LAWRENCE — Nearly everyone who has played organized sports in their life has had a coach yell, assign laps or pushups when they made a mistake. Research has increasingly shown over the years that not only is such a negative approach not fun, it can do lasting harm to young athletes. A University of Kansas professor has co-written a new book that outlines research in positive sporting environments and provides a roadmap for how coaches can implement caring environments across sports and maximize what athletes learn and how they improve.
“A question we received many times over the years was, ‘Is there a manual for how to do this in sport?’” said Mary Fry, professor of sport psychology and director of the Sport and Exercise Psychology Lab at KU. “There hasn’t been a book for coaches on how to implement this kind of positive and caring environment for all athletes in youth sport settings. We’re hoping coaches find it helpful.”
“A Coach’s Guide to Maximizing the Youth Sport Experience: Work Hard, Be Kind” summarizes nearly 15 years of research the authors have conducted into positive sporting environments. The work provides a roadmap for how to create such a climate in youth sports as well as strategies and reflections for how to consistently maintain such a setting.
Fry co-wrote the book with Lori Gano-Overway, assistant professor of kinesiology at James Madison University; Marta Guivernau, assistant professor at Kent State University; Mi-Sook Kim, professor of kinesiology at San Francisco State University; and Maria Newton, associate professor of health, kinesiology and recreation at the University of Utah.
The book’s first two chapters outline research surrounding caring and task-involving climates and how they can maximize sport performance and experience for participants. They also detail the numerous benefits of creating a positive environment as supported by research. The negative, or ego-driven climate, has been too widely observed in sport for decades, not necessarily because youth coaches want to harm or belittle their athletes, but in many cases because it is the only approach many coaches ever experienced themselves.
The book’s second part details the five major features of a caring and task-involving climate.
- Mutual kindness and respect are fostered and valued
- Effort and improvement are valued and recognized
- Mistakes are part of learning
- Every athlete plays an important role on the team
- Cooperation among teammates is fostered and valued
In addition to explaining the key features of a positive environment, the book provides hundreds of strategies, examples and ideas coaches can use to implement each feature in their own unique setting. It also provides questions coaches can ask themselves both to experiment with new ideas and to reflect on how they create a positive environment. There are also tips and strategies for how coaches can use mistakes as a way to help athletes develop instead of punishing them as part of a misguided attempt to create discipline.
“We see in sport so often that mistakes are punished, but when we take a close look at that approach and consider the research, it clearly makes no sense,” Fry said. “Instead, if coaches can help athletes see that mistakes are part of the process, that we often can learn the most from our mistakes, the result is that athletes are freed up to relax, motivated to try harder and can better embrace challenges. In addition, athletes can be less stressed and anxious, and it follows that they would be more likely to have fun and perform their best in these circumstances.”
The book’s third part discusses special considerations in creating a caring and task-involving climate in sport. In addition to strategies for maintaining a positive environment, chapters examine who benefits most from experiencing a positive and supportive climate.
“If you’re a kid who’s a late bloomer or of smaller stature, or less coordinated or have less support at home, this kind of climate can be huge. Of course, we believe a positive climate benefits every single athlete, but it can definitely make a difference for young people who may be particularly vulnerable,” Fry said.
Chapters also address how to overcome challenges in creating a caring and task-involving climate as well as how coaches can help parents provide support. Another chapter addresses the important role sport administrators play in helping facilitate a caring and task-involving climate. There are also strategies for how coaches can address difficult topics such as tryouts and how to manage athletes’ expectations.
“A Coach’s Guide” is structured to help coaches find the approach that works best for them, knowing a one-size-fits-all approach would not work.
“We realize not every strategy will work for everyone, so we encourage people to reflect and experiment to find out what strategies work best to implement this climate in their unique setting. Different strategies may be more helpful or appropriate depending on the ages, skill levels, etc., of the athletes,” Fry said.
Above all, the book shows that maintaining a sporting climate in which all athletes are valued has been shown to get better results from young people and that coaching should be about helping each individual improve instead of trying to find the next superstar athlete.
“Coaches have tremendous potential to make sure youth sport is a great experience for every athlete,” Fry said. “Youth sport should be about helping athletes value giving their best effort, support their teammates and develop skills that are going to help them in every aspect of their lives. It is very cool when coaches achieve these goals.”
Image credit: Routledge, book authors