help get kids in shape, promote team bonding, and appeal to the fastest ones, it’s not inherently fun for the slower ones. But by shouting words of encouragement to the slower players, giving attention, and framing the race as one against another player of similar body type and ability, the coach can motivate these players to give their best effort. Although they lose the overall race, they begin to enjoy competing. They see the connection between effort and reward—and they strive to win.

Framing Team Roles

In addition to framing competitive situations, a good coach will also frame a player’s team role. For beginners, the coach will emphasize to both the player and team how even minor contributions (e.g., setting a screen in basketball that leads to a layup) are important to the team’s success. For older, more talented children, the coach can frame the player’s role not only as it relates to obvious contributions (scoring), but also to the less apparent ones (leadership, making teammates better).

What You Can Do

But if a coach does not positively frame your child’s participation and team role, then you will need to do so. Cast your child’s participation and contributions in the proper light. You can easily frame the child’s mastery of a skill relative to their age, experience, talent, or past performance to provide a relative sense of positive progress and success. Explain how differences in age or experience (relative to other players) may make it more difficult to excel now. Try to show your child how a certain physical limitation (e.g., small in stature) can often translate into a positive attribute (e.g., quick, and strong). And always remind your child that his or her physical body is constantly changing and that this change can lead to new opportunities.

Emphasize how small contributions can make a huge difference in a close game. A child who has an understanding of his or her capabilities, and grasps the concept of playing a team role, will always find acceptance within that sport’s community of players. Even with limited physical talent, these children can enjoy the benefits of playing sports—and do so well into their adult years.

Adjust Expectations as Necessary

Finally, framing an experience does not necessarily mean sugar-coating events, setting low standards, or making excuses for poor behavior. You choose the extent to which you want to hold your child accountable. There may be instances where you believe your child should perform at a higher level. In these cases, you can frame your child’s performance against some higher standard. For example, a talented, confident child may score many goals (possibly against a weak opponent) and believe that he or she has played well. But the flip side is that he or she may also have played poor defense, giving up a number of goals. You may choose to remind your child of this fact to adjust his or her view to one that you believe is more appropriate.

Whenever you believe your child’s perspective is limited or distorted, you can help your child by framing the underlying issues in a more appropriate, balanced way.

Copyright © 2012 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 (Amazon $8.95)

(Kindle Edition $2.99)


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Change it Up (Speed, Style of Play)

   If you’re fortunate, you possess physical qualities that help you excel playing sports. Strength, speed, quickness or hand/eye coordination may alone enable you to dominate your opponents.

But to succeed in sports, especially at higher levels, most athletes will benefit from mixing up their style of play, changing speeds, and otherwise employing variations of technique that confuse their opponent.

Consider a baseball pitcher who possesses an outstanding fastball. At lower levels, this pitcher can dominate opposing batters. But at higher levels, the hitters are better. They have quicker bat speed and know how to begin their swing earlier. A pitcher who can only pitch one way, in this case using a fastball, will find less success. Now consider another pitcher who not only throws a good fastball, but also complements this pitch with a curveball or change-up. Batters who face this other pitcher don’t know what to expect. They can’t “sit” on the fastball. And with confusion and hesitation, the pitcher gains an advantage.

Changing Speed to Gain Separation

This principle applies in many other situations. Although you may not have exceptional foot speed, changing speeds will often enable you to gain separation from your opponent. Your opponent may not react well to your changes in speed.

The best receivers in football use this ability to their advantage. They don’t always run their routes at full speed. Instead, they may slow down at a point in the route, and then apply a burst of speed to fool their opponent. Players in virtually every team sport can change speeds to deceive their opponent and gain separation.

More Ways to Confuse Your Opponent

There are still other ways to mix it up. A baseball pitcher not only can benefit from a change in speed and style (e.g., fastball vs. curveball), but also can change the location of the pitch. First pitching high and inside, and then low and outside, is a sequence of pitches that is more likely to catch the batter off-guard then two pitches to the same location.

Think of your own sport and how you can mix things up. There are opportunities to do so in every sport. Here are a few more examples:

  • Much like a baseball pitcher, a tennis player wants to regularly change the type of serve (flat, kick, slice), its location, and speed. During a rally, an accomplished tennis player will sometimes change the rhythm of the rally by hitting a slice shot instead of one with topspin—possibly resulting in a return dumped into the net by an opponent who mishandles the sudden change in spin.

  • If you’re defending a basketball player located on the low post who is “backing you down,” meet those pushes with equal push-back—but then let up briefly so your opponent loses a little balance. Constantly change your defensive position to make it harder for your opponent to adapt. First play behind your opponent, then quickly move to the side and in front, possibly confusing the guard trying to make an entry pass.

For Some, Stick to Your Strengths

Finally, there are some players who do best by maximizing their dominant, exceptional quality. Their formula for success is to maximize their strengths. Adding other techniques, ones that are poorly executed, only seems to diminish their success. Although talented in one area, they are not so in others.

But for most players (either those with average abilities or ones who want to play at the highest levels) the ability to change styles, speed, and tactics will add value to their game. In the long run, you will likely find greater success by having more than one golf club in your bag.

Copyright © 2012 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 (Amazon $8.95)
(Kindle Edition $2.99)


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Recognize Teaching Moments and Use Them

   When coaching youth sports, you should always look for “teaching moments”—situations in practice or games that provide you with an opportunity to reinforce your instruction. Your ability to recognize and use these teaching moments is an essential coaching skill.

So let's take a closer look at how you can leverage teaching moments to improve your coaching effectiveness.

Teaching Moments During Practice

During a practice scrimmage, you may see one of your players make an excellent play or decision. You may also see a player make an error. As you recognize these moments, shout words of encouragement or short commands (e.g., “John, cut to the basket”) to your players. Your goal is to help your players better recognize game situations and opportunities as they present themselves, and to then take the appropriate action.

When you see a player commit a critical error of judgment, or several players making mistakes, blow your whistle to stop the action and address the problem. Use a teaching technique appropriate to the situation and player. For example you could either ask your player(s) a leading question or declaratively state the point that you quickly want to make. Where possible (and especially with younger or less experienced players), use positive language to “sandwich” criticism. First, encourage the player on what he or she was doing right; next, state the problem; and finally, indicate what action or behavior the player should have taken. Pick your moments carefully and try not to ruin the flow of the scrimmage.

Teaching Moments During Games

To the extent that you can interactively communicate with your players during games, game situations also provide many teaching moments.

If you can freely substitute players, consider immediately replacing a player who has committed a significant mental mistake. Sit the player down next to you and calmly review his or her mistake and what action they should have instead taken. Focus on positive comments that describe correct technique and behaviors. Substitute the player quickly back into the game—you don't want your players looking over their shoulder every time they make an aggressive play and possibly a mistake.

Also use these types of moments to teach players on the bench. Voice the problem and what a player should have done in that situation. You may want to address the problem to a specific bench player who plays the same position. Other players will also likely listen and learn.

Where multiple players are at fault for a situational mistake, consider calling a timeout to communicate the problem and state your expectations. If the mental mistake is a serious one made by players who should know better, this is the time to raise your voice and inject emotion. Most players, even the younger ones, will respond to your criticism and give you their best effort.

Depending on the nature of your players and your coaching style, consider yelling out constructive comments during the game action each time you observe a significant positive action. If possible, get the attention of your player and make sure that they understand the moment.

Especially help your beginners make the connection between a game situation and their positive action. For example, if a beginning basketball player sets a screen and his teammate scores, I would yell words of congratulations to the player setting the screen, not necessarily the one who scored. The same is true for a player who makes the pass that leads to an easy layup. Connect positive player behavior to game situations. Reinforce the connections whenever possible, acknowledge teamwork, and praise the players who set up an opportunity to score.

Teaching Moments after a Game

Also understand that both winning and losing a game provide you with teaching moments. Reinforce positive behaviors and analyze negative ones. Discuss what actions the players and team could have taken to achieve a better result. (Possibly give a short recap after the game and then a more in-depth review at the following practice.) Although no one likes losing, a loss will likely mean that you now have the undivided attention of your players—use it.

Do you have any personal examples of how you leverage "teaching moments" when coaching kids?

Copyright © 2012 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 (Amazon $8.95)

(Kindle Edition $2.99)


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Emphasize the Internal Rewards

   A child’s motivation to play sports arises from both internal and external rewards. Internal rewards are ones that are intrinsic to the activity itself—the feelings within us that are evoked when we engage in a certain behavior. Examples include the satisfaction a child gains from mastering a new skill or performing to personal expectations, the thrill of participating in a close contest, the joy from running around and expending physical energy, the warm sense of belonging (to a larger group who share similar values), and while playing, experiencing the “flow” that comes from an expanded awareness and living in the moment.

External Rewards Have Their Place, But…

External rewards, on the other hand, are ones that come from outside the activity—usually from another person. These external rewards can be either abstract or concrete. For example, praise received from a parent or coach for performing a certain behavior well is an abstract external reward, as is an excessive focus on the scoreboard and winning. Treating a child to an ice cream cone after a good game is an example of a concrete external reward.

Both internal and external rewards play a role in motivating an athlete. At more competitive levels of play, external rewards such as playing time, public and peer recognition, scholarship offers, and money can all drive training and performance to higher levels. In youth sports, and especially with beginners, parental praise often plays an important role. It helps motivate a child to play sports at a time when his or her skill level doesn’t generate the necessary internal rewards. Similarly, trophies and wearing “cool” uniforms are external rewards that can motivate a young athlete’s interest in sports.

But external rewards also have a downside. Too much emphasis on these types of rewards may cause a young athlete to lose sight of the intrinsic motivators associated with playing the sport. And when the external rewards disappear, so does the child’s desire to participate.

Helping Your Child Experience the Internal Rewards

Although external rewards may help a child achieve greater success in the short run, it’s the internal rewards that will drive the child’s life-long appreciation and enjoyment of sports participation. As a parent, you should:
  • Seek out coaches who not only teach technique, but also help elicit an understanding in your child of the internal rewards and benefits of participating in the sport.

  • Lessen excessive parental praise, criticism, or other external parental influences that can dull your child’s joy of participation and sense of self-reliance.

  • Promote opportunities for your child to enjoy unstructured and self-organized play (neighborhood pickup games).

  • Play catch with your child or engage in some other family sports activity (one with fun, friendly competition). Consider extending the family dinner time to include these activities.

Emphasize the internal rewards and use external ones only when required.

[This post is an excerpt from my book: The Joy of Youth Sports]

Copyright © 2012 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 (Amazon $8.95)

(Kindle Edition $2.99)