A couple of years ago we had a robin building a nest on our front porch. Sadly, the place they were trying to build it wasn’t wide enough and so the nest kept falling down every time the wind blew. The robin would return with more grass and begin to build, the wind would blow, the nest would collapse, and the cycle would continue. I have no idea how long this would have gone on for, but after we worked out why piles of grass were appearing on the deck we put up a little extension and the nest was a success, as you can see from the photo. It’s a true story, and relevant to behaviour modification and coaching – honestly, read on.
Being a parent and watching a youth sports team can be hard. We naturally want to encourage our kids and the team, and we want them to win. We don’t want them to feel bad when they lose. We want them to be happy because, first and foremost, before they are athletes they are children, our children. However, sometimes we can reinforce the very behaviours that could eventually be their undoing. In supporting everything they do, and the way they do it, we could be setting them on a path to failure.
In the last article we looked at the player with a big kick who hoofs the ball down the field, he hasn’t done something amazing, he has done something within his skill-set and given possession away. We looked at the player who can do more step-overs per game than Christiano Ronaldo, but loses the ball 9 times out of 10 because she isn’t a team player and won’t pass to a teammate. I’m sure we’ve all seen it, she goes past one, goes past another, but now two opponents come at her and she loses the ball. Everyone is in awe at the moves she used to get past two players, but no one stops to think about the fact she has once again cost the team possession. Once again, to people who don’t know any better, they must be a future Lionel Messi or Alex Morgan because it looks good, right? They like style – regardless of substance or outcome.
The problem is that the behaviour is reinforced and whether or not it is useful to the team or the player’s development, the kid continues to do it. These players will never reach their full potential because their skills which are beneficial, and their decisions which are not, are being reinforced through praise and positive comments. While the skill may continue to be developed, the ability to use it does not. Those who offer a dissenting view are ignored because “Little Jenny is the next Messi, just look at those skills, didn’t you see the step-over?”
Here are the three takeaways for today:
1 – We are doing a future disservice by encouraging kids to do things that looks good but will harm them in the future. We need to talk about teamwork and making great decisions, the rest will come. Encourage the substance that helps, not the style that hinders.
2 – Look for the leadership. In one game I saw a freshman organise his team from midfield. He put in good challenges, made good decisions, good passes, and played well. However, the most important thing he did in that game was led the team. He didn’t get many “Whoo!”‘s because he wasn’t flashy, but he was the star player.
3 – Youth sport is about development. Nothing more, and nothing less. If you measure success at U16 to the same standard that you did at U10, it’s going to cause problems. The bigger kids aren’t going to stay the bigger kids. The fastest kids won’t always be the fastest.
What has this to do with a robin’s nest? Two years later the nest sits fully in tact. The skill to build a nest was never in doubt – the robin’s ability to build it is impeccable. However, the decision to build it on a ledge far too small was flawed. The problem wasn’t with skill, it was with decision making. We need to help our youth athletes develop and use the skill they have, but it means nothing unless we help them know how to use the skill. If we don’t help them develop that side of their game they will forever be building on less than ideal foundations. This is true in sport and life.
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