How Adults Ruin Children’s Sports

I missed most of the European Championships. My friends alerted me to the performance of Jakob Ingebrigtsen, who won two gold medals in the middle distances. He’s 17. We were marvelling at the ability of one so young and the conversation turned to what it would take for the UK to have their own Ingebritsen. I told my friends about the RFU decision to ban competitions at up until Under 14 and it led to the post below, “The Problems With Junior Sport”, which I shared with my friends, which has been lightly edited. I write as a person that has coached junior levels of sport, in one form or another, since 2001. I have coached players that went on to enjoy professional careers in rugby and basketball, so have a wide variety of experiences.

The biggest problem at the junior levels of sport is the behaviour of the adults around it. They create a culture of results being more important than process or enjoyment. In that respect, I can understand the RFU’s intent. This sense of results being paramount can be seen in the refereeing, which, at times is beyond a parody. Children know when they are being cheated and it destroys enjoyability. Then you have the nepotism, which is similarly dispiriting, where an obviously inferior player keeps his place in the team because his dad is a teacher/coach at the school/club.

The solution is simple in theory. Coaching has to change as do ideas defining success. At 11 and 12 years old, participation has to be key, because the more young people that play, the greater the chance of unearthing the best players. When I coached junior rugby, I always tried to ensure 70% of the boys in the year played in the team, because, at that age, you have no idea how players react to being in a game situation. It also does little to call them ‘a’ teamers and a ‘b’ teamers. That will naturally evolve as the season goes along. I tried to get the northern independent schools coaches to commit to having mixed squads for the first month of the season in order to integrate and assess boys. The ‘old school’ coaches would have none of it. My results at Under 12 were consistently strong over a 4 year period (the teams won, on average 75% of their games) because all the boys felt they had a fair shot at playing. We started dominating national powerhouses. I think one of the reasons for that I only really coached during the week.

What I mean by that is I would be very hands on during the week, talking to individual players, setting standards, questioning the players’ decision processes, correcting techniques and things like that. Come game day, I would say very little, limiting myself to reminding the players that “I don’t get a pay rise if we win and I don’t get fired if we lose. So we might as well enjoy ourselves” and asking the players questions during breaks in play. Things like “how many times have we run a set play?” “How are their backline defending (blitz or drift)?” (this is called Socratic questioning). Before each game I would ask the players to set three targets and at half-time we would review them. I’d ask them what they thought was going well and what they thought needed improving and only after that would I give my feedback. It gave the impression that I was doing nothing, especially compared to the histrionics of opposition coaches who would shout helpful things like: “pass!” “tackle!” and my favourite, “run!” They felt a need to be seen to be coaching.

On parents, some of the sideline behaviour is shocking. Whilst refereeing I have been called a cheat in 100 different ways, told I’m missing obvious things and had parents act like they are a judge and I’m on trial. Too many parents are living vicariously through their children, using them to try and get a redo on their own sporting failures. The only time a match was abandoned against my team, the parents and the coaches were to blame. We were playing a school that had recently won a national championship. They offer scholarships and have well-regarded coaches. Their parents were normally polite to me and the team because they would beat us by 50 points. On this day, my smaller pack got the upper hand on them and were winning handily. Their boys, at first, were fine. Then their coach started complaining about the referee (not me). Then the parents started complaining. At the start of the second half, their boys started engaging in the kind of rough house illegal play (high tackles and pushing and shoving) that is the hallmark of having received a “talking to” from their coach. I told my boys to hit hard but clean. One of their lads ducked into a tackle and got hurt. A couple of their parents ran onto the pitch to admonish my boys and remonstrate with the referee. 2 minutes later, the game was abandoned because the parents were abusing the referee and their boys, now enraged, were trying to fight. Their coach, magnanimous in defeat, told me to find a better ref next time. Their boys were dejected. They were beaten on the pitch and had no adult telling them how to respond to the setback. Instead of changing competition rules, it is adults that need educating. At independent schools, helicopter parenting is a massive issue. Too many parents believe the best way to protect their child is to blame anybody but the child for things that go wrong (I was once accused of causing a child’s depression because I had “only” selected him in a “b” team. It is why I think these rules were brought in and why, without educating parents, the issues will remain.

There is much more to say on this subject and I will tackle it in part 2, coming soon.

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