Using age-appropriate methods and understanding the developmental differences in youth of various ages and gender prevents injury and promotes positive cognitive and motor development.
A Developmental Model for Youth Coaches and Players
Dr. Richard Ginsburg, noted sports psychologist and member of the faculty at Harvard Medical School, presents his "Top Ten Tips for Coaching Youth." Ginsburg, a former member of US Lacrosse’s Sports Science and Safety Committee, challenges youth coaches to examine what they love about the game and to consider what inspires them to coach in order to optimize the youth experience.
Ginsburg's 10 tips for coaching youth:
- Fun is essential. Studies have shown a strong correlation between enjoyment of the activity and participation longevity. Kids remain active in a sport if they are having fun. Performance also improves when participants enjoy playing the game.
- Teach sportsmanship early. Coaches must seize the opportunity to impart good values (integrity, respect, compassion, etc.) and to model good behavior.
- Remember that kids are not mini-adults. Kids are a work in progress and must be treated and coached differently than adult participants.
- Design age-appropriate practices. Coaches should consider the physical, psychological and cognitive abilities of youth players when developing practice plans. Drills and plays should use the appropriate complexity, based on the age of the players. Coaches should be organized in order to minimize the amount of time spent standing around during practice.
- Define success appropriately for each age group. For pre-kindergarten and kindergarten aged kids, the primary focus should be on having fun and safe activity that provides kids with joy of movement. Among elementary school aged youth, the emphasis should evolve into developing skill competencies and building friendships. With middle school and high school players, defining identity and recognizing their individual strengths and weaknesses becomes part of the equation.
- Provide positive feedback. Coaches are encouraged to give accurate praise. Research shows that a ratio of at least 5:1 between positive and negative feedback is needed.
- Save specialization for older kids. Research shows that 10,000 hours of activity are necessary to move a person’s skill set to a significantly upgraded level. Is that the kind of commitment a younger player should be making to the game? The motivation to participate must be intrinsic.
- Avoid over-training. Ginsburg stresses that youth play just one sport per season and have at least 1-2 days off per week. He also encourages that kids have extended time off; preferably a break of at least two or three months from the game. He also cautions against a dramatic increase in training levels to minimize the risk of injury from overuse.
- Use appropriate equipment. Avoid ill-fitting hand-me-down equipment, primarily safety equipment like helmets and shoulder pads. Make sure it’s a good fit.
- Avoid "playing up." The temptation is to move kids into older age groupings based on skill level or physical development. But Ginsburg says there is a benefit to being the best player on the team. It helps develop other abilities, like leadership skills and patience. There could also be injury risks and risks of social alienation for players who are moved up the chain.
Ginsburg encourages coaches to find a way to share their love of the game with their youth players. And remember to define success appropriately - whether it's winning, having fun, skill improvement, learning sportsmanship, or something else.