In this Q&A, professor of kinesiology Jennifer L. Etnier discusses her new book Coaching for the Love of the Game: A Practical Guide for Working with Young Athletes, available now from UNC Press.
More than 45 million children play youth sports in the United States each year, and most are coached by parent volunteers with good intentions but little training. This lack of training and an overemphasis on winning often results in stress and frustration for coaches and players alike, which can discourage young athletes so much that they walk away from sports altogether. With this new guide for amateur parent coaches, Jennifer Etnier, author of Bring Your ‘A’ Game, aims to change that. Etnier offers a system of positive coaching that can be applied to any sport, from the beginner level to high school athletics, and explains that good coaching requires working with young athletes at their developmental level and providing feedback designed to keep children engaged and having fun.
Coaching for the Love of the Game is now available in print and ebook editions. Watch a promotional trailer for the book here.
Q: Why did you write this book, and how do you hope it will be used?
A: I wrote this book because I have literally been losing sleep at night over coaches I’ve seen working with youth athletes. To give just a few examples: I wrote this book because of the coach I saw screaming at a team of 9-year-olds after a soccer game, the volleyball coach who only let his weaker players on the court for 2 points out of 3 entire games, the basketball coach who told his 11-year-olds to do push-ups until they were ready to pay attention, and the coach who spent the majority of his practice texting on his cell phone. I wrote this book with the hope of helping well-intentioned coaches remember what the top priority is in youth sports (i.e, the kids!) to help them have a positive influence on their athletes so that every athlete has fun, improves, and feels valued and respected.
Q: What was your own experience growing up as a young athlete and an avid lover of sports? How have those experiences influenced this book?
A: When I was playing sports, I had coaches who were focused on creating a fun atmosphere where athletes had an opportunity to improve. My coaches ran the gamut from volunteer parent coaches to full-time paid coaches, but most approached athletics as an environment for personal growth rather than a venue for winning at all costs. Of course, we cared about winning and I’m a very competitive person, but I also recognized early on that winning is not the most important thing. The most important things are to be competitive while having fun, focusing on improvement, and learning how to work hard to give winning your best chance. I learned to give full effort against a competitor, but to still cheer for her good shot. I learned to work hard in practices to improve, to try my hardest in competition, to persist against adversity, and to be a good sport.
Q: What was your best experience with a coach, either as a player when you were younger, or as a parent now? What made this experience or this coach so great?
A: I was in college prior to the full impact of Title IX being felt at the universities. As a result, the University of Tennessee had a women’s club soccer team rather than a varsity team. But, this was the greatest situation ever! As captain of the team, I had the responsibility for creating our schedule. I arranged it so that we typically played about 20 games in the fall season against other club teams and against Division II varsity teams. This gave us the chance to test our mettle against other competitive teams. I was driven to be the best player I could be, so was able to take advantage of practices and competitions to improve technically and tactically. We had a coach who made our practices fun while also trying to train us to be better individual players and to play better as a cohesive team. The key to the whole experience is that we had fun in practices, on road trips for games, and competing against teams of similar caliber.
Right now, my twin boys are playing for two coaches who understand that the purpose of youth sport is to focus on the development of athletes and young men. This is important not only on a day-to-day basis, but in terms of how they have structured their club which is unlike any other in our community. The team practices four days per week, but does not play in a league. Instead, the team plays in 3 tournaments a season. To me, this is an ideal balance. My boys’ primary goal is to get better as soccer players. When we were initially playing travel soccer, they recognized that traveling 1.5 hours each way to play a single league game wasn’t contributing to their personal development. They much prefer training hard for several weeks and then testing their skills in tournament play. As a family, this program suits our needs as well because we don’t sacrifice every weekend to league games.
Q: What are some common problems facing youth sports coaches today?
A: I really think there are two big problems. One is that so few coaches working with youth athletes have received appropriate education and training to ensure that they know how to actually be effective coaches. As a result, their practices and interactions with athletes tend to take the fun right out of the sport. It is disheartening how many kids will try a sport for a season only to become disenchanted. The second big problem which relates to the first is that a focus on winning dominates the youth sporting environment. This focus comes from sport organizations, parents, and even the community. This then results in coaches making decisions that reflect their perception that winning is the top priority. But, what they fail to recognize is that a focus on winning is not what creates winners. It is interesting because if you read the mission statements for youth sports, they promote exactly the right ideas. That is, that youth sport should be about having fun while learning to work hard for a common goal, to prioritize skill and tactical development over outcome, to persist in the face of adversity, to be a good sport, and to be competitive. If you were able to develop a team that learned all of those things, that team would likely begin to win games, but even if they didn’t, they would be gaining in ways that are of lasting value. In youth sport today, it seems that the focus on winning overshadows these other more important outcomes.
Q: In what ways has youth sports changed in recent decades?
A: As a youth athlete, I played every sport that I could and it is no doubt because they were made fun by the coaches I played for. Today, when I observe youth sport, the experience is not the same. The coaches are typically ill-prepared in terms of understanding child development, the pedagogy of their sport, and the design of a positive practice. They are focused on winning and have forgotten the reasons why kids play. Today, kids are encouraged to specialize in a single sport at an early age and the demands are high. You only have to look at the televised Little League World Series to recognize that the value of winning in youth sport has been raised to ridiculously high levels. This is just one high-profile example of how youth athletes are being coached to focus on outcome rather than the critical steps that lead up to outcome.
Q: If you could change one thing about the way youth sports are run today, what would it be?
A: I would change the focus in youth sport to a focus on having fun and improving. In my mind, we should treat coaching as an OPPORTUNITY and should not give that opportunity to just anyone. It should be reserved for those individuals who are willing to make a commitment to ensuring that every athlete is treated with respect and is valued as an individual, to implementing practices that are fun while also ensuring that all athletes improve in terms of skills, work ethic, perseverance, and competitiveness, and to prioritizing the development of all athletes as the top goal.
Q: How do gender differences affect coaching for boys and girls?
A: There is no scientific evidence supporting that girls and boys should be coached differently. What is important is for coaches to recognize that they are coaching a group of individuals who are likely to be more different than they are to be alike. In other words, each athlete on a team has his/her own personality, work ethic, skills, tactical understanding, and personal goals. Coaches should work hard to get to know their athletes as individuals so that they can adapt their practices, feedback, communication styles, and expectations uniquely to each individual on the team.
Q: What are some reasons children drop out of youth sports, and what are some ways to remedy that?
A: The number one reason children drop out is because they are no longer having fun. That to me is the great irony of youth sport. If youth sport is no longer fun, why is that? It’s typically because the over-emphasis on winning resulted in children losing their enjoyment of the sport. That can be for a variety of reasons, but it includes the athletes not getting playing time, feeling ignored by their coach, being frustrated because they are not getting the outcomes they desire, feeling pressure to perform, being placed on teams that don’t include their friends, and not having fun at practices or competitions. It is critical that coaches start treating every athlete with respect and with intentional coaching, designing practices that are enjoyable and productive, offering constructive feedback so that all athletes improve in the sport, and keeping fun as a top priority in practices and competitions.
Q: What tips do you have for parent-coach interactions?
A: I think that both coaches and parents should have expectations that they should live up to in the sport environment and that they should be held accountable.
Parents are expected to support their child by providing positive feedback, by encouraging them to try their hardest, and by helping them to keep competition in perspective. If parents are not doing these things in a public setting, coaches should help them to control their behaviors because of the impact that negative behavior has on everyone. One way to do this is to set up team expectations in advance so that parents understand acceptable behavior.
I believe that all coaches should be expected to make practices and competitions fun, to treat every athlete with respect, to strive for every athlete to improve from where they are, to give playing time that reflects effort and commitment in addition to talent, and to be a role model for sportsmanship. If coaches are not doing these things, parents have the responsibility to advocate for the children on the team by having a respectful and professional conversation with the coach. If that is not productive, it is important to let the youth sport organization or administrator know that expectations are not being met. Then, the youth sport organization or administrator should take responsibility for that coach and should intervene to give the coach the tools needed to meet the expectations.
Q: Tell me about burnout. What is it, what factors contribute to it, and how can parents and coaches of youth athletes prevent it?
A: Burnout is the experience of emotional and physical exhaustion. Youth athletes who have a high training load become vulnerable to burnout when they are also experiencing high levels of psychological stress. The stress they experience may come from the sport itself or from other sources like relationship stress or academic stress. Typically, burnout occurs over a relatively long period of time and builds up over time. To prevent burnout, one should be sensitive to the signs of burnout which include apathy, a failure to meet training demands, and performance slumps. If these symptoms appear, an athlete would benefit from an immediate and large reduction in training demands and from the development of coping strategies to manage stress. An extreme but effective solution is to take a complete break from the sport to give the body and mind a chance to recover. Left unchecked, burnout will ultimately lead to the athlete dropping out of the sport with little likelihood of return.
Q: How do you feel about trophies in youth sports?
A: Trophies are useful when they reinforce desirable behavior. If trophies are given out in a purposeful way that reinforces behaviors that are valuable, then trophies can be used effectively. For these reasons, I am not supportive of participation trophies or of trophies that only reward outcome. These don’t convey messages that are important. A participation trophy rewards simply showing up. A trophy for outcome sends the wrong message because winning isn’t a behavior, it’s a possible outcome based upon a multitude of specific behaviors. The challenge really is to consider what message is being delivered with the trophy—the message should be about reinforcing desirable behaviors that are in the athlete’s control. So, I am supportive of trophies that reward behaviors like hard work, persistence, sportsmanship, and effort. These behaviors are within an athlete’s control, are desirable, and ultimately lead to the relevant outcome of winning in sport.
Q: Do you have any advice for youth sports administrators and officials?
A: My advice is simply to remember to put the athletes’ positive experience as your top priority. If athletes having a positive experience is the top priority, then teams are created to be equal so that competition is on a “level playing field,” coaches are given education and training so that they can help their athletes have a positive experience, and rules are even specifically modified to keep competition relatively even. If administrators did this, I think youth sport would change. If officials did this, I think they could also positively influence the competitive environment.
Q: What is your overall message to those involved in youth sport?
A: The vast majority of children who participate in youth sport will NOT be elite-level performers. Most parents sign their child up to participate in youth sport because of the positive experience they anticipate and because they think their child will have fun while learning to be a good sport, to work hard, to deal with losing, and to be competitive. Unfortunately, many children don’t learn all of these things, don’t have fun, and ultimately drop out of youth sport by middle school.
If I were creating a youth sport league, I would ensure that my coaches were committed to the development of young people, were trained to work effectively with their athletes, were mentored and evaluated for their own personal improvement, and demonstrated their dedication to fun and personal growth. I would design the league to ensure equal competition so that in every game the outcome was uncertain. If a game started to be lopsided, coaches would make immediate changes to keep the game close. When the game ended, coaches would know to focus only on things within their teams’ control like effort, decision-making, sportsmanship, and persistence. By keeping the competition even, the league’s goal would be that every team wins half of their games by the end of the season. That way, the actual outcome of a game would truly depend upon the things we care about—effort, decision-making, and persistence.
I’ve done this with my own children for their whole lives. As an example, when they were little and I was teaching them to play ping-pong, I initially started out playing with my left (non-dominant) hand. That kept the games close. When they got better, I’d start the game left-handed, but then would switch to right-handed if it was too easy for them. I didn’t tell them I was doing this, but just made the change so that the game would stay close. As they got better, I would play the whole game right-handed, but might alter my effort level depending upon the score. My goal the whole time was to keep the competition close. To ensure that they won some and I won some. Now, as teenagers, I am lucky to keep the game close playing with my right hand and at 100% effort the whole time!
Jennifer L. Etnier is professor of kinesiology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and author of Bring Your ‘A’ Game: A Young Athlete’s Guide to Mental Toughness.