A key challenge youth coaches will face is working with athletes with varying skill levels within the same team. It’s easy to just focus on the ‘good’ athletes, but great coaches know how to develop all athletes, regardless of their abilities and motivations. Below, we discuss how we can take an athlete-centred approach while maintaining harmony within a team, enabling us to be fair in our coaching while also getting the best out of all of our athletes — both collectively and individually. We start by sharing some high-level thoughts on skill, before diving into some actions that coaches can take when working with athletes with varying skill levels at the same time.
Part 1: Some High Level Thoughts on Skill
Checking Our Own Judgements about Skill
Perhaps the first step in learning how to work with athletes of differing skill levels is forming a clear idea of how we define skill. What does it mean to be skillful? How do we measure it? And what can we do to ensure that our judgement is always consistent? It’s important that we understand our own judgements about skill before seeking to identify the different skill levels of individual athletes.
First, we must recognise that there are many different types of skill. For example, in football, we might typically think of dribbling ability and finishing as key skills, but attributes like spatial awareness and the ability to make decisions under pressure are equally important. Physical skills like speed and strength are often more noticeable in youth sports, where participants are at different stages of their growth and maturation process, but psychological and social skills like leadership, adaptability, and ability to work with teammates can be easier to overlook. As coaches, it’s vital that we appreciate the huge range of skills that exist and are relevant to our sport before trying to evaluate the skillfulness of athletes.
Additionally, we should recognise that our judgement is subjective. Our perception of an individual’s skill might be different to their own, or that of their parents and other coaches. It’s also possible that our judgement of skill is influenced by the outcomes we wish to achieve; for instance, if our priority is winning games, we may place greater importance on physical attributes; if our primary aim is to help athletes develop for the future, we might value social and psychological attributes more, knowing that athletes will likely catch up in physical development later.
In this sense, an athlete’s skill levels, and our perception of them, are not fixed; they are influenced by the setting in which the athlete participates and the outcomes they are trying to achieve. Ultimately, an athlete’s level of skill is not determined solely by them, but by a number of environmental factors that surround them — both in and away from sport.
Understanding Our Athletes and Their Environment
So before deciding how to work with athletes of different skill levels, we should consider the different contexts behind them. Numerous factors influence how skillful an individual is, and we must understand them before determining the best way to coach someone.
Take the example of two ten-year-old athletes, where one appears to be more skillful than the other; the former may have a training age of four years, and the latter a training age of just two; this, while a possible cause for the perceived difference in skill, is something that the less experienced individual could overcome — and thus, instead of labelling them ‘less skilled’, we should work to help them catch up to their peer. We must consider more than just the athletes we see before us at that precise moment.
In such cases, we may benefit from making more formal assessments of our athletes at the start of each season, documenting both their skill levels in various areas of their sport, and the areas in which they want to improve. This will not only help us to be more uniform in evaluating the skill levels of our athletes, but help to guide our aspirations and coaching aims for each individual we work with.
“I like to create athlete profile cards,” says Dr. Wade Gilbert, acclaimed coaching consultant and sport scientist. By giving athletes blank profiles to fill out with their parents, Gilbert is able to gather information about their character — for instance, things they respond well and/or badly to — while also encouraging them to consider their own strengths and weaknesses: “The bottom half of the page would cover the Four Cs [Competence, Confidence, Connection, and Character, with athletes encouraged to rank their ability in each of these categories from one to ten, weak to strong].
“This creates a shared language with the athletes and parents about the things that matter to us, and tells me what they want to get better at.”
This kind of tracking, even when data is collected subjectively, can provide great insights into how athletes feel about their own skill levels, and give us valuable information to refer back to later in the season when assessing their development.
Of course, the way we measure different skills can vary immensely, with some methods proving more objective than others. For instance, to determine physical attributes, we can record things like height, sprint speed, standing jumps, biological age, and whether there is a Relative Age Effect at play; technical skills might be evaluated through ‘skill-based’ tasks (for example, how many free throws an athlete can make from 20 attempts), and be supplemented by documenting their training age; similarly, when gauging the tactical competency of an individual, we could first seek to learn about their coaching history; and before appraising the psychological and social skills of an individual, we should always endeavour to learn about the socio-cultural factors that shape them and the way they act.
Finally, we also need to acknowledge the aims and vision of our team. Are we simply trying to develop great people who love participating in their sport? Or are we in an environment where athletes are striving to optimise their development and reach the highest level possible? This will determine the extent to which we challenge the individuals we coach.
Part 2: Working with Athletes with Different Skill Levels at the Same Time
Consider Your Language and How We Treat Individuals
As coaches, we must be supportive, fair, and consistent in how we interact with athletes. A central component of this is treating everyone in our team equally, regardless of their perceived level of ability.
Here, the language we use is crucial. We should be careful not to over-praise ‘more skillful’ athletes, both for their sake and that of their peers. A growing body of research suggests that excessive praise can be harmful for athletes, negatively affecting their motivation and sense of identity. Instead, positive affirmation — the act of acknowledging and affirming effort and intentions — is cited as a preferable alternative.
Furthermore, we should distribute our positive attention evenly across our team; allowing individuals to feel overlooked can also damage their motivation or self-esteem, and we don’t want our so-called ‘less skillful’ athletes to believe a certain level of skill or ability is unobtainable. Similarly, we want to discourage more skillful athletes from believing that their abilities are natural, and not something to be worked on and honed.
“Too often, good performance is attributed to ‘natural talent’ — and a belief in ‘natural talent’ breeds an ‘entity mindset’,” explains James Vaughan, Head of Football and Coaching Psychology, and Research Coordinator at AIK Fotboll. Entity Theory is the belief that things like intelligence and talent are fixed traits, dependent upon natural ability and incapable of being changed; it asserts that, while people can learn new things, their underlying level of talent will always remain the same. This, Vaughan asserts, is not a mentality we want to encourage in young athletes: “A ‘natural talent’ mindset rejects challenge, effort, and perseverance, cultivating a belief in genetic endowment. The belief in natural talent directly opposes the formation of a growth mindset, something commonly accepted as essential to long-term development.”
According to Vaughan, encouraging athletes to believe their skills are the product of natural talent can take away their motivation and willingness to work. And when this happens, they are often caught up, and surpassed, by peers with better work ethics and training attitudes.
Thus, it’s vital that we don’t allow our athletes to become fixated upon the idea of ‘skill’, but instead help them to foster a belief that improvement is the natural consequence of hard work and effort.
Encourage a Growth Mindset
Ultimately, we want to help all of the athletes we work with to develop a growth mindset. This means instilling the belief that dedication and hard work will lead to improvement. Further to this, athletes must be willing to expose themselves to risk and failure in order to expand their scope of learning, and understand that this is an important part of their developmental journey.
“We’ve got to acknowledge that, with hard work, you can improve — and also encourage that mindset within our athletes,” says Dave Wright, UEFA A Licence coach and Co-Founder of Player Development Project. “You hear many stories of young athletes emerging from the middle of the pack — individuals who aren’t necessarily deemed to be the best at a certain point — who then go on to make it at the highest level.”
Success in youth sports is not necessarily an indicator of long-term success. Therefore it’s vital that we help all of our athletes maximise their potential throughout the age groups.
Provide Appropriate Challenges
So how do we implement this approach in our training sessions? In simple terms, we must ensure that every individual receives a challenge that’s appropriate for their level of skill.
“Athletes who are showing more ability through the age groups may need additional support or challenges,” explains Wright. “We might have to find ways to stretch them. That could mean moving them up an age group or having them move between age groups. Or perhaps we can do things within our sessions — for example, having them play 1v2s while their teammates play 1v1s. We can get creative.”
Likewise, it’s equally important that less skillful athletes experience environments in which they feel safe to express themselves, experiment, and fail. This may mean modifying our training sessions to give them appropriate learning opportunities.
“I love the idea of Flow Theory,” says Dan Cooke, A Licence coach and Coaching Advisor at Player Development Project. “It essentially says that we learn best when we’re so engrossed in a task that it feels like time is passing in an instant.”
The basis of Flow Theory is that we enter an optimal state of learning when we reach a ‘Flow State’, whereby we’re completely absorbed by the activity we’re doing. If the task is too challenging, we become stressed, anxious, and don’t experience success. If the challenge point is too low, we often become bored. That middle point — where we’re on the edge of our competencies, and perhaps feel slight discomfort — is our Flow State, and the point at which we learn best. Our job is to design practices that help each of our athletes reach that state.
“That’s the stretch we’re talking about, where athletes feel that they’re going to achieve it, but that they’re just not quite there yet,” says Cooke. “That’s the sweet spot that we’re looking for within our session designs.”
The concept of an appropriate challenge will make sense to pretty much all coaches, the tricky part is providing a challenge that’s appropriate for different athletes at the same time, particularly where there is variety in the skill level. So, how can coaches do this?
Constraints-based coaching is a pedagogical approach in which individuals learn by self-organising to complete tasks. It centres upon three types of constraints which affect athlete behaviour:
- Individual constraints — Physical or mental influences, such as height, weight, personality, and confidence.
- Task constraints — Rules and other limitations; for instance, playing area, team size, and scoring processes.
- Environmental constraints — Environmental factors like temperature, altitude, and playing surface.
All of these constraints determine how a person perceives, acts, and, thus, how they learn; individuals create emergent behaviours, act based upon their own perceptions, and learn implicitly, rather than by simply following instructions. Research increasingly shows constraints-based learning to be a powerful educational tool — great for developing creative, independent thinkers and problem solvers — both in sport and beyond.
As coaches, we can manipulate task constraints to guide our athletes towards certain outcomes or areas of learning without removing their autonomy.
Examples of task constraints might include:
- Boundaries — size and shape
- Scoring — the shape, size, and orientation of goals (etc.)
- Players — the number of participants and their allocation
- Players’ starting positions
- Ball-feed position
- Point scoring systems
- Additional rules and regulations
Credit: The Environment Builder — Danny Newcombe
This approach lends itself particularly well to working with individual athletes, where, by tweaking constraints, we can help certain athletes focus on specific areas of individual development within the confines of a team practice.
Thinking like a Videogame Designer
Some coaches liken this approach to designing a video game. With constraints-based coaching, we design games or ‘missions’ that empower and immerse their participants by allowing them to feel that their actions and decisions are their own, and in which they are given many different opportunities to explore and apply their knowledge (both the knowledge they already have, and that which they obtain through playing). Furthermore, participants are placed in authentic environments (i.e. games and playing areas that are representative of their sport) in which they feel safe to experiment and fail. This forms the basis of a setting that’s highly conducive to problem-solving and independent learning.
The next step is designing a practice (or game) in which the skills or behaviours we want our athletes to practise become strategies for achieving their desired goal (or winning). An elementary example of this is a football practice in which we want our wingers to develop their crossing, our forwards to practise their timing of runs into the box, and our centre-backs to work on defensive headers; a simple constraint could be a scoring system where headed goals count double — or where teams can only score with headed goals.
Alternatively, we might mark out the left and right thirds of the playing area and say that each team is only allowed one player in each, thereby congesting the middle of the pitch and encouraging teams to utilise the spatial advantage afforded to their wide players. In both cases we nudge athletes towards behaving in certain ways and seeking specific solutions without ever explicitly telling them to practice those behaviours or actions. Importantly, the problems we build into our games must be closely aligned to our athletes’ capabilities, so that success is possible, but not attained too easily.
With regards to instruction and feedback:
- Consider outlining the purpose of the game/session beforehand so that the athletes are clear on the learning objectives/purpose (for example, “the reason we are doing this game is to work on…”).
- Coaching interventions should be minimised, with feedback being provided ‘just in time’. Ideally, the ‘game’ is the first teacher, and time is provided for athletes to discover their own solutions (and thereby reduce their reliance on outside assistance).
Importantly, we can add, alter, or subtract constraints (or adjust the parameters of our video game) for individual athletes in order to vary the challenge for different skill levels. For instance, if we’re coaching basketball and one of our athletes is a great rebounder, we might challenge them to develop another area of their game by ruling that they can only shoot from beyond the three-point line; or if we’re coaching cricket and have a particularly skillful batsman or batswoman, we could design a game with multiple boundaries, and in which theirs is the biggest.
In this way, constraints-based practices really enable us to be creative in our session design, providing an excellent framework to coach athletes of different skill levels within a team setting while ensuring that everybody receives an appropriate, and often individualised, challenge.
The key to coaching different skill levels within the same team is to ensure that we treat athletes equally while still accommodating their different needs. Every individual must receive the same amount of our attention, effort, and encouragement — but how we provide this should be tailored to their personality, aims and ambitions, and where they are on their developmental journey.
We advocate for coaches not falling into the trap of only wanting to work with the best athletes, and instead viewing the challenge of working with differing skill levels at the same time as a coaching problem, and an opportunity to grow their coaching ability.
Ultimately, the need to balance different people, personalities, and abilities is part of what makes coaching so invigorating. By taking an athlete-centred approach, we can give every individual the challenges and support that they require.
- We must understand the context behind our athletes; sometimes a so-called ‘less skillful’ player will just need more time or opportunities to catch up.
- Coaches should be considerate of the language they use and how they treat individuals within a team. We must be careful not to demotivate athletes (both the more- and less- skilled athletes), either through over-praise or by making them feel less valued.
- We should help athletes to develop a growth mindset, whereby they see the value in hard work and aren’t afraid to take risks.
- Appropriate challenges — tasks that stretch athletes while still providing opportunities for success — are key to helping them develop. The sweet spot is aiming to support your athletes to get into a state of flow.
- Taking a constraints-based approach to their coaching, coaches should consider what task constraints they can manipulate to support learning, whether that be for the team or an individual. By cleverly designing games or ‘missions’, we can create compelling learning environments in which athletes problem-solve and develop skills independently.