How we develop our youth athletes will dictate the future of sport
Recently, I hosted a Zoom meeting with some passionate people from various corners of the sporting world. That discussion about our hopes, dreams and fears about post-covid sport featured some hard truths and refreshing realities. My favourite quote was:
It's the movement experience that stays with them forever.
What movement experiences are you creating now, and do you want them to stay the same? Not every coach or sporting organisation has the guts to reflect on their practice with that much honesty and clarity. So, what kind of movement experiences should we be leaving participants in your sport with?
Well, as a talent development researcher, my goal is that every single participant has access to a learning environment which helps them reach their full potential. Not yours, not the elite athletes plastered on their walls, not the fallacy that is an 'optimal technique', none of it. Just the athlete themselves, and hopefully an unwavering curiosity for learning new things and solving problems. At the end of the day, that's all that sport really is: a series of problems that we try to solve by moving our bodies.
Scoring runs in cricket is an interaction between gaining as much information as you can from the world around you, and moving your body (and bat) in time to intercept an incoming ball to a specific place in the field. Football (soccer) is a about reading patterns, predicting what your opponent or teammate might do next, and responding accordingly.
But it doesn't need to feel that complex when young people experience your sport. In fact, we need to find an effective way to take the complexity out of it. The reason we overcomplicate things at the moment is because we're treating the grassroots system like its only purpose is to feed into a talent system. We don't value the things young players can do unless is looks like someone else who is 'talented'. We don't praise their progress or thought processes or ingenuity because we don't stop to look for it.
In a post-covid world, our priority should be to make every learning environment an opportunity for young people to develop and grow, from their local sporting club down the road to the classroom they'll soon return to. As people involved in and passionate about sport and development, we need to first help our coaches make sense of all the conflicting information they hear about what makes a good coach.
It's not your ability to make 10 year olds stand in line and kick a ball 5 times per session. It's not your ability to herd them into a group and lecture them about your playing days. It's about building a human connection, and helping them explore all the wonderful ways they can solve the sporting problem they're facing.
Your expertise should come in the form of making a young person feel safe enough to fail, and talk about it, and not beat themselves up about it on the car ride home. You may see a solution, and it may be obvious to you, but remember that the person in front of you comes from a unique background, with experiences you may or may not have, and their world looks very different. Your ability to help them navigate it, and build the efficacy to tackle any problem they may face in the future, is the true power of sport.
So the moment before you step back out into that field or court or classroom, consider the movement experience you're providing those sharp young minds. Is it something you're truly proud of? Will it help them continue developing and playing sport when they become adults?
If not, then this is the perfect opportunity to take a step back and think about what your sport is really about. Think about how your athletes move, how they think, and how you can challenge them just enough to keep growing. Think about the problem they're really trying to solve when they're playing the game, and let them explore it. They might surprise you.
You might surprise yourself.
Alex Lascu is a PhD candidate studying talent development in women’s cricket. She has been a passionate and enthusiastic sports coach for the past 10 years with a background in sports science and psychology to help athletes reach their full potential. She has published a guide on talent development.