JMU prof: As youth sports springs into action, caring climate is important

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Many youth sports programs, says JMU professor Lori Gano-Overway, focus on young athletes playing games with little emphasis on skill development and, maybe, an overemphasis on winning.

“Many volunteer youth sport coaches do not realize the importance of creating a sport environment that supports athlete development, which sets the stage for performance excellence, and provides an enjoyable experience for kids,” said Gano-Overway, an assistant professor of kinesiology and a co-author of A Coach’s Guide to Maximizing the Youth Sport Experience: Work Hard, Be Kind, who recommends coaches focus on creating positive sport experiences for kids that teach physical skills and life skills.

This is a topic that I have some familiarity with, as a frustrated former youth basketball coach.

I would daydream plays and drills, thinking ahead to the day when one of my kids would hit the game-winning shot to win a state championship, and knowing that I’d helped make that happen.

Then came reality, which for me was the losing battle I was fighting, with parents, and their expectations, often outsized, with a close second being other coaches.

I coached youth basketball for several years. It always amazed me that coaches in rec-level basketball would work the refs like it was a Monday night in April.

And then there was the one guy that threatened to punch me in a playoff game because he said I was playing my top players too many periods.

My squad was down 20 points at the time.

And did I mention, it was a rec-league game?

Another issue was inadequate time and space for practices. We were often forced to practice on half a halfcourt, on a single side basket, with basketballs from the other corners of the gym constantly interrupting whatever we were trying to do.

I set out each season thinking I’d help kids with their shooting technique, teach them spacing, defensive principles, get them to learn a couple of plays.

What would actually take place was: everybody runs pick-and-rolls with their best players, and the last period of each game was two teams full-court-pressing each other into mutually assured destruction.

I did this for five years; nothing about it made me feel like anybody had learned anything.

Which is why I find it refreshing to come across people like Gano-Overway, who still think there’s something socially redeeming about youth sports.

A Coach’s Guide to Maximizing the Youth Sport Experience: Work Hard, Be Kind provides coaches with strategies they can use to create a positive environment based on evidence-based practices in sport psychology.

“Over the last several decades research has demonstrated the importance of emphasizing improvement and effort,” Gano-Overway said. “More recently studies have emerged highlighting how caring and supportive coaches are important to athlete experiences and development.”

The book provides numerous strategies and reflective exercises focused on five features of developing a positive sport climate.

These features:

  • encourage coaches to value and reward effort and improvement
  • treat mistakes as part of learning
  • highlight the important role of every team member
  • create a supportive, welcoming, and respectful environment
  • foster collaboration and teamwork

“Youth sport should be about learning the importance of hard work, learning from your failures, treating others with respect and valuing each member of a community,” Gano-Overway said. “My colleagues and I hope this book will help coaches consider ways they can do this on their sport teams.”

Story by Chris Graham

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