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

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How Harbour Basketball determine success in their youth basketball programme

In youth sport, an overly narrow definition of success that is centered around winning can lead to harmful and contrary behaviours and environments that ultimately negatively impact young athletes.

This narrow definition of success can have serious consequences for young athletes, including burnout, decreased enjoyment of the sport, and a focus on winning at all costs. It can also lead to negative behaviors such as cheating and unsportsmanlike conduct.

It is crucial to broaden the definition of success in youth sports to encompass a wider range of goals, including personal improvement, character development, and physical and mental well-being.

It’s important here to signal that we shouldn’t completely dismiss winning (and other notions of competitive success) as an important outcome and goal in youth sport. Rather, good sport leaders and administrators contend with how the ‘strive to win’ is weighed up against other ideas of success in youth sport (and the material implications that this has).

In this article, we unpack some of Vince Minjares thoughts around how sport administrators and leaders can think about and evaluate success in their youth sports programmes. Vince, was the Development Officer at Harbour Basketball, and oversaw four years of growth to their youth programme, in part because he was clearly able to contend with and articulate to the Harbour Baskebtall community, including its Board, coaches and parents the different determinants of success in youth sport.

This article also adds to previous commentary on defining success in youth sport: Are you measuring what matters?

Determinants of success in a youth sport programme

The seven determinants of success for the Harbour Basketball youth programme:

  1. Competitive success
  2. Participant growth & retention
  3. Player development
  4. Participants having meaningful and positive relationships
  5. Every player has a meaningful opportunity to participate and contribute
  6. Competition is close
  7. Age and stage appropriate opportunities

Goals and programme levers

The determinants of success in a youth sport programme can fall into a natural hierarchy.

Determinants 1 – 3 act as goal levers for a sports programme. They underpin the overarching purpose of the programme and you often see them mentioned in strategic contexts (planning, reporting, policy and guidance).

These types of determinants have slower feedback loops. They are often viewed through the lens of year-on-year comparison. Arguably, measures of competition and measures of athlete or player development can have faster feedback loops, but the relevant measures that tend to be most visible, or cognisant to us as sports administrators and leaders occur on an annual cadence (e.g. winning a championship, being selected for a team, etc.).

Determinants 4 – 7 act as programme levers. These are attributes that sport administrators can adjust more dynamically (though it’s important to highlight that implmenting change in community sport and youth sport needs to be thought out and managed carefully).

In the rest of this article, I’ve expanded on Vince’s thoughts (and added in some of my own) to outline the seven ways sports administrators can think about success in a youth sport programme.

Two key takeaways:

  1. Awareness. Having these as frames of reference to think about youth sport will aid you in creating better experiences for young people.
  2. Take a holistic approach. Think about the different determinants as lenses for assessing the quality of a youth sport programme. Sometimes, you will want to focus in, using one lens. Sometimes you will need all of them. Sometimes they might create tensions with each other, where achieving in one determinant may mean compromising in another.

Determinants of success in a youth sport programme

1.     Competitive success

A certain amount of competitive success is important to us, in the sense we want to play to our potential, and we know that we have good players in our community and if they’re enjoying basketball and they’re improving, then they should play well. But we don’t over-define success in terms of number of championships or things of that nature.

We have rough ideas on any given year where a team has, in theory, the potential to get to, but we’re not a high stakes outcome-oriented organisation in that sense.

Vince’s thoughts here echo a lot of the sentiment expressed under the Balance is Better philosophy about the notions of competition and winning in youth sport. Performing to a high level and achieving goals, both as an individual and a team, are a super important part of youth sport. And for this, winning and competition are key ingredients.  However, it’s key that sport administrators think about competitive success in a holistic sense. It should be one signal amongst others to understand how impactful and successful your sport programme is. Critically, it’s important to also watch out for an overemphasis on winning (this might look different in different youth sport contexts, i.e. Under-5 versus Under-15). Compared to the other determinants of success discussed below, competitive success has the greatest risk of being a catalyst for adverse or negative behaviours in youth sport.

2.     Participant growth & retention

We want to see a robust pool of players that’s ideally growing every year, but even if it’s not growing, it’s a significant pool of players playing. So, participation retention is important to us.

Many sport administrators will be familiar with participation statistics as one yard-stick for measuring success – whether it be through a strategic objective to grow a programme, or for reporting on funding. The ‘number of participants’ often weighs in on people’s minds when making a judgement about how successful a youth sport programme is.

Some additional thoughts here:

  • Growth is a useful measure of success in youth sport, but often to a point. Measures of growth often don’t tell us if a programme is growing because of retention or recruitment. If 90% of participants are turning over year on year, but you’re still able to grow the programme because of good marketing, this is unlikely to be a sport programme.
  • If you’ve got a new programme, often growth is important to begin with to establish a critical mass of participants to make the programme viable (being able to resource coaches, having enough players for a competition, etc.).
  • After a point, growth can create more challenges. For example, one of the hardest challenges Vince faced at Harbour Basketball was matching the growth of programmes with the growth of quality coaches.
  • After a critical mass of numbers has been established in a youth sport programme, retention is the signal sport administrators should pay more attention too. While it’s natural for there to be some churn in youth sport programmes (participants get too old, move away, interests change etc.) measures and data around retention are often a useful entry point for analysis and understanding what problems and issues there might be in a youth sport programme. For a good example of this, see this NZ Rugby case study.

3.     Player development

Improvement of players is something that’s really important to us in the sense of, we want to see players growing, moving across divisions, moving into stronger teams each year, progressing into other pathways, adding skills, growing as players, doing things now that they couldn’t do a year ago, things of that nature.

Many reading this would agree that developing young people’s skills and abilities is a fundamental goal of youth sport programmes. However, evaluating the programme’s impact on player development requires a comprehensive approach. A trap that sport administrators often fall into is forming a narrow frame of reference, to assess a programme’s effectiveness, based solely on the experiences and achievements of the most talented athletes. This approach ignores the development of other athletes in the program.

A key principle of Balance is Better, is that skill development should be provided for all young people, regardless of ability. A crucial aspect of this is tracking and supporting the progress of all participants. Good youth sport programmes take a holistic approach to player development, focusing on the progress of all athletes rather than just the most talented.

4.     Participants having meaningful and positive relationships

People want to play with people they like. This could be coaches or teammates.

I enjoy [these people] because they provide an important form of support for me, either in the form of they are a meaningful friendship or relationship, or they’re a positive adult in my life, or they’re people who I hang out with and enjoy being around.

This is where the design of teams and the fit of personalities is key. Whether it be a coach or manager, someone needs to be paying attention to this.

As we’ve highlighted often on Balance is Better, connection and meaningful relationships in sport play a vital role in the enjoyment of young athletes.

Read: Developing rapport and building great coach-athlete relationships

But what about measuring a sport programme’s impact on young people’s relationships? Well, this need not require complex psychological analysis. Instead, it can be evaluated through observation and feedback from parents and guardians. Additionally, end-of-season surveys can be used to gather information about trust, support, communication, and team cohesion, which can also provide insight into the programme’s impact on relationships.

5.     Every player has a meaningful opportunity to participate and contribute

I think about the kids at the end of the bench who are on a top team, as an example, they made a top team, they might train with that team. They just played a game. They might have won their game. They might even have won their game big or won a championship, but they didn’t play.

And did they have a successful experience in sport? I would argue partially, no, maybe even a lot.

As Vince’s story alludes to, other benchmarks we might use to think about whether a youth sport programme is successful, can often overlook the ‘kid at the end of the bench’.

Sport administrators can gather feedback in order to assess whether participants are having meaningful opportunities to participate and contribute in a number of ways, such as:

  • Surveys and interviews: Collect feedback from young people, parents, and coaches on their experiences in the programme. Ask specific questions about their level of participation and opportunities to contribute. How included did they feel?
  • Observation: Observe the programme in action and take note of how often different participants are given opportunities to participate and contribute. Are all participants involved in the activities or are certain participants consistently excluded?
  • Data analysis: Look at data such as playing time, number of touches on the ball, or number of opportunities to participate in different activities. Compare this data across different young people to identify any patterns or discrepancies.

6.     Competition is close

No one wants to play in blowouts all the time. Even if you win them, they’re not actually that fun – fun is being challenged in a healthy way. So, the notion of a competitive team reflects the desire for healthy challenge.

One of the more obvious things to look at is the way in which you can keep scores close. If you keep scores close then that’s a way of facilitating engagement and interest, right? Like you’re in a close game, you could win or lose. You’ve got to use skill and strategy and tactics to figure out how to win that game. That’s a good thing.

So, competition can be a very good thing for facilitating interest, motivation, learning, and effort. If we can make it so that every game was as close as possible in a genuine, honest way, not a manipulated way, then we think people will want more of that.

Here, Vince is discussing the concept of competitive engineering in youth sport, which involves adjusting the design and structure of youth sport programs to enhance participant engagement. This can be achieved by implementing strategies such as increasing action and scoring, ensuring close scores, promoting personal involvement, and fostering positive social relationships.

During our discussion, Vince highlighted two modifications that Harbour Basketball made in order to enhance the competitiveness of their games. These modifications included forming more balanced teams and shortening the duration of in-house games.

And so, the first notion of an even-teams model was, we know that our teams are going to play each other a lot inhouse competition. We know that they’re going to train a lot together because our facilities are so bare that all those teams need to train against each other.

So, they’re train training against each other multiple times a week. They’re playing against each other in the same competition, might as well make those games close. So, let’s make the teams even.

What’s more we reduced the length of the games in our internal competition from 10-minute quarters to eight-minute quarters to reduce the number of big blowouts, and there by increase the closeness of games.

7.     Age and stage appropriate opportunities

Something I’ve struggled with for years, is that we still don’t bring the hoops down to lower levels for younger players.

Often, sport is delivered in a way that’s been wedded to tradition, and not necessarily in a manner that’s best for the participant.

Age and stage appropriate opportunities in youth sport is about ensuring that the sport or activity is developmentally appropriate for the child in terms of physical, cognitive, emotional and social development. It’s important to provide young people with opportunities that are challenging, but also within their reach, to ensure that they have a positive and enjoyable experience in sport.

Currently, many national sport organisations provide good guidance to sport administrators on developing and delivering age and stage appropriate opportunities. This guidance may include information on equipment size, game and training session lengths, and suggested training activities.

When considering age and stage appropriateness, sport administrators should pay attention to two key elements: the emphasis on competition and playing time. Some national sport bodies provide guidance on these topics as well. It is important for administrators to keep in mind that children’s development is not just about physical abilities but also about emotional, cognitive and social development, and that different children may have different needs and preferences.

Putting it together

Harbour Basketball have showcased one way of understanding and thinking about success in youth sport through several different lenses. Understandably though, for many sport leaders and administrators, the idea of taking a holistic approach here might feel overwhelming. As Vince alluded to, one way to break this down is to think about determinants 1-3 at a goal or strategic level (i.e. in planning, reporting, policy and guidance). At a day-to-day level, however, focus on determinants 4-7 as signals of success.

Read more series of articles below:

Image Source: Harbour Basketball

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