As coaches in the youth sport space, our role is not simply to work with athletes and help them develop skills, but to lead an array of different stakeholders within our teams and organisations. In turn, to be good leaders, we must work with all of these stakeholders — especially athletes and parents — to facilitate great sporting experiences for the young people in our care. This includes collaborating to set and uphold the standards and expectations that underpin positive cultures within our programmes.
Below, we consider the role of the coach as a leader, why establishing positive cultures is so important in youth sport, and how we can create great sporting environments for our young athletes.
Understanding Our Athletes
The first job of a leader is to recognise and acknowledge the people they are tasked to lead. In youth sport environments, coaches are most accountable to their athletes — individuals whose needs, wants, and beliefs should be reflected in the overarching cultures of their programmes.
As coaches, we have the potential to shape young people’s sporting environments and, subsequently, the behaviours that are learned and practised within them — making it vital that we understand our athletes and the contexts within which we’re working. Many of the standards and expectations that could be beneficial for under-18s aspiring to play their sport professionally, for example, may be unsuitable for under-7s in a grassroots setting.
A helpful starting point can be to consider the purpose of youth sport for our athletes. By letting this information guide our expectations, we can establish a culture that supports their developmental goals while still promoting enjoyable sporting experiences.
The Importance of Culture in Youth Sport Environments
The culture within our team or organisation is the amalgamation of the behaviours, characteristics, and beliefs of the people within it. But, over time, the culture in our environment also impacts the values and behaviours that young people develop. Thus, a positive team culture and the development of positive individual character traits often feed into each other; a good culture helps individuals to develop character strengths which, in turn, help us to set and maintain standards within our environment.
In youth sport, our primary aim should always be to develop people, not just athletes. Very few children will progress to compete at the elite level, but we can still positively impact all participants by facilitating enjoyable experiences and helping them to develop skills that will benefit them throughout their lives. By establishing good cultures within our youth sport environments, we can help kids to develop crucial life skills and character strengths, and form healthy senses of self and identity.
Importantly, culture within an entire team or organisation cannot be dictated by one person; it requires a collaborative approach whereby individuals work together to identify and uphold standards. An ability to understand the characteristics that we want our athletes to develop — and then facilitate experiences and environments that help them develop those characteristics — is an important trait in all skilled leaders.
Empowering Athletes to Set Standards and Expectations
The best way to establish and maintain standards within our programmes is to empower athletes to set those standards themselves. Children are never too young to be given a degree of control over this process — whether it takes the form of individual feedback or team meetings — and are likelier to adhere to rules and behaviours over which they feel a sense of ownership.
As coaches, we should strive to be open and approachable so that our athletes feel comfortable asking questions and offering their opinions. And if they appear to lack assertiveness or a willingness to take initiative, we must reflect on our own approach, the environment we have created, and how we can encourage them to take ownership of their own sporting experiences.
It’s also important to note that people have their own ideas and principles. Every individual possesses values that are shaped by their lived experiences, and it is not our right to tell anyone what their values are. Instead, we should try to understand our athletes’ stories and backgrounds, encourage them to think similarly about one another, and, by sharing our values and experiences, collectively decide upon values that we can all unite behind.
Empowering young people to tell their stories, and making them feel heard, can be an incredibly powerful way to bring a group together and form a collective vision. Ultimately, we want our athletes to drive the process; we can offer guidance, but they will feel much more passionate about a set of standards — and more committed to maintaining those standards themselves — if they own them.
Supporting a Shared Culture
Once we have worked with our athletes to establish a shared culture, we must help them to uphold the standards and expectations set out within it. Fundamentally, this comes down to communication — not just with our athletes, but with other key stakeholders such as parents and guardians; like leadership itself, creating great learning environments is a collaborative process.
One of the most effective ways to form beneficial relationships with parents is to maintain a regular and consistent dialogue; by letting them know what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it, we can help them to understand and recognise our processes; and where our desired outcomes on gameday or in competitions (formed collaboratively with our athletes, and geared more towards factors like enjoyment and long-term development than winning) might otherwise not have matched their instinctive definitions of success, they can then appreciate the outcomes that represent success to us. Consequently, instead of trying to ‘fill in the blanks’ as they watch from the sidelines, parents can become informed partners in our processes.
Crucially, we must emphasise — both at the start of the season, and throughout its duration — that the culture we’ve established belongs to our athletes. Then, our role is simply to remind our athletes of the standards and expectations that they have set themselves. This way, we don’t become the coach who always nags them or points out the things that they do wrong, but act as an additional partner in the process — someone to help them stay accountable to themselves and each other; we empower our athletes further by making them responsible for upholding their own team culture, and reminding them that it was theirs in the first place.
It is through such acts of empowerment and collaboration that coaches can truly be leaders in the youth sport space.
- A good leader must recognise and acknowledge the people they work with.
- As coaches, we should strive to understand the context of our environments and why our athletes participate.
- The culture in our sporting environment can help young people to develop behaviours and skills that will benefit them throughout their lives.
- Developing a culture is a collaborative process; we should empower athletes to set their own standards and expectations.
- Clear and constant communication with parents — thereby helping them to become informed partners in our processes — is key to maintaining a strong, shared culture.
- Athletes will feel more passionate about a culture that is theirs. Where possible, we should take a facilitative role, and allow athletes to collectively uphold their own standards.
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