Coaching education is a wonderful thing and nowhere is it more valued or prevalent than the United States. With the right inclination, aptitude, time and money almost anybody can become a coach in the sport of their choice and, like athletes, may come in many varieties from the driven professional to the part-timer, to the weekend warrior.

While this would seem to be a foundation for creating athletic excellence it is tempting to wonder whether it is also a source of inhibition in the development of some essential qualities in our young people.

A common refrain among many high school, club and collegiate coaches is that their athletes lack initiative, competitive drive and problem-solving skills. These are often accompanied by an increasingly observed need for athletes to be constantly told where to be, what to do and when and how to do it.

Could well-intentioned over-coaching be part of the problem? This is a country of what might be described as coach-centric sports i.e. those where the role of the coach is almost as significant as those of the players. The coach is often a micro-managing focal point of the game who scripts the plays, makes substitutions, stops and starts the game and sets the emotional tone. Most of the sports that originated in this country like football, basketball and baseball, are coach-centered. In these sports it might seem obvious that young players would be likely to take a deferential position to their teacher but in reality coach-centric sports have been around for over a century without the quantity of perceived adverse effects that seem to affect young people today.

There are those that believe that the structured coach-centric nature of any particular sport in the life of a young child is of less concern than the absence of free (that is to say, adult-free), spontaneous play. Most people aged over thirty, athletes or not, will vividly recollect their times on the playground, in the park, on the sandlot, in the pool and perhaps even in the limbs of a tree and recall that their play was largely unsupervised. Kids independently made up their own rules, set limits and established boundaries while managing and arbitrating the action by themselves, often in makeshift environments that required communal imagination and acceptance. Although they didn't know it at the time, there was subtle, profound learning and social skill development taking place. Adult involvement, be it from coaches or parents, was neither desired nor necessary.

In today's world independent, spontaneous play seems to be a quaint relic of a bygone era. There are endless electronic stimuli to absorb the attentions of young people and those kids that do play sports are almost certainly doing so under the direction of an adult. In fact, it is increasingly difficult to find a college freshman who has ever played or even practiced their sport without a coach or other adult around. In the absence of the problem-solving, self-reliant skills developed in the backyard or playground these athletes are often overly-dependent on adult direction and constant positive feedback and then display limited confidence or resilience when things don't go well.

While that may lead to frustration for coaches in the athletic arena it also tolls a worrisome bell beyond the boundaries of sports as the qualities of innovation, durability and self-sufficiency which are essential attributes in all areas of our fast-paced and rapidly-changing society, appear ever more elusive to cultivate.

About the Author

Brian Tompkins

Brian Tompkins is the Associate Athletic Director for Student Sevices and former Head Coach of Men's Soccer at Yale University in New Haven, CT.

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