Short Term Gold vs Long Term Goals

Child Centred Development Strategies

The time has come the walrus said to speak of many things. I started my blog in order to be able to talk a bit about the whys and wherefores of why I do what I do and once again due to personal experience I feel like putting some of those thoughts down.


I am a coach, to be more accurate I am a coach of children. I do coach adults and enjoy that part of coaching but predominantly I deal with children most of the time, whether it is in a club or school context it is the expectation of the child’s enthusiastic face that looks to me during the session. On that face I can read so many emotions and see the expectation of fairness, understanding, and the desire for encouragement.


Over the last 30 years there have been an increasing amount of research as to the role of sport and the part it plays in the development of interpersonal and intrapersonal skills within children and the Irish Sports Council have launched initiatives entitled “good coaching makes a difference” and “child centred coaching” that has gradually moved coaching into an even more important role in society, recognising sports coaching as a major delivery tool for both the physical and emotional development of children.


This I believe puts a responsibility of duty on the sports coach, many of whom are amateur volunteers who have an interest and knowledge of their sport but who may have well experienced a completely different form of coaching than I believe is now desirable or in some cases acceptable. It also requires coaches to “up-skill” their knowledge, not necessarily within the technical aspects of the sport but definitely within the psychological aspects. Not just those that are directly linked to improve the performance of the individual at sport but also assist with the individual, social and moral development of children.


Some might argue that this is the sole responsibility of the parents or guardians of the children but in many cases the coach does provide an influential role model to children and it would be irresponsible for a coach and the parents not to acknowledge this influence.

In my case I am fully aware that the vast majority 99.9% of the children I deal with will not go onto be professional table tennis players. I do hope that and I am encouraged by the fact that many of those that I have coached have gone on to continue to play table tennis during their lives and some have even gone on to become involved not only in the coaching of table tennis but the coaching of sport in general and that I may have had a positive influence in their enjoyment of their experience.

Table Tennis is an early specialization sport and this does put pressure on coaches to put young children into the arena of competition earlier than a good deal of other sports. With this understanding the importance of preparation in regards to their psychological development becomes even more important. The system we have in Ireland enables children to play within their own age group as well as within the age group above. I have noticed over the years how many children can perform better at that higher age group than their own. I feel this is due to the fact that with less expectation at the higher level the players are able to play with less pressure and consequently perform better. However as soon as the expectation to perform at the higher age group develops the level of performance is often affected.


Technical proficiency in table tennis is not directly linked to the age of the player. There have been many instances where players of a very young age perform at the highest International level and within the women’s game where physical power is not always a dominant force it is not uncommon to find a very young player performing well at a high level.


My concern is more within the reality of the Irish Table Tennis scene and what I experience within local, regional and even national levels. Culturally we are not China. Table tennis is not a pathway out of poverty. In China the opportunities to play professionally and to earn more than a qualified surgeon, doctor or lawyer are there and this acts as an extrinsic motivation for both the athletes and their parents, the opportunity to live a more comfortable life is an observable reality. The extrinsic motivation for most of the players in Ireland is the title, trophy or selection, the financial cost of playing is far higher than the financial rewards.


I see table tennis as a great vehicle for the development of children. The lessons that can be learnt by hard work, discipline, commitment and the understanding of how to deal with achievement and disappointment are all incredibly valuable experiences in regards to developing a cognisant self.


Once children become involved in sport, coaches have the opportunity to work in an interdependent relationship and provide a caring and supportive environment leading to positive psychological outcomes such as emotional resiliency, personal empowerment, stronger self worth and the capacity to deal with conflict. Coaches can also facilitate development through meeting athletes’ essential needs for belongingness, competence and autonomy. Strategies to meet these needs will vary as the child develops their emotional maturation and gradually takes ownership of their training and achievements. This requires coaches to meet both the technical and relational needs successfully throughout these various stages of development.


What does this mean in practical terms?

Children who play for coaches trained to give positive reinforcement for performance and effort and follow mistakes with encouragement and technical instruction have been found to enjoy sport more, like their team mates better and drop out less than those who play for coaches without such training. Research consistently reveals that athletes who perceive mastery (focus on learning, self-referenced standards of success) regardless of age, gender or competitive level, demonstrate adaptive achievement patterns and positive cognitive and emotional responses and surely that is better not only for the child but what the parents want from their child’s experience at sport?


So what about Moral Development?

As referred earlier table tennis is an early specialization sport, so we are often dealing with young children in a competitive environment before they have fully developed a moral understanding in regards to themselves and their environment. This understanding is developed when parents and coaches help children become aware of and learn normative standards of behaviour in sport and develop an understanding of causes, consequences of emotions as well as social behaviours. Perspective taking, the understanding and perception of situations from an outside point of view is an important social-cognitive skill and good perspective takers are generally well liked within their peer groups. Moral development is also influenced by coach discipline strategies. Strategies that are coercive and power assertive as well as those that heighten children’s anxiety and defensiveness are less effective than strategies that reduce threat and use reasoning and justification. Ineffective strategies include public humiliation, punishing or embarrassing children for rule violation and similarly failing to explain the rationale behind the punishment. Discipline has to be understood in a moral context and relate to the established core values of the coach, club and session. Coaches should not rely on imposing their will and power on children but should strive to appeal to the collective good and just. How coaches punish reflects and communicates whom and what they value.


Over the years I have coached thousands of children, I don’t keep a record of how many medals and trophies have been won (I am sure some do!). When I have talked to former students, those that have grown up there is a recurring theme when it comes to their favourite memories and these you may or may not be surprised to learn are rarely who won or who lost a match or won a medal but far more to do with the interpersonal relationships, the trip away, the experience as a whole and what my own kids refer to as “the banter.” The older I’ve got the more I have learned about the value of childhood, it is a precious commodity and one we only get one go at. Who and what we become stems from this time and the lessons we learn, the quality of experiences we have should not be valued by the faded medals stored in the attic, there are far more valuable treasurers to be found in the hearts and minds of those former children.


References and further reading

Interpersonal and intrapersonal evaluations of creative ideas

Mark A. Runco, William Ray Smith

Why Do Children take part and remain in sport

Edward J. Cope, Richard Bailey, Gemma Pearce

Child and adolescent development in sport

Diane M. Wiese-Bjornstal, Nicole M. LaVoi and Jens Omli

Psychological Foundations of Sport

M. Silva & D. E. Stevens

Planning for Performance

Coaching Ireland