Do We Have the Right People Coaching Our Talented Young Athletes?

In sport, we have heard some version of the adage “your best coaches should work with your youngest athletes”. My view is that we need a different way of judging whether a person has the skills to work with talented young people, because the skills required to be a UKCC Level 4 / Pro Licence / Msc Coaching / etc does not necessarily translate to how well you work with children. Whereas these qualifications are impressive – and show you have a high level of technical and tactical competence – where is the proof that you can relate to children?
John Wooden, the legendary coach of the UCLA Bruins mens basketball team, had to remind himself and his coaches that although the super talented 18 – 22 year-olds in his care where were physical giants, the were still children. Although many of them were nearly 7-feet tall, they still had the emotional needs of children and needed to be treated differently to grown men if Wooden was going to get the best from them. I question whether the coaches who are working with our most talented child athletes are doing this, or just seeing the talent (or potential)?
In the Talent Code, Daniel Coyle studied high performers in a number of areas, including sports. When asked to identify the coach who had made the biggest impact on them, high performers often gave an example of a coach they had when they were young, who made learning difficult skills fun. Some of these high performers were world champions in their sport and were choosing to highlight a coach they had worked with much earlier in their journey, who had created a fun, safe space to learn in.
As sports, governing bodies and coaches, what can we learn?
Firstly, we need to deploy the right people to work with our young athletes. Coaching qualifications should take second place to the character of the Coach, who at least needs to have a Level 1 Human Being certificate! Coaches have a great influence over young people, so it is vital that we deploy coaches who are good role models of the values we want our sport to embody. As a parent, we need our children to be working with adults who set an example of what is right. None of this is taught through formal coach education.
Secondly, we need to ensure our programmes are built with a child in mind. That’s not to say that coaches should not have high demands for talented young people, but our most important responsibility is to ensure that kid comes back. In 2019, with the choices that young people have with how to spend their time, this means ensuring demanding training sessions are fun. Let children be children and play, explore, and try new things without judgement. The patience to do this is not taught through formal coach education.
Our most talented adult athletes have to have a passion for their sport, and passion is not found instantly. Children will go through a process of discovery, development and deepening. While the development and deepening stages will have a less exciting narrative, the discovery phase must be fun! Therefore it is vital that the coach focuses on generating interest, rather than anything else.
As a sport governing body, I know I have a responsibility to ensure young people engaging in our sport have the best possible chance to achieve what they want to achieve. Let’s have a look at what we are asking of coaches working with our juniors, because I am not convinced we are always looking for the right things.

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