From Fun to Full Potential

Congrats to Coaching Ireland for a great line-up this weekend in Sligo for the 11th National Coaching Forum titled “From Fun to Full Potential – Coaching the Whole Athlete”. International experts shared some fascinating thoughts and research on child development within sport, participation through the life cycle and coaching philosophy. There was a great attendance from coaches and teachers associated with a huge variety of sports. I found some of the practical workshops particularly enjoyable and will put some of the tips learned into practice this week !

Melissa Parker has a background in learning and education that has led her into the teaching of sport and physical education. She spoke about “Getting it Right in the Early Years”, an area where it’s clear, we need to do things better in Ireland. Melissa wants physically literate children, youth and adults. She defines that as “a child or person that has the skills, knowledges and dispositions to support continual lifelong engagement in meaningful physical activity”. What we have done hasn’t worked, as she detailed sharp drop-out rates in Ireland from the start of secondary school and at every transition thereafter. A large part of the reason for this is what we do poorly with younger children, either in the way we engage them or not engaging them at all. There is no rocket science in Melissa’s slide titled ” 5 Pieces Where Coaches can make a Difference” (with my words in brackets):

  • Lots of Active Participation  ( get more kids into the net of organised sport )
  • Modified gamelike activities ( make it fun )
  • Focus on fundamental transferable skills (equip kids to fulfill their potential in any sport)
  • Positive supportive environment ( coach the child not the sport )
  • High rates of success  (  help kids achieve goals that are obtainable and reward effort )

While there is no rocket science here, policymakers inside and outside sport have been very poor in facilitating these conditions. I believe our education system in Ireland generally reaches a very high standard but our schools aren’t fit for purpose when it comes to producing physically literate children, leaving the voluntary sector to pick up the slack. This happens in a haphazard way at best, and often not at all. This is my main motivation in trying a different approach with Project Fun Direction. Melissa’s closing thoughts are pictured below:

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Dr Richard Bailey is an expert in the relationship between physical, sport and human development. His workshop titled “Talent, Genetics, Practice and Luck ” highlighted how sporting success is not only a mixture of nature and nurture, but to a large extent comes down to luck. Was an athlete born in the 3 months after the date cut-off for children’s age groups in that particular sport ? Were they born where they had access to quality facilities and coaches ? These are important considerations for coaches because the notion of spotting talent at a young age is actually ridiculous, like gazing into a crystal ball. What we spot at younger ages is actually advanced development, not better talent. We should never limit our view of a child’s potential by what they can do now. We need to understand more about them to make more informed judgements and expose them to the best coaching we can for as long as possible. Richard expressed a view that the best coaches should be teaching children in less advantaged areas whereas in reality, they tend to coach older athletes or children in areas that can afford to pay them to do it.

Almost every professional researcher I have come across in children’s sport advocates Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset”, which I am currently reading. It came up in two presentations this weekend and I would highly recommend it for any parents raising children regardless of whether you are looking at a sporting context or not. Essentially, Dweck believes people have either a Fixed mindset where they believe their qualities are carved in stone or a Growth mindset where they believe their basic qualities are things that can be cultivated through effort. In this way, a Growth mindset doesn’t pre-ordain or limit a child’s potential in their own head and recognises we cannot know this in advance. As parents and coaches, we can help foster a Growth mindset by prioritising effort over results and thereby encourage children to strive to reach their full potential, accepting we don’t know in advance what that is. One of Richard Bailey’s slides copied here sums up the differences up very well and may strike a chord with many of us adults, never mind thinking about our children !

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Sergio Lara Bercial from the University of Leeds specialises in children’s coaching techniques and gave a great practical demonstration of non-sport specific games that build skills, strength and coordination. His exercises were simple but inspiring and as adults we had great fun trying them out while understanding the objectives behind them. They required simple pieces of everyday equipment and they transfer across a multitude of sports.

In summary, I met lots of interesting coaches and educators , picked up lots of great practical tips and also gained a better understanding of the psychology of what makes good coaching and how that can be applied to younger children in a way that works for them. Hopefully Coaching Ireland will make this an annual event !

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