Lessons from Covid-19 for shaping improvement in youth sport experience

What lessons has the Covid-19 lockdown taught us about youth sport and how might this shape improvements for the future?

The Covid-19 lockdown has brought us fewer cars on the roads, quieter neighbourhoods, more bird sounds, and cleaner air.  It’s also relocated sports participation away from school playgrounds, council parks, indoor sports centres, and private gyms.  Sports are being practiced daily at home in the backyard, the lounge, hallway, and driveway.  Social distancing has kept team members separated, eliminated travel to team practices, and led to more use of video to share home sports activity.

For some time, there has been discussion about ways to improve the experience of youth sport and keep our youth in sport for longer, to reduce the desire to specialize in a sport too soon and thereby widen the skills-sets of our future sportsmen and women.  Whilst a Balance is Better philosophy has been promoted and six major New Zealand sporting organisations have committed to changing their approach to youth sport, the significant disruption caused by the Covid-19 lockdown may just be the perfect circuit-breaker which facilitates how organisation of youth sport could improve when we return to organized play.

I believe there are four lessons which the Covid-19 lockdown has taught us about sport activity and these should be used to reshape the youth sport experience:

  1. Rediscovery of free play and how much fun this can be.  Hands-up if you’ve seen a young sportsperson perform a skill in an innovative or fun way during lockdown?  This focus on individual, self-developed fun, allows young sports people a chance to fall in love with their sport, and at the same time develop their skill.  Young sports people playing on their own terms.
  2. Feeling rested and keen.  With the absence of team training sessions, no organized practices, and no competitive matches to attend, the training load of young sports people has been reduced.  This has led to some time off the treadmill of constant overloading, and hectic sports schedules, with young sports people feeling rested and enlivened.  There has also been the opportunity of getting reacquainted with previously enjoyed passions.
  3. Enjoyment of doing self-practice.  Whilst coaches are often encouraging their young team members to engage in home skills practice and may even set a homework activity, the reality is young sports people often don’t appreciate this extra practice.  In the absence of this direction, young sports people are, perhaps for the first time, getting better through practicing and playing sports on their own, (within the context of lockdown regulations).
  4. Family time and un-organized play together.  As we have all been restricted to staying at home and in the family bubble, parents and children have rediscovered free play, family activities, and outdoor sports together.  These opportunities are usually pushed to one side in favour of the routine of running around to organized activities.  But having much more family time has provided the stimulus for playing sports together.

So, how might the organisation of youth sport be improved when we return to organized play?

  1. Including more free-play space and time in the weekly schedule.  Coaches prepare structured training sessions which usually follow a standard format.  Sometimes in the pursuit of teaching a skill topic, time for free-play is forgotten.  Recognising that free-play can also be valuable and including time in the practice routine for having free-play is a solution.
  2. Reducing the number of concurrent sports activities your son/daughter is registered for.  Parents can help reduce overload by cutting back on the number of sports activities they register their children to engage in each sports season.  Accepting that there is benefit from having rest and time off, and that this is valuable for performance and enjoyment, is another solution.
  3. Encouraging self-practice through goal-setting.  The restriction of not having friends or team-mates to interact and practice with is a great stimulus for encouraging self-practice.  Coaches and parents can facilitate this through helping the young sports person to set their own goals or challenges for achieving in their own creative self-practice.  A good quote is “A coach can open the door, but the player must enter it by themselves.”
  4. Working together with parents to understand practice activities that families can have fun playing together. Coaches can develop and provide information resources to educate parents about fun activities that families can enjoy together.  Parents and children have rediscovered the enjoyment of free play, family activities, and outdoor sports in the home setting.  Recognising that family fun is a valuable part of youth sports development is a must-do.

In conclusion, post-Covid-19 when we return to play in our new normal, it will likely be in a different format.  Let’s not rely on the same old formats and expect a different result. Let’s take this disruptive opportunity to reshape the youth sport experience for the better of our young sports people.  Sport should be fun, sport can be played for passion, sport doesn’t have to get serious too soon, and let’s foster the social side of sport and the life-long connections and health benefits it can provide to our community.

What’s up next after exam results?

Exam results for 2016 are almost here. Does your teenager have clarity about their next step? Or even the motivation to make the decision? As their parent, should you help them, and if so, how should you go about this? Here are some answers.

1. Clarity can be achieved through following a three-stage process which involves your teenager undertaking some self-assessment, exploring potential careers or work opportunities that are of interest, making decisions and taking action to begin the career journey.

Self-assessment includes understanding skills, interests, values, personal qualities, strengths and weaknesses. Armed with this self-knowledge, it will be easier to narrow down potential careers or firms for further research or even people to talk to about their jobs. This will lead to some evaluation and decisions being possible on actions to start the first steps on their career pathway.

2. Impetus for making a decision can be facilitated through keeping the conversation alive with your teenager, involving your friends or family in talking about their career experiences, and helping your teenager realize that lots of unforeseen stuff will happen and therefore their first step will not be the last one they’ll take.

Having conversations with your teenager about your own career experience, or friends doing the same, will help them develop their self-knowledge, self-belief, and interest in a particular direction. Because your teenager will probably be making decisions and changes in their career four to six times through their life, this first step doesn’t mean they’ll be stuck with their first study or work choice forever.

3. Whether it’s facilitating part-time work opportunity, or asking good, open-ended questions to help your teenager think things through, or suggesting on-line resources to explore especially about other teenagers’ experiences, parents do have a valuable support role to play.

Skills will be developed at school and also will be extended through part-time work so encouraging this opportunity will be valuable. Open-ended questions like: “Why are you interested in that subject?” “What do you think a day in the life of a (career) looks like?” will be more helpful and acceptable to them than offering your own opinions. Practical guidance and insight into other teenagers’ experiences is readily available on-line (for example, look at http://www.careers.govt.nz).

Your teenager is lucky if you, as their parent, can help them with their first career step. It’s perfectly normal that they will be hesitant and you will want a right decision. Through exploration of self-awareness, opportunity awareness, and taking practical action, your teenager can create the foundation for their own career pathway, with a little help from supportive parents.

Learnings from one football tournament for the future of youth football in NZ

Over the past weekend, I attended a youth football tournament and herein make five observations about aspects of what’s good about youth football in NZ and I believe to be relevant for its future.

The Napier u-19 Youth Tournament is regarded by coaches and players as a national championship. It is also a tournament in which players want to play before they graduate from their youth football playing days into men’s football.  Many players return for successive years and some play as guest players in teams because their own club team doesn’t attend.  Players clearly value a good tournament playing experience involving the stronger players and teams as one part of their football development.  Maybe this is because of the off-field bonding that a tournament experience facilitates or maybe it’s due to the positive legacy that this Napier City Rovers event has built.

The club teams attending came from six of the seven federations within which football is organised across NZ.  In the main draw of 24 teams, there were six each from the Northern and Auckland federations, 9 from Capital Football, and one each from Waikato-Bay of Plenty, Central, and Mainland federations.  Club teams, coaches and players, really value the opportunity of competing against other teams whose styles and players they see and play against less often.  This is as relevant for the club level players as it is for the national and international level players.  Take note New Zealand Football.

The quality of playing surfaces at the Park Island venue in Napier are ideal for encouraging styles of play which value high quality ball control, passing and movement, and surfaces that are physically easier on the young players’ bodies, especially given the excessive playing load.  As more synthetic football pitches are being developed and these are especially valuable for increases in potential training hours, the physical effects on young players bodies are leading to new types of injury.  Real football players want to play on the best natural grass playing surfaces as often as possible.

It is possible for teams to compete hard against each other for 50, 60, 70 minutes, or even longer in the case of finals matches, yet still respect each other at the end to share a “well done” or “tough luck” and handshake.  The penalty kick scene in the satellite final was a terrific example of mates playing with and against each other, all having a winning desire, but respecting the friendships which had probably developed over several years.  Well done to those two teams.

Different playing philosophies and systems of play were clearly evident among the teams.  I was impressed to see one team which reached the tournament final, contain technically proficient players, making high quality short passing and combinations, who were very hard working for each other, always trying to make the correct football decisions, able to dominate possession and/or territory for prolonged periods, and using high pressure defending immediately possession was lost.  As a coach, seeing this gives me heart that it is possible through having a commitment to playing total football, to implement and execute this system of play very well here in New Zealand at youth level.

What has last weekend’s Election 2014 outcome taught us about the impact of a leader’s personality?

The contrasting styles of our political leaders could not have been more evident than through the recent Election 2014 campaign.  There was John Key facing several bombs from left field, yet he shouldered them all, and triumphed with his party’s victorious performance on the party vote and winning 61 seats by the end of Election night.  For me, this confirmed that John Key has a personality which is able to respond to other people when he’s under pressure and still be influential on those around him and the people to whom he was appealing for votes.

The impact of a leader’s personality on their teams, voters, and the outcome was visible in the election night speeches by the leaders.  There was David Cunliffe, who needed to show some repentance for his party’s historic low performance, yet he chose to praise his party president and members for their hard work and effort.  For me, this confirmed that David Cunliffe has a personality where he was not able to honestly confront the situation’s reality and communicate to New Zealanders who really needed to hear that he understood the message that voters had given to Labour.

John Key may become, or may already be regarded as, the most popular and successful NZ Prime Minister of modern times. Given this, it is hard to believe that he comes from a financial markets trading background.  He is engaging and has a personality which enables him to chat with everyone about anything.  The John Key who New Zealanders saw on the campaign trail everyday is engaging, sincere, and able to present complex ideas in a natural, straight-forward, and conversational style.  This is one clear personality strength which enables him to be influential across New Zealand society.

It is said that highly effective leaders have twice as much EQ as IQ and skill levels.  Whilst it’s apparent that John Key has a high IQ (Intelligence Quotient), what’s equally evident is that he also has a high EQ (Emotional Quotient).  Unfortunately though, David Cunliffe mostly displays his IQ, therefore is not perceived as being able to connect with people from all walks of life.  Although his IQ wasn’t sufficient for handling simple questions on details of his party’s flagship capital gains tax policy and this made him seem uninformed.   Indeed, at times in the recent campaign, his preaching style of communication was evident and while this style might appeal to voters in the southern states of North America, it doesn’t resonate well in a New Zealand election campaign.

So, both leaders’ personalities speak for them and this is what we really get a chance to experience, to engage with, and ultimately decide upon, during a six week election campaign.  It is clear to me that John Key’s personality enabled him to not only cope well, but to excel, in what can only be described as an unprecedented particularly ugly campaign by New Zealand’s standards.  Whereas, David Cunliffe’s personality made it difficult for him to connect with enough New Zealanders to influence their voting choice.  The question now for the Labour party is: “Do they have anyone else who has a high IQ and is also able to demonstrate a high EQ to reconnect Labour with New Zealanders?”  Hopefully for Labour, they can come up with an answer to this challenge before another three years goes by.

Intuitive or rational? How to decide which decision-making process is best?

Just the other day I was working at a client’s office and one of the team had received a proposal for a new product which could be offered to its members.  We got talking about the merits of the proposal and it became clear that the team member had become fixated on this one solution.  I then asked one question which had quite a dramatic impact.  The question was: “What is the business problem you’re aiming to address (or opportunity you actually want to take)?”  From the response it became clear that this proposal was to be considered through an intuitive decision-making lens, yet a rational step-by-step process was probably required.

In organisations, people are faced with making decisions every day. Sometimes, executives have accumulated sufficient experience of situations that, in the absence of some facts, reliable information, or lots of time, they can apply their intuition to grasp the situation and make a decision which proves good enough.  Intuitive decision-making is one way to approach problem-solving and do this without reasoning.

But more often, some gathering of facts and analysis using a step-by-step process is preferable.  A rational decision-making process might take longer because it follows a sequence of steps, but usually it will lead to the best solution.  Going back to the scenario presented earlier of a team member having received a proposal for a new product which could be offered to its members, what might a rational decision-making process look like?

  1. Define the Problem – State the problem clearly in business terms.
  2. Know the Strategic Direction – Understand how the business problem aligns with the strategic direction of the organisation.
  3. Identify the Desired Outcome – Know exactly what result you want to achieve.
  4. Establish the Solution Scope – The solution scope establishes the context and approach for which alternative solutions can be considered.
  5. Identify Alternative Solutions – Brainstorm ideas and consider all ideas that might work within the solution scope. Refrain from implementation thinking.  Identify a minimum of three possible solutions for the problem.
  6. Establish the Evaluation Criteria – Become clear on what is important by creating a list of criteria for evaluating the alternative solutions, possibly even weight the criteria where some have greater importance to the organisation’s direction.
  7. Select the Best Solution – Assess each solution against these and ensure that the best-fit solution is identified.

A clear, step-by-step, rational decision-making process such as this one increases the probability of making better business decisions.  It can also prevent an organisation from becoming fixated on one solution before it’s identified as the best-fit solution.  Both of these outcomes are valuable to any organisation. 

You Need to Use a Range of Intervention Styles

Over the last ten days, I have observed football team coaches from professional teams, a club academy, and youth club teams working with their players. One aspect that stood out for me was the range of intervention styles used by the different coaches to help their players improve. So, should a team coach adopt one style for their training session or use different styles based on the situation?

Picture this – a youth team coach leading a football practice activity and the player tries to perform a technique but cannot quite get the execution right. The coach intervenes by taking the player’s place, replicating the action, and demonstrating the correct technique. Then, the coach asks the player to try again. This style of intervention, “self-demonstration”, is often appropriate in a technical practice session with young players, but it is not the only style that could be used. Other styles of intervention that might be effective are:

  • “Suggestion” – “Next time just strike through the centre of the ball rather than the bottom.”
  • “Question and answer” – “Which part of your foot did you use to strike the ball last time and what happened? So, which part of your foot should you use to keep the ball closer to the grass?”
  • “Positive feedback” – “Well done by looking up to see your target and striking the ball cleanly.”
  • “Player demonstration” – Choose a player who is performing the technique well and get them to demonstrate it to the team.
  • “Guided discovery” – “So, if you want to strike the ball into the goal more often, what are some steps that you must get right?” Let the players come up with their ideas. “Okay, let’s try the first one and see how it works next time.”

In all of the training sessions I’ve observed recently, one thing that is clear is the good technical knowledge of the coaches. Another point that became obvious was the intervention style used to effect improvement varied across the different coaches, although they each had a predominant style.  Given that the players being coached have different learning styles and that situations when coaching are fluid, the ability to use a range of intervention styles is necessary, even in a single training session.  So, in your next training session, try using more than one intervention style and choose those which suit the players and the coaching situation.  You might find your players’ response is worth it.

What are you hoping to do?

For those of us with teenagers, the question “What are you hoping to do?” often arises in conversations with your friends or even their friends. You might be lucky and have a teenager who has discovered what it is they want to do for a living and are working hard to achieve this. Or chances are you are one of the majority of parents who are not sure how to guide their teenager to zero in on what pathway is best for them. So what should you do and, more importantly, how can you help them make their first career decision?

Firstly, I encourage parents to be supporters of their teenager who needs to find an answer from within; that is, a career which suits them, matches their interests, talents, skills, and strengths. Your teenager needs to understand themself first before they can begin to make choices. You can help by noticing what your teenager does well and reminding them.

Secondly, make the time to help your teenager explore pathways of interest so they can connect with options which inspire them. You can do this by asking open-ended questions to stimulate their career thinking, which explore possible ways to realise their dreams, and how to find out information about these for themselves. The best job fit happens when career choices align with who the person really is.

Thirdly, try to avoid having any preconceived idea or plan for what your teenager should do. It’s their life, not yours and there’s not a magic answer or actually a right time for an answer to be derived. As teenagers are exploring the world and working out their place in it, the end of high school is not necessarily the perfect time for knowing how they will make their living. You can help by reducing the pressure of having to come up with any answer and instead encourage them to find out more about their areas of interest.

Finally, your teenager is lucky if you can support them in zeroing in on their first career decision. Helping your teenager have a direction and an answer to the question “What are you hoping to do?” is a great contribution as a parent. Fortunately, for you though as their parent, it’s not likely to be the last career decision they will make.

When is it okay to tell a noble lie?

Events this past week at a certain sports organisation in New Zealand got me thinking about whether it’s ever okay to lie.  This situation involved the two owners publicly representing or misrepresenting circumstances around the termination or resignation of the team’s coach.  One impact of this public spat has been the reputational damage for themselves and their organisation.  Whether or not they both think they are representing the facts correctly, the impression felt by many fans and commentators has been one of the whole truth not being told.  Whether this was for legal contractual reasons, for possible future financial benefit, or reasons of personal pride, was this sufficient cause for the parties to misrepresent the circumstances?  Are the consequences worth it?

Another situation which is experienced in business is the presentation of year-end financial performance information to the staff.  Invariably this will include charts showing the current period’s performance against historical periods and possibly future period’s targets.  Some interpretation of the information will be needed and possible glossing over of the facts or spin on the numbers will be evident to those who are more analytical.  One reason for this type of representing or misrepresenting of information is to motivate staff to strive for more in the upcoming period.  But this practise is really one of the leader telling a noble lie and is this okay?  Do the motivational consequences justify it?

A third situation comes from the football pitch where the team coach uses motivational techniques with players to reach higher performance levels.  One well-known coach says: “I always lie to players telling them how well they are doing.”  Clearly, looking for the positives and strengths of individual performances is important for team morale and trust.  But if players are to improve individual contributions, there needs to also be some honest and constructive feedback on mistakes and performance weaknesses too.  So, is this coaching practise of not telling the whole truth actually helping the players?  Is the lost development opportunity worth it?

In conclusion, these three different examples of situations being misrepresented for different reasons have highlighted that leaders decide when it’s okay to tell a noble lie but they should be mindful of the consequences for them and their organisations.

A Good Brainstorming Session needs an Idea Evaluation Framework

Just last week I was involved in a brainstorming workshop with a Not-for-Profit Organisation. All contributors had been briefed beforehand about the topics for which they were expected to contribute input.  The leader set the scene and the small groups started their brainstorming.  After a short while, the contributors came back together and each group shared its output with the others.  There was no shortage of good ideas and after this process had been repeated three times, the brainstorming had generated some 50+ ideas. Everyone felt like the workshop had been worthwhile, but I wondered how the organisation would decide which of the ideas would have highest priority and which ones could wait.

This situation of having lots of ideas for development but limited resources to action them is regularly faced within organisations. Fortunately, there is an effective way to decide about priorities through creating an Evaluation Framework to assess the nature of each idea using the same criteria.  These criteria might include: Ease of Implementation, Benefits for Members, Cost to Do Project, Time-frame, Alignment with Strategic Plan.  And there could be other criteria, but the important point is that each idea is assessed using the same evaluation framework.  A three-level scale could be used for each of the five criteria, for example, Ease of Implementation could be assessed as Easy or Some Difficulty or Hard; Benefits for Members could be assessed as Many, Some, None; you get the idea.

Once this assessment is complete, a simple score can be calculated for each idea by allocating 100 points across each of three levels for the five criteria. For example, on Ease of Implementation, 60 points for Easy and 30 points for Some Difficulty and 10 points for Hard; on Benefits for Members, 60 points for Many and 30 points for Some and 10 points for None; you get the idea.  By adding up the points allocated to the five criteria, you then have a total score for each idea.

Once all the scores have been calculated, its possible to rank the 50+ ideas from Highest to Lowest Score and see the resulting priority ranking.  It should now be clear which of the ideas have highest priority and which ones can wait.  So, including an Evaluation Framework as part of your decision-making process following a brainstorming session is necessary for effective priority setting and resource allocation.  This is another characteristic of successful organisations.

Ten Steps to Effective Goal-Setting with Staff and Players

The positive impact of goal-setting on lifting performance levels is well acknowledged in scientific research studies in business and sports teams’ performances.  Here are ten steps that you can apply when goal-setting with staff you manage or players you coach.

  1. Set a specific goal in terms that can be measured, like achieving a specific number of accurate passes in the game.
  2. Set difficult but realistic goals, which are within the range of capability for the staff member or player.
  3. Set short-range and long-term goals, so that today’s improvement is linked with future aims for the staff member or player.
  4. Set performance goals, not outcome goals, as the player can only control their own performance and improvement.
  5. State goals in positive terms, like the number of successful passes made in the first half.
  6. Set goals in training and competitive match play, to practice the habit in both low-intensity and high-intensity situations.
  7. Identify what needs to be done to achieve the goal, like performing 15 minutes of passing practice every second day.
  8. Write down the goal so that it’s visible and progress can be referred to at half-time or after the match.
  9. Establish a feedback system for tracking performance on the goals and also measuring improvement over the period.
  10. Encourage support of players, especially from family members, for individual and team goals achievement.

The psychological benefit of goal-setting and achievement fits nicely into one of the four corners of player development.  So, try these ten steps, monitor the improvement gains and quality of experience for your players or staff.  In a development programme, you need everyone to focus on development and having an effective goal-setting approach is an essential component.