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COACH'S CLIPBOARD: Teach Young Children Sports

Updated on October 29, 2014

"Unfortunately resources, before now, have not existed to comprehensively educate us on the benchmarks or best practices that must be kept in mind when we or others teach young children sports"

— Dr. Brad Kayden, Early Learning in Sport Expert


Today the youth sports environment is changing. One way this is happening is through the growth of competitive and non-competitive programs that teach young children sports. It is estimated that there are 42 million children that participate in sports annually and 12% or around 5 million of them are children under the age of six who play organized sports.

Unfortunately resources, before now, have not existed to comprehensively educate us on the benchmarks or best practices that must be kept in mind when we or others teach young children sports. The methods and approaches used to teach young children sports effectively are very different from the ways we teach older children. However, the science of early learning in sport has only more recently begun to be explored.

Who is the Early Learner in Sport?

The History of Teaching Young Children Sports

For generations, early learning in sport has been an anomaly. Young children have been discounted from sports research and the study of athletic talent development. Although often overlooked, the early learner does have a place in sport. Unfortunately that place is difficult for most of us who have played sports to personally remember because we were so young.

Now that many of us are parents, teachers or coaches, children's first introductions to sports takes on a whole new life of its own. It plays an active role in how they will view and think about sports moving forward; and this is what makes the job to teach young children sports so important.

Today, I am happy to say that we know more about early learning in sports and early learners' athletic talent development process than ever have before. There is still a long way to go but with new research published in 2013, it will soon become easier for parents, teachers and coaches to better recognize and nurture the athletic talent development process. Further, it will become infinitely easier to more specifically understand the exact science of how to teach young children sports.

Sports coach at work teaching young children
Sports coach at work teaching young children

Bridging the Gaps in Our Thinking About Athletic Talent Development

As I mentioned earlier, to teach young children sports is not the same as to teach older children. Although distinguishing between the two may seem like a logical starting point, it is illogical to think it is possible to clarify every distinction that exists between every age and stage of sport.

Making distinctions and simplifying the athletic talent development process has been an ongoing challenge of youth sport for generations. Basically, we must face the fact that there are too many distinctions to list making it nearly impossible to be either comprehensive or anything but complex.

Nonetheless, it is still fundamentally necessary to understand the athletic development process. Breaking it down into more manageable or bite-sized pieces of knowledge to gain understanding has been a process in and of itself. Meanwhile, there are many that are benefiting and taking advantage of the convoluted nature of sports' athletic talent development process and many more who are misunderstanding it to the point of inappropriate practices. Parents are likely to be at the biggest disadvantage as many sports organizations use the complexities of sports' athletic talent development process and inappropriate practices take advantage exploiting their lack of knowledge to pad their own bottom lines.

Much of the exploitation happening today is stemming from the lack of resource available to parents that talks specifically about the athletic talent development process. Their over reliance upon coaches and sports organizations is forcing young children to specialize in one sport earlier than ever, and parents being led to believe it is necessary if their child is ever to experience higher levels of sports success. This is a gross misinterpretation of both the Natural Order of Sport and how the athletic talent development process it supports is supposed to work.

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The Natural Order of Sport

It has been through the study of early learning in sport and how to teach young children sports that new doors have been opened to think about the athletic development process of sports in more universal and streamline ways. My research discovery of the Natural Order of Sport creates infrastructure or way for us to think about all athletes uniformly. The advantage of doing so lies in the Natural Order of Sports' universal ideologies, or its basic principles of sports success.

Unlike the ways we have thought about sports in the past, the universal principles of sports success are not sport, phase of sport, or age-specific. They, instead, recognize those characteristics or attributes of an athlete that can be universally found from early learner to elite that have been linked by elite athletes, top coaches and parents of Olympic champions as key indicators linked to sports success. Universal principles of sports success now make it possible to understand athletes, early learner to elite, collectively instead of in the fragmented ways (i.e. ages and stages approach) we have always thought of them.


Where to Start?

Where I prefer to start in my thinking about how to teach young children sports is more along the lines of how the majority of us think about sports. This is only made possible when the many distinctions we know to exist between how we teach young children sports and older children are set aside, and we can depend upon the Natural Order of Sports’ universal principles of sports success.

In 1999, a survey of 658 coaches of girls and boys ages 3 to 22, who participated in 43 sports including soccer, baseball, basketball, softball, swimming, martial arts and diving were asked to "describe a young athlete who is a real winner" by picking five attributes from a checklist that included 64 physical and 64 psychological characteristics. The top three attributes* most frequently mentioned by coaches were:

  1. Loves the game (43%)
  2. A positive attitude (33%)
  3. Coachable (30%)


Many of you are curious as to what is meant by universal success principles. The top three attributes mentioned by coaches above are an example. They are not sports-specific and not based on a phase of sport or age of participant. They are universally found from early learner to elite and linked to sports success.

As a parent, teacher or coach, your job is to be able to integrate this knowledge into your own approaches. If you consider and buy-in to the fact that 5% of coaching is teaching skills and techniques and the other 95% is planning, it becomes possible to understand how planning for sports success far outweighs the day-to-day routine of coaching.

"The plan is senseless, but planning is essential."

— Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower
children in a sports class
children in a sports class
boy holding ring
boy holding ring
children wearing small cones on their head
children wearing small cones on their head

Activities with a Sports Theme

Unfortunately, the rules, strategies and deeper nuances, idiosyncrasies, peculiarities, humor and subtleties of sport do not often apply or translate very well when you teach young children sports. This can make the challenge to teach young children sports seem almost impossible. Avoiding the major pitfalls that experience when trying to teach young children sports, requires thinking about what children like.

Children like bubbles, noodles, cones, dots, rings, parachutes, music, beyond the ability to play with sports equipment. The addition of these types of things into the early learning classroom makes learning fun. The early learning sports classroom is not a practice or an opportunity to play games; it is a place where children believe they come to have fun. This requires the creation of a classroom that subscribes to the idea of many activities with a sports theme. The better you can link children's thinking to play and fun, the more effective you are going to be when you teach young children sports.

Young children have a place in sport. How you think about the athletic talent development process is important and it doesn't happen exclusive of you. Those who are the best able to teach young children sports are those that become synergistically aligned with young children and their expectations for play and fun. You can't be worried about outside influences like parents or program managers. If anything, they must be thought of as just like you and your relationship with young children, one.

Young children have the energy of a raging river and you can either look like you know how to navigate the rapids or appear to be drowning. There is usually little in-between. In the beginning, we all look like we are drowning but as long as you do it with grace and style, nobody is going to hold it against you. Winning when you teach young children sports requires your own demonstrated love of the of the game, a positive attitude and a value for being open and coachable.

Young children shooting basketballs
Young children shooting basketballs

Making Kids Coachable

We cannot change children's natural immaturity and their unsportsmanlike tendencies. It is necessary to rely upon a more universal approach to help us focus less on the things we can control and let go of the things we cannot.

As you go through your planning process, you will undoubtedly consider the fact that it is not that difficult to recognize a child's love of the game or positive attitude, but what does it mean to see them as more coachable? Top coaches find that successful elite athletes are often highly coachable. As you look through this list of terms and phrases top coaches use to describe elite athletes, notice the universal nature of them and consider ways, as we have done in our business, Jelly Bean Sports, to get children to reflect these attributes:

  • Listened to coaches
  • Organized
  • Attentive to instruction
  • Trusted coaches
  • Responded positively to coaches negative reinforcement
  • Was receptive to coaching
  • Was inquisitive
  • Athletes became their cown coach
  • Was student of the game
  • Athlete had many questions
  • Was flexible
  • Adapted to unexpected events
  • Was open
  • Was educable
  • Athlete offered feedback to coach

Based on these and other findings from elite athletes, top coaches, and parents of Olympic champions, I was able to develop five universal learning objectives that were designed for early learners but will work for every level of sport:

  1. Build a love of the game
  2. Build listening skills
  3. Build communication skills
  4. Build critical thinking skills
  5. Build sports skills

These five objectives are all designed to build a love of the game, foster a positive attitude, and make young children more coachable.


There is much more to this process to effectively teach young children sports but it is necessary to consider this your starting point. Getting your thinking right and understanding the limitations of the work you're about to undertake are important steps. Knowing what is universally important, like helping young children become more coachable, should help you to feel value for what you do because you know that you are working on young children's development in much the same way top coaches are working with elite athletes' development. Finally, consider strategies for how you're going to implement the five key focus areas that help build children's love of the game, positive attitude and coachability.

© 2014 Dr Brad Kayden


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