"Oh, put me in, coach! I'm ready to play today," plead the lyrics of a classic song about baseball.
A new study suggests that coaches who heed those pleas and give kids playing time and avoid pitting one kid against another may end up with more motivated players who stick with the game.
"The big thing here is to create a climate where the players don't compare themselves with others," said study author Jean Cote, director of the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Canada.
Instead of comparing themselves to their teammates, kids should be encouraged to strive to improve on their own skills, called "self-referenced competency," Cote said.
Cote and his colleagues asked 510 Canadian youths aged 9 to 19 to complete several questionnaires on their sports experiences. All participated on school sports teams or non-elite community programs, including baseball, basketball, curling, dance, football, hockey, lacrosse, rowing, soccer, softball, synchronized swimming, volleyball and ringette, a sport played on ice in which sticks are used to control a rubber ring.
The study found that several factors were associated with a positive experience, including when kids felt they were part of a team; when coaches kept the focus on personal skill development regardless of how the child measured up to others on the team; and when coaches and peers encouraged each player to do their best and to reach for challenging, but attainable, goals.
Negative experiences were most strongly associated with a focus on demonstrating superior ability over others and comparing one's own performance to others.
These findings all suggest that the stereotypical gruff, red-faced, screaming, yet lovable coach of Hollywood lore probably isn't the best type of coach for your kids.
The best coach, said Cote, is one that tries to be inclusive, sets goals based on each kid's skill level and makes drills enjoyable. Parents should look to see if their kids are smiling during practice or play. Do they look like they're having fun? If not, parents may want to see if they can get a different coach.
Results of the study are scheduled to be published in the September issue of The Sports Psychologist.
The benefits of a positive coaching environment can be seen both on and off the field, Cote said. Previous research has linked sports participation with increased grades and college enrollment.
"There are really three difference qualities of an activity that are needed to influence personal development: effort, concentration and enjoyment," explained Cote. "If you think about watching TV, there's enjoyment, but not a lot of effort or concentration, so it's probably not the best activity for personal development. But, when you look at sports, children who are giving a lot of effort and concentration, also usually enjoy it."
He said that when kids enjoy their sport, they'll stay motivated. And parents and kids alike should ignore pressure to start specializing in a sport at a young age.
"Kids that are the best at 12 or 13, if they start playing year-round may end up dropping out," Cote said. "A child can be very skilled, but if they lose their motivation, it doesn't matter how skilled they are. It's better to go slow at a young age, gradually increasing the amount of practice until age 14 or 15. It's all about balance."
And while parents may secretly harbor dreams of college scholarships or even a pro career, kids are mostly interested in having fun, said pediatric sports medicine specialist, Dr. Eric Small, from Mount Kisco, N.Y.
And having fun, of course, means making sure that all kids get ample chances to kick, throw and run, rather than just letting the best performers get most of the playing time.
"Most kids will say winning is more important, but most kids would rather be on a losing team and playing than sitting on the bench of the winning team," Small said. "Playing time is important to having fun, and it's about skill acquisition. Plus, teams who have fun tend to do better anyway."
Read more about positive coaching from the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.
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