It’s easy to assume that young athletes want, first and foremost, to win games and competitions.
But that’s not what the research reveals, says Bill Eckstrom, CEO of Ecsell Sports and Ecsell Institute and co-author of The Coaching Effect. He recently chatted with us as a guest on our Ultimate Sports Parent podcast.
Ecsell Sports conducted focus groups with athletic directors and coaches from all over the country at a national coaches’ clinic and found that they believe a positive sports experience is most important to young athletes.
“In the world of sports, we thought the most important thing would be wins and losses, but we were wrong,” he says.
But it wasn’t easy to define the experience that athletes want. After conducting additional focus groups and research, Ecsell Sports came up with a series of themes that help define and measure the ideal experience. The organization’s research included surveying the young athletes.
The themes included trust, connection, psychological safety, skill development and challenges.
While coaches tend to score high on communicating with and challenging sports kids, they score lowest on connections and psychological safety.
That means that sports kids often don’t feel safe with their coaches.
“One out of three student-athletes will say they don’t feel safe in a team environment,” says Eckstrom.
And when kids don’t feel safe, they are less likely to enjoy the sport or grow from participating in it.
For the kids surveyed, feeling unsafe was related to coaches losing their cool.
Athletes don’t like it when coaches come unglued after a bad call from a referee or lose control in other ways.
Coaches believe there’s a positive side to losing control and becoming angry, but the kids don’t agree, said Eckstrom.
To help address some of the issues raised in Eccstrom’s research, coaches and parents should focus less on winning and more on improving kids’ experience.
Coaches can also ensure that practices are predictable. When they’re not predictable, kids will likely feel unsafe, he says.
Coaches should also tailor their coaching to the personalities of the players. That means getting to know them, says Eckstrom. Coaches could create surveys for their team members to complete anonymously. These surveys could help coaches get to know kids better on an individual basis.
In addition, it’s important to challenge kids, but it’s important to challenge them in a healthy way that doesn’t involve instilling fear in the players.
In short, coaches need to create trust-based relationships and provide a safe environment that challenges kids to grow in their sport.
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