Helping Your School-Age Child Succeed at Team Sports

Gerry McCallum knows how passionate people are about our national game. "Hockey is a different animal in Canada," says the dad of 10 and an atom-level coach in High River, Alta. Needless to say, it can be disappointing when a child's team is not headed to the division championship. McCallum gets it: He coaches a team of nine- and 10-year-olds who would love to make the playoffs this year. But, he says, his group also understands that standings are only one measure of success. "It is also about playing well as a team and trying hard. I feel that they are grasping this."

Join In

Being a team player is one of the most important lessons that can come from playing youth sports. Dr. Enrique Garcia, an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education at Montreal’s McGill University, says team sportscan help children develop the social skills that are valued in society such as cooperation and communication. But these skills require some degree of cognitive and social sophistication that develop over time — so don’t expect too much, particularly in the early going, he explains. “A good illustration of this is the typical grouping of young children around the ball in soccer games: All of them want the ball and all of them want to score. And there is nothing wrong with that. The tendency just reflects their developmental stage.”

Jeffrey Rhoads, author of The Joy of Youth Sports (Avaplay Press) and a youth sports coach for more than 25 years, agrees that it can take time for a child to understand that hogging the ball doesn’t contribute to the team. “Over the years I’ve had a few kids ask me, “Why can’t I bring the ball up the basketball court?’ when they can barely dribble or make the first pass necessary to involve their teammates. For me, this is a warning sign that a child may not yet understand the importance of roles in a team sport.” His solution is to provide opportunities for every player to have fun and play different positions. “As a beginners’ skills develop, I try to expand their team roles.”

So what else can you do you raise a team player? Rhoads suggests the following:

• Search for coaches who not only teach individual sports skills, but also emphasize team- oriented skills such as passing (and related principles such as “keeping your head up” and looking for other teammates). These coaches will employ drills that require teamwork.

• Early on, place your child in a league that encourages “equal playing time”: where team success will depend on the beginners and less athletic players improving. A coach can easily convey to the team’s older, more skilled players that the team’s chances of winning are improved when the strong players support the weaker ones.

• Communicate the importance of roles in a team sport. Although every team needs a scorer, a team will usually not win without the other players performing their particular roles well.

• Provide kids with the opportunity to engage in self-directed play like in neighborhood pick-up games. In this setting, children are required to manage their own behaviour. Self-indulgent actions (blaming others, hogging the ball) will negatively affect “the game” and will quickly result in the group shunning the offender.

Still a Poor Sport?

Rhoads says to try these common techniques utilized by coaches to build team spirit:

• Praise your child when he makes a great play that benefits the team, or praise those players who demonstrate teamwork in front of your child.

• If your child is talented but selfish, acknowledge his skills but emphasize that great players make other players on the team better. Help him take an ownership/leadership stake in other player’s success.

Terrific Teammates

Fortunately, says Rhoads, with a little coaching and talk about the importance of roles to a team’s success, most kids are eager to adopt a team-first attitude. “The players on my teams typically get a big smile on their faces when their teammates and coaches compliment them on playing good defence, grabbing a rebound, or setting a screen that leads to a basket for our scorer.”

McCallum says after a goal it is not uncommon to see his players imitate the coaches. “It is very gratifying to see these young kids repeating the positive remarks that their adult coaches make like “Great pass Sean. You set that goal up — that was a beautiful play!'” Kids do watch us adults and repeat what we say and do, both positive and negative, says McCallum. “We can have a big impact on our young athletes in this regard.”

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