The coach in focus

The following article is the annual message from the Director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, Dr. Dan Gould.

As I write this version of the Director’s Report, I cannot help but think of two recent conversations I had about youth sports coaches. In the first conversation, a friend told me about a youth swimming coach who sadly was dying from cancer. This coach was loved by the children and youth who swam for him. In fact, with less than 8 hours of notice, over 250 children and parents visited his hospital room to wish him well. Why was this coach so well liked and respected? His coaching was driven by a simple mission, that every child who swam for him “loved” swimming regardless of his or her ability. He also worked hard to ensure that this actually happened.

This certainly made me think. What if every coach in America adopted such a philosophy and approach to coaching? What effect would it have on the current youth obesity crisis plaguing America? How would it enhance positive youth development? The possibilities would be endless.

Contrast this, with another conversation I had with a sport parent whose child was, ironically, involved in swimming. This mother’s 12-year-old daughter loved swimming and looked forward to her practices and competitions. In fact, a few months ago she told her parents about her personal improvement goals for the season that were derived and set on her own! However, a month ago she moved up to a new coach, and since doing so her attitude had changed. She does not want to go to practice and, in fact, recently was in tears begging to quit after a recent practice. Why this change? Her new coach did not take the time to get to know her and instead barked at her chastising her about her training. In her words, “he just was not very nice.”

In defense of the coach, it is difficult to help youth transition as they age up in competitive sport programs. However, too often coaches like this one feel that yelling at young athletes will toughen them up. While this approach may work for some youth, for young athletes like this mom’s daughter, it had just the opposite effect. It drives them away from a sport they could be involved in for a lifetime and decreases their motivation.

So, how do these stories relate to the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports? The answer is simple. Since our inception, the Institute’s students and staff have been studying coaches and coaching education. In fact, we lead the nation in this area. However, these two conversations remind us that there is much more work to do. We must better understand how to train youth coaches and determine the best methods for doing so. Is online education effective? Can a three hour coaching education program change coach attitudes and behavior? What are the best ways for coaches to motivate athletes to work hard and learn to deal with setbacks and adversity while not thwarting their intrinsic motivation?

I am glad to report we are working on these issues. Dr. Andy Driska, the Institute’s Coordinator of Coaching Education and Development, evaluated USA Swimming’s online entry level coaching education program. Assistant Professor Dr. Karl Erickson is studying the pathways high school coaches take to professional development, while doctoral students Andrew Mac Intosh, Lauren Charlton, and Ashley Shields have developed a mentoring program to help Detroit Police Officers become assistant coaches and, in so doing, supplement baseball and softball program coaches’ efforts to enhance youth development. Doctoral students Scott Pierce, Ian Cowburn, Andy Driska, and myself are studying how a great and highly experienced coach teaches high school athletes to cope with and overcome stress and adversity. Finally, we are initiating the first MSU summer coaches’ school this June, and over the next two years our staff will be developing a high school coaching leadership program for the National Wrestling Coaches Association that will be implemented across the United States.

On a sad note, the swimming coach who created such a lasting impact on his athletes recently passed away. The following is from his obituary:

“Under his loving leadership, the team achieved unprecedented success, winning division championships for the last five years, with undefeated seasons for the last three. For him, more important than the wins were the life lessons he shared with his young swimmers.”

We hope that through our efforts more coaches will make an impact on their athletes like this coach did.

As friends, supporters, and alumni of the Institute, rest assured that while we adapt to ever-changing academic and youth sport environments, we will remain committed to enhancing the youth sports experience for children of all abilities by working to better understand and facilitate the education of America’s coaches. It is absolutely essential that we make the commitment to continue at the forefront of coach education. You have my promise that we will do so!

Information from Institute for the Study of Youth Sports