By Ian Barker
In recent years a cottage industry has sprung up around youth sports dedicated to addressing the behavior of parents and coaches and the overall "culture" of the sideline.
Youth soccer is no exception in this with scores of anecdotal observations available from all quarters in regard to the good, bad and ugly of what is happening at soccer fields during every season.
In addition, a scan of the headlines usually reveals negative stories about coach and parent action in youth sport.
Sorting through the reporting, the stories and perceptions to come out with an accurate picture of what is happening can be daunting.
Beyond that, taking steps to improve the experience for the children can seem a significant challenge for already over-taxed parents and coaches.
However, it is possible to scientifically understand the youth soccer culture, to consider the experience of all constituents, and to take practical and developmentally solid steps to do a better job.
At the same time, while educating and working to improve sideline behavior, it is possible to directly influence player performance to the good in ways more powerful than any number of training sessions.
Research conducted at Michigan State University in the 1970s has provided clarity in the reasons for children's participation in sport, the reasons for children dropping out of sport, as well as reasons why one sport is preferred to another.
The data, having been professionally collected and interpreted, points to the fact that players enjoy sport more if their experience is a "nurturing" one in which winning is important, but not at the expense of having fun, sensing improvement and feeling involved.
Indeed, winning is understood to be a likely result of the players' feeling cared about, feeling that they are improving, and feeling like their involvement is important.
If coaches and parents can understand intrinsic motivation, and how to foster it in the children, performance can and will improve.
So even the most hard-hearted coach or "involved" parent can see "gain" in the win/loss column by a balanced approach to the environment they create for the players.
When players can be encouraged to give full effort in tandem with being provided correct technical and tactical information, they will inevitably improve. Like an adult, a child will be inspired by improvement in their competence and will in turn give more effort.
Once the cycle of effort, good instruction, and identifiable improvement in skill and understanding is established, coaches and parents will see better performance.
How is intrinsic motivation fostered?
It is fostered by asking children what type of experience encourages them and then managing that environment. Short-term "success" can be achieved through extrinsic motivation, but is not sustainable if the only reason to try is based on external reward, because when the reward disappears the reason to try disappears too.
A collaborative effort between the Minnesota Youth Soccer Association and University of Notre Dame is trying to scientifically take on the challenge of identifying what youth soccer players want from their experience, what motivates them to do better -- and then to educate parents and coaches to meet the players needs.
The program, PACT (Parents and Coaches Together) asks athletes, coaches and parents about their unique experiences in youth soccer --and a baseline experience is understood.
Then coaches and parents receive a program of information that discusses player "needs," motivation and communication skills, conflict-resolution techniques, and concludes with an understanding of how to develop an adult team effort so that players' experience can be positively supported.
After the coach and parent information is delivered and a season of play has concluded, the program then asks the same questions, previously collected to establish the baseline, of athletes, coaches and parents.
This data, along with the collection and study of referee reports and red- and yellow-card numbers, is then studied to determine the efficacy of the information and the effort.
The experience in Minnesota is leading to quantifiable results that point to improved retention in player numbers for clubs, lower incidences of poor athlete and adult behavior, and improved competitive performance for clubs where the program has been delivered.
Where the program has been particularly strong is in capturing enough data to let us know how people are enjoying youth soccer. Simply put, we have found that despite the perceptions to the contrary, a vast majority of those involved are very satisfied with youth soccer.
At the same time, we know that a percentage of players believe it is acceptable to cheat to win, to injure another to win, or have felt physically threatened by an opposing parent or coach.
Formally identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the youth soccer experience has made it possible to educate adults to consciously and collectively change small details that improve how players enjoy their soccer and how they play.
We can do better, we can learn where we need to do better, and we can learn how to do better, but we have to want to.
For more on PACT (Parents and Coaches Together), go to: http://www.mnyouthsoccer.org/programs/pact.cfm
Ian Barkerhas been the Minnesota Youth Soccer Association's State Director of Coaching for the last decade and has been a Region II ODP coach for 15 years. He also coaches at Macalester College in St. Paul.