Using the example of an U15s team, here’s how I would use a constraints-led approach underpinned by ecological dynamics. MORE
Create a positive day one climate
Ever get the sense that your players are finding practice to be more of a chore than an opportunity for development? We outline how Professor Mary D. Fry’s paper on creating a more positive climate in training can alleviate this.
In her paper published by the University of Kansas in 2010, Mary D. Fry, the college’s professor of Sport and Exercise Psychology, demonstrates the vital importance in children’s sports coaching of working to create a positive environment from the very first training session.
A “CARING CLIMATE”
Besides providing obvious health benefits, Fry cements the idea that being active can teach children valuable life lessons about the joy that accompanies hard work, supporting friends or coaches in overcoming challenges, and improving skills over time. Based on this premise, the creation of a ‘caring climate’, which is defined as one that is ‘interpersonally inviting, safe, supportive and able to provide the experience of being valued and respected’, should be at the heart of every practice.
Fry uses Turner Gill, the college’s head football coach, as a shining example of this way of coaching. Gill’s philosophy centres around creating a climate wherein coaches and athletes treat each other with mutual kindness and respect; where everyone works to bring out the best in one another. “I know I’m here to win football games’, he acknowledges, ‘but I know it goes deeper than football.”
Amid a culture in elite sport that puts a high level of pressure on winning, Fry praises Gill’s philosophy as not only refreshing, but heavily supported by sports psychology research. This ‘caring climate’ is the foundation that helps children optimise their sport experience, helping to address related issues such as sports withdrawal, dropout, and childhood obesity, with much to be gained by athletes of all ages and abilities. It can also enhance physical, emotional, and psychological development significantly.
So, this sounds great. But how can coaches achieve this? Fry outlines some strategies that coaches can employ to create a positive and caring environment in the first day or week of training with a new team.
SETTING THE TONE FROM DAY ONE
Provide a Warm and Friendly Greeting to Each Participant
Upon their arrival, give each young athlete a friendly welcome to make them feel at ease. This can include introducing yourself to athletes and family members.
Equally important, help the children to introduce themselves to each other and begin conversations. You could suggest that they get into threes and share something about themselves with the group.
Fundamentally, you must put yourself in their shoes – or boots. Coaches can easily forget what it’s like to show up to training on the first day with a new team. Many athletes may be nervous or shy, or might worry whether they are good enough, what their coach will be like, and if they will make friends or be left standing alone. Put them at ease from the word go.
Provide a Positive Welcome to the Entire Team
Many coaches tend to get straight to business from the first session, whether that be through a warm-up or a fitness exercise. But these coaches, Fry writes, miss out on a chance to generate excitement, ease fears, and help children feel welcome and invited.
Start by addressing the whole team. Introduce yourself and tell them how you and the other coaches are looking forward to training with them. You could even send a postcard or email to your athletes beforehand to ease any pre-training nerves and boost excitement.
Coaches often miss out on opportunities to start creating a positive and supportive climate from day one. Of course, they may be distracted by organisational details, but it’s essential. ‘What a shame’, Fry writes, ‘when there is no effort put in to make them feel welcome and excited about the possibilities ahead’.
Set Clear Expectations for All to Hear
Research shows that, besides a ‘caring climate’, an emphasis on effort and improvement should be the focus in sport with a goal of maximising each athlete’s potential. This is referred to as creating a ‘task-involving climate’.
This works well because improvement is gained through effort, and effort is the one variable that athletes have total control over. Control over winning is conversely very limited due to many variables that can change a result. A coach’s role in this is vital as many athletes do not recognise their own improvement without one.
For a truly caring approach, it’s a coach’s job to help athletes gauge success based on personal effort and improvement. Create a team philosophy by redefining success away from winning and towards effort and improvement demonstrated by everyone over time. Make sure that parents hear and understand this message too. When coaches are mindful of what they are trying to achieve, they can employ many strategies to reinforce their philosophy.
Help Athletes Build Relationships with One Another
Helping children to build relationships with each other can help them get to know one another, learn to support one another, and discover what it means to have a strong social network.
Quality friendships have been associated with ‘higher self-esteem and more positive attitudes about physical activity’. Fry suggests a few ‘little things’ coaches can do to help athletes develop friendships on sport teams:
- At the end of practice, let athletes compliment each other and highlight what strengths they notice in their teammates. Encourage athletes to look for the best in each other.
- Design drills where athletes have to say out loud their teammates’ names. This improves communication and helps with name-learning.
- During timeouts or breaks, instruct athletes to interact with a partner and find three things they have in common. These can be shared with the team if there’s time.
- Take a short refocus break to have athletes find their assigned practice partner for the day and touch base. They can ask each other how training is going.
Bring Parents on Board
Finally, include parents. Fry notes how coaches have great opportunities to educate parents of athletes, helping to promote a positive approach to physical activity.
Encourage them to get to know each participant and their parents, to introduce themselves to one another. This small gesture helps demonstrate to parents their important role in contributing to the team environment.
You could reinforce the value of community by providing a team register containing contact information for both athletes and parents. This will help families to connect with each other.
As studies have shown, the perception of a ‘caring’ and ‘task-involving’ climate is associated with children ‘having more fun, trying harder, demonstrating better sportspersonship, experiencing less anxiety, and reporting a better ability to handle their positive and negative emotions’.
Fry suggests a strong link between such climates and athletes interacting more positively, engaging in more caring behaviours with their coaches and teammates, and expressing more empathy for their peers.
In the face of a culture that piles pressure upon winning, the philosophy that Fry suggests, of creating a healthy, ‘caring climate’ is a convincing one. Her overarching message is clear: nail the environment first, and the results will follow.