Quality coaching is key for quality youth sports programs

April 10, 2015

By: Andy Driska, Ph.D., coordinator of Sport Coaching and Leadership Online Programs, Institute for the Study of Youth Sports and instructor in the Department of Kinesiology 

Given the recent success of several Spartan sports programs, you might have the impression that youth sports are in great shape. However, recent data from the Aspen Institute’s Project Play initiative shows that in the five-year period between 2008-13, youth sport participation declined sharply—from 44.5 percent of all youth in 2008, to 40 percent in 2013. The decline can be seen across a range of sports—from 5.6 million to 5 million in youth soccer (10 percent decrease), to more drastic decreases of 31 percent in softball (1.2 million to 862,000) and 28 percent in football (1.8 million to 1.3 million). In addition, the opportunities for entry into youth sport disproportionately favor white children of economic privilege.

Fewer youth participating in sport means an increase in the rate of obesity and diabetes, a decrease in physical literacy (the basic competency and confidence in skilled movement that serves as a foundation for a physically active and healthy life) and a missed opportunity to provide a positive developmental context for children. When youth sports are structured properly, children can learn about being part of a team, the process and value of working toward a meaningful goal and the coping skills needed for handling the challenges of life. Finally, we believe that sport and other forms of skilled movement have their own intrinsic value, which are not celebrated enough! For anyone who has ever mastered a basic movement skill, you can understand the pleasure that this can bring.

There are many reasons for non-entry in youth sport experiences, including cost, availability of programs, perceived lack of ability, safety and cultural limitations. There are also many reasons why kids drop out of sport programs, including loss of interest, burnout, lack of friends on the team, increased competitiveness, lack of skills and poor coaching practices. At the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports in the Department of Kinesiology, we have made coaching practices a major focus for our research and outreach efforts. We have done this because we know that quality coaches are essential for providing a developmentally sound youth sport experience. Research consistently shows that educated coaches are more likely to use reinforcement and encouragement properly, to develop task-oriented motivational climates that promote higher levels of effort and skill mastery and to have athletes who report greater levels of sport enjoyment. High levels of sport enjoyment are essential for keeping kids involved in youth sport.

Training allows coaches—and programs—to develop

However, the process of creating quality coaches is a complicated process. Inside the United States, there is not a federal mandate for coach education and training. This differs in comparison to nations like Canada, Australia, Great Britain and New Zealand, where federal requirements mandate sport coach training and education. Sport in the United States is very decentralized, thus requirements for coach education and training vary significantly from state to state, even from one locale to the next.

The mandate for coach education and training comes exclusively from the sport governing body that oversees a particular team. Some sport governing bodies have been conducting coach education and training for many years. USA Swimming formalized coach education requirements for its club coaches at the close of the 1990s, and it continues today in the form of online education and training. United States Tennis, USA Volleyball, U.S. Lacrosse and U.S. Soccer all have coach education requirements as well. You might have noticed a few ads during the NCAA basketball tournament for USA Basketball’s new coach education program. In many cases, sport governing bodies have required coaches to take the U.S. Olympic Committee’s SafeSport course, which provides comprehensive knowledge about protecting athletes from abuse. Locally, the Michigan High School Athletic Association has employed its Coaches Advancement Program (CAP) since 2007. The CAP provides necessary content knowledge to scholastic coaches in Michigan high schools and middle schools. Beginning in the 2016-17 school year, the first two levels of CAP will be mandatory for all new scholastic coaches.

Despite the value of training coaches with the basic knowledge required to become an effective coach, one topic we continue to investigate is the most effective way for coaches to learn and continually develop as professionals. Compulsory coach education has a place, but it has experienced significant resistance in countries where those practices have been adopted. Our goal has been to develop quality programming, regardless of whether or not the coach education program is compulsory. For instance, in a program for new collegiate wrestling coaches (developed in partnership between MSU’s Institute for the Study of Youth Sports and the National Wrestling Coaches Association), the combination of an online course, in-person workshops and mentorship has provided new wrestling coaches with the skills to successfully administer their programs. This training has helped to develop more quality coaches, and in turn, helped to stabilize the sport of wrestling (which had seen nearly 80 percent of its collegiate programs cut from 1972 to 2000). Although not compulsory, this program adds enough value to a coach’s credentials that more than 75 collegiate coaches enroll every year. And while this program provides demonstrable skills, it has also helped to establish a dialogue about professionalism and improving the climate and image of the sport of wrestling.

MSU’s Summer Coaches’ School

This summer, the Department of Kinesiology and the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports will launch a new coach development initiative, the first annual Summer Coaches’ School. Aimed at sport coaches and leaders from developmental to elite levels, this gathering on the campus of MSU will help establish a community of practice devoted to quality coaching. In bringing together expert practitioners, educators and researchers, it will provide a new opportunity for information exchange, a hallmark of MSU’s land-grant mission. Quality education and development opportunities for coaches will help improve the youth sport environment, and help youth sports to live up to their enormous potential for benefitting society.


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