An Open Letter to Coaches of Children...
Updated: May 20, 2019
For some of you reading this, perhaps coaching has been a lifelong dream, rooted in countless hours of dedicated training, instruction and practice that has come to fruition. For others, you may have found yourself in this leadership position out of sheer necessity, or obligation, to your child’s sport organization, when there was a need to be filled and your own experiences as a child were put to good use. No matter how you acquired the title of coach, there is no doubt that with that title you are in a position of great power, promise, and privilege - and along with that comes incredible responsibility and duty to your young athletes.
Having had the unique opportunity to hold this title myself, while simultaneously holding a role as a parent, as well as a professional, the gravity of what I had undertaken in my coaching position was not lost on me, and made for an incredibly memorable and enriching experience for myself and my children. It is with that perspective, from my own experiences, that I write this blog post.
As a coach, we are exposed to kids of all ages, and all stages of development. Often, children will come under our leadership with varying diagnoses, of which we may or may not be aware - however the label itself is largely irrelevant, as each child is unique in where they are at in their development, and it is our challenge as their coach to find a way to engage each individual in our charge. Of course, some present a greater opportunity to our own personal and professional growth and expanding our existing skill sets than others.
As a parent of a child on the spectrum, one challenge I have come across frequently when involving my children in sports, is that unfortunately this growth mindset does not seem to be commonplace for coaches. With risk of overgeneralization, I have found there tend to be two general types of approaches the coaches I have had experience with: those who seek to respond and resolve to a challenging child; and those that seek to report and remove them. The coaches who aim to resolve typically have the mindset I mentioned above. These coaches are challenging themselves and their abilities, and are growing as leaders in their own right. They recognize that every child is unique, and try to identify what each child’s learning goals are and how to best engage them to reach their fullest potential under their care. Under these coaches, our children thrive, and become resilient beings, feeling confident and competent to move onto new and more challenging tasks as they grow and develop at their own pace. These coaches do not see their young atheletes in labels and behaviours, but rather start conversations with them and their parents in a way that is respectful of their journey, promotes their own learning and growth, and helps to identify ways that the coach can best support the child under their own leadership. In my experience, it is never a sign of weakness to open a dialogue with a parent about struggles encountered in training with their child, or asking for suggestions as to how to best support and engage a child in a given activity. When this is the conversation, there is positivity and flexibility in learning that allows growth and opportunity for advancement for all involved. This is a sign of a great coach, and leader, willing to learn and help a child grow, and these coaches are a rare gem.
The latter, is a coach with a fixed mindset who seeks to remove the “problem” or “difficult” child, and in my experience they are often misguided in their own foundation of leadership training, and perhaps lack confidence and support in the role they have found themselves in. These coaches tend to identify individual children’s behaviours as problematic, harbouring the challenges until they come to a head, then stringing the various issues together labelled as a “safety concern” and brought to the head of an organization for removal or reprimand, without first trying to resolve the cause of each challenge or behaviour experience. In this situation, the coach has missed out on challenging themselves to identifying how their own actions or responses might have contributed to the observed behaviours, and have lost a child at a stage where they would have had incredible potential to learn, when provided with an appropriate approach. As an adult, learning new skills or approaches can be challenging, and time consuming, in trying to do so in a coaching position that is already all-consuming adds an extra layer of effort to achieve. It takes the coach who goes the extra mile to try to understand the child, who outwardly seems “naughty” or “doesn’t listen” or “disruptive”, that makes all the difference in these children’s lives. Often, once the challenges are identified and resolved, there lies incredible potential for the child when supported appropriately, and provides an opportunity for invaluable investment in their future.
So, my challenge to all coaches out there: Which type of coach will you be? Maybe you are trying to figure out that one or two children who are posing that extra bit of challenge to your coaching or within a group. Do some soul searching within yourself. Open the door to conversation with the child’s parent, and challenge yourself to meet the child’s needs. Are you contributing to their calm, or their chaos? Have you identified the individual child’s learning goal, and how might that differ from others in your group? Can you adjust your approach to support the needs of the particular child so they may also feel confidence and success? Is it possible that there are other factors contributing to the child’s challenges: sensory, physical ability, etc, and can you minimize these factors for the child? At the end of the day choose a growth mindset for yourself, and challenge yourself. As my favourite OT has said to me: “when you are presented with inflexibility, respond with extra flexibility”. The child who is struggling deserves just as much physical and emotional support from their coach as any other child, and you have an opportunity to make a significant impact on this child’s future. Rise to the challenge, and both you and the child will both grow immensely in the process!