Written by Bruce McLane    Thursday, 12 December 2013 23:38    PDF Print Write e-mail
Spearhead Academy Coaching and Leadership Series - Ideas on Youth Sports
Columns - Coaching Columns


Periodically RUGBYMag.com will produce columns and content from the Spearhead Rugby Academy. Spearhead Academy takes young people and teaches them life skills, provides educational opportunities, and athletic opportunities through the sport of Rugby. Spearhead Academy is a 501c3 organization where 100% of money raised goes directly to programs to better the lives of its participants. For information on giving contact Rob Holder  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it All donations are tax deductible.


Many teams and leagues say the right things such as they provide instruction in a safe environment, that they promote fitness, sportsmanship, teamwork, respect, and that they provide equal playing time to all players to promote enthusiasm and a love of playing the game. Many programs don't live up to their lofty ideals (some don't even have lofty ideals), because often times it's more about the coaches (adults) than the kids. That said, some programs and coaches do get it and act appropriately, many don't.

Remember when kids didn't have video games, ipods, etc and the only thing they had to play with was each other, OUTSIDE? They figured it out, they chose up sides, they invented games based on the real game to compensate for things such not enough players (cut off half the baseball diamond so you can only hit to left field) or uneven sides (automatic QB), etc.

A highly respected and successful high school football coach with 30 years' experience told me, "Young players would be better off and better high school players if parents dropped kids off at the field with a bag of balls for a couple hours and let them choose up sides and play, rather than playing overly organized football, because that’s how they gain instinct, and that’s what’s missing in modern players. Let kids just play. They'd have fun, try new things without fear of adult judgment."

Before society became coach-centric, kids made their own games and I'd suggest that given the chance they would do the same today.

Allowing kids to choose up sides, make their own rules, and adjudicate those rules (often with a do-over, sometimes with a scrap) teaches kids that they can do things themselves and that they don't need adult supervision to have meaningful fun in their lives.

I know the world is different now (it isn't just that it's more litigious and over-protective) so here are some ideas to consider when getting involved in organized youth sports:

  • Smile most of the time at children’s games. Success is measured more in the genuine smiles of young players than anything else and I promise that if you measure success in smiles, the wins tend to take care of themselves. Smiles breed smiles, give them often.

  • Young players don't need adults around unless the adults have something positive to offer.  The value of adult presence depends on the conduct of the adults.

  • Don’t compete through the kids. We call it “youth sports” for a reason. You had your time. Just let the kids play. Now is their time.

  • Don’t say or do anything to the referees that you would be embarrassed to say or do in front of your child in a non sports setting.

  • Young players are not miniature pros. They are children who are growing, learning and playing, it's not their job. Kids don't have massive guaranteed contracts, national media coverage, and an audience of millions. They play for fun to an audience consisting mostly of only family and friends. Treat is as such.

  • Reward effort over outcome.

    Carol Dweck at Stanford did a lot of important work proving the value of effort and process based recognition being far superior to outcome based praise. Her famous quote is:

    “If parents (coaches) want to give their children (players) a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children (players) to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children (players) don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.”

    Effort-based recognition gets us out of the win=good/lose=stink mindset.

    If coaches and parents heed her research, players can win even when the team comes out on the short end on the scoreboard.

  • Catch players doing things correctly and recognize it by name.

    Nothing is sweeter to a person than to hear their name followed by recognition of their efforts to do their job. Look to catch players doing things properly more than for correction moments. Imagine what it’s like to go to the grocery store and buy a dozen donuts. You can open the box and see a dozen donuts, or you can open the box and see a dozen holes.  What people see depends a lot whether they are looking for the positive or the negative. If you want more of something, recognize it and use names. Include all team members and support staff. If you want donuts, look for the positives, if you want holes, focus on the negative and they'll give it to you in droves. Create an environment of possibility, if you do that players will rise to it and exceed all expectations.

  • Mistakes are necessary learning tools. Great players make mistakes because they aren't afraid to play to the limits of their ability. Words hurt, and harsh criticism has no place on a team from either a coach or teammate. Coaches must teach, support and encourage players when they make mistakes and try again.  Tolerating and learning from errors helps players avoid fear of failure. Nervous players tend to play tentatively producing a downward spiral of more mistakes that often turns close victories into close defeats. For coaches who want to win every game within the team’s reach, the key is not the mistake itself, but how we react to it.

  • Give players adequate playing time. Players deserve a fair and equal opportunity to participate in every practice session and game. Chronic benchwarming causes shame, and is a major reason why so many kids quit playing sports by their early teen years. Players sign up because they expect a reasonable opportunity to participate.  They don't sign up to ride the pine so an adult coach can chalk up a victory in a game where most will forget the result in less than a week anyway.

  • Play within the rules. Many people mistakenly believe that sportsmanship means downplaying the desire to win, but sportsmanship is trying to win within the rules of the game. Players understand the difference between winning and losing.  They want to win, and their parents and coaches should want them to win, provided that sportsmanship does not take a backseat.  Sports without fair play is not sports, and victories won without fair play have no real value


Lastly, enjoy it, refrain from reliving the games and errors, better to say that you enjoyed seeing them play because you love them and love to watch them play. Our children spread their dreams at our feet, we should tread lightly, because we are treading on their dreams. Time passes quickly. Savor it.


To learn more about Spearhead Rugby Academy, go to http://www.spearheadrugby.com/.