If you only looked at the coaches and the spectators, it could be the World Cup Final. The constant stream of instructions, encouragement, vilification and despair testify to the emotional commitment. Regular comments about the officiating suggest that these people are at the edge of their self control. If you turned the other way to look at the players, you might be surprised to discover that they are about 12 years old.
This article was written by Neil Rollings Managing Director, Independent Coach Education and Founder of PADSIS.
This scene is not reserved for the oldest, or highest performing, children. It is immune to variations in sport, sex, age and ability. It is driven by a primal desire. To win. And a fundamental misunderstanding of what winning means in youth sport. That finishing the game with more goals than the opposition is only one of the victories in schools and clubs. Certainly, an important one. Learning the pursuit of competitive success is a central purpose of all sport. But how victory is achieved, and an atmosphere of adaptive competition, is at least as important as whether it is achieved.
One of the many ironies of this situation is the contrasting sector expectations of self control. Schools and clubs expect their players to display discipline, respect the referee and treat opponents with dignity. The sanctions for moments of onfield hot-headedness are clear and uncompromising. But these creditable expectations evaporate at the white line. Beyond the pitch, onlooking adults often display the opposite.
A second inconsistency is that no one believes that winning comfortably every week is a worthwhile developmental experience. One sided games are widely dismissed as a “waste of time” from which “no one benefits”. But on the touchline, in the heat of the moment, this is what many spectators celebrate.
Sport brings out the best and worst in people. It takes the human condition and adds unmanageable emotion. Without a clear culture of self control, it can strip the occasion of much of its joy. Pressure to win discourages creativity, experimentation, risk taking and joy. It leads to playing opportunities being unevenly distributed. It seeks to humiliate the opponent, rather than recognise their contribution to the contest. “Thanks for the game” is not always communicated with sincerity. The RFU’s controversial Age Grade Competition Review is based on incontrovertible evidence that a trophy on the table changes behaviour in youth sport – but it’s not the behaviour of the players. It’s the adults. And it doesn’t change it for the better.
Educating parents can be a bigger challenge than shaping the values of children. But the future of school and club sport is dependent upon it. As is quality controlling coach behaviour on the touchline. Both constituencies are exemplars: where adult conduct is poor, player behaviour is rarely better. Schools and clubs need to be more proactive to ensure that the environment is appropriate and developmental. The role of the adults in contributing to this has been overlooked and underestimated. The reasons for this need to be communicated away from the cauldron of emotion, and both parents and coaches should be held to account in the way that the children certainly would be.
In the cold light of day, medium term objectives are easy to agree. Development, love of the game, playing with friends are readily acknowledged as important. But talk is cheap. The measure of the strength of an organisation’s development culture is whether it can survive the destructive surge of touchline emotion on match day. Schools and clubs need to be clear what combination of things they value in sport, and articulate the reputation they seek. If everything is confined to scores and results, it is easy to assume that this is what is valued ahead of all else.