When I ask my 8-year-old niece how her soccer game went, I typically hear the following response:
“We won the game!”
Where did she learn to respond like that?
She learns it from adults. Winning seems to matter to them and so it is what she tells other adults.
However, when I probe a bit more, she says she is getting better at her dribbling and passing skills. She has the most fun when she can kick the ball out of the goal box. She then tells me funny stories about her coach and teammates. In the end, what matters most to her are the skills improved, relationships built and the fun she has.
How can coaches create these positive experiences for young people? The importance of coaches in the lives of student-athletes has been much in the mind of folks at Bridgewater College with the recent passing of track and field coach and biology professor Harry “Doc” Jopson. Although Jopson led the Eagles to several conference championships and garnered a win-loss percentage more than 80 percent, he is also known as a coach who encouraged his athletes to achieve their potential on and off the field. His expert teaching skills, as well as patience, encouragement and concern, helped his athletes strive for excellence.
These characteristics are at the core of an athlete-centered philosophy. This philosophy begins with teaching skills in a fun and supportive environment. The emphasis is less on winning and more on encouraging youth to challenge themselves to improve and excel. It is this lesson that I believe “Doc” Jopson seemed to understand: if each athlete improves and excels, success will be achieved.
Creating a supportive environment is also a key component of an athlete-centered philosophy. My niece told me that she liked her coach because he was not strict. When I asked her what she meant, she said, “He does not yell when somebody does something wrong.” When she makes a bad pass, he says, “Lift up your head as you pass and you will pass it better next time.”
Her coach provides encouragement and constructive feedback. He motivates her, supports her and, in the end, helps her move closer to her potential.
There are other details of the supportive environment that my niece would not readily see, but as a sport psychology practitioner, I recognize. Her coach greets the athletes by name, he provides encouragement and constructive feedback to all of the girls each game, he encourages them to cheer and praise one another and he teaches them to be respectful to one another and the opposing team. All of these are keys to helping kids develop skills, friendships and have fun.
The athlete-centered philosophy also emphasizes teaching life skills through sport. Coaches help athletes learn the importance of committing to a goal and working hard to achieve it; how to handle adversity; how to support, respect and work with others; and how to manage our emotions and develop self-control. These lessons only occur if coaches intentionally teach these lessons within sport.
Joe Erhmann, a former NFL football player and current high school football coach, goes one step further in his book, “InsideOut Coaching,” by noting that sport can be a vehicle to transform the lives of young people.
Asked why he coaches, Erhmann says, “I coach to help boys become men of empathy and integrity who will lead, be responsible, and change the world for good.” He intentionally places the development of the person ahead of the development of the athlete.
As the youth sport season begins, I hope that coaches will adopt or recommit themselves to an athlete-centered philosophy.
Developing such a philosophy provides kids a positive, fun and enjoyable experience that will hopefully stay with them and encourage them to live actively. But, more importantly, coaches can help provide youth with opportunities to develop life skills that will help them be positive and contributing members within our communities. I believe that is the lesson that many student-athletes learned from working with “Doc” Jopson and I think if we do this, we will all truly “win” the game.
Lori Gano-Overway is an associate professor in the department of health and exercise science at Bridgewater College. A former competitive swimmer and youth swimming coach, she has been a member of the VHSL Coaching Education Committee since 2009.