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Coaching Children

I’ve been asked in the past week to do something I’ve never done before. As a part of my work with schools, a teacher asked me to send him an email explaining my “Coaching Philosophy” for kids, as well as some technical details on what and how I teach.

Naturally, I spent far too long thinking about it, and while I sent about 50 words in total to him on the philosophical aspects, I’m now going to bore the arse off you with the unabridged version.

How should children be coached? We all draw on 3 things when it comes to this I think. How was I coached as a child? How do I think it should be? What is the goal of sport/activity?

How was I coached as a child? The answer is not very much. I played everything socially, and I really only began formal coaching of any sort when I was around 14. I was 19 before I was coached with anything approaching a plan or goal. Sports to us as kids were just more formal games. There was no end product, the goal was to win, change the teams around, and then play again until the streetlights came on, or someone was called in for dinner. We had 2 greens within a few yards of my house for football, rounders, and whatever else, concrete gridded streets that were perfect makeshift tennis courts and ideal for squares (a sort of 4 player foot-tennis game), and we were lucky enough to have a tarmac basketball court around the corner. Some if us played for football teams, some played Gaelic, a lot of us played in the Kit Kat Tennis Leagues in the local park during the summer. What an initiative that was- tennis is probably seen as an expensive game but we were all exposed to it as kids for a few quid each summer. It was great. I wouldn’t change a thing.

How do I think it should be? Well, this is a more complex question. In an ideal world, I think it should be like the above until you’re well into your teens, and then when you find the thing you’d like to be best at, find some formal coaching and go do that. But the world isn’t ideal, and our kids spend more time on their backsides than ever before. Streets and estates aren’t as social, parents work more and let their kids out less as a result, and of course, there’s technology. So in many ways, as coaches, we have to replace the street. The kids we coach haven’t climbed trees and walked on walls. They haven’t fallen very much and they may not even know how to try.

I’ll pause to explain what I mean by that last bit. The earliest we take children at Kyuzo is 4, but we get this right up the age groups until about 10. We notice something with some kids. Line 2 kids up for a race from here to the wall and back again and say go. You’d think they’d both want to win equally but that’s not our experience. We find that some kids don’t seem to get the concept of, for want of a better word, trying to run as fast as they can. They’ll run, sort of, but the idea that they should exert a lot of effort to be first doesn’t seem to register. When I speak to the parents (in a roundabout way) you find that this is perhaps the child’s first experience of running as fast as they can. Other parents say that this is their child’s first experience with other kids outside of “play dates”. In other words, there’s been no informal or social physical games up to now. That’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just the way of the world. Was it ever thus? Perhaps, but it does seem to be more common now than before.

So how should they be coached? From the earliest ages- as little as possible. Replace the street and the field. Develop their balance and coordination, remember they haven’t done what you got to do. Explain the game, explain the concept, blow your whistle, and step back. Intervene when it’s unsafe or with little 10 second hints, and then go back to holding the stopwatch. We’re obsessed with coaching. We seem to think that coaches should be like sculptors- chipping away at kids until they’re moulded into the correct shape. The issue with that is that none of us are Michelangelo. We’re more likely to make lumpy ashtrays than a work of art.

All of which leads me to the final point. What is the goal of the sport/activity? If you’re a logical person, you’d say the goal of sport is to win. To be a nitpicker, I’d say that’s the goal of competition. Sport is more broad a concept than that. To nitpick further, I’ll give you two examples from my young teens training session on Wednesday.

We did some races. We often do relays and tumbling races and bear crawl races as a warm up. In a race, the goal is to be first isn’t it? Yes, to the kids, but not to me. The goal of the race is to warm them up, develop their fitness, develop their speed, build teamwork, strengthen bonds, develop coordination, and to teach them how to win and lose gracefully.

Secondly, at the end, we did an arm wrestling/tug o’war hybrid game. The goal of this game is to grip your opponent’s sleeve and then drag them backwards over your line. If they drag you over theirs, they win. If you break grips, they win. That’s their goal. My goal is to develop physical strength, balance, grip strength, kinisthetic awareness, controlled aggression, and yes, graceful winning and losing.

So broaden those two games to the concept of sport. What is the goal of sport, as it pertains to the individual child. I’d say character building, fairness, teamwork and individual effort, balance, fitness, flexibility, good health, physical strength, friendship, and all of that other good stuff. There’s also the immense cultural and social aspects of sport, too broad to go into here, but think of how exercise helps with mental health, with communities, and with socialising.

“But wait, what about elite performance and winning?”, I hear you ask. “Doesn’t that get left behind in your little hippy commune?” I’d argue, and I think the evidence would bear me out, that all of those qualities that good sport brings leads eventually to success, if that’s what the young athlete wants. We can argue the toss on that, but this can’t be argued: 99.9% of children will not go on to professional or elite level sport- so answer me this. Given that statistic, where do you think a coach’s efforts should go? Into developing that 1 child in 1000 or into giving all 1000 the great qualities sport should bring?*

Probably the last great English soccer coach was Bobby Robson, and again you can argue the toss on that with me too, but he said something that stuck with me (right after he was sacked by Newcastle by the way)

“The trick is to sign not just good players, but good people”

In his opinion, you couldn’t divide character from skill. My opinion is that we should focus on the former as much as the latter with a programme that allows for some of the shortcomings of our sedentary lifestyle. Am I saying that we shouldn’t coach those with a potential to be elite? No, of course not. We just need to keep our goals in mind.

And with that, I’m done. Have a nice weekend.




*completely made up figures of course. The number of “elites” is probably far less but much too difficult to quantify.


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