According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of an athlete is, “A person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina.”
No one is born with athleticism and there is no such thing as an athletic gene. Young kids are not athletes. None of them. They are not yet trained or skilled enough to be considered proficient and thus cannot be considered athletes.
There are children who have more regular exposure to physical movement, and their coordination is a direct result of that exposure, but it takes time for even the coordinated kids to become athletes. Becoming an athlete is more than physical coordination, however.
Becoming an athlete begins with belief.
The word athlete is a noun and nouns are static. It is too easy to influence the tendency of concrete-thinking-children as they grow by telling them they are either an athlete or they are not. They will believe what you say.
Jean Piaget’s Four Stages of Cognitive Development highlight the processes of children’s brains as they develop. In my opinion, the most critical age for cognitive development of athletes is for children 7-11. During that phase in life, kids latch on to beliefs about the world and beliefs about themselves. They begin to operate in the world according to those beliefs.
I am currently coaching a co-ed u12 team with emerging athletes. The kids are ten and eleven years old. Some of them have been exposed more regularly to physical movement than others, and demonstrate a higher level of coordination. Some of them have had very little exposure to physical movement and the learning curve for them is a bit steeper. I tell all of them they are on the road to becoming athletes. I hope I’ve caught them early enough to influence the beliefs they will ultimately adopt about themselves.
The alternative is heart-breaking for me.
Too many kids assume that physical activity is reserved for the “athletes” among us and when they hit a place where they believe they are not athletes, they stop looking for ways to stay active.
This is on us, coaches. We have a responsibility to ALL kids to build the belief that they are all athletes and that physical movement is one of the best ways to be great humans.
There will still be a narrowing of talent as the kids mature. Stronger, faster, and more skilled athletes will make the more competitive teams, but if we do our job right, all kids will continue to be active in something and they will believe that they are athletes on the spectrum. They will do this if we can instill in them a Growth Mindset.
Adopt and Utilize Growth Mindset
So how do you build belief in emerging athletes?
- Check your body language- especially around mistakes.
- As kids are working to attain skill, they will look to you for feedback. Encourage the continued growth in all of their efforts, but maybe most specifically when they make a mistake. “You got this.” “What now?” “Back at it.”
- Have a good response for the “But Coach, I can’t do it.”
- You say: “You can’t do it, yet.” Every time they run up against something they haven’t learned yet, encourage them to continue pushing past it because they are just not there YET.
- Help them to maintain a sense of humor in the learning process. Growth needs a positive space and laughter is pretty dang positive.
- As they have fits and starts in their physical development, celebrate the achievements and find a way to laugh off the guffaws. You can especially model this when you say or do something you hadn’t intended. They need to see that you don’t take yourself too seriously either.
- Maintain the same focus whether it is a game or a practice.
- Belief is most built in those measurable moments. When score is kept or times are calculated, the concrete thinkers will assume that what is measured is who they are. Help them to see the growth above the recorded score or time. Make note of even the smallest of success for each of them so they can see the growth that you do.
- Bring parents into your efforts. Explain your desire to build belief in emerging athletes and tell them your aim is to help develop amazing people who have a flourishing growth-mindset that will keep them active for life.
No matter whether members of your team will ultimately be selected for a high-level team or they will be the one to train with a group of friends for a fun run, if we build people enough that they believe being human affords access to the title Athlete, then we really will have done our job as coaches.
Copyright Choosing to Grow 2018 www.meaganfrank.com