sportsvirtual children by Scott Warnock

Lessons from an Olympian: Moderation, managing expectations

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Last Saturday I went to an all-day wrestling coaching clinic. (How about that for a lead-off?) The instructors included Olympians, national champs, and college coaches. I learned some new technique, and, as you will in any kind of immersive conference-like environment, my mind was able to focus on this one thing. But the clinic was about more than push-ups and stand-ups. What I was struck by, particularly through one clinician, was how these people who’ve competed and coached at the highest levels in one of the toughest sports voiced consistent philosophies of coaching moderation.

I’ve watched youth coaches burn thousands of calories yelling and writhing during competition, and it always troubles me. Andy Hrovat, 2008 Olympian and trainer for the Cliff Keen Wrestling Club, was particularly good in reflecting on these behaviors. Hrovat works with some of the best athletes in the world, but he also coaches young kids in Michigan, and he asked our group some hard questions about what we are often asking our young athletes to do.

He offered some great, generalizable approaches to practice. First, he inverts common practice approaches in saying, “Don’t teach first.” In wrestling, as in many sports, we teach technique and then reserve the end of practice for scrimmaging. But with kids, they have all this energy. They want to play and compete. Hrovat suggested that after sports-specific warm-ups, kids should wrestle live. Instruction can come at the end.

He also had a collaboration model for coaching and instruction, saying, “The athletes help each other the most.” We should create opportunities in which our athletes watch the best kids on the team, and we should help structure the practice experience so kids can learn from each other.

This all prefaced a discussion of coaching expectations. Bluntly, our expectations are often based on a variety of sheer misperceptions about what our athletes can do. We want athletes to do sophisticated things with their bodies, like react to an attack or evade a defender, but in practice, we ignore that they can’t do simple things like hop on one foot, do a cartwheel, or keep their backs straight while doing a push-up. They don’t have fundamental strength and coordination yet.

Of course this leads to frustration. It’s kind of like getting angry at a student who cannot do calculus after we have just seen that the student could not reliably multiply and divide. We have to curb our expectations so that we provide kids with a realistic and thus constructive learning frame.

It will be much easier to curb our expectations if we approach coaching with moderation, something you may not expect to hear from a world-class athlete. Yet Hrovat said coaches often just get in the way of athletes’ development. He’s right. We talk to – and at – the athletes too much. In a quest to be that iconic inspirational mentor, we fill any empty space with our words — and our surveillance. We do too much. We make everything about how we complete their activities by watching, talking, counting reps. While I took furious notes, Hrovat said that a coach-to-athlete relationship boils down to this: “I’m going to give you the guidelines to win, but it’s up to you.”

Youth coaches, particularly those of very young kids, can do many things to win. We can stack our teams. Cheat. Micromanage. Bench lesser players. But if we, as coaches, simply provide athletes with the tools, opportunity, and guidelines, then they will develop — and we will get to do that fun thing during competition: Sit back and watch. If that’s good enough for an Olympian, then it’s good enough for me.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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5 Responses to “Lessons from an Olympian: Moderation, managing expectations”

  1. It sounds very much like the concept of Winning vs. being a Winner. When the goal is “Winning”, then youth coaches do the negative things that you describe – benching lesser players, cheating, yelling and embarrasing themselves and their young charges.

    Teaching how to be a winner is when you bring a person’s talents out and shape them with character and discipline. In this modality, one “wins” when they’ve followed their passion, they’ve worked their bodies and minds to achieve a goal, and they can say at the end that whatever the score “I did my best.”

    It is a priceless experience to watch a young person look at you after a tough competiton and you exchange that look and acknowledge you both know you’ve both done your best. Good article and I hope people read it and understand.

  2. I am reminded of Orson Scott Card’s novel _Ender’s Game_, recently made into a movie. I’m still up in the air as to whether the movie represents what I’m about to say about the novel, but the novel follows Coach Hrovat’s ideology pretty closely–it’s the kids that ultimately teach themselves and each other, Ender Wiggin himself realizing that each member of the team has to be able to act independently as well as with coordination with the rest. Whatever people’s objections to Card’s political and social stances, Ender’s Game is a powerful novel with a lot of food for thought.

  3. Nice work as always. Also really like Brian’s comment “I hope people READ it and understand”

  4. With the realization that seven years of exposure makes a person biased I have to stop and state that this has been the wrestling coaching style the entire time that I have observed your coaching Scott.
    You work the kids, warm the kids and give them a specific task or move to work, stop where you can (as one of two or three adults in a room crowded with kids) and guide specifics where you can.
    Maybe it is because wrestling is such an individual sport where the two wrestlers facing each other have to decide if they are going to learn or just going to struggle to come out on top without truly learning. Maybe it is because the mentaility fits pretty well with my parenting style – give the basic rules of decency, right & wrong and let the kid move from there making mistakes to learn but being ther to guide or pick up when the fight was well fought but still lost.
    Youset a level of respect, a level of expectatin not of winnin or excellence but of dedication and self-respect that allows the wrestlers to build themselves, to learn from both the good and bad.
    And to set the example for parents who sometimes may really, really want to be that screaming, neck-bulging coach on the sideline – but who instead learn to step back and offer support instead of trying to force something.

  5. Oh Scott, you nailed it! We have been so fortunate for Jamie to be coached (softball) by a person who shares the idea, “I’m going to give you the guidelines to win, but it’s up to you.” And at her level of play, part of the guidelines are taking the responsibility to work on her own, encourage her teammates, respect her teammates and coaches and to learn from her mistakes. I think the most loved words an athlete can hear from their parents,
    ” I love to watch you play”.

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