What’s the one sure fire way for you to ensure the kids you coach learn? Engage them. That’s it. It’s so simple that it gets overlooked. We assume there must be far more complicated interactions that will lead to learning that we must implement. We lose sight of the fact that sometimes the simplest answer is the best answer.
Let me ask you something. When do you feel most engaged in an activity? When you are exuberant or when you are miserable? Actually, no need to answer. This is another simple one, isn’t it?
In my travels across the country, I cannot say that there is a soccer player that I’ve come across where I felt I could say, “You do not require any more skill practice. You’re skillful enough.” Every kid I came across on a soccer field should have been and needed to be more skillful than they were. Canadian soccer players need to be more skillful. But that’s my wish for the kids. And my wish imposed on the kids would make it an adult-centred program. That’s where I as an adult involved with youth sport start to lose sight of the simplicity of my job as a coach. I get my blinders on because I realize that it is MY job to teach those players to be more skillful.
But my job is simply to engage the players first.
If it is to be a truly player-centred program than I need to focus more on engaging those players in order to get them to own the desire to become more skillful. They need to become more skillful because they want to be more skillful. Not because I want them to or tell them that they need to be. I need to worry more about creating the conditions for engagement and spend less time worrying about all the corollary things that will positively spin off of a learning environment that is ripe with joy and wonder.
So as a coach, how do you do that?
In a recent MindShift post, educational writer Annie Murphy Paul speaks of a research study conducted on Finnish primary school students on the topic of joy. The researchers followed the kids around for two school years. Literally. They took pictures of their emotions, looking in particular for one: joy.
What did they find? As you can well imagine, joy did not emerge from long-winded lectures by the teachers. When learning is seen as a passive exchange of information from knower to knowee, there is little room for engagement. For you as coaches that means you need to find ways to get the kids taking an active role in their learning. Ask them questions. Create problems for them to have to solve. Get their opinion on the types of things they want to do at practice or ask them for their thoughts on tactics during competition.
In the study, joy did show up when learners got to work at their own level and their own pace. If you coach a team sport, then this one is a difficult proposition but it can be done. Team sports are so focused on individuals learning to do what’s best for the time that often individual development can get lost. Team sport coaches can try and go the extra mile by coming up with a few progressions – both more advanced and more basic – when creating practices. It could be as simple as just getting some help from assistant coaches or even parents to work 1-on-1 with kids that are either ahead or behind the rest of the group.
A social atmosphere can also encourage joy. If you coach a team sport than this one is already done for you as practice is always social – especially if you coach girls. When one kid sees another kid experiencing joy it can be contagious. When one kid joyously interacts with another kid it can be contagious. Not surprisingly, kids working together can share and therefore experience more joy than working alone.
Finally, play and joy are inexorably linked. For a child, play is the equivalent of work for an adult. It is how they learn. And play means kid-driven not adult-driven. They need to lead it. That’s important. Play is important. You can’t tell me that play is not enjoyable. We’ve all had our moments of weakness where we’ve found ourselves slipping back into a second (or third, or fourth) childhood. Some of us have never left our first childhood.
We get so caught up in trying to do what’s right for kids that we miss the blinding glimpses of the obvious. Typically what’s needed is right under our noses. This blog serves as one of those reminders to look under your nose. So how do you tell if the kids you are coaching are joyously engaged in what they are doing? Again, look under your nose by taking a page from the Finnish researchers. Make the time to stand back and study the faces of the kids you coach. What do you see? Excitement? Sadness? Indifference? It is just that simple.
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