How Coaches Can Support Agency and Empower Athletes
It’s a common complaint amongst coaches these days that athletes come to their teams after years of being micromanaged by parents, so much so that they’re incapable of taking responsibility for their actions or making decisions. And this can lead to athletes feeling utterly un-empowered and without a sense of agency.
As a coach, you’re in a unique position to help athletes create a feeling of empowerment that can spread into the rest of their lives and help them as they navigate the adult world when they eventually leave school. Here, TrueSport Expert and President of Now What Facilitation, Nadia Kyba, MSW, shares a few ways to help your athletes embrace responsibility through a lens of empowerment and agency.
Understand where young athletes are today
It is easier than ever for parents to micromanage their children. Smartphones allow them to track what athletes are looking at, what apps they’re using, and where they are at all times. And understandably, parents are nervous about allowing children certain freedoms that perhaps you took for granted in your youth. Because of this, athletes joining your team may rarely, if ever, make a decision for themselves. Kyba says that as the coach, you have the ability to empower athletes to make their own decisions—and that’s more important than winning any game.
Help athletes understand that they have the ability to change
There’s nothing more empowering than the realization that as a human, you’re allowed to—and encouraged to—grow and change. But many young athletes don’t get that message from their parents, especially parents who may have an idea of who they want their athlete to be. “When we talk about agency, it’s not just about letting kids make decisions for themselves,” says Kyba. "It’s about helping kids realize that they have different directions they can go and things they can improve on or change about themselves if they want to. The ability to change is a huge gift."
Let athletes set their own personal goals
At the start of the season, most teams will make goals that are for the entire team in a season. But Kyba suggests adding individual goals on top of that practice. “Goal setting at the beginning of the year can be so important to growth,” she says. “Have athletes think through what goals they want for the season as individuals. They’re already on the team, whether by their choice or their parents’, but setting individual goals allows them to find what's meaningful to them. That might be performance related, but it could also be related to things like confidence or leadership. Encourage athletes to think outside of the performance space."
Include athletes in decision-making
As a coach, it’s tempting to make decisions for the good of the team without consulting the team. But bringing the athletes into the decision making process, as well as the goal-setting and team value-setting processes that should occur at the start of the season, shows that you believe the athletes’ input matters. “Include them in decisions and give them leadership opportunities even when it would be easier for you to simply take the reins,” says Kyba. “Athletes should be the ones in charge of things like fundraisers, team meals, team communications, and even things like leading warmups or registering for tournaments. The more responsibility you give the athletes, the greater the sense of responsibility that they feel."
Inform athletes that they have rights
Most coaches won’t take the time to explain to athletes that they have specific rights but its critical to creating a sense of agency, says Kyba. “For example, some schools, districts, or states have the two-person rule, where no athlete can be alone with the coach. There might be a rule that a coach can’t interact with athletes on social media. Be transparent: It might feel awkward to talk about at the beginning of the season, but athletes will feel more empowered knowing that you understand and respect their rights."
Let athletes have consequences
As a coach, you’re often in a tough spot where you could smooth over a situation for an athlete (like a forgotten race registration or sign-up form) versus letting the athlete deal with the consequences. While it’s tempting to smooth things over, especially if it likely means the difference between winning and losing a game, making the athlete deal with the consequences of their actions reminds them that being empowered is both an opportunity and a responsibility. However, before you do this, make sure that your athletes know and understand their responsibilities very clearly so there’s no room for confusion! Try signing ‘contracts’ outlining the rules and responsibilities early in the season.
Help them foster belief in themselves
Those responsibilities we just mentioned might seem like a burden for young athletes, but actually, they help athletes develop self-belief and a sense of self-efficacy. "If you tell your athletes that you know they can take responsibility for getting warmed up and to the start line of their race, that’s you letting them know that you believe in them and trust them,” says Kyba. “The more information and responsibility you give athletes, the more they can have agency.” Giving them information can also apply to bringing experts in to share more knowledge: Sports psychologists and dietitians can help athletes feel more control over their mindset and nutrition, while you help hone their athletic skills.
Make sure feedback is heard
Help athletes see feedback as empowering, not embarrassing. Unfortunately, a lot of athletes have grown up with parents who are afraid to criticize or offer feedback because they don’t want their child to feel bad. While that’s entirely understandable, it’s hard for that young athlete to then go into the real world—or even into college and collegiate athletics—without the ability to gracefully accept and integrate feedback. As you offer feedback after practices or competitions, make sure that your athletes are actually absorbing what you’re saying. For athletes who are clearly struggling with this, consider taking video during practice or games to show the athlete where they can make improvements. Those concrete pieces of evidence can help a stubborn athlete start to accept feedback, says Kyba, and that can make the athlete more resilient and empowered in the long run.
Athletes may come to you lacking the ability to take responsibility or make decision, largely because they’ve been micromanaged for much of their lives. You can give athletes the chance to feel empowered in a very authentic way by including them in decision-making, letting them set their own goals specific, giving them responsibilities, and providing feedback that helps them improve and grow.
TrueSport®, a movement powered by the experience and values of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, champions the positive values and life lessons learned through youth sport. TrueSport inspires athletes, coaches, parents, and administrators to change the culture of youth sport through active engagement and thoughtful curriculum based on cornerstone lessons of sportsmanship, character-building, and clean and healthy performance, while also creating leaders across communities through sport.
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