How to Empower Young Athletes

Let Young Athletes Take Ownership of Their Sports Experience

Facilitating an environment in which young athletes take ownership of their sporting experience can have many positive effects:

  • Greater commitment and buy-in from the athletes.
  • A better learning experience for the athletes.
  • A space for the athletes to grow and develop.
  • A more enjoyable experience for all involved.

To achieve this, coaches may like to consider the following three strategies:

  • Give young athletes a voice and include them in decision-making.
  • Show that you listen and act upon what young athletes say.
  • Don’t fear talking with young athletes or passing responsibility onto them.

This was clearly reinforced to me during a recent coaching experience.

During more than 20 years I have been involved in coaching/managing a representative youth track & field team to an annual national championships.

The yearly program involves two preparatory weekend live-in camps and a three or four night interstate trip away to the national championships. The team travels and is accommodated together under the supervision of the team management.

This year the team managers/coaches decided to pass more responsibility onto the team members, give them more of a say and turn more of the experience over to the them. This required some alterations to a very established and successful program, but the result was better than we could have hoped for. More about this later on.

We made a point to the team members and parents right from the start that while the team members would have a lot of support around them, they would be expected to be self-reliant and stand on their own two feet. We said that the team management would provide the team with direction, support and resources, but after that it was “over to them”. The scene was set.

We then had to reinforce this talk with actions to demonstrate that we were serious about what we said. Below are three practical examples of what we did.

1. Choosing Captains

Until this year, the boy and girl team captains were chosen exclusively by the team management. This year, after a thorough briefing, the team members were asked to cast their vote in a secret ballot. This vote was then used to provide the team management with a short-list of three boys and three girls from which to chose the captains. This process allowed the team to have a significant voice in the selection, but still gave the team management the final say.

2. Room Allocations

Team members were given a say as to who would room with who during the interstate trip away. During the second preparatory team camp, the team management provided the senior athletes in the team with a rooming template. Their job was to liaise with the rest of the team members and return the completed template to the team management for approval. It was amazing how close the team’s suggestions were to what the team management would have chosen. Again, the team management reserved the right to have the final say, but the team members were given the chance to have their voices heard.

3. Curfew

After being provided with some parameters, the team members were given the task of determining their room’s curfew time (i.e. lights out, no noise) and then implementing it. The athletes were told that “lights out” would not be announced, it was up to the team members to get themselves to bed and be in bed when the team management checked.

A number of other similar tasks were also used in an effort to prove to the team members that we trusted them with the destiny of their team.

The team members treated each of these tasks seriously and conscientiously. We were pleasantly surprised with their reaction to the responsibilities that they were given and the positive effect that the handing over of this trust seemed to be having on the team environment.

The Result

As indicated above, the result was better than we could have imagined, both on and off the track.

On the day of the championships, we simply let the team loose. We later agreed that it was one of the easiest days that we had ever experienced as team managers. The athletes practically  looked after themselves. To top it all off, the team won the championship with the fifth-highest point score in the event’s history. All through the program their commitment and conduct was impeccable. They proved to be a great team.

Now, it could be the case that we were just lucky with the team that we had – the personalities and skills that were put together this year may have seen everything work well, regardless of any empowering strategies that we implemented. Maybe. But I saw how the athletes reacted to being given a say, to being empowered, to being given ownership of their team; and I will be recommending that we take the same approach next year.

This type of coaching mindset is not exclusive to representative teams. I encourage you to try this type of approach with whatever group of young athletes that you are involved with. It does not mean that you sit back and try to let things run themselves. It involves a lot of planning, briefing the athletes well and setting parameters, monitoring the situation closely and always reserving the right to have the final say.

I would love to hear from you!

I would love to hear if you have had success in empowering athletes and what you have done. Also, let me know if you try using any of the suggested strategies and how it goes for you. I am happy to provide more information and answer questions.

Further Reading

My thoughts on empowering young athletes have been heavily influenced by the book Legacy – What the All Blacks Can Teach Us About the Business of Life. Read my review of the book HERE.

You may purchase the book from Booktopia by clicking HERE.

You can buy the book from Amazon by clicking HERE.

NOTE:  There are links on this page from which Coaching Young Athletes can earn a small commission. This adds no cost to you but helps to keep this blog sustainable. I really appreciate if you do purchase through my links. Please know that I only recommend books that I use and love myself, and all opinions expressed in this review are my own. Thanks for your support. Darren

20150614_154020-1Darren Wensor is a sports development professional, coach educator, specialist coach of young athletes and founder of the blog coachingyoungathletes.com. Learn more about him here and connect with him on TwitterFacebookLinkedin or via email.

Subscribe for FREE to the Coaching Young Athletes newsletter HERE.

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