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Individual vs team sports: how do I know what’s best for development?

A common issue faced by parents and coaches is when children become disillusioned with playing sports. Maybe they participate in a team sport but want to play individual sports – or vice versa. Or perhaps they want to stop participating altogether. This could be due to a child feeling like they’re under-performing compared to their teammates; or maybe something in their sporting environment is having a negative impact on their motivation and development.

Whatever the reason, many adults in this situation worry about young people switching sports – or changing the type of sport – and what the implications might be for the child. In this blog, we will address some of those concerns and provide some takeaway ideas that should help us to understand the benefits of both individual and team sports.

The benefits of team sports and individual sports – and the different challenges that team and individual sports present for children

Team sports can provide an excellent opportunity for young people to develop numerous skills, such as social acuity and character (teamwork, leadership, communicating, resilience, mental toughness etc.), as well as improve their overall physical health. I say ‘can’ because the reality is that, often, we don’t achieve these things by accident; rather, the adults involved in the experience must take an approach that supports this development. Much like a good teacher might.

But opportunities for social development are not confined to team sports; even in individual sports, we can create environments that allow for connections and the development of social skills. And, with the right guidance from coaches and other stakeholders, we can still succeed in building individual sports environments that aid the social and character development of young athletes.

Ultimately, the benefits young people receive when they participate in sports has less to do with whether they’re team sports or individual sports, and more to do with the quality of the experience. This is largely underpinned by the support – i.e. how the adult adult support network around young athletes shape their experiences.

Takeaway 1

It’s important to let young people sample many different sports and activities. Whether someone plays individual sports or team sports – or if they try drama or debating – doesn’t matter as much as whether they have a quality experience.

What is the relationship between competence and motivation?

Self Determination Theory is one of the key psychological theories that guides us in facilitating quality sporting experiences. An understanding of Self Determination Theory helps us to keep athletes motivated, so that they want to stay involved in sport. The theory is explained in the video below.

One of the key psychological needs identified by Self Determination Theory is competence. There is a direct relation between our feeling of competence (our feeling of mastery or effectiveness in a task) and our motivation to do and keep doing that task. This is why a child’s enjoyment of sports is often linked to their perception of their own performance relative to others.  Thing like an athlete’s belief in their own skills and physical fitness, and their ability to achieve personal goals can all impact their long-term desire to stay involved in their sport.

However, we need to consider this alongside the other key psychological needs of Self Determination Theory: autonomy and relatedness.

  • Autonomy – how much choice does an athlete have with these experiences? In other words, do they get to decide which sports they play? Are they given freedom to express themselves, be creative, and try new things within the sport? Or do they feel like they must abide by what the coach says?
  • Relatedness – does a child value their connection with teammates, other peers, and coaches when participating in sports? And how much do they feel valued by others? This isn’t just about performance, but about overall social connection. After all, human beings are inherently social creatures.

Takeaway 2

It’s important to consider how we and other adults support each of these psychological needs for a young people in our sports environments. The Good Sports Spine is a good tool to help us focus and reflect on this. And parental support plays a critical role in developing a child’s belief in their own physical activity, sporting competence, and overall physical fitness.

Is environment important?

Regardless of how we and other adults support a child, sometimes the environment propels behaviours that make it seem like performance is all that matters. Here, two key considerations to think about are:

  1. How focused is the environment on competition outcomes (such as winning)? Some sports and activities (for example, surfing, tramping, and rock climbing) have less of a cultural and systemic focus on competition than other sports (for instance, your traditional team sports and individual sports, like football and tennis), but parent and coach behaviour go a long way to shaping this mentality too.
  2. Does the sport allow appropriate grouping of individual athletes by skill level? This is easier to accomplish in the larger sports – particularly in the larger regions – as bigger pools of athletes make it easier to select teams with similar abilities. Where this happens, individual athletes are likelier to receive an suitable mix of challenges (allowing them to experience an appropriate blend of adversity and success) when playing team sports. But, of course, we must also be mindful that selection processes can sometimes be fraught with issues as well.

Takeaway 3

We must encourage the right environment for development by noticing – and amending, if necessary – our own behaviours around outcomes. The most important factor for a child may be the chance to keep playing with their friends, or to develop new skills, rather than winning.

How can I best support a child’s development?

When faced with these challenges in a child’s sporting development, it can be helpful to encourage a growth mindset. This means helping them shift their perceptions about their ability from one of “I can’t do this” to one of “I can’t do this yet“.

You can learn more about encouraging a growth mindset in the following video.

Takeaway 4

Read the following link. It provides a quick overview about how a coach or parent can tailor praise and feedback to best support young people in developing a growth mindset.

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