2022 is surely going to throw some challenges at us. Covid is forever lurking and the upcoming sport seasons will no doubt have disruptions. So how do we not ruin the 2022 season for our young people? Let’s make sure we keep perspective on why we coach and what young people want out of sport. What does success look like? We know one thing…. It’s definitely not winning the U9 Blue Division, as explained now…
I caught up with my friend Brian (not his real name) this week. A few years ago Brian shared with me how much his son Liam (also not his real name), who was 9 at the time, loved playing football. He played in his club team, practiced his skills in the backyard (you know - “keepy uppies”), had posters of Messi and Renaldo on his wall and watched highlights on YouTube. He was obsessed and was making plans to be a professional footballer. He was driving his own passion (Brian didn’t even like football). I was intrigued to hear how Liam was tracking with his football now that he was 13. Well it turned out to be a sad story.
Brian: “He’s quit football. He’s got into surfing and skateboarding.”
Me: “Oh really, why is that?”
Brian: “Well you see, he played in the same team for 4 years with the same coach. They were a decent team and played in a competitive league. The coach was a decent enough fella - you know, just trying to do his best, as no else put their hand up. However, Liam is left-footed and in the early days, he quite liked defending. So his coach put him at ‘left back.’ And not just for the occasional game, but every game for 4 years. So for 4 years, he has only played left back. And on top of that he hated team practices. They only did drills. Drills, drills, drills… and more drills. So he got to the point where he wasn’t enjoying playing, as he only got to play in 1 position…. FOR 4 YEARS, and he hated team practices as it was boring. So decided he had had enough and now spends all his time surfing and skating. He gets to hang out with his friends, can challenge himself and try new stuff when and where he wants and there is no coach controlling his every move. It’s a real shame he has quit football, as we really value the learning that kids get by playing team sports. We hope he will find joy in football again one day.”
This first hand story is sad and unfortunately happens all too often, where a coach defines success by winning and where they finish on the points table. 13 year old's, let alone 9 year old's aren’t ready to specialise in any particular sport, let alone a specific position. When you are a kid, you are not a left back, you are not a prop, you are not a goal shoot and you are not a point guard. You are a kid who likes to have fun by playing sport, hanging out with your mates and getting a packet of chips at the end of the game or practice.
Success needs to be… Kids coming back next year!! Kids looking forward to playing! Kids wanting to turn up to team practice! Kids wanting to be part of a team! As coaches, we need to make it fun! We need to listen to our kids! When they vote with their feet, it is on us.
And to people organising and running youth sport competitions and leagues. You don’t need points tables!! Yes kids are competitive and yes kids like to win. But kids also forget about the game 5 mins after it finishes, and turn their attention to that bag of chips. Points tables drive competitive behaviour for coaches, not kids. Points tables lead coaches to focus on winning and thus keep kids like Liam at left back for 4 years in a row!
So back to how not to ruin sport for kids in 2022:
Make practices fun!
Give them some ownership! E.g. Allow them to play multiple positions
Get rid of unnecessary points tables!
Give them a packet of chips / lollipop from time to time! (Even oranges will suffice for keen nutritionists)