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Age-old debate: Crossing the divide between coaching adults and children

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Adults and children have different mindsets. But while it is important to recognise the differences that exist between coaching adults and children, there are similarities too, and this blog examines the variety of methods coaches take in their approach to crossing the divide.

  • Parents can hinder children’s enjoyment of sport
  • Children have shorter attention spans so don’t give them the chance to disengage.
  • We need to keep sessions fresh and exciting for children.
  • The learning element is what drives adults and children alike.
  • We can disguise the complex principles of learning with inventive training techniques and games.

Coaching children is a whole new ball game when compared with adult sports coaching. Tell us something we don’t know, I hear you cry.

It’s a given, elementary, kids and adults are chalk and cheese and so, therefore, should be the techniques used to coach them. Hold on, not so fast.

After speaking to two ConnectedCoaches members with experience in this field, who approach the topic in refreshingly different ways, I have come to the conclusion that the varying philosophies that exist regarding coaching children and adults are anything but child’s play.

Brushing up on some of the pitfalls would be a wise move if you intend to make the transition and don’t want to inadvertently fall into some dangerous traps.

Let’s kick off with a few of the major differences. 

The parent trap 

So what is the most difficult thing about coaching children?

In fact, it’s not the children at all, according to UKCC RFU Level 2-qualified coach  Daniel Edson, it's those blasted parents.

Edson (pictured below) has experience of coaching at every age level, teaching men and women at senior club level as well as university and schools rugby.

He warns that it is not the pesky kids, it is the pushy parents you need to be wary of.

‘I’d say the biggest positive of working with adults is that you don’t have parents there. It can be a very tricky thing to manage because you are going to get that parent who thinks his son or daughter is going to be the next superstar and who is going to go on and play international sport.

‘Sometimes, you have to manage their expectations, and, for me, they are the biggest barrier for kids enjoying sport.

‘They will push “little Jonny”, who is just there to enjoy it. He’s with his friends and having a good time, keeping active, he doesn’t want to be pushed to try and play at the next level along the performance pathway of his sport.’

This parental urge could emanate from the fact they rose to a high level themselves as a child, or perhaps didn’t quite make it and so want to see their offspring achieve great things.

‘They push them and push them, and sometimes, they don’t realise they are doing it,’ says Edson.

‘I’ve seen a lot of kids drop out of sport because their parents have put so much pressure on them. They get to 15 or 16 and say, “I don’t want to do this any more.”’

For Edson, the transition to coaching children was a sharp learning curve. 

‘For me personally, when I made that move, it was a big shock to the system.

‘The delivery approach, the content to keep the engagement levels up and also the style of coaching were all different.’

Fresh and exciting

The ‘no pain, no gain’ mantra may not be meant for eight year olds, but there is a lot more to take into account when making the change than simply not driving the kids into the ground.

Adults are more accustomed to coaching and being coached, for example, while children have a shorter attention span. So what is the answer?

‘To be fair, you can get a lot more done with adults because they can concentrate on a single highlighted task for a lot longer,’ admits Edson, ‘Whereas with children, you have to keep it fresh and exciting and keep changing things every five minutes to ensure they don’t get bored, fidgety and distracted.’

Fortunately, the tell-tale signs are obvious.

‘You find yourself, as a coach, especially going from one to the other, adults to children, or vice versa, slipping out of one mode or into another, and you can just see from the expressions on the kids’ faces that they don’t understand you.

‘You have to simplify the terminology and explanations so they can grasp them and get a clear understanding of what you are trying to get across to them.

‘Are they engaged with me as a coach, maintaining eye contact, not fiddling around or looking at the floor or the sky? Are they chatting to their mates, or are they focused on what is happening?’

Daniel Edson new

Wise words: Daniel Edson puts a pupil through her paces

The class clowns

Adults do not act like adults all the time – fact. There is a danger that exuberance levels and banter at training sessions could spill over into disruption and immaturity at any age level, a point highlighted by Edson.

‘There’s always going to be that disruptive influence but, to be fair, that comes in both adult sport and teaching children.

‘It’s a lot easier to stamp out with adults and, to be honest, they tend to self-manage that themselves. They are giving up their own time at the end of the day, time away from their families in some cases.

‘With children, the leader of the group – the cool kid, shall we say – isn’t going to want to tell other members of the group to stamp it out because we are here to watch, learn and improve.

‘As a coach, you’ve got to manage that, and it comes back to keeping them engaged. The less time they have to become distracted, the less they become disruptive.’

And that leads us to one of the crucial aspects of coaching children: the fun factor.

‘The fun element is definitely one of the most vital elements. And I’d say the learning as well. My groups all want to progress and improve so if you can do that while still making it fun, then you get the best of both worlds.’ 

A different viewpoint

The fun factor, however, is a grey area with Wales senior and under-21 hockey coach  Danny Newcombe  , who is a self-confessed pedagogy geek (defined as the method and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept).

‘I was doing some coaching for England Hockey, and they have this golden thread of things that have to happen in a session, one of which is fun,’ says Newcombe.

‘I personally find that a difficult thing to measure. Engagement and enjoyment, you can strive for in every one of your sessions, but what that looks like will be different for the individuals in it.

‘Fun is a subjective, vague outcome and not something as a coach you can really control.’

Newcombe does share the view that children have a shorter attention span than their older sporting counterparts.

‘If you give children any kind of space to disengage, they will do,’ he says. ‘So if I do a five-on-five practice, and I’ve got five waiting, they will be off somewhere chatting. But if I play a seven on seven, you get full engagement through that.

‘If I have an adult group, they will stay engaged even if they are rested and not active.’

Academic insight 

A lecturer in sport, coaching and PE at Oxford Brookes University and Director of Coaching for Boing Kids, Newcombe  eloquently expresses his philosophy on coaching, which approaches the issue of different teaching techniques for children and adults from another angle.

‘My personal philosophy is to treat every individual as different and every individual group as different. So regardless of disability, gender, race, treat everyone as an individual and respond to their needs.’ 

He adds: ‘I would say proceed with caution when generalising techniques with certain different groups. 

‘My approach will change between two different male groups, just as it will change if I coached a national league women’s team and a men’s team. If you maintain your philosophy, adapt it to the context, that’s true expertise.’ 

Newcombe takes a wholly intellectual approach to coaching.

‘My big thing is around learning so the physical side, I think, probably takes a back seat compared to the mental side.

‘With an adult group, the physical side will be built into the session, but a lot will be taken care of outside of it. Much of their conditioning work will be done in their own time. 

‘When they are training, the main aim is increasing their understanding, application and execution. That doesn’t mean they’re not physically pushed, but that’s not the priority.’

Camouflage technique 

I asked him how children responded to his intellectual approach to learning and if they become nonplussed by the terminology and cerebral ideas at play. 

The answer is that you hide it within the games in the training sessions so the complex principles of learning are not explicit to the child.

The emphasis should be on the players as individuals doing the thinking and the working out, constructing knowledge through problem solving.

‘Imagine throwing a child into the deep end of a swimming pool,’ says Newcombe. ‘The child will try to stay afloat by flapping around. That doesn’t mean to say we shouldn’t try to help them. But put them down the shallow end, they will just put their feet down. 

‘If we as human beings have all got this inbuilt curiosity and ability to solve problems, then if we are clever with the way we approach our games in our training sessions, we can bring about the learning that we want as a result of them solving the problems.’ 

In summary, Newcombe believes the process of learning is the same for all of us, children or adults, men or women – it is just the context that is different. 

‘As coaches, teachers or lecturers, we have to respond to the context and our learners to find out the best way of helping them.

‘I could say I’m going to talk less and I’ll do more fun games with the children and keep them more involved as their attention span is less. I don’t disagree with that. But I thought, well, that’s the kind of stuff I do with adults anyway. I thought kids respond well when you get to know them, but then so do adults.’ 

Next Steps 

UK Coaching (formerly Sports Coach UK) has a number of workshops you can attend to help you develop your coaching of children and adults, including:

 Visit the UK Coaching website for more information.


Do you coach children and adults? Does your approach differ? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

This blog is also available as a podcast on a number of platforms including Itunes. Listen here.

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