Providing Your Young Athletes Control
With the start of a new season, it provides a much-needed opportunity to enhance youth sports in a way that provides kids with more fun and human connection, and ultimately, more confidence.
That’s the word from Meredith Whitley, PhD, associate professor in Adelphi’s School of Health Sciences and co-editor of the Journal of Sport forDevelopment. She recently served on the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, & Nutrition Science Board and led the writing of Reenvisioning Postpandemic Youth Sport to Meet Young People’s Mental, Emotional, and Social Needs
“We really need to think about how to be intentional about having in-person conversations again and building those connections that are so necessary to being happy and healthy every day,” she said during an interview with the Ultimate Sports Parent podcast.
To achieve these goals, parents and coaches should begin by ensuring the sports experience is fun.
“We want to make sure the youth sports experiences we are designing are focused on how kids can enjoy the time spent at practices and games, lowering the bar on expectations and the feeling that certain things need to be accomplished,” she said.
Right now, many kids are experiencing stress, anxiety and depression, all of which can be exacerbated by the stress of competitive sports, Whitley said. That’s why it’s so important to focus on fun and connection.
Parents, coaches and administrators should also focus on inviting kids to help design sport experiences to give young athletes more control.
During the pandemic, kids had little control of their lives, and they lost their sense of autonomy, said Whitley. Giving young athletes more input into their sports experience will help give them a sense of control. This might involve asking kids to help design practices and to give coaches feedback on individual practices and games.
Coaches can solicit feedback and ideas by handing out forms at the beginning of the season or by asking for feedback after games or practices, for example. Leagues can also create youth advisory boards made up of team captains. And team captains can request input from their team members.
Whitley has some experience putting these ideas to work as a youth sports coach.
“At the end of most practices, I would check in and say, ‘What’s one thing that went well today and what’s one thing you want to change for next time?’” said Whitley. “It took two minutes.”
Another important goal is to establish a supportive, inclusive team culture.
“With intention and thought, we can create incredible communities for kids to get to know and support one another and connect with adults who aren’t their parents. They will have more caring relationships with more adults, which research suggests is important,” Whitley said.
Coaches can create this sense of community by getting to know team members individually and creating opportunities for the kids to share information about themselves, including their interests outside of sports. The coaches can plan dinners or movies together.
“Let them get to know each other as people, not just as athletes,” Whitley suggests.
All these efforts can build confidence in young athletes.
“Hopefully this affects their confidence in life, as people. It will have ripple effects in their confidence in sports,” she said. With a supportive team and parents, more control of their sports experience and a focus on connection and fun, it’s likely young athletes will experience a boost in confidence on and off the field or court.
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