Best on Ground: Super Coach Jenny Williams on developing Junior Athletes

There are so many aspects to developing amazing, resilient, driven young athletes... Sports Psychologist and Super Coach Jenny Williams gives us the score on the most important factors to developing Junior Athletes.

Words: Jenny Williams Dip T B.Ed Grad Dip Psych, B.BSc. MPsych (Organisational)

Another day of being a sports driver. 

Be it practice or games, Mums, Dads and caregivers all over the country spend much of their free time transporting their children to sporting grounds. Their children’s experience of sport/dance can range from fun and great learning, through to anxiety, boredom or even bursts of anger. 

This article is a challenge to parents. To make you aware that the quality of experiences and people who surround your children will impact on their lives and give them more joy or direction than any number of junior trophies.

My name is Jenny Williams and I would like to offer a unique perspective on childrens’ sporting experience coming from a background of being daughter of a champion (Dad’s name is on a stand at Adelaide Oval), an elite athlete myself (SA Sports Hall of Fame), a 30 year career of elite coaching adults, even longer coaching juniors, a PE teacher of 35 years and now a Performance and Organisational Psychologist.

Many parents or junior sports coaches have the best intentions in developing those they coach. Many are on their L Plates, having little coaching experience other than perhaps playing the game themselves. As we know in business, just being a worker does not necessarily make one a good boss and yet we often sit passively watching our children’s experiences with a variety of coaches.

The importance of winning

If sport is always about the child’s improvement or friendship, then children would still be playing as young adults but somehow the importance of keeping score, winning and our own adult egos can get in the way. We produce a few champions but many, many more drop-out never experiencing a lifetime of joy from teams, friendships and movement.

There are so many aspects to developing amazing, resilient, driven young athletes but most attention is given to technical or physical training. Psychological and social training tends to be what you luck into or out of. Very little time is given – other than perhaps goal setting and team development days – which are often taken by non-experts.

In helping my athletes of all ages, I use a Hoberman sphere to outline the STAR they would like to be. This star can be expanded to be huge or be pushed together to indicate feeling very, very small.

hoberman sphere

At the centre of the STAR is a mass that is labelled CARE. Care about others, care about yourself and care about the RESULT. To be a larger star and a happy healthy individual, each of these aspects must be part of our everyday experience. As a junior, the care for themselves (in terms of development) and care for others should be of paramount importance over the RESULT in most cases.

How can we help improve the Physical, Technical, Psychological and Social sectors at every training? Do they have a coach or know an Expert who can help them to the level they want to attain?  How can they help others in their team or maybe even their parents or siblings at home? If you want to set many children on a path to depression, make all of the experiences about them or expect perfection at games and life. If we also make the result so important without teaching how to regulate emotion, then we are facilitating anger as a response to losing.

I will also mention that as an elite coach although the RESULT is my ultimate aim, WINNING is much more likely if I have spent my time CARING about my athletes as people and performers, by learning about their lives, loves and how to get them to play their best.

Becoming a STAR

The next aspect for the child is to examine what other factors can make their star grow or shrink.

Firstly, this can be internal talk. This is often the worry about making mistakes. Worry can cripple performance before it starts and leads to lack of sleep, and anxiety that far outweighs the contest level. If athletes have genuinely tried their hardest then they must learn to let the mistake go and simply GET THE NEXT ONE.

The second major factor in the size of the STAR external. It is those who surround the star every day. The opinions that they see or hear. Using the Hoberman sphere it is simple for athletes of all ages to react to a variety of factors. Examples of responses from athletes when holding the sphere are Mum :bigger, dad: smaller, maths teacher: bigger, coach: much smaller , some friends bigger, some smaller.

The athlete (even younger children) starts to understand two things. First the expertise level of the opinions they hear and secondly that no one should make you feel smaller. When I have parents or coaches in the room, they see it is the child that counts. Make them bigger, they keep playing. The more they keep training and playing the better they get. Make them smaller and enjoyment disappears and sooner or later they give up, often never to return. In terms of friends, if they don’t make the child feel bigger they are also not the friends they need.

Post-game feedback

Parents who are not experts (many hours of playing/coaching with good feedback) are given instructions that they can only give their child one or two pieces of information after a game. If their child is to be a champion, it isn’t parental drive that will make it happen but rather the child themselves. We often laugh that not giving an hour of instruction on the drive home is hard on some parents but believe me it makes life so much easier for the child. If a coach always sits the child on the bench or is negative and critical, we have conversations about changing teams and if there are mean girls or bullies dominating the group then we look at how to cope in the short term and then move to a new group.

Challenges under a psychologically safe background really help build resilience and should be encouraged but brutal feedback or negativity in an atmosphere that lacks CARE will damage fragile confidence and self worth.

In my years as a PE teacher or coach of juniors, I would hope that in every session the following four aspects were part of every session.

  1. Fun (it makes hard work feel easier) 
  2. Raise the heart rate to get a fitness benefit  
  3. Learn and practise something new
  4. Connect with others, say please, thank you

Now in reaching optimal performance, I would add, Entropy, Bell Curves, The Flow diagram, Controlling Breaths, Slow decision making, Feedback Quality, Challenges and finding the most amazing passionate experts in every aspect to help improvement. No grumps allowed.

Succeed by making each other better

My life has been blessed and as an elite athlete I won 41 out of 45 League, National and International Finals. I have many trophies but as I tell my athletes… they never ring, call or send me birthday messages. What adorns my walls and is a major part of my sporting highlight tape are the pictures of my teammates and our lives together. We won because we cared not only about the RESULT but because by making each other better and genuinely caring about each other’s lives, we loved the hard work and training.  

My quest as I age is to fast track those I teach.

Jenny’s book, Think, Prepare, Play like a Champion is available online:

RRP $74.95

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