The state of sports in america: How can coaches better develop youth athletes?
Posted by Dean Holden at March 12th, 2013
by Drew Lipsky, 4 July 2012
Note: This is the 2nd installment in a 4-part series on coaching youth athletes.
One of the crucial areas where coaches fail when it comes to communication with youth athletes is how they communicate with the athletes when they make mistakes. The root cause of this failure comes from the fact that many coaches of youth athletes are parents or unpaid volunteers who are untrained in the field of coaching youth athletes. Since most of these untrained coaches have seen coaching communication only done by coaches of professional athletes, they tend to generalize that those methods should be used for young athletes too.
However, coaches of professional sports teams are dealing with grown men who are paid to perform at the highest level; they are not young kids who are playing the sport recreationally, have less experience and knowledge of the game, and are looking to get something more from sport than just winning every competition at all costs. A study of 268 male and female youth athletes ranging in age from ten to fifteen-years-old accented this point when it showed that no significant link was found between the winning percentage of the athletes’ teams and the overall enjoyment in the activity. Because of this, coaches of youth athletes should not be communicating to their players like coaches of professional athletes do.
Still, many coaches of youth athletes fail to realize this when they communicate with their players akin to the way professional coaches do by yelling at them excessively and criticizing them harshly and even personally. One study of 265 16-year-old athletes found that perceived competence, or the extent to which the athletes felt they were proficient, was the single biggest predictor of the psychological and physical well being of the youth athletes. However, when criticized in front of teammates or even in private, players do not feel competent; if these criticisms are routine, the players will likely enjoy the sport less than if their coach corrected them instead. This serves to underscore the point that coaches who criticize youth athletes early and often reduce the enjoyment of the athletes, which in turn possibly causes lower retention rates for sport participation as children grow older.
Not only does negative communication and criticism negatively affect youth athletes in the short run, it also can cause problems later in the athletes’ lives. Harsh criticisms aimed at players such as “You’re terrible” or profanity-laced rants far worse than that can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies because children have a harder time than adults do separating true statements from things said in a moment of anger or frustration. For example, when an athlete is routinely told that he is worthless to the team, he begins to hold these statements as true. Then, he plays with less confidence since he holds the expectation that he will fail due to his worthlessness. Finally, he performs poorly due to his behaving in accordance with the expectation, and he reinforces the original criticism that he is worthless. Moreover, this self-fulfilling prophesy can manifest itself in areas other than sports in the child’s life, and it can plague the person for years since self-fulfilling prophecies tend to be more ingrained in the mind when they begin at a young age while the brain is still developing.
When coaches deliver negative communication and criticism to players, research shows that the long-term negative effects include more than just self-fulfilling prophesies. For example, one study showed that children who are regularly insulted and sworn at develop interpersonal problems at a higher rate than children who are not routine victims of these negative communication techniques. A similar study found that being “sworn at, insulted, or put down” often as a child can cause chemical changes in brain areas “that are believed to mediate anxiety and mood regulation.” Since the brain is still developing through childhood, these changes can become permanent and causes long term “impairment in multiple brain structures and functions.” To be sure, criticizing youth athletes not only inhibits their development but also can cause serious problems far beyond the playing field in both scope and duration.
Check back in the coming days for the final two installments in this series on coaching youth athletes.