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How much is too much when it comes to youth sport?

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Eight ways your organisation can take a participant-centred approach to delivering sport for young people

“Participant-centred” — you’ve probably heard the term thrown around. But what does it really mean? In this article, we outline tactics and actions that coaches, sports leaders, and administrators can take to implement a participant-centred approach when delivering sport to young people.

The rationale for using a participant-centred approach is underpinned by the Balance is Better principle: All young people should receive a quality sport experience, irrespective of the level at which they are involved.

In essence, a participant-centred approach considers the needs of the participant first and foremost in the design and delivery of sport. Mike Hester, Participant Development Manager at New Zealand Rugby captured the essence of taking a participant-centred approach when he discussed changes NZ Rugby made to U-12 Boys Rugby:

[We] needed to stop trying to make the players fit the game, and make the game fit the players

So, what does this look like in practice?

1 | Look beyond the scoreboard to define success in youth sport

Measurements matter.

What we measure, in turn, defines what success looks like. And what success looks like incentivises how people behave. In sports, the measurements that are most visible to us are associated with competition — things like points scored, position in the table, wins and losses, and awards. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t have measurements associated with competition (after all, competition is inherent in sport), but that we should also be purposeful in thinking about other ways we defined success in sport, and create measurements for these other definitions of success so that they are also visible and become important to people.

Let’s unpack this further.

Most people will agree that, aside from being successful in competition, success in sport could also be defined by:

  • The growth and development of all young people (both athletically and as people) — for example, through the development of things like confidence, self-leadership, and notions of service to others.
  • Retention of young people in sport (for instance, in our programmes).
  • The happiness of young people when they are involved in sport.

The thing is, when we don’t measure these other types of success, the incentive to design, deliver, and support sport in a way that achieves these outcomes is crowded out by the incentives that accompany more visible measurements associated with competition.

So how could we measure these types of success in sport?

  • Get feedback from participants about whether they feel they have improved in their sport.
  • Track rates of retention.
  • Seek feedback from participants regarding their satisfaction; whether they want to come back; whether their families had a good time; and whether they have developed their character qualities (such as confidence, resilience, etc.).

Documenting this type of data over time is a great way to gauge the ‘success’ of our programmes and organisations.

2 | Document the minimum standard of experience that participants should receive from your programme

Having defined what success looks like for your organisation, it’s important that this is communicated with all stakeholders.

Documenting the minimum standard of experience that participants should receive from your programme is one way of going about this (organisation strategies and philosophy documents are another way).

By documenting the minimum standards of experience that participants should receive from your programme, sport organisations can ensure that they are providing a high-quality and consistent experience to all participants. This can help to improve the overall effectiveness of the organisation and increase participation and retention rates among members.

Documenting minimum standards of experience can also help to create a culture of accountability and transparency. By clearly outlining the type of experience participants ought to receive, coaches, administrators, parents, and other stakeholders have a clear point of reference for how they ought to act to best support that experience, and ultimately it ensures that everyone is on the same page and working towards the same goals

This can help to build trust among participants and other stakeholders and increase their confidence in a sport organisation’s ability to provide a safe and enjoyable experience. Additionally, documenting minimum standards of experience provides a reference point for identifying areas for improvement and to make necessary adjustments to improve programmes, events and offerings.

So, what should these minimum standards of experience look like?

For youth sport organisations, they must encompass more than measures of athletic development or success. When assessing the quality of the sporting experiences we provide, we should also consider factors like: 

  • The enjoyment that participants feel while engaging in our sport.
  • The accessibility and inclusivity of our programmes.
  • The sense of safety that participants feel in our environments (both from a safeguarding and welfare perspective, and in terms of the freedom they feel to express themselves).
  • The existence of positive relationships — both between peers, and between participants and coaches.

Paying close attention to the minimum standard of experience we provide every participant in our care — and then taking proactive steps to improve those standards when necessary — is fundamental to taking a participant-centred approach to delivering sport.

3 | Allocate resources in a fair and consistent manner for all participating groups

It can be easy to allocate resources unevenly across different groups within our programmes, often without even appreciating that we’re doing it. Perhaps our senior teams get more attention than youth teams; maybe boys receive more favourable access to resources than girls. But if we’re to deliver programmes that value the experiences of all athletes, we must allocate all of our resources fairly.

First, this requires coaches, administrators, and programme directors to understand the resources they have at their disposal; in addition to financial resources and facilities, we must consider things like expertise, equipment, and visual representation — all of which impact the experiences we provide young athletes and perceptions of how much we value each group or team within our organisation.

Key resources include:

  • Programme budgets.
  • Uniforms and other equipment.
  • Access to facilities (both in terms of space and quality, and the times that different teams and athletes can use them).
  • Coaching expertise.
  • Visual representation (whether in the form of photos around club premises, or images on our organisation’s website, social media, or in promotional literature)

We should think carefully about how we allocate each of these resources. Do senior teams receive a greater proportion of our overall budget than youth teams? Do boys’ teams always get access to the best facilities or playing spaces during the most desirable timeslots? Do girls’ teams have good quality uniforms that fit properly? And who has access to the best coaching? Are our most experienced or talented coaches focussed upon more performance-driven teams or athletes?

It’s vital that, regardless of factors and characteristics like age, gender, ability, or motivation for participating, all athletes within our programmes benefit fairly from the resources we have available to us. Understanding potential inequalities in resource allocation — and then addressing them — is crucial to delivering fair, effective sporting programmes that are accessible to all.

4 | Design and deliver sport that is age- and stage-appropriate

Of course, placing the participant at the centre of our sporting programmes means designing  programmes that are appropriate for their age and stage of development. 

Again, this requires us to know the athletes we’re working with. For instance, take the example of two six-year-olds, where one has been playing our sport for two years, and the other has only just taken it up; they may be the same age, but their ‘training ages’, and therefore their stages of development, will be different. The child with less experience will be able to catch up to their peer, but their needs — the things our programme must provide in order to optimise their experience — will be different.

One of the best ways to create participant-centred sessions that are age- and stage-appropriate is to manipulate the various constraints we use in our sessions. 

Notable constraints that we can adapt include:

  • The size of playing spaces: Such as pitch or court dimensions, or distances athletes are required to cover.
  • The number of participants on each team: Do we increase team sizes to make tasks more challenging, or reduce the number of participants to increase ‘time on task’ for every individual?
  • Equipment: This could mean things like using smaller goals, shorter hurdles, or smaller or lighter balls.
  • Rules: Perhaps we could limit the number of touches of the ball, or other forms of involvement, in a given phase of play, to ensure that all individuals actively participate; or modify our scoring structure so that every athlete enjoys a degree of success.
  • Time athletes spend in certain roles or positions: We want participants to experience playing in a range of different roles and positions — especially when we’re working with younger age groups. A simple way to guarantee these mixed experiences is to manage the time that individuals spend in each role or position.

5 | Let participants’ lifestyles inform how your programmes are delivered

Every individual is different. They are shaped by their own range of socio-cultural influences which, in turn, impact things like their motivation for participating, what they want to achieve within our sport, potential barriers to entry, and, ultimately, what they need and want from our sports programmes.

Understanding the lifestyles of our young athletes, and the potential obstacles that may impede their participation, is essential providing programmes that work for them and maximise levels of retention.

Common barriers to entry include:

  • Cost: Do our training and/or matchday fees reflect what is affordable for the parents of our participants?
  • Schedules and timings: Are our sessions an appropriate duration for our athletes? Do our timeslots give them sufficient time to travel from school, or for parents to drop them off after work, and finish early enough for them to travel home safely afterwards? How many hours of commitment per week does our programme require? And do we offer options for participants with other, competing demands for their time?
  • Rules: How do we respond to late arrivals or absences? Are we understanding of individuals’ personal circumstances away from training? Do our rules leave room for discretion — or do we have punitive protocols which punish young athletes for events beyond their control?
  • Team culture: Do we have a clear team culture that is understood by all, and upheld fairly and consistently? And do we ensure that all new participants learn our team rules and culture when they join our programmes? This is crucial to creating a feeling of equality and mutual respect within our organisations — which will subsequently make them feel more welcoming to both new and existing participants.
  • Uniforms: Do participants feel comfortable in the uniforms we provide? Does our kit fit them properly? Do we provide female athletes with uniforms that meet their needs (for instance, by not using white shorts) rather than simply replicating or reusing the uniforms of men’s teams?

Once again, getting to know our athletes, particularly through the aforementioned feedback mechanisms, is a highly-effective way to learn how we’re doing in each of these areas.

6 | Consider how you work with participants’ parents and whānau

Parents and whānau exert a much stronger influence on young people than we can exercise through our sporting programmes; they see their children for many more hours of the week than we do, take a much greater role in ensuring their wellbeing, and are crucial to enabling their kids to participate in our programmes in the first place.

It is normally the adult support network behind young athletes that gets them to training and pays their fees. Furthermore, parents and whānau may have sparked the passion for our sport that motivates a young person to start participating, or continually encourage and nurture the passion that motivates them to continue participating. Thus, by working with parents and whānau to help them support their children, we can improve the sporting experiences that children enjoy when under our care.

Simple ways we can effectively collaborate with parents and whānau include:

  • Build positive relationships: Get to know the families of athletes, while showing that you value their opinions and input, by proactively seeking their feedback.
  • Educate them about our programme’s values and culture: If we redefine success for coaches and participants within our sporting programme, we must also help parents and whānau to understand what this looks like. We want them to appreciate what they’re seeing from the sidelines, why we’re doing things the way we are, and continue to support their child while they pursue success beyond the confines of the scoreboard.
  • Have clear rules for sideline behaviour: Intrusive sideline behaviour from adults — such as shouting at players or referees, issuing instructions, or even outbursts of praise — can rob young athletes of their focus, undermine their motivation and the quality of their learning experience, and negatively impact their enjoyment. We can minimise this harm by setting clear rules for sideline behaviour, being consistent in enforcing them, and, of course, modelling the correct behaviour ourselves as coaches and programme leaders.
  • Strive to engender a sense of family and community within our organisations: There are many ways we can strengthen the relationships between the various stakeholders within our sporting organisations: we can arrange meetings with parents and whānau at the start of each season, in order to get to know each other; organise informal ‘fun days’ for athletes and families that aren’t related to our sport; and encourage parents and whānau to become involved with our organisations, perhaps as coaching assistants or volunteers in operational roles — and then supporting them in their progression and development in those roles. Crucially, by giving everyone — athletes and family alike — a stake and sense of ownership in our sporting organisations, we can strengthen the sense of community that exists around them.

7 | Appreciate how great coaches contribute to quality experiences

As mentioned, it’s important that every participant and team within our organisation receives equal access to our best coaches; high-quality coaching is fundamental to giving participants the best experiences, so we must help as many kids access it as possible.

An effective way to achieve this is to rotate coaches — for example, by having every coach run a ‘guest session’ for a different team or part of our programme at regular intervals. This will give participants exposure to a wider range of ideas and approaches, while also allowing them to be seen by a greater number of people (each of whom will have their own opinions, and may bring new ideas about an individual’s level of potential, or the best ways to help them develop). Furthermore, experience coaching different types of participants — for instance, kids of different ages, abilities, and developmental goals — will further the development of our coaches.

In fact, supporting coach development is another effective way to build a network of great coaches within our organisations, and thereby enhance the experiences we give our participants. We can do this by encouraging the recruitment of volunteer coaches; supporting coaches in taking courses and qualifications; creating mentoring systems, through which newer coaches can learn from their more experienced counterparts; and fostering a mentality and organisational culture whereby people feel able to admit their mistakes, and learning is considered a constant, ongoing process.

Ultimately, by valuing our coaches, establishing effective structures for coach recruitment and retention, and subsequently supporting our coaches on a path of constant learning and improvement, we can markedly enhance our sporting programmes. 

8 | Understand your participants

Finally, and perhaps obviously, a thorough understanding of our participants is integral to delivering participant-centred sports programmes. All of the aforementioned steps require us to first know our young athletes — to know them as people, and appreciate their lives away from sport (and the socio-cultural factors which shape them), as well as their sporting attributes and ambitions — in order to identify what they need from our programmes.

Coaches should also adopt an approach of developing the person, not just the athlete — no matter what age group or level or participation they’re working with. And we should endeavour to provide a range of teams, activities, competitions, and levels of competitiveness so that every individual can find a sporting environment that suits them within our organisations.

After all, at every level of youth sport, our priority should be to help young people enjoy participating, forge a love for their sport, and develop a passion that will underpin a lifetime of happiness, good health, and physical activity. At Balance is Better, we believe a participant-centred approach is key to achieving these outcomes.

To reiterate: All young people should receive a quality sport experience, irrespective of the level at which they are involved. We believe that, by following these eight steps, every youth sports organisation can get closer to providing those vital, high-quality experiences.

Image Source: matimix from Canva

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