Coaches' Lack of Training Said To Limit Sports' Benefits
Athletic coaches, the most crucial factor in determining how young people experience organized sports, often lack the formal training that can make the involvement beneficial, according to a wide-ranging report on youth sports.
"The potential benefits of sports competition are acknowledged by parents, educators, and physicians, but whether these benefits are actually derived by a significant number of participants depends largely on the quality of adult leadership associated with the program," researchers at the Youth Sports Institute at Michigan State University conclude in a study presented last week to the U.S. Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs.
However, the study found, fewer than 10 percent of volunteer youth sport coaches--and an even smaller percentage of non-faculty interscholastic coaches--had taken courses to improve their competencies.
Moreover, more than half of the interscholastic coaches lack the credentials to teach in the school districts where they coach, according to the report, "An Overview of Youth Sports Programs in the United States."
"The fact that they have a teaching license doesn't qualify them to coach either," said Vern Seefeldt, the director of the Youth Sports Institute and a co-author of the study.
Few coaches are willing, however, to take the courses necessary to improve their coaching abilities because "the rewards for acquiring the educational equivalent of certification are not sufficiently offset by the remuneration that coaches receive for their services," the report states.
Commissioned by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, the paper is one of 13 the philanthropic organization is funding to gather information on youth organizations in order to assess their effectiveness and to develop policy.
Mr. Seefeldt, along with co-authors Martha Ewing and Stephan Walk, compiled the overview from a variety of data, including a forthcoming Youth Sports Institute study of 20,000 students ages 6 to 18 from 17 metropolitan areas.
The survey includes school intramural and interscholastic sports as well as programs sponsored by local service clubs, community groups, and local governments.
The authors report that some 35 million children ages 6 to 18 participate in one or more organized sports each year.
Many of those interviewed for the study were blunt in their criticism of their coaches' abilities.
"We were amazed at the criticism that the young people were leveling at their coaches," Mr. Seefeldt said.
"This was the first time that kind of criticism has been asked for and so freely given by the young athletes," he said, adding that the youths also criticized their interscholastic coaches, although to a somewhat lesser degree.
Two other major findings from the study relate to demographic and gender differences.
"It became quite clear that agency-sponsored sports are now a suburban, middle- and upper-class avocation," Mr. Seefeldt said. "The kids from the inner cities, the lower socioeconomic areas, and from the rural areas seem to be left out in terms of the program planning and access." While acknowledging the difficulties in reaching such children and in providing facilities for them, the M.S.U. researchers indicated that many non-school organizations had not established any goals or missions to provide programs for them.
"The big hope that we have is that the national affiliates [of local sponsors] will see this [research] as a way of assisting us in helping the children at risk, Mr. Seefeldt said. "[They will see] that youth sports are a viable means of breaking through, but it requires a tremendous amount of leadership at the national level."
Elitism is also evident in the limited opportunities available to less skilled youths, according to the study.
After age 10, the rate of participation declines steadily until youths reach age 14. At that point, the participation rate drops steeply, a decline "associated with the advent of interscholastic competition, which reduces by more than one-half the number of youth who participate in sports," the authors note.
Girls also tend to be at a disadvantage in athletic activities. More opportunities are still available for boys, the researchers found.
Even when equal opportunities do exist, some 75 percent to 80 percent of girls in coeducational settings drop out by the end of the season largely because they entered the sport an average of two years later than boys and thus are less skilled at it.
Also affecting the participation rate of girls and minorities is the lack of female and minority coaches, Mr. Seefeldt said.
Of the more than 20 recommendations in the report, many address the need to improve adult leadership so that participants will be taught the importance of responsible citizenship, academic achievement, fitness, teamwork, and discipline.
Coaches also must learn to be sensitive to all youths, including, the report suggests, understanding the differences in participation among races, ethnicities, and genders.
The report also recommended that practice sessions and games be modified to ensure that they are enjoyable, rather than boring and time-consuming, as many youths complained.