Learning & development

June 6 2016

How to coach kids sport

the Psychlopaedia team
By The Australian Psychological Society

Children love playing sport – but not always for the reasons you expect. Help create a happy playing field with these tips for amateur coaches.

We are a nation of sport fanatics and, unsurprisingly, our obsession usually begins in childhood. An estimated 60 per cent of Aussie kids aged five to 14 participate in at least one organised sport outside of school.

But teaching children to kick, catch or hit a ball – not to mention organise a roster of parents to bring the half-time oranges – doesn’t happen by magic, with most kids’ sport teams relying on volunteer coaches who may not have much experience with how young minds work. Here’s what amateur coaches need to know about coaching junior sports.

Kids need to learn that effort can lead to reward

Before the ages of 10 or 11, most children don’t equate how hard they try with how they perform, says sports psychologist Shayne Hanks MAPS*.

“At that age there may be someone who is more talented or bigger than them and kids will often assume that that will always be the case. They don’t really understand that as they get older they might get bigger and stronger, and as they practice more they may get better.”

Hanks says coaches should focus less on outcomes that are based around talent and size.

“If a coach is playing the same games that are being dominated by the same kids because they’re more physically developed or because they’re just better at the sport, it has the potential to negatively impact a lot of the other children because they don’t have the ability at that age to think, ‘Okay, I just need to be patient or practice or wait until I get stronger’,” he says.

Other people’s opinions matter

Young teens worry about what everyone else thinks about their appearance, parents and what they eat for lunch – and sport is no different. Hanks says when the brain is transitioning from childhood to adolescence, children are very sensitive to other people’s opinions.

“As a coach you’ve got to be very careful that you don’t put children into positions where they’re embarrassed or humiliated in front of their teammates or peers because kids aged around 12 and 13 are very sensitive to what other people think,” he says. “If they feel as though they are disappointing other people or other people think they are no good or don’t belong, there’s a real capacity for performance anxiety and a loss of enjoyment of the sport.”

Rewarding effort, attitude and learning is key

Focusing on the aspect of sports participation that children can control like how hard they try, how they behave when they win or lose, and what they learn each week will lead to much better outcomes than focusing on performance.

“A focus by coaches on effort, attitude and learning is really significant,” says Hanks. “It’s about tapping into that growth mindset where children are looking to challenge themselves and identify areas where they can improve. As coaches it’s about promoting those three areas and rewarding and positively reinforcing the effort they’re putting in, their attitude around winning and losing, and what they’ve learned about themselves and their performance.”

Most kids don’t care about winning

Research shows that intrinsic rewards like spending time with friends mean more to children than extrinsic rewards like trophies. Most kids play sport to have fun, make friends, learn new skills, enjoy competition and be challenged – not to come first. If these needs aren’t met, kids will often lose interest in playing and drop out.

“One of the main reasons why kids engage in sport at a young age is to be around their friends,” says Hanks. “Not a lot of them play because they love winning. For coaches, it’s about making it fun and creating an environment where kids can learn, be with their friends and laugh.”

*Member of the Australian Psychological Society