Monday, 7 March 2011

Coaching and the long term mental health of young athletes

It is often quoted in the popular media that ‘sport builds character’. Indeed, many parents enrol their children in team sports under the assumption that their child will gain important life-skills such as team-work, communication, leadership, moral decision-making, and interpersonal skills. Further, they are likely to benefit from increases in self-esteem, social connections and physical skills, so we are lead to believe. And justifiably so. Research has shown that organised leisure activities such as youth sports provide a unique social context that lends itself to positive developmental gains such as these. In particular, sport is comprised of a unique combination of motivation, attention and challenge that is not found in other youth activities such as schooling, or down-time with friends.

However, there is nothing inherent in sport that guarantees positive outcomes for young participants. Research has also shown that of all the different kinds of organised leisure activities such as music groups, religious groups, community groups, and sports participation, sports is the activity most likely to result in negative outcomes for young people. This is problematic, and questions the firmly held belief that ‘sport builds character’. In fact, sport is just as likely to lead to negative developmental outcomes such as pressure, stress and anxiety, as well as immoral and antisocial behaviour.

So then, how do we ensure that our sporting programs will have a positive impact on young athletes?

The very latest research has shown that no matter what type of sport you play, or what type of person you are, the most important thing affecting a young person’s sporting experience are the relationships that they build with others in the team. The most important relationship of all is the coach-athlete relationship. The coach plays an extremely important and influential role in youth sports, and carries the sole responsibility for creating an environment that promotes fun, challenge and motivation. All told, a good relationship with your coach makes the sporting experience a positive one, and vice-versa.

The importance of the coach’s role has been captured in the definition of coaching effectiveness which asserts that the coach is responsible for the self-worth, physical activity, social interactions, and character development of young athletes. Such a responsibility can dictate the long term mental and physical health of young people.

Unsurprisingly then, coaches should be educated and trained in these responsibilities. However, mainstream coach education programs that are conducted by peak sporting bodies do not incorporate relevant content. These programs, especially the programs aimed at coaches of junior teams, are very effective in giving coaches adequate technical and tactical knowledge, but have been heavily criticised by leading researchers as being devoid of content that is relevant to coaching young athletes.

So what can you do as a coach to get the best outcomes for your young athletes? Firstly, be a role model for them. Behave in a way that promotes positive behaviours in all domains, and never underestimate the power of observational learning. A young child will do as you do. For example, maintain positive language following a defeat, always act in a sporting manner, engage in physical activity yourself, and model positive interpersonal interactions. Secondly, always reinforce positive behaviours. These may be technical or tactical behaviours such as passing the ball correctly, or positive interpersonal behaviours such as sharing, teamwork or communication. You should also avoid criticising mistakes. Instead, encourage the athlete, offer sound technical advice, and then emphasise the good things that will happen if the athlete would follow your technical advice. Thirdly, you can maintain motivation by giving the athletes hope and optimism. This is distinctly different to motivating athletes by offering a threat of punishment. As they say, the carrot is mightier than the stick.

Many of the things that you can do as a coach are very simple things that are easy to learn. For that reason, many of these principles have been incorporated into a coach-training program that I have developed at the University of Wollongong.

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