Youth sport coaches can do better for kids

Inadequately educated coaches means kids only actually practice about six minutes each hour. Photo: Kids often stand around during practice (AP)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fl, November 25, 2013 — Organized sport programs for children emerged in America 90 years ago. The establishment of Pop Warner Football in the 1920’s and Little League baseball in the late 1930’s, followed by the formation of other youth sport organizations focusing on sports from basketball to volleyball, dramatically changed the American sport landscape. 

Organized youth sport was a way for kids to have fun, feel the excitement of competition, share experiences with friends, learn to become skillful players, and learn valuable life lessons to boot.  

These programs require coaches, however, most often parent volunteers, to take on the roles and responsibilities of coaching. 

Today there are about two million youth sport coaches in the U. S., many of them parent volunteer coaches who are working with kids in thousands upon thousands of programs and leagues. They are well intentioned and want to do their best to provide their players with positive experiences which teach the values of sportsmanship, fair competition, and perseverance.

Unfortunately, this intention does not always translate to the practice session.

Research shows that on average for every hour of practice, youth sport players were physically active for about 18 minutes, or just 30% of practice time. 

More alarmingly, only one third of that 18 minutes, or just 6 minutes of practice was appropriate for the skill level of players (i.e. providing appropriate level of sport skill difficulty). 

That adds up to just 10% of each hour of practice time which is typically devoted to relevant sport skill learning.  

In this typical scenario, the remaining 90% of practice time was devoted to coach presentations and administration, skill tasks which were too easy or too difficult for player developmental levels, waiting in line or on the sidelines, resting, or other activity not related to the skills required to effectively learn and master sport skills and play concepts. 

Despite the endemic low levels of relevant skill learning practice time, coaches somehow expect players to magically acquire the skills needed to be successful in game play situations. It is much like a classroom teacher expecting a child who does not know the alphabet to somehow write a novel.  The comparison underscores the folly of conducting youth sport practice sessions with an approach that is neither developmentally or instructionally appropriate and which does not provide productive learning time for all kids.

Following are some reasons why these typically low levels of player relevant sport skill learning time occur:

  • Inappropriate skill challenges relative to age, ability, and experience
  • Coaches talking long and often about how to perform a skill technique
  • Waiting on long lines to get a turn to practice a skill
  • Coaches focusing on higher skilled players, while less experienced
  • players have limited opportunities
  • Unstructured or poorly organized practice activities where players must wait their turn to play

Current youth sport research continues to report this type of disappointing level of sport skill learning time, especially in emerging programs or in geographical areas where opportunities for coach training intervention is not readily available.

Coaches can improve both the enjoyment and skill levels of players by carefully preparing for each practice and educating themselves about the best ways to run a practice session.  Using all time available in the best ways available will help improve player performance, keep kids engaged and having fun, and bring them back the next season.

ECC is dedicated to educating coaches and improving player experience.  For more information, visit www.elitecoachingfl.com 


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Gary T. Barrette Ed. D.

Gary T. Barrette Ed. D., (Columbia University), Professor, Florida Atlantic University, Professor, Adelphi University (retired), Former Dean, United States Sports Academy, Co-author Coach Smart Performance 477: A Youth Sport Coaching Manual (2013), Co-editor of Myths, Models and Methods in Sport Pedagogy (1987), and Vice President, Elite Coaching Consultants.  

Contact Gary T. Barrette Ed. D.

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