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Adam Morris
Young people Talent and Performance Developing Mindsets

Coaching Through Transitions in Adolescence

Adolescence is an important transition period for young athletes. The COMPASS model can be one way of looking at your coaching practice and developing it to help get the best out of young athletes

Coaching young athletes can be a complex and challenging process for any person. The developmental phase of childhood through to adolescence is a time of important cognitive, emotional and social changes, where adolescents look to establish a sense of independence, self-awareness, competency and identity. 

During these important transitional periods athletes are driven to achieve three basic psychological needs: competence, autonomy and relatedness. Your athletes will want to master new skills, make their own decisions and develop new social relationships with people outside their family.

As a coach it is important that you understand these differences so not only will you be able to get the best out of your athletes but you will also be helping to build positive psych-sociological skills that can help your athletes to become more resilient.

Encouraging confidence and developing decision making

Throughout adolescence, athletes will go through an emotional transition period where changes will occur in terms of how athletes view themselves.

An important part of the emotional transition is for adolescents to establish a sense of autonomy or independence. This is a time where adolescents want to be able to make their own decisions.

In sport, we often see parents or coaches who are still telling young athletes how to perform in games or training. They are telling them where to run, how to pass, when to pass, what to do next and how to play the game.

From a psychological perspective this encourages young athletes to become reliant on their coaches or parents. At practice or games they will look to them for answers and this can lead to a decrease in confidence, belief in their ability and self-esteem.

But what happens if the coach or parent is not there to help them? What happens if they can’t make a training session or match?

Young athletes may feel lost and confused, as they will be so used to being told what to do and how to play.

When faced with challenging situations we want young people to be able to problem solve and think for themselves. We want them to feel confident in their decision-making.

When coaching, it is important to have a balance between the amount of feedback you provide athletes. Initially young children rely heavily on adult feedback and it is important that you are offering this to athletes at a young age.

However, as athletes progress to adolescence they want to be able to make their own choices. You must now adapt your coaching style and become a coach who understands when and how to feedback important information.

Encouraging autonomy in adolescence

There are a number of ways in which you can encourage autonomy in your athletes as they progress through to adolescence:

  • During practice sessions provide athletes with opportunities to make their own decisions. Create scenarios where athletes can work on their own or together to solve problems.
  • Show athletes that they are capable of doing things without your help. This is about building your athletes' confidence. Praise their effort and hard work and support their growth and development.
  • Create a positive learning environment where athletes are not afraid to take risks. We want athletes to be creative and to learn from mistakes and failure. Therefore it is important that you are developing a positive culture where athletes are not afraid to try new things.
  • Adapt your coaching style. An authoritative coaching style will go against the young person's needs to seek autonomy and can lead to a decrease in self-esteem.
  • Allow the athletes to make choices in their practice, this could be the warm-up activity, what aspects of skill development they focus on, roles they have within the practice or even a choice on which practice within the session they go to (e.g. provide three activities and allow the players to set them up). This could be a focus on their strengths or an area they feel they need to develop further. 

As young people progress through to adolescence they will go through a number of social transitions, which are important for coaches to be aware of. Socially, adolescents will start to want more independence and will go through a period where they have fewer interactions with their parents and family. This is seen as a natural part of puberty.

Throughout this process coaches and sport clubs/organisations can play a very important role. Even though adolescents want to distance themselves from their parents they are still looking to share knowledge and gain wisdom from other adults. This could be considered as an important time for any youth coach. 

Using the COMPASS model to develop effective relationships

When working with your athletes it is important that you are developing an effective relationship with them.

If you want to become an effective coach you need to have a good knowledge of the coach athlete relationship. The COMPASS model (Rhind & Jowett, 2010) is an effective framework that can be used to maintain a high quality relationship.

  • Conflict management – As a coach do you have strategies in place to deal with conflict? Often conflict can be a challenging topic to deal with and it is important that you remain calm, listen actively, ask the right questions and focus on the facts and evidence that is available.
  • Openness – Can you both be honest and open with each other? This will develop a sense of trust and respect.
  • Motivation – It is important that you understand what motivates your athletes. Can you develop a positive learning environment where you are both motivated to achieve your goals?
  • Positivity – Sport has its ups and downs and it is important that you can learn how to both stay positive.
  • Advice – As a coach can you provide positive feedback and advice? Can you both be open and honest to each other’s feedback? It is important that you listen to each other and acknowledge the different things that you want to be worked on and improved.
  • Support – Do you both offer enough support to each other? Support is a key part of any relationship and it must work both ways. As a coach you must understand how your athlete wants to be supported and when.
  • Social support – Can you both maintain positive relationships with other people away from just sport? This is important for building team cohesion.

Each athlete you work with is unique and it is important that you spend time to sit down with your athletes and talk about these seven aspects and how you can both work together to achieve a strong relationship.

Creating an enabling environment for young athletes

As a coach it is crucial that you create an environment that fits in with the transitions that your athletes will be going through from childhood to adolescence.

Adolescents need a stimulating and challenging environment that is focused around support, autonomy and independence. Athletes need an environment where there are opportunities to grow, thrive and develop.

As coaches we need to be more aware of these developmental changes so that we can create positive learning outcomes.

Consider your role as a talent coach, as well as the psycho-social developments what other transitions are your athletes going to encounter?  New schools, examinations, change of environment within the talent pathway, first experiences of romantic relationships, moving to university and away from home.

These transitions all occur during a critical stage of their development as an athlete.

Have you considered these in your planning?  Spoken to your athlete’s and their parents about their exams and the impact of training volume?  Have you contemplated the impact on their competition schedule?

Finally, the next time you go out and coach ask yourself 4 questions:

  1. How well do I know my athlete as a person?
  2.  How am I meeting my athlete’s needs?
  3. What can I do to create a positive motivational climate for my athletes?
  4. What can I do to support the developmental transitions that my athletes are going through?

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Adam Morris