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Natural mentoring: the unique role coaches play in a child’s future success

Adolescents need positive role models and mentors in their lives, and coaches are uniquely qualified to fill that role

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Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

When the timer stops or the last ball is thrown, what continues to matter from the field of play could well be what the athlete learned — even if it had nothing to do with the game.

Coaches matter.

Whether the message is positive or negative, children are greatly impacted by the way they are taught. In his 2015 TEDx Talk, Reed Maltbie, an educator of athletes and coaches alike, said a coach’s words do far more than make an athlete run faster or throw harder. Positive words can “elevate, accelerate and resonate well beyond the game,” while negative words cause anxiety and stress that is harmful to a young athlete’s body and mind. Those words are what an athlete absorbs and reflects into their adult years, according to Maltbie.

“It’s not the skills you teach,” Maltbie said. “It’s the words you use that are your legacy, your everlasting gift to the future of your youth athletes.”

How coaches communicate after a win or a loss helps shape a whole person, not just their inner athlete. The impact they have is a lesson some coaches have taken to heart.

Jason Sacks, president of the Positive Coaching Alliance, is one such individual. His organization works alongside coaches, teachers and community leaders to bring about positive change through supportive coaching.

“Sports are a great opportunity and platform not just to learn the game and to stay physically fit,” Sacks said. “If it is done right, it is a great opportunity to teach kids lessons that they’re going to use long after their playing days are over.”

Physical and character growth

The Positive Coaching Alliance is dedicated to improving the culture of youth sports for all young athletes, regardless of social or economic circumstances. Sacks said the character growth and life skills adolescent athletes gain from participating in group sports can last a lifetime, as many old and young athletes will attest. But the key to positive growth lies in the environment in which the athlete plays.

“We’re trying to change this enormous, youth sports culture within the U.S. where 30-35 million kids are playing sports each year and there’s a lot of pressure on these kids,” Sacks said. “There’s a lot of travel teams, pressure and ‘win-at-all-costs’ environments. It’s definitely gotten a little out of hand.”

One of the alliance’s goals is to ensure that an athlete’s experience is supportive, fun and challenging, so as to create an optimal environment for growth, Sacks said. They do that by working with leaders at every level in sports culture, from school programs to local organizations to individual coaches. 

Using a “holistic” and “grassroots approach,” Sacks said, adults who influence young athletes are taught to promote communication, resiliency and coordination throughout the teams with which they work. By teaching athletes to focus on moving past mistakes and improving themselves, as well as training coaches to listen to what young athletes have to say, they shift the environment from draining to uplifting, according to Sacks.

This is especially crucial because coaches are in close proximity to child athletes for prolonged periods of time. What these coaches teach and how they behave will be absorbed by their teams and reflected back, the coaches acting as psychosocial instructors. A famed experiment from the 1960s, the Bobo Doll experiment, showed that when children observe an adult’s unchecked negative behavior, they are likely to mimic that same behavior.

While a coach doesn’t carry the authority of a parent or possibly a teacher, the amount of time they spend instructing an athlete gives coaches the capacity to be more than just another bossy manager. They can become role models and mentors.

Dr. Lance Erickson, a professor of sociology from Brigham Young University, for many years studied the role of mentors in young lives. His research in the mentorship of adolescents suggests positive mentors don’t just improve a child’s ability in the specific field they teach, but in other major areas of their life, as well.

Natural mentorship

Erickson studied “informal” or “natural” mentors — those whose role in a young person’s life isn’t parental or educational. Sports coaches fit well into that framework and have a unique influence in setting a child up for success later in life.

Erickson found in his research that adolescents are 50% more likely to attend college when they have a positive mentor in their life — and this number doubles if the youth comes from a disadvantaged background. The work of that mentor doesn’t have to be revolutionary, either. The mentors who had the greatest impact were those who were “being involved and treating the young person as an important human being.”

That respect sets the stage for serious character growth in a time when young people have physical capacity that is similar to an adult’s, but the wisdom and experience of children. Add exploration of identity and preparation for the future into the mix and it becomes clear that what adolescents need isn’t a drill sergeant but a role model who’s willing to listen. 

“Parents are seen to be antagonistic to the kind of exploration that adolescents find themselves doing, so natural mentors serve as a role of someone who can be trusted,” Erickson said. “They can help shine a light on the pathway that youths are trying to figure out.”

That is why coaches have such influence. This kind of mentorship isn’t developed overnight, however, and it can be difficult to reach adolescents at a time when they may be struggling.

Jumping hurdles

It’s important to note that there are more obstacles to creating a quality sports experience for children than one might initially expect, including such barriers as cost or a mental health challenge, experts say. It’s critical to first ensure that all children have the opportunity to participate in sports in their community.

Jon Solomon of Aspen Institute’s “Project Play” said that, like the Positive Coaching Alliance, Project Play revolves around fostering personal growth and a love of physical activity in children regardless of their background.

He said Project Play excels at opening dialogue on obstacles many might be unaware of, both on a national and local level. For example, Project Play recently studied the “State of Play” in Oakland, California. One of the issues that the project found was a lack of equitable access to recreational sports leagues. The group said white children were two to three times more likely to play in a sports team than Latino/a, Black or Asian children in the area because of differences in opportunity.

Solomon told the Deseret News that one issue that sports culture faces is difficulty finding people willing to coach, whether because of busy schedules or lack of training. The project’s data also shows that the coaching population seriously lacks diversity — and that affects how well coaches can empathize and forge connections with their athletes.

“Seventy-five percent of youth sports coaches are male, 25% are female. ... There should be greater balance,” Solomon said. He helps coach his son’s sports team, for example, and sometimes finds it easier to relate to the athletes due to his life experience.

“There are experiences that a woman has, say with puberty or issues of being a female teenager, that as a male I’ve never experienced,” Solomon said. “How would I know exactly how to relate to that? There’s incredible value in representation.”

Solomon said that this applies to racial and ethnic backgrounds, as well. When coaches can directly empathize with their athletes, it creates a space for the child to be better understood and supported in ways that coaches of differing backgrounds might not be aware of. This support fosters meaningful connections and the positive mentorship that child athletes need in their lives, he said.

Compassion and direction

Troy Smith. Donte Whitner. Marshon Lattimore. These men share more than a career in the NFL — they all were coached by Ted Ginn Sr., a revered figure in Cleveland, Ohio. The Associated Press wrote of Ginn that if he “has a vision, nothing will stop him until it becomes a reality,” and that vision has been to provide his players with the best educational and career opportunities possible.

“The vision is to make strong young men and great citizens,” Ginn told ESPN. “If you don’t like the vision, get out of the way.”

A football coach of over 40 years, as well as coaching track and field, Ginn has supported his players at every step. He is mentor on and off the field, Andscape reported, whether it’s being a sympathetic ear for current and past students, letting players stay in his home when times are hard or traveling to college campuses to promote his students during his summer “Ginn Bus Tours.”

Athletes from Glenville High sing his praises, with many students saying that Ginn’s coaching changed their lives, ESPN reports. Several “Tarblooders” have received scholarships to Ohio State University and play for the Buckeyes, according to Eleven Warriors, with some going on to play in the NFL. His son, Ted Ginn Jr., is just one of many athletes who found a mentor in Ginn Sr.

Since 2007, Ginn has founded and been the director of the appropriately named Ginn Academy — an all-male, public high school in Ohio, with the motto, “Having the Courage To Be Different.” Though he wears a suit and tie more often than a whistle and pair of shorts, Ginn still works to inspire and elevate the young men who walk through his door.

“People often try to emphasize that football is the greatest thing we do for young men in our community in Cleveland, but they are missing the purpose,” Ginn said to Andscape. “Love is the greatest thing we do, and how they learn to use love in their lives when they move on from us. It is not complicated what we teach and how we inspire these students.”

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated that Solomon has a daughter. Solomon has a son.