The Ecology of Youth Sports

FLOURISH: ( of a person, animal or other living organism ) grow or develop in a healthy or vigorous way, especially as the result of a particularly favorable environment.

iStock_000004353528Medium-1What if we thought about developing young people through athletics in terms of the ecology of it?

What if, rather than focusing on “producing” young athletes, we focused on how they grow?

We might pay more attention to the environment in which they grow. Is it one in which they can flourish? 

Research with high school age soccer players found that a young person’s well being in athletics was correlated with a high quality environment, one in which the young athlete felt that coaches were concerned about them as people first and athletes second. One in which the key adults were connected in a healthy network of support: school, club, coaches and parents. And, one that was focused on their long term development not short term or even intermediate term outcomes and results.
IMG_2998Ecology looks at, what Robin Wall Kimmerer calls ” the architecture of relationships.” Over the last few months I’ve been working in some new and interesting ways with coaches, parents and health care professionals and over the next month or two will be collaborating on some very cool projects. They didn’t start as “good ideas” but emerged out of conversations and the slower process of growing a relationship. Some of the projects will blossom and bear fruit, others will drop by the wayside. My hope is that the relationships out of which they are developing will continue to grow and flourish.

It’s really not that big of a stretch when you think about it. After all, success in every sport, even the individual ones, is a team effort. Or, as Dr. Wall Kimmerer reminds us, ” in nature all flourishing is mutual.”  DSCF1719

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A Tool For Finding A Better Balance

Tired AthleteWe’re hearing a lot these days about how busy players, parents and coaches are … and how tired. They are feeling more stretched than focused and more stressed than productive. If that happens to you here’s something you can try.

One of the first things we do with our athletes is ask them to pay attention. For example, I f we’re learning to stop we ask them to notice where they land and finish on the foot – heel, mid-foot, whole foot? Before we ask them to fix, or change or adjust anything we simply ask them to notice.  A lot of self correction happens just by paying attention to the right things. Focus helps … a lot.

Here’s a simple tool for you. Its a framework we use with our players and in our own planning and preparation. We call it the Four Circles. It helps provide focus and balance when we’re working with athletes or coaches making choices about where to invest time and energy.

Development CirclesYou’ll see there are four overlapping circles. Each one expands and / or limits the others. In the physical circle are things like movement skills, balance, speed, strength, stamina, and general health. The technical circle is about sport skills, the technical skills you need to play or perform; shooting or dribbling for a basketball player or carving a turn for a skier. The tactical circle is how we apply and integrate those skills to play or compete. We go from passing and catching to running a give and go for example. It’s also about learning to see the game or race unfold and respond to it. The mental circle includes skills like relaxation, concentration, emotional regulation.  We could go into more detail, for example rest and recovery, sleep, nutrition and relaxation are part of the physical circle but , for now it’s enough to know that each of these elements influences the others.

Unknown-1Think of it this way, the problem with a player’s jump shot may not be the shot. If I can’t control my posture, squat, jump and land it doesn’t matter how good me release is.  The physical skills and qualities  are needed to support the technical.  They are all a part of an athlete’s development.

So now, here’s the task. Draw four columns on a piece of paper, one for each circle. Then just make a list of what you’re currently doing in each area. Don’t worry about what you should be doing or what other people are doing or what someone else says you need to be doing.  What are you or your players doing now? When you’re done listing it out, take a look. What are you noticing? Where is most of your effort going? What’s guiding those choices? Does the balance feel right?

This quick exercise might give you some insight and clarity. The purpose here is simply to get a picture of what’s happening. You don’t need to evaluate or judge it. Remember, a lot of self correction happens just by noticing.

This framework can be applied in a number of ways to help be intentional and focused with an athlete’s development. We use it with college athletes as well as middle schoolers. A healthy and effective approach to athletic development is focused, balanced and intentional.  If you’d like to know more check out our training programs or contact us.

The Phrase Every Parent Should Know

Youth soccer skillsDaniel Coyle recently posted an article on his web site that I’d like to recommend every parent ( and coach ) read. I haven’t met a parent yet who didn’t want to do right by their kid even when they’re behaving badly ( the parent that is not the kid). Whether it’s taking to our kids about their sport or trying to be a fan in stands it can be a challenge. I know I certainly made my share of bad moves as a parent.  Coyle sights work by Rob Miller and Bruce E. Brown who run and organization called ProActive Coaching LLC.  For nearly thirty years Brown and Miller have been asking college athletes about the ways parents have made positive or negative impacts on their experience.  According to the article two things stood out.

1. The conversations on the way home. Well meaning perhaps but, they often slide into evaluation, questions, sometimes instruction and even well meaning praise. It’s  not the right time and it’s not the right role for parents. Each of those things create a kind of pressure that usually leads to a negative experience.

2. The six words every parent should know.  So, what does a parent do or say? According to the players Brown and Miller talked to it was this simple phrase, ” I love to watch you play.” Those six word change everything. With those six words we go from being judge, evaluator, scout, coach, to being the one thing that no one else can be – a supportive, loving parent – the kind of presence that I as a coach can’t  bring to a kid.

Ponder those words this weekend and read Dan Coyle’s blog post. Then check out the link here or on the bottom of his page to read what happened when one parent tried it. See if it doesn’t make a difference.