Working with individuals is a fundamental part of coaching. Even in team environments, it’s vital that we support every athlete individually to help them improve.
So how can we help everyone in our group while maintaining a wider focus on the collective? Below, we examine the importance of athlete-centred coaching, before discussing some strategies for promoting individual development within a team setting.
Appreciating the Individual Approach
When coaching, we must remember that the main purpose of youth sports is to help kids stay active, enjoy participating, and develop as people. It’s sometimes easy to inadvertently mimic the behaviour we see from coaches in high-performance contexts, but this is often not what our athletes need.
Instead of fixating on results on gameday or in competitions, we should adopt an athlete-centred approach that prioritises engagement and enjoyment, fosters a passion for the sport, and helps individuals to develop as both athletes and people.
This requires us to redefine success within our coaching environments so that it is measured by the development of individuals within our teams, rather than by the short-term outcomes our teams achieve in competitive scenarios. Then, we must know the individuals in our group, work with them to create personalised development plans and learning objectives, and then integrate those plans into our wider coaching processes.
Knowing the Individuals in Our Team
To take an athlete-centred coaching approach, we have to know the individuals in our team. An athlete’s developmental needs will be shaped by factors such as their age, level of ability, length of time playing the sport, their motives for participating and what they want to achieve, and the range of socio-cultural considerations that impact them both on and off the playing field. Accordingly, no two development plans will be alike.
As coaches, we must get to know our athletes as people, and understand the myriad factors that influence how they learn and what they want from their sporting experiences. This information will, in turn, provide the basis for working with athletes to shape their learning objectives.
Furthermore, through the process of getting to know our athletes and collaborating with them, we can build positive relationships, earn their trust, and demonstrate that they are in safe, supportive environments — all of which will help to optimise their development and enjoyment of the sport in the long-run.
So how do we help individuals — encouraging them to work on their personal learning objectives, and ensuring that they experience an appropriate level of challenge — within the context of coaching a team? As with many aspects of coaching, the key is communication.
Opportunities to have short, one-to-one conversations with our athletes often arise more frequently in our practices or on gameday than we realise. For example, we could coach ‘on the run’, shadow an individual for part of a practice activity, and encourage them to think about their actions in real time. Or use rolling substitutions on gameday to withdraw an athlete from the heat of the action, briefly discuss part of their performance with them, and encourage them to observe the game and reflect before going back on.
Importantly, communication centred upon questioning, rather than simply delivering instructions, may engage our athletes more and encourage them to take greater ownership of their own learning. We should also strive to keep our interventions simple, concise, and memorable. Not only will this increase the likelihood of athletes understanding our message; it will maximise the time they spend actively participating.
Prioritising Athlete Wellbeing
When working with athletes to create personalised learning objectives — and then, when subsequently trying to help them meet those objectives — we must be considerate of their overall wellbeing. How we frame individual learning plans and deliver advice or information can have a profound impact on how they are received; we don’t want athletes to feel the pressure of assessment or appraisal, but instead to recognise our input as a supportive framework to help them improve.
We must also appreciate that young people are inundated with competing demands for their time and energy, and endeavour not to overwhelm them (or consume too much of their valuable playing time) with feedback.
Consequently, we may find that brief, one-to-one ‘catch-ups’ throughout a season — which often carry less pressure than formal meetings, and allow us to adapt if individuals’ needs change — are better ways to help our athletes without overburdening them.
Keeping It Simple
The most effective individual learning plans are normally simple. We may believe that assessing an athlete’s abilities in minute detail and providing a broad, in-depth plan to improve those abilities is the best way to help them, but this can actually stifle our aim of engaging them in the learning process. After all, young people don’t play sport to receive pages of written instructions or homework.
We should not expect a child to intricately evaluate every competency they might possibly require across an entire sport. And we may even find that, when we overload athletes with information, they become overwhelmed and unable to act in the moment — causing their overall performance to suffer rather than improve.
Instead, the best learning plans will focus on several areas of an athlete’s development (at most), offer clear objectives and methods for achieving them, and provide a simple framework for self-reflection. It’s also worth noting that we don’t have to focus on weaknesses; development plans can help individuals to recognise their strengths and enhance them. But, most importantly, any plan we create with our athletes should be accessible.
Giving Athletes Autonomy
Finally, we must give athletes ownership of their own learning journeys. Our role as coaches is to guide young people while encouraging them to think for themselves, reflect on their strengths and weaknesses, and learn through experimentation.
When we empower athletes by trusting them to drive their own learning, they will often become more engaged in the process and learn more effectively. We may even find that their levels of self-awareness and their ideas about how they could improve are more sophisticated than we expected. Giving our athletes autonomy can also make it easier to work with multiple individuals in a team setting, while providing them invaluable opportunities to practise self-reflection — a skill also crucial to their development as people.
As coaches, we must prioritise the development of the individuals in our group, even when we’re working with teams. And by taking a facilitative role — guiding our athletes while trusting them to play an active part in their own learning — we can help them to feel valued, optimise their development, and make the most of their sporting experiences.
- An athlete-centred approach — prioritising development and participation — is key to facilitating great youth sport experiences.
- We should strive to know every individual in our team and let that knowledge inform our coaching.
- Concise, supportive interventions are the cornerstone of effective coach communication.
- We must consider athlete wellbeing and the pressures young people face before delivering feedback.
- Learning plans and objectives should be simple, so as not to overwhelm athletes with information.
- Giving athletes autonomy in their learning journey is an excellent way to engage them in the learning process while also supporting their development as people.
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