5 Tips to Ensure Children Have a Quality Youth Sports Experience

June begins Get Outdoors Month, a time when many kids will begin youth summer sports. To ensure children and adolescents engage in high quality sport experiences, my colleagues and I at the College of Education & Human Development (CEHD) offer ways for coaches and parents to create positive experiences for kids of all ages and abilities.

Focus on Coach Training

The most important factor to a positive youth sports program is a well-trained coach. In many cases there is a gap in the training provided across the various age groups—with younger kids, coaches are often parent volunteers with little or no formal training. However, certified coaches are actually needed for younger athletes, as this is the time kids learn important fundamentals like teamwork. For coaching support, check out the national governing body of your child’s sport—such as USA Volleyball or US Soccer for coaching education resources. Some community and association-based programs offer entry level training for less experienced coaches. Online training tools are available through organizations such as the National Federation of State High School Associations. Many colleges and universities including CEHD offer coaching certificates and minors in middle school or high school coaching.

Mastery Coaching Climates are More Effective

Research indicates that young athletes find playing for coaches who stress personal improvement, having fun and giving maximum effort is far more important to them than a team’s win-loss record. This approach creates a mastery coaching climate in contrast to an ego climate, in which the main goal is winning at all costs and success is defined as being better than other players.

A mastery climate (also known as a task-involving climate) is found to be the most effective coaching approach by researchers at CEHD and others such as the University of Washington. A mastery climate, with a focus on improvement and effort, brings many positive results. These include athlete motivation and satisfaction, less anxiety, freedom to make decisions or be creative with plays and greater team camaraderie. This style of coach believes in the role of all athletes, not only the high-value players, and shows young athletes how to do something, not just tell them.

Youth Sports - Girls Track Relay Race

Coaches are not the only adults who influence the sports experience. Parents play a significant role as well. So we asked young athletes (starting at age three through adolescent) what they want from sport parents. Consistent across gender and age differences, kids want parents to be supportive. This includes showing up at games or meets, paying attention, commenting on great plays, giving praise and encouragement. Here are five tips based on our research.

5 Tips for Sport Parents:

  1. Comment on great plays and encourage, but don’t coach from the sidelines. One young athlete in our study explained that he doesn’t want be treated like “a remote controlled car” by parents.
  2. It doesn’t matter how much you know about a sport, don’t try to assume the coach’s role when you are not the designated coach. Kids really dislike this.
  3. Clap and cheer, even for particularly good plays of opponents.
  4. Kids are naturally empathetic to others. If a crazed fan is shouting names or yelling mean comments to players (even if they’re on the other team) they feel very bad about it.
  5. Encourage “diversification”: let kids try many sports at a younger age rather than focusing intensely on one. This creates a better and well-rounded athlete and one that’s less prone to injury later on.

What not to do: the Angry Environment

What is very damaging to the youth sports experience is “background anger.” This includes parents fighting with coaches or each other, belittling athletes, excessive competition or severe punishment of players, swearing and rudeness. Unfortunately, most of us have observed this behavior at youth sporting events. As mentioned, kids of all ages are highly sensitive to this, and have great empathy for teammates, other players and even refs. The negative environment negatively affects their performance and causes both mental and physical distress. More information about a recent CEHD study can be found here: http://gradworks.umi.com/35/13/3513548.html.

Finally, plan for basic first aid: coaches can enlist a safety parent volunteer with a med kit and basics like band aids, Ace bandages, etc. This simple, yet important step is often overlooked until it’s too late. Parents and coaches should actively educate themselves about health concerns like concussions and heat illness.

This month, get outdoors and encourage participation in a variety of sports. Together, parents and coaches have the power to create positive sports experiences for kids of all ages and abilities.

Diane Wiese-Bjornstal

About the Author

Diane Wiese-Bjornstal, Ph.D.

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