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How Structured Should We Be with Young Kids

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How Structured Should We Be With Young Kids

By: Lee Taft

When I am speaking of structure, I don’t mean following a properly outlined program for the developmental stage of the child. I mean should we dictate every movement a child makes and chart every second of activity? Should the children be made to pay attention to our long explanations of the rules to simple games or how a particular skill is going to be performed? I don’t think so.

There is no doubt that each child needs to have the ability to listen and follow directions, but not at the expense losing interest and their focus. There is a time and a place for athletic focus and discipline. It naturally evolves as an athlete goes through the various school programs such as junior high athletics, to junior varsity, and finally to varsity athletics.

The problem with many programs for kids is they are so structured. The one element that kids are most productive at is lost- and that is PLAY! Kids, if allowed to, will create amazing levels of learning through discovery. Discovery of how their bodies work, discovery of how to work with others, discovery of how to settle disagreements, and discovery of what they like. I also think it is important for children to have guided discovery as well. This is when teachers or coaches lead the children in a particular direction without handcuffing them with too many rules and restriction.

The complaint I get from parents, especially dads, when I say kids should be allowed to pick up games at the park or in the backyard is that they don’t focus and play hard enough. This is simply not true. If you watch kids play any game at the park they don’t want to lose. The difference is they put the pressure on themselves to do well, not some overbearing parent not allowing them to make mistakes.

Before I get too far into this article I just want to make one point. I was watching a program on athletes and parents and how the parents completely control every aspect of the child’s athletic life. The biggest concern I have with the program, of course besides the nearly mental abuse the parents are afflicting on their child, is the fact that the kids never get a chance to develop the decision-making abilities that are so important in our society. The parents outline every minute of the child’s day. When the child complains, even the slightest, the parents reaction was you need to focus. Tell me why a 3rd grader needs to focus 15 hours a day. What about letting them play and goof off and just be a kid. That is what helps them develop. When they are able to play, they use their imagination and learn to create helping them develop as they mature.

OK, back to the article. I am presently working with a handful of young athletes that are between the ages of 10- and 13-years-old. I work with them in a group format, which I highly recommend. Every workout I spend time teaching a new ability or technique or reinforcing a learned ability or technique. We spend enough time on the ability or technique in order for the athletes to properly perform it. I will then move on to a game or activity that allows those same abilities or techniques to be used in live random action. This is when the true learning and teaching takes place. I stop the action briefly if an athlete makes a mistake on his movement. They will understand it more clearly because they realize they made the mistake due to poor execution of movement during the game or activity. An example is to play partner Z-ball (a game where the partners toss a ball that takes random bounces in any direction) for a time limit and keep track of drop balls or to a count of five drops. I will immediately see mistakes due to not being in an athletic stance and not being able to move quickly when the ball takes a bounce away from the athlete. I will stop the game or simply ask the athlete why didn’t they get to the ball quicker- they will usually know, and if not, I coach them in 3 seconds or less with simple cues.

My point to this section is I spend much of the time playing with the athletes and letting them learn what is correct and what isn’t. The other method I use to coach the athletes is to ask them to watch their partner performing a skill and see if they can identify movement mistakes. This is an awesome way to allow the athletes to take an active role in their learning. It will make a bigger impression on them than if I dictate every single aspect of their learning. If I dictate everything, they will come to expect this every time and never develop the ability to be self-serving.

I also have a group of older athletes that are varsity level. The intensity at which I direct their training is different only in making them focus more on not making mistakes. I realize at their age they have had more challenges and have been tested to a greater extent and need to be focused to participate at the higher athletic levels. I still allow them to learn through discovery though. I want thinkers not robots. I don’t want athletes that get so used to being told what to do and when to do it that they can’t make quick decisions on their own or can’t decipher what is right or wrong because they are accustomed to me telling them. I allow my athletes to be creators of their own success. I want them to know how to make corrections if they are in a game and they are not moving well. They can’t rely on me or the coach to tell them- they have to do it. A good coach prepares his or her athletes for success. A poor coach tries to gift wrap success and give it to the athletes by controlling them.

Now this is when it gets important to have patients and trust in good judgment and not allow single-sided success rule you! What I mean by single-sided success is having success in the present even though it won’t serve the greater success of leading a productive healthy life in the future.

I can hear it now. Coaches and parents are saying; “I control my son or daughters athletic life and they have been nothing but successful.” I had an e-mail discussion recently with a parent of pre-adolescent athletes and I was trying to get him to understand that his training regimen was too high in volume and too advanced for the developmental stage of his kids. The response back to me was that his children have never been injured and their team was undefeated. Hmm! So regardless of the potential for future physical issues and the fact that a 10-year-old team was undefeated – it must be correct! This is what I mean by single-sided success. God forbid the kids loose a game at 10-years-old to make sure proper development is being implemented for future safety. I am not saying kids shouldn’t win, but why is it even being mentioned that a team of 10-year-olds is undefeated. What about saying the 10-year-olds are learning, getting better and having a blast!

Finally, when a coach or parent bases the success of a child on the pre-adolescent or early adolescent years and doesn’t take a close look at the ramifications for future development they are dead wrong!

I have said it before and I will say it again- We always talk to students about not allowing peer pressure to dictate what they decide to do. We tell them to be strong and to be proud of who they are and that they can control their own destiny. I wish many parents would practice what they preach. Just because the neighbors boy is a great athlete and he is involved in this travel team and doesn’t mean your son has to be. It is alright that someone else is better at age 10, 11, 12, 13 and so on. Do what is right for your child and realize that the body has a developmental clock for each one of us. We may not be a great athlete at age 10, but that doesn’t mean the same will be true at age 17. The job of coaches and parents is to cultivate learning in children so they can develop.

I have always felt the men and women that are in their thirties, forties, fifties, and older that still have the juice to play many sports and activities are the ones that were allowed to learn and enjoy athletics for what they are. Sadly the rate of burn out in our children playing sports today is at an all time high and we won’t see many of these kids loving sport when they are in their forties and fifties.

Let kids play and you’ll be surprised how good they will turn out!

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