We are now looking looking at a situation in the western world where obesity is almost an epidemic. Reports suggest that over 35% of people in the USA (National Health and Examination Survey (NHANES)) in 2010. Reports also suggested that about 25% of people in Britain (NHS 2008) and Ireland (OECD 2010) are reported to be obese with levels of growth estimated at about 1% per annum. It indicates a drastic rise from 1993 levels, when just 13 per cent of men and 16 per cent of women reported to be obese.
If the growth rate continues at the present pace, over 50% of people in these countries will be obese by 2050 with significant costs to the exchequers health bill. Scarily, huge volumes of 4-5 year old children (24.5%) in Britain (NHS) reported to be obese in 2008. This does not account for the massive population of children that are overweight, not yet obese but will be by the time they reach adulthood.
Bearing this in mind, physical activity, sport and exercise is increasingly important and is emphasised by Twisk et al (1997), who found that long-term exposure to daily physical activity was inversely related to body fatness. Essentially, outdoor fun and games, physical activity and sport offers a lot more than enjoyment value for children given it's potential impact on a nations health.
The child’s early experience in sport is critical for their ongoing development and retention in physical activity. If the experience is positive, the child will be more likely to continue participating. If the experience is overly negative, the child may drop out and lose interest in the sport or physical activity.
Presently, there is a huge drop out rate from sport among adolescents. According to recent studies, 45% of ten year old boys participate in sports. By the age of eighteen only 26% of them stay active. An overview of youth sports carried out in the USA showed that dropout is well under way at age ten and peaks at 14-15. Similar results were found across a range of ten different sports.
Sport England research suggests that in all sports, almost half as many 16 – 24 year old women take part in sport as men of the same age while only 15% of girls aged 15 in the UK meet recommended daily physical activity levels. The research points out that those who don't drop out of sport say they feel a powerful sense of belonging and list friends, fun and socialisation factor, team spirit, coach and parental support as additional reasons to stay involved in sport.
Some of the reasons given for dropout from sport included
Therefore, the importance of the sports coach and the role that they play now is infinitely more important than it used to be.
Abraham Maslow, a famous Danish human psychologist established a "Hierarchy of Needs" from a human psychology perspective in the late 1960’s for the development of the child. In this author’s opinion, this is very much transferable into the sports coaching domain with relevance to athlete development.
He explained that for one to reach their full potential in life, a sense of love or feeling of belonging (mostly to parents and family) is central to reaching ones potential. It's applicability to a coaching context is exemplified where a positive social dynamic, fostered within a group by the coach, ensures that all players feel like they belong! Here, desirable coach behaviours imbue an enhanced sense of player connectedness within a group - positively impacting on their willingness to stay involved.
As kids develop at different rates, a weak 12 year old could potentially be an excellent 18 year old if given the correct coaching and time to physically develop. However the nature of team sports and often a coaches “must win” philosophy or "feeling of pressure to win" can have a huge impact on weaker players willingness to stay involved. Very often the actions of a coach can leave them leaving them feeling left out or unimportant.
Needless disenfranchisement through lack of playing opportunity, creating a poor sense of belonging within players along the development pathway, could mean that some never reach that phase where they garner self esteem and the respect of their peers, let alone reaching their full potential (self actualization phase). This is often the reason for drop-out from youth sport.
The Relative Age Effect (RAE) is a commonly acknowledged factor in the dropout rate in sport. It briefly explains that a child born later in the athletic year is less likely to garner success in sport because on a general scale, they are less likely to be chosen on teams due to being physically weaker than those born earlier in the athletic calendar year. For example, a child born in December is more likely to drop out of sport than a child born in January in team sports where the cut off age date of birth is January 1st in any given year.
Obviously, this is negated at adult level but a lack of playing opportunities on the path towards adult sport may impact on their likelihood to continue in sport as some may feel unappreciated or hold a poor sense of belonging to the group at large through the development years.
Too often, a win at all costs philosophy on a coach’s part results in players leaving their chosen sport because of lack of playing opportunity. Too often we see young players being left on the bench for the coaches perception of self-pride when their team is winning or losing comprehensively. Some under 12 teams are being trained in an exceptionally serious manner with the criterion for success being whether a championship is won or not.
When all is said and done, in the greater scheme of things, does an underage title really matter towards long term success? While it may encourage those involved playing, for those weaker kids not given opportunities, it may inherently tell them that they are not good enough to play. Remember that for every team that wins, there are a lot more losing teams. A sub on a losing under 14 team who rarely gets game time is not going to have a high level of self worth in relation to their playing capability. As such, a coach’s relational discourse will most likely have a much larger impact on an athlete’s feelings of self worth than they can imagine.
As coaches in our hot pursuit of sporting excellence, we must not lose sight of the fact that children play for enjoyment, not success of the coach. A far more appropriate criterion for coaching success or lack thereof, of an underage team would be whether the weaker players at under 12 level are still playing, developing and enjoying their sport as 18 year olds. If they are not, maybe one needs to ask questions of their methods, objectives and manner of coaching, irrespective of how many championships a coach wins.
As a coach of young players, one needs to ask and answer some of these questions?
This can only be done by embracing each and every individual athlete as an individual, creating a positive group dynamic and allowing all youth athletes to enjoy their sport for the right reasons - not least their entitlement to some physical activity in a world where youth obesity levels are reaching epidemic proportions.
Yes, there will be times when you want your strongest team on the pitch, but there are also times when winning or losing does not really matter. If it takes an extra effort to arrange friendly games to cater for weaker players, then that should be done. What right do we as coaches have to limit a players potential development or worse again, turn them off a sport they might love and contribute to the growing rise of obesity through mismanagement of youth sport.
It is their game, not ours. We have had our time!
This is what the kids think!
Keith Begley is a member of BASES and an accredited performance psychologist with the Irish Institute of Sport.
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