By Lydia Sokol
I have learned through personal experience that trying to foster positive youth development (PYD) as a coach can be difficult, especially if there is an expectation to produce winning teams. People say that coaches should focus on developing their athletes through fair participation, yet in reality many clubs, parents, and even athletes themselves would rather focus on winning.
I once coached a high school junior boys’ volleyball team, and I ran into the challenge of trying to balance promoting PYD with expectations about winning. We had one player who was selected for the team on ‘potential.’ He was not the strongest player but I thought he would develop for the next season. I hoped he would still have some positive experiences by being on the team, such as gaining confidence, a sense of belonging, friendship, and some volleyball skills.
However, our developing player almost didn’t see the court, as we considered him too much of a risk to play in a game due to his lack of volleyball skills. We did end up putting him in one game for the last few points when there was minimal risk of losing. The player ended up winning the game with a kill (an attack in volleyball that earns a point) and he was rewarded with the MVP of the game. It was a great moment for the whole team, and as a coach I felt rewarded for the time I had put into working with this particular player, as well as for my decision to include him in the team more noticeably.
Unfortunately the player didn’t receive much playing time for the remainder of the season, and nothing else really changed from that point on as we focused more on winning games than giving him opportunities. You could argue that his relationship with his teammates improved, as they were able to see more value in him as a team member. You could also say that his confidence improved, as he performed well in a public setting. But to this day I wonder if I could have done a better job of balancing my desire to win with developing this teenager – both as a person and as an athlete.
Coaching for PYD is easier said than done, but I learned from this experience. Now I have a better understanding of how to balance competition and personal development. As a coach, I will strive to win but not at the expense of undermining an athlete’s experience or, even worse, leading him to dropout of the sport. For example, now when I have developing athletes I make sure they regularly play the first game of a match, instead of waiting for the end of a sure-win game.