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Developing and Maintaining Positive Working Relationships with Youth Athletes in the Digital Age

“This is a different world to the one I grew up in’’…... “Children are not being brought up with the same values as we were’’ .…. “the mentality of children is so different these days.”

I’m sure I’m not alone in having repeated one or more of these statements (frequently!) during my time as a coach, and also in using one or more of these as an excuse when working with a player / group of players, when I’m struggling to get the best out of them. The truth is probably that these statements are correct to a certain extent, the same extent to which previous generations spoke about my generation! But society is certainly changing and as coaches I think it is important we are mindful of these changes and aware of how they will potentially impact upon our effectiveness as coaches.

We have to make some assumptions about athletes entering our environments (I’m talking really age 9+ here) and these are some of the assumptions I personally have made:

  • They will have a mobile phone.

  • They will value social media and their status within it.

  • They will watch Love Island!

  • They will not be proficient at problem-solving.

  • They will not be used to holding 2-way conversations for long. The list could go on….

Alongside these assumptions it is also important to recognise that youth athletes (and their parents / guardians) enter our environments because: 1) They have an interest in sport / physical activity and 2) They are keen to learn and develop their athletic capabilities alongside their sporting skills. This interest and motivation from players and parents is something as coaches we need to keep at the forefront of our minds.

Once we have them through the door it is our job to keep them engaged so we can retain them within our programmes. In my experience, this retention always stems from fun and playful activities in the first instance, which are then developed to include more structured, organised activities as the players commit and they begin to progress along the pathway. Fundamental to this progression, in my opinion, is the understanding of the performance environment and the key values that are required to achieve and be successful.

By success I don’t necessarily mean to be the best in terms of results within their particular sport. Success in the broader sense is about developing valuable life skills which can be transferred to other aspects of life. Achievement is about reaching one’s potential and maximising capabilities in sport, but also other areas of life.

As coaches our first job is to develop people and build relationships; this comes before any of the technical and tactical work. In my own development this has certainly been a journey of acceptance. I absolutely subscribe to the school of thought, ‘person before performer’ but it has taken me some time to get there. As a young coach when I first started out there was a lot of emphasis on technical and tactical development and there was the notion that you ‘feel’ you are doing more and having more of an impact when you are actively changing technique and constantly giving instruction.

In my early days I, along with a lot of other coaches I know, got drawn into the trap of becoming ‘bogged down’ in technical aspects. Whilst I am not for one minute dismissing the importance of being technically proficient, and the value of coaches following a technical development plan, I just now see the bigger picture. I see much more clearly the value of interpersonal relations and connection; the need for engaging players, understanding them, and creating an environment which allows them to grow personally within our broader sporting structure.

I see the investment from coaches in relationships as a vital ingredient to overall development. I recognise the broader role that a coach has to fulfil, but also accept that much of this ‘interpersonal element’ is not really catered for in coach development programmes (or at least not when I was doing my coaching qualifications!). For me, it has been a process of trial and error, experimenting with my own communication style to see how it fits with my players and their personalities, and modifying my approach as I go. Whilst I am certainly still learning and developing every day, and refining my approach, I have identified some key aspects which underpin my work and frame my understanding of developing young athletes.

  • Within every child (no matter what their upbringing) there are great values waiting to be displayed.

Obviously I would be a doing a disservice to lots of families to suggest that children these days don’t display good values. I do see good values displayed on a daily basis but I also see that different values exist within different families. This is of course totally normal and I am not here to make a judgement on parents whatsoever.

Each family will develop its own value system which will be influenced by multiple factors, but from a coaching standpoint I think it is really important to have consistency of values within our own coaching setting. This in my opinion, helps to set the standards and outline expectations for player, parent, and coach.

Within our environment we try to help players from as young as 7 and 8 to understand what our values as an Academy are and what these will look like in practice. Again, I go back to the person first, so the fundamental value we strive to develop is respect; respect of oneself, those around you, facilities, and equipment.

For us this respect starts with knowing each other and making the effort to connect. From a global perspective respect is conveyed through the use of manners (i.e. please and thank you) tone of voice, non-verbal communication, and acceptance of responsibilities within the training environment (for example, clearing the courts of empty bottles, tidying away equipment after the session, sweeping the clay courts etc). These simple acts help to set the standards within the centre and lay the foundations for attention to detail and quality.

From more of a communication standpoint we ensure that whenever a player walks onto court that the coach will greet them, making eye contact and showing a genuine interest in how they are. For example, “Hi Joe, how are you today / how’s it going?” At the start this sort of question typically evokes a one word answer...normally ’fine’or ‘alright’; an answer that so many of us are used to giving without even really considering the question. As coaches, however, we are keen to create an environment where two-way communication is promoted and encouraged and, therefore, we train players to answer with more detail and depth. We also encourage players to take an interest in each other as well as the staff. In time, the one word answer of ‘fine’ or ‘alright’ quickly develops into a longer conversation which can help the coach to determine the player’s physical state of mind and his / her readiness for the impending session.

Whilst this brief interaction may seem of little significance I have found that it really does serve a number of purposes: 1) Players seem to enjoy it! It becomes part of their routine and signifies we are about to begin one of their favourite things - training in their sport! It also starts the session on an open-footing, with player and coach communicating effectively. 2) It helps to positively represent the Centre’s / Programme’s values. I still feel a sense of pride to this day when coaches from other Centres and the NGB come in to see our players and programme and they can all actively engage in conversation with manners, genuine interest, and curiosity. It creates such a strong first impression and again provides evidence of our strong commitment to developing people and providing them with transferable life-skills. 3) It creates open dialogue at the start of every session which then can lead on to more specific technical, tactical, physical, or mental discussion. In my experience connection early in the session enhances the coaching experience during the session.

  • Children like to talk!

Once players get into ‘greeting’ each other and staff at the start of sessions we actively encourage more in-depth two-way conversations during sessions, but also around the Centre in general. As coaches we endeavour to show a genuine interest in our players, which is not just tied to their tennis programme and competition schedule. We use drinks breaks (when appropriate) to widen the conversation for example, asking about school, other sports, hobbies, siblings etc. In my experience this two-way conversation helps the player to understand they are more than just a ‘tennis player’, which is important from an identity perspective. But I also think it helps to develop a deeper relationship, which includes honesty, trust, and respect; qualities that are fundamental to effective working relations. We also believe that by facilitating discussion youngsters develop their thinking and reflection skills, the very aspects that are critical for long-term success in sport.

  • Children like routine and discipline!

As much as it seems contrary to what I used to think as a young coach I have come to realise that in fact children and young athletes like routine and discipline! It is a myth that firm discipline and boundaries negatively affect the coach-athlete relationship. Actually, in my experience, it has been the opposite. When done correctly the balance between support and structure can create an environment where hard work, commitment, discipline, respect, and fun can be combined to enhance learning. Children very quickly come to enjoy the feeling of working hard and become active in ‘creating’ the environment themselves. They begin to thrive on hard work and discipline and with some support they are able to learn how to uphold the standards for both themselves and others. Once you have this level of ‘buy-in’ the quality of training is generally so much better. I think, this level of success does, however, come back to the connection you make with your athletes and how you educate them to understand that the real sense of fun and satisfaction in sport comes from stretching themselves and finding personal challenge in tasks / activities within the environment.

  • Children like taking responsibility!

We live in a world where children have so much done for them and for many they have little day-to-day personal responsibility. As a coach we have to be mindful of societal changes and accept that many athletes may enter our environment with little, if any, experience of taking responsibility for themselves and their performance. This, however, doesn’t mean that they can’t be responsible and accountable, but we have to shape the environment in which they train to afford them these vital opportunities. As coaches we have to work hard to empower players, helping them to be competent, confident, and responsible. To do this we try to provide as much experience as possible to practice these skills. We have player-led sessions where players themselves devise the drills and set the level of challenge; we deliver off-court sessions where players lead technical / tactical analysis; we get players to provide feedback to each other about their performances within training; and we expect players to communicate with us pre and post-match to reflect and evaluate on their preparation and performance. We use ‘WhatsApp Groups’ and audio feedback to facilitate this process; this seems more favourable to today’s athletes than the old paper and pen style!

In our environment we pride ourselves on developing relationships with our players. We see the importance of embracing the changes in society and the advances in technology, so we try to incorporate these elements into our programmes. At all times we promote our values and the need to work hard as a means of creating the culture where learning, respect, and responsibility are key drivers.

Coaching will always have its challenges, but one thing I have learnt first-hand is the importance of connecting with the athlete in front of you and the need to create an environment around them which brings out the values and qualities that they so often already have but don't necessarily know!

Tom Loughton

Senior Performance Tennis Coach


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