A child typically views his or her sports experience through the lens of personal success. Each child’s sense of athletic worth is based on his or her performance relative to others and, in team sports, the perceived contributions made to his or her team.
Most kids naturally discover their talent as they mature. They gradually learn how to apply their abilities in a way that leads to both individual and team success. But problems can arise both in the way a child internally defines success and his or her understanding of how to achieve it.
Some young athletes erroneously view success in more selfish terms—am I dribbling the ball, scoring a goal, or am I otherwise the center of attention? They fail to connect the individual act to the overall goal. Still others struggle to find any path to success. They feel they can’t keep up and have no idea how to contribute.
Parents can also contribute to the problem when they push their child into situations for which they are not yet prepared to succeed. Parents may expect their child to play primary team roles and receive equal playing time—regardless of the situation. They fail to understand that there are times when equal playing time in a game does not provide the best developmental experience for a young child.
So, how does a coach help a struggling young player find his or her path to success?
Provide the right opportunitiesLearning to succeed in team sports is a process that depends on a child understanding a few fundamental individual skills, how to connect and apply these to team play, and then having the opportunity to do so in a game situations that do not overwhelm the child. Opportunity does not necessarily lead to success. Giving a beginning athlete the opportunity to play quarterback in a football game, when he has not demonstrated the necessary skills in practice, will usually result in the player failing at the task. Worse, it may reinforce the child’s negative feelings toward playing the sport. Instead, you should look to provide a more realistic opportunity for the child to apply his or her existing abilities in a meaningful and successful way.
Several years ago, I coached a team that included a sixth grade girl named Becky. She was a shy, quiet girl who was reluctant to shoot the ball and generally unsure of herself and her basketball abilities. However, she moved well and was clearly athletic.
My approach with Becky was to first build her confidence by having her perform tasks that were well within her abilities. I also initially avoided placing her in game situations requiring extensive ball handling or the need for her to shoot the ball. Becky quickly learned how to play great defense, set screens and make good passes.
As the season progressed, her confidence grew and she naturally began taking some shots and dribbling when required. By the end of our season, Becky was a key player on our team, confidently playing the game of basketball with a smile on her face.
Sometimes the reward for a coach is not only seeing a player develop and find themselves, but also the proud look in a parent’s eye. Becky’s dad, who played basketball in high school (and obviously hoped that his child would also enjoy the sport), gratefully thanked me and my assistant coach after our last game.
Grow the playing experienceAlthough you should generally fit opportunities and team roles to a child’s ability to handle them, don’t necessarily eliminate opportunity because the child may be less likely to succeed. Even if a child is less talented or inexperienced, providing them with a chance for their big moment (one that may last a lifetime) is sometimes the right choice.
Your goal is to always provide each of your players with a sports experience that results in a real, positive sense of individual success. Tailor their practice and game opportunities, progressing from comfortable responsibilities and skills to more challenging ones. Let the child’s abilities and confidence naturally unfold. Occasionally throw the child into a more difficult situation that both tests them and provides them with their opportunity to enjoy a heroic moment. Pick your spots. A good coach can see ideal opportunities for lesser skilled kids to succeed.
Copyright © 2014 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved