With young athletes, things go one of two ways: The athlete will fall in love with their sport over and over or they’ll quit. Sports are funny like that: There’s not really a middle ground and athletes quickly commit to one side of the line or the other. Sometimes that has to do with the sport itself or changes of interest over time, but more often, it has to do with something entirely unrelated to the actual skills required or even the team: It comes down to the coach.
Too often, coaches are viewed simply as the people who teach children “how to.” But truth be told, that “how to,” while important, is small in comparison to the real job of building people.
Competitive sports are a beautiful thing. They provide opportunities for people to test themselves, build relationships and earn a sense of pride. But the basic foundation must be in place before athletes actually attain any of those things – and, uniquely, the building blocks that form the foundation are the same ones that raise the structure: Confidence and character. Put the wrong coach in the mix and those blocks simply don’t form – and the ones that may have already been in place could easily deteriorate. Put the right coach in place and your child will blossom, the sport becoming simply the vehicle to all-out personal growth and achievement. So what do “the right” coaches do?
For starters, they won’t try to tell an athlete what they feel or to “get over it.” It’s always easier to see the “big picture” when you stand away from it. But the athlete is in the middle of it, seeing not just what’s in front of them, but having that view distorted by internal and external pressures and their emotions. Coaches can’t force athletes to see something else, but good coaches do guide the journey so that the athlete can shift past their current view in their own time. Part of that guiding is about listening, genuinely empathizing and letting them know that it’s okay to feel what they’re feeling (and then helping them move past it).
A good coach won’t just “tell” athletes to try again: They motivate them to want to try again. Repetition is so critical to eventual success. Not the use of the word eventual. Skills take time to master and on the way to mastery come many mistakes. To earn success, the athlete must persist; in the absence of a desire to persist grows frustration. Good coaches will help foster that fierceness to continue.
But it isn’t just about fighting for the win. While we certainly want to celebrate an athlete’s success, great coaches know that “success” is a loosely defined term. Athletes succeed every day – even when they lose a meet or fall during their tumbling pass. In the course of that loss, they undoubtedly showed countless mastered skills. They showed moxie by getting in front of a crowd. They showed confidence with how they presented themselves. They showed resiliency in getting back up and carrying on. They demonstrated growth in the skills shown and how they related to and supported their teammates. And they showed progress. They may not have “aced” it – but they succeeded in so many other ways. Great coaches celebrate each of the successes along the journey – not just the “destination.” And in doing so, they build confidence in the athlete which fuels that hunger to keep on, maintains the interest in their sport and builds character that will last through a lifetime.
In coaching, building skills is certainly huge. But it pales in comparison to the real task of building confident young people.
Natalie Vonlanthen is the owner of PCT Cheer and Tumble. She has worked with thousands of young women and men in her 30+ years of coaching.