Connecting with kids can be tough. Especially when it’s been decades since you’ve been one. If you work with youth athletes in any role, understanding how to communicate effectively with the kids you’re entrusted with is crucial to their development.
Kids are like chaos. They can be happy one second, then crying another. Because they are still developing, children’s behaviors can seem sporadic or wavering with each interaction. This changes as they continue to develop and grow, creating more solid habits over time. Some psychologists have explained that behaviors are learned through BF Skinner’s “Operant Conditioning” model, where behaviors are solidified based on the feedback one gets from them. This is important to think about when coaching kids, for as you try to connect with them, you ultimately are creating a feedback loop for whichever behaviors they are showing.
Something else to consider is that the brain doesn’t fully develop until one is already considered an adult. Especially when it comes to behavior and emotions, the area of the brain that processes such things (the frontal lobe) doesn’t fully develop until one is in their twenties! So as a child develops, they’re still trying to figure out how to rationalize things and process different emotions.
But how can we go about better connecting with the kids we coach right here and now? I’ve found these three tips to be tremendously helpful.
1. Get On Their Level
This is both metaphorical and physical.
Let’s start with the physical. While working at a camp during college, I learned the benefit of physically lowering my level while speaking and listening to kids. By taking a knee, sitting down, or crouching over to get eye-to-eye with your athlete, you not only help them learn communication skills, but you reduce the chance of them perceiving you as a scary authority figure. Plus, it’s a lot easier to listen to them, and for them to hear you.
It also extends beyond the physical and into the social realm. To understand kids, you have to understand what the environment they are in is like nowadays. That may mean having to make some social media accounts (I have a snapchat account only to see the types of things kids are being exposed to), or it may mean seeing movies you couldn’t care less to see. Whatever it is, getting on their level socially to understand what they do in their daily lives is never a bad idea.
2. Listen First, Then Respond
Part of aiding the development of children is to hear them out.
Sometimes, this may take a little nudging in the form of questions like “What did you see out there?” or “How did that feel?”
With the brain still developing its processing center for emotions, memory and rational thought, allowing a child the chance to verbally express themselves is incredibly valuable. Not only may it reveal a disconnect between what they want to do and what they’re actually doing, but it also allows them to feel like they’re being heard.
In that process, they get the opportunity to hear themselves thinking out loud and start to develop the ability to rationalize and process events going on around them. Once they have talked through their thought process, you can respond by helping guide them through the different things they stated. Great youth coaches not only encourage their kids to share their thoughts and feelings, but actually listen to what they have to say and formulate their responses around that.
3. Get Goofy
This could go along with the first point, but it’s worth its own point of emphasis. Some of the best coaches and teachers that I’ve seen with kids have a remarkable ability to be goofy, wild or silly. As adults, it may come off as acting or being fake, but this ability to shed inhibitions helps ease the mood of practices or training sessions.
It doesn’t have to be over-the-top ridiculous, but could be as simple as playing with the kids (actually have some fun!) or talking in funny voices. I had a particular group of young athletes one time that would do anything to hear me coach a session in a “Cali-girl” accent. It may look weird to the adults around at first, but if it gets the kids engaged and having fun, then it is worth it! Don’t overthink it. If kids are having fun and staying engaged, you know you’re onto something.
There are many other skills that go into being a great youth coach. However, I feel these three points are some of the most overlooked. What do a lot of the bad youth coaches have in common? They make no attempt to connect with their kids, they don’t encourage young athletes to vocalize their thoughts (much less actually listen to them), and they’re often the overly serious type who treats kids like mini professionals.
Get on their level. Listen first, then respond. Don’t be afraid to get goofy. Each of these concepts will look different in implementation for each age group and each coach, and it’s the coach’s job to find what works best!
Photo Credit: Nate Littauer, kali9/iStock, Sidekick/iStock