Youth coaches pick teams to win matches at the weekends. If they win on Saturday, then they are deemed to have done a good job. However, this one match is only a single step in each young athletes’ journey. If coaches and teachers label the athlete as ‘talented,’ ‘fast,’ ‘lazy,’ ‘stupid,’ or ‘clever,’ they risk hindering their growth and development. Youth sport should be about fun, inclusivity, and development. Youth coaches and p.e. teachers have a responsibility to all the athletes in their care: too many people drop out of sports as it is.
Instead of labeling children and putting them into convenient boxes, coaches should be open-minded as to the children’s potential. If they give hope to everyone in the program, all the children work and strive to become better versions of themselves.
As Finn Gunderson told me, ‘Forget winning or losing. Aren’t we saving souls here?’
Some Common Misconceptions
The early developer who is bigger, stronger, and faster than her peers may be labeled ‘talented’ and then struggle to adapt when her peers catch up. She may not develop the work ethic necessary to succeed at anything long-term. Instead, she relies on her’ talent.’ The coach who wants to win on Friday picks the early developer because she is taller than her peers. If the coach uses the word, ‘talent,’ then other athletes believe themselves untalented. This can then result in them quitting or not trying, using phrases such as, ‘I’m no good, so what’s the point?’
The athlete labeled ‘lazy’ may quit the sport. The ‘lazy’ athlete may lack self-confidence or understanding of the sport. They may have outside pressures from home, peers, or school that affect their motivation in training and be misinterpreted as ‘lazy.’ A coach who encourages and praises this athlete helps build their confidence. Work ethic can be developed but it takes time. Structured practices that challenge the athletes’ minds, as well as their bodies, create enthusiasm. So do semi-structured practices where the athletes teach their peers or follow the guided discovery.
The Dangers Of Labelling
The thought of defining any person with one or two words is mystifying. Every human is a complex individual. We have multiple attributes that include our physical, emotional, mental, and social make-ups. Labeling can quickly degenerate into stereotyping. Coaches and teachers can preconceive what an athlete from a specific ethnic/social/economic background will be like without seeing the athlete in action. This leads to coaching that athlete in a certain way: drill-master, sycophant, disdainful (none are great).
In the UK, children are put into ‘Talented and Gifted’ streams at school as young as 8-years-old. They are labeled as such by Primary School teachers who have had four hours of Physical Education training while learning to become teachers. What is the teacher identifying? Those who can perform skills or win the running, jumping and throwing events. What happens to those children? They are asked to represent the school at inter-school competitions.
The teacher does not have to teach: they just select those that can do already. What happens to the rest of the children? Those who are not members of sports clubs, do not have parents who play ‘catch’ in the park, or are born in the last two months of the school year and are smaller than their classmates?
They get left behind and then left out.
This continues into secondary school, where children are split into two p.e. streams: able and less-able! The same selection policies occur. Half of the school intake is sidelined. Half! At 11-years old.
The school teams are selected from an ever-shallower pool of athletes. Those labeled as ‘less-able’ at 11-years-old are unlikely to rejoin the pool of habitual exercisers and sports participants unless a rounded physical education program taught them the skills and included them in games and sports with their peers.
Does any coach or teacher really want to hamper a child’s life chances by labelling them at 10 or 11-years-old?
Young athletes are human beings first, sportspeople second. The coach and teacher of the young athlete should recognize that during these formative years, children are changing rapidly. They can be brilliant in one situation and terrible in another situation the next day.
Whilst we all like winning on Saturday, being open-minded and creative as coaches allows us to see the potential in every young athlete. We can then invent and structure different types of challenges and competitions to allow every young athlete the chance to flourish and reach their potential. No matter how long that takes.