How to create meaningful change when coaching children

Today, we join 17 organisations as part of the newly formed Children’s Coaching Collaborative to launch Play Their Way - a grassroots campaign to improve children’s experience in sport and physical activity by transforming coaching and putting the needs of the child first. Here, our head of sport Vicci Wells, looks at how this campaign is much needed to transform children’s experiences.

Unarguably for me, last year was one of the most magical sport-filled summers. I was privileged enough to experience first-hand the 2022 Commonwealth Games, held in my home city, and immersing myself in observing a range of sports with my children, seeing the impact sport can have in inspiring a lifelong love of sport and physical activity.

I saw the Women’s EURO 2022 become the largest female sports event Europe has ever seen, with ticket sales exceeding records, and the subsequent call to action from both the Lionesses and England’s Hockey Teams calling on government support (successfully) to back the provision of PE and team sport within schools and equal access for all. I also saw innovative competition formats such as The Hundred create special experiences for fans and players, inspiring kids to pick up a bat and a ball. One evening, I recall sitting in the stadium at Edgbaston seeing countless children in team colours dancing to the DJ, supporting their team, and enjoying sport with their families.

But sadly, what I have also witnessed last summer and more recently, and what has in part inspired this piece, is sport not being the positive, uplifting, and exhilarating experience it can and should be. Worryingly, this has been at the hands of people whose job purpose is to make it even more so. I have seen and heard children belittled by adults in trusted coaching positions, coming off courts in floods of tears, and looking visibly shocked by the experience they have had. Whilst watching my own child participate in a range of county-level competitions this summer, I saw the opposition Head Coach proactively clap when children playing against their son made technical errors/faults, and then when their child lost in a final exclaiming, ‘and so you should be crying; you were terrible’

As a sector, we need to be better for our children

When reliving this with my friends, they subsequently shared their experiences. One spoke of hearing coaches verbally abusing others when their teams were losing, while another recounted witnessing a coach receiving two technical fouls for shouting at referees during a game, questioning their decisions, and when subsequently being asked to leave the game, refusing.

It’s fair to say this would be deemed unacceptable at any level and any age, but what is heart-breaking is that these examples, all from the past six months, are from a seven, 10 and 14-year-old’s sporting activities respectively. This is simply not good enough. As a sector, we need to be better for our children.

With Sport England highlighting that only 47% of children and young people who take part in sport and physical activity saying they really enjoy it – there is clearly much to be done. Children cite fun as the primary reason for participating in organised sport, its absence is leading more to miss out. Coaching – which makes enjoyment a priority – can help foster long-term participation in addition to performance. Importantly we know when we play together, and positively participate in sport it can provide powerful human connection, and a strong sense of belonging for all.

Welcoming Play Their Way

Therefore, I am both personally and professionally delighted that a new campaign spearheaded by the Children’s Coaching Collaborative is coming into play. Inspiring a child-first grassroots coaching movement, the campaign is grounded in the beliefs that a well-trained and supported coaching community can be the catalyst for change and lead to positive experiences for all children and young people. The role coaches play is vital in enabling children’s enjoyment of physical activity, and we all want to create a nation of child-first coaches, do we not?

Alongside this new campaign, the School Games, a programme our charity delivers which aims to keep competitive sport at the heart of schools, is also tackling some of the negative experiences that exist within sport, particularly through competition where there is often an over-emphasis on a single outcome - most goals, fastest time or furthest distance. #ReframeCompetition offers further guidance and support to ensure we can all work together, advocating youth sport is about development, and there is more to success than simply the score card.

So, as we head into this new summer term, following an exceptional year of sporting success, let’s keep the stories of those seven, 10 and 14-year-olds close to our hearts, and commit together to changing the dial on not coaching ‘down’ to children, but instead focusing on child ‘up’ coaching – being responsive, inclusive, rights-respecting, co-creators. Below are some questions you might want to consider if you are coaching children in schools or are a parent, carer or family member:

Questions to ask as a Coach:

  • What makes my coaching a positive experience for children?
  • How can I pitch feedback positively, limited in amount and give at considered times that would be most appropriate. (for example, this could be after competition, on the bus home, or maybe a few days after competition and will be unique to the individual).
  • How do I interact with parents to help them understand the purpose and intent of the sporting experience to encourage participation?
  • How can I provide young people with knowledge that helps them to be successful, delivered in a positive way?

Questions as a parent/carer/family member to ask your child:

  • What one thing did your coach do today that you really liked?
  • Did you have fun/enjoy your experience today? (As opposed to ‘did you win)?’ Really think about how you celebrate how far your child has developed already and keep a focus on the process, not the outcome of the event.
  • What is one thing you would do differently if you had to play today’s game/match again?

Interested to know more? You can read the research behind this movement by visiting Play Their Way - Case For Change | Our Philosophy | Play Their Way. To stay up to date with the latest news, tips and more you can sign up to the Play Their Way mailing list. Visit the homepage and click on "Login/Register" in the top right corner.

Together we can create a lifelong love for being active.

Published on 23 May 2023