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Coaching for children beyond the 2012 legacy

Our first blog article for Sports Think Tank:

Around the time when London won the 2012 Olympic games, we (Gary and Sharon Bassett) were also preparing to invest all we had in a grand celebration of sport.The Olympics remind the world of the importance of sport to us as individuals, as communities and as nations.Through a significant career change, we set out to remind those in our world of the most important people in sport – children.

Both of our earliest sporting memories, and some of our fondest, are from days at primary school.These set us on a path to enjoy sport for life and, crucially, helped to shape our lives personally and professionally.

Every day that we coach, we endeavour to provide young children with this same opportunity but when we look at support for children and children’s coaches in a broader sporting context, it begs a very serious question – is the system working hard (or even smart) enough to give children this chance?All too often we hear from parents that their children have been stopped in their tracks before this potentially wonderful journey has even got started.The answer to the question, then, is clearly ‘no’.

Despite the emphasis on increasing participation both as a result of societal issues, such as rising obesity and anti-social behaviour, and the pressure for a positive 2012 legacy, there is a real danger of another ‘lost generation’.With funding and training issues for schools, teachers and coaches, an often ‘too serious too soon’ approach, tolerated poor coaching (i.e. the coaches have UKCC Level I / II / III qualifications but lack coaching ability with the primary age group) and limited availability of ‘fun’ sporting choice, children can be lost before they have had the chance to take a genuine interest in sport and sport in them.

So how do we change this?Our belief is that creating an enjoyment and passion for sport from as early as two years old, be that for social or future competitive involvement, is what will drive the long term legacy and higher participation levels. Therefore, the education of coaches who work with children as young as this, and through their primary years, should be critical to the development of sport in our country post-2012.

Of course, this view is no surprise given that we run a coaching business aimed at children aged 2-10 years, and we focus on fun, accessibility and a wider exposure to different sports. It is, however (and more importantly), also based on our experience recruiting and training for this market and daily dialogue with parents, as well as continued debate with coaching colleagues across the board.

Coaching qualifications are largely geared towards a traditional pyramid approach with an elite focus.We see an equally important and complementary pyramid in the journey towards ‘sport for life’.In this way, what is lost on the elite path (for perfectly acceptable reasons – we’re not all elite) is nurtured and sustained on the ‘sport for life’ one.With the right coaches and support mechanisms, sport gains all round.

It’s very simple – we need the best coaches to be working in both pyramids.We need coaching structures that encourage not just a high volume of coaches working with young children but brilliant, creative and inspirational coaches who understand to their very core what coaching is and how to enthuse and engage young minds through it.Sports knowledge and drills have their place but the ability to capture the real essence of fun through the eyes of a pre-schooler is far more powerful.

Following successful early engagement, a wide perspective and exposure to a broad range of sports is the next recommended step.We can all recall a sport we’ve hated doing (cross-country running in both our cases!) but imagine if that was the only option ever open to you.It would be very easy to say that ‘sport’s not for me’.Finding sustainability, for social or elite participation, starts with knowing what’s there for you and giving it go.This cross references with LTAD and the more rounded approach to later specialisation sports.

Much of these emphases are at odds with the practices of the Governing Bodies, who are often more concerned with the volume of coaches within their sport and the race for talented children.They are the deliverers and guardians of the most recognised coaching qualifications but these qualifications are far from geared towards quality coaching at an early age (even though coaches in Primary schools require a minimum Level II). In fact, where we have employed coaches with multiple UKCC Level II+ qualifications, they have needed substantial further training to successfully work in this environment.Without exception, coaches who work with young children say that there’s not a single coaching qualification that prepared them for it.

What’s the answer?More recognition of ‘sport for life’ needs.First of all, coaches who work with young children need to adapt sports way beyond what is delivered as drills and such like on UKCC Level I and II courses.Where ‘mini’ versions of these sports exist, and have a course associated with them, it is not a recognised qualification in the same vain as those mentioned.And in only very rare cases (such as within the EFDS), do the trainers delivering these courses have any experience at all of coaching young children.

Secondly, we truly value the underpinning knowledge within each of the sports we coach in our multi-sports environment.However, it’s incredibly frustrating that for every sport-specific qualification there is an insistence on the same basic coaching (core competencies and skills), safeguarding children and risk assessment presentation, making the first part of any course repetitive and costly.Multi-sports coaches for young children often qualify in as many as ten sports.A generic approach to this aspect of coach education could allow for it to be completed once and then applied across the sports (i.e. direct entry to the sport-specific chapters of each course within a given time period).

Lastly, and for the longer term, a recognised, specific qualification stream for coaches specialising in sports for young children e.g. UKCC Level I / II / III Coaching pre-school and primary aged children, with a focus on the core competencies, skills and sport adaptations (tag rugby, mini basketball, mini volley etc) prevalent within this specialisation.

Working alongside the existing qualifications framework, this would be a way of supporting children’s exposure to and development within a broad range of sports, increasing the quality of the sporting experience both for the children and the coaches themselves way beyond 2012.

Gary and Sharon Bassett (authors of this article) are co-founders, directors and coaches at A-Star Sports, specialising in the delivery of multi-sports to children aged 2-10 years.Gary and Sharon are both graduates of Bangor University and, following careers as an HR Director and Marketing Director respectively, pursued their passion for sports coaching through the development of sports coaching businesses.