This article aims to bring to the forefront the obligations of the coach in youth player development, and in doing so, challenge current status quo. For the purposes of this article the term “coach” shall not be restrictive to the technical or head coach. Rather, the reader is encouraged to interpret the term more widely to those significant others operating within positions of influence and who have the opportunity to positively influence holistic behaviour change. The overarching remit of this article is to provide constructive criticism on current practices in youth sport based upon an amalgamation of the extant literature and anecdotal observations from the writer. In addition to provoking reflective thought, this article is envisaged to broaden the reader’s lens of interpretation when it comes to deciphering the efficacy of youth development occurring within their own respective environment. Finally, upon cessation of reading, it is hoped that the reader is both enthused and inspired to the point that their role in youth player development is no longer perceived as an obligation, but rather as an inherited privilege to positively influence the next generation of players.
II. Responsibilities of the Coach
“You are far more likely to coach a future employee than you are a future player”
Particularly pertinent to elite youth football academies is a pressure to succeed from a young age alongside a concomitant fear of failure and ineffective coping strategies to deal with that failure when it comes (1). Statistics from the Professional Footballer’s Association (PFA) show that of the players who receive a scholarship at the age of 16 and who in theory are within touching distance of a professional contract, five out of six players (83%) have dropped out of professional football by the age of 21 (2). More broadly, out of all players who enter the English academy system at the age of 9, 0.5% are likely to make it to the club’s first team (3). On a national scale, a mere 180 of the 1.5 million players playing organised youth football will make the grade into the Premier League (4). It has also been reported that within 21 days of being released at age 16, 55% of players were diagnosed with clinical levels of psychological distress (5). Consequences manifest themselves via a diminished sense of self, high emotional cost leading to burnout and dealing with an uncertain future, amongst others (6). Given the potential vulnerability to player welfare and wellbeing in such environments, a challenge to coaches is to help players grow and develop (7). This is particularly pertinent in light of the fact that the majority of players will end up pursuing alternative careers due to this minute percentage of players who eventually make the ‘cut’, even in other sports such as Rugby (Figure 1). In fact, it is quite possible that coaches are not only preparing future professional players (for the minority), but also people who, if nurtured in the ‘right’ way, will be inspired to become future coaches and practitioners (for the majority).
Figure 1. Studies from rugby union show 76% of players drop out between the ages of U13-U16. Retrieved March 9, 2018, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/35054310. Copyright 2015 by Ross Tucker.
The coach has a duty of care to address the needs of the minority and the majority (8). Individual development plans traditionally set goals within the finite skill and physical domains with the objective of accelerating the trajectory of sport mastery. Though for most in the profession this satisfies their remit of player development, it is of the writer’s opinion that this is not only short-sighted but also negligible in the long-term. It is imperative that these development plans include all-encompassing opportunities for personal growth, on and off the field (9, 10). A more holistic approach to player development not only addresses the diverse psychological needs (e.g. developing interests outside of the sport itself acting as a ‘stress buffer’ to cope with burn-out and becoming all-consumed by the pressures associated with training and competition), caters for life after sport (e.g. discipline; punctuality; communication; leadership) but will likely also affect development of performance on the pitch (e.g. resilience; ability to deal with adverse circumstances) (11). Above all, this holistic approach may also indirectly contribute to future generations of player development, based upon the assumption that some will progress to positions of influence wherein they themselves are influencing player development, drawing upon some of the skill-sets garnered during their own development cycle.
“For coaches to connect with their players, they need to understand the person inside the player”
This all-encompassing process of growth is predominantly predicated upon the quality of interaction between coach and player, specifically, a learning interaction. At the heart of this lies a pedagogical encounter that reciprocates micro-interactions between the player, the coach and knowledge in context (12). The strength of this interaction is contingent upon the coach and player having mutual understanding that they can learn from each other. Whilst it is unlikely for the player to retain every piece of information the coach has imparted during these micro-interactions, he is unlikely to forget how the coach made him feel and the associated positive behaviour change that instigated. The biggest potential barrier to this learning interaction is the coach’s blind spot to his own epistemological stance i.e. coaches need to unlearn to then learn; they are often required to let go of many traditional beliefs and unsubstantiated biases towards training methodologies and coaching principles (13). This requires a degree of humility and open mindedness that is often characterised by an unparalleled professional curiosity to explore the boundaries of effective coaching practice and positive youth development.
Good coaching is good teaching and the best coaches often typify the behaviours of good teachers. Emphasis is placed upon the person as a whole in an authentic manner. The best coaches display empathy in recognising that the person (player) who turns up for training sessions and matches is the same person (brother/son) who provides recollection of his day before family members at dinner, who is also the same person (student) that has to study and complete homework before attending school the following morning. Throughout all this, the role of ‘significant others’ varies throughout the trajectory of the player’s development (14). Initially for the player, parents, peers and siblings fulfil the roles of ‘significant others’. Here, the coach’s role starts out as a ‘more capable other’ (15), where he is required to evolve his understanding of what makes the player ‘tick’, and in so doing prepares the player to engage on a journey of self-discovery. Here, the objective is to establish a relationship founded upon mutual trust, whilst accepting this shall never be completely symmetrical due to the confounding influences of other ‘significant others’. Following this, parents and coach seem to inherit the position of ‘significant others’. The focus is placed upon creating a facilitative learning environment, which moulds the player into ‘knowledge producer’ whereby he acquires an affinity with the content and consistent messages fed forward to him. Finally, the baton of ‘significant others’ lands with coach and partner during adulthood. Here, the coach may choose to adopt the role of ‘orchestrator’ (16); attempts are made to harmonise a symphony of complex, dynamic and multi-faceted interactions whilst embracing the ever increasing agency of the player, of whom the coach never assumes direct control over. Lastly, autonomy and independence are encouraged to different degrees throughout every one of these stages.
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(2) Conn, D. (2017). ‘Football’s biggest issue’: the struggle facing boys rejected by academies. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2017/oct/06/football-biggest-issue-boys-rejected-academies.
(3) Magowan, A. (2015). Football talent spotting: Are clubs getting it wrong with kids? Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/35054310.
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