How do we foster the right conditions for people to learn & enhance athlete's natural appetites for developing?

After interest in an article shared via Twitter regarding coach educator Wayne Goldsmith’s ideas towards young athlete participation and retention in sport, it took me down a rabbit hole this weekend looking at athlete engagement and practice design for age grade sports participants of today, reminding and refreshing myself through books such as Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition, Constraints Led Approach and Positive Pedagogy for Sports Coaching (thanks to Messrs Renshaw, Chow and Light). Reviewing the article shared by Goldsmith, he addresses and comments on a conman finding across all sporting codes across many countries; the number of kids who fall out of playing competitive sport is increasing drastically. His main point is modifying the rules and the games isn’t enough to stem the haemorrhaging. Coaching and coaches themselves need to modify and adapt….quickly.

The experience we’re giving kids is generally out of touch with what they want. The default setting of the majority of coaches around the world still is to be predominantly physically-based and repetition-based, telling kids to do laps and yell times. That’s not coaching, connecting, inspiring.

My strong belief is that the solution to turning around the falling numbers playing competitive sport is to change coaching. To make it more relationship-based and experience-based.

An area of interest for me was his interesting take on the phenomenal appeal of the video game, Fortnite. He discussed how a coach he was talking to in the US bemoaned the popularity and appeal of the video game; how engaged kids were with it and the instant gratification it provided. Goldsmith didn’t so much empathise with the coach as advise him to empathise more with those kids, an area I have mentioned previously as I perceive that Fornite ticks many boxes of Self Determination Theory for kids playing the game. Can we as coaches learn and adopt our coaching methods to tick similar boxes, offering relatedness to athletes, offer perceived competency in their actions and player autonomy in game decisions and practice design? Like Goldsmith discusses, let’s collectively look into and develop a way of coaching that is engaging, inspiring, allowing them to connect with others.

If you’re waiting for kids to change and go back to the way things used to be, you’re deluded. Life doesn’t go backwards. And the issue isn’t that kids have changed. They haven’t. The problem is we haven’t changed. We’ve to come up with ways to find it interesting and exciting for them to want to work hard and get better at sport

This quote reminds me discussing player engagement in Ireland with GAA coach Brian McIver, current Derry director of football and former Championship winning coach. He discussed how he was challenged by player’s parents to go back to more linear, drill based approaches as “that’s how it’s always been done”. He questioned one of the parents…”what do you do for a living?”…”I install kitchens”…”Do you think you could sell the same style kitchens now as in the 70’s or 80’s or do you have to change to meet your customer’s demands and expectations”…….the point was made and heard.

Reading further into the ideas against the standardisation of sports programs and developing an athlete centred approach within age grade environments, I looked into findings from Amanda Visek’s (PhD) work, investigating “fun” as the primary reason for participation in organised sport and its absence as the number one reason for youth sport attrition (, linking back to Goldsmith’s point of the number of kids playing competitive sport is decreasing drastically. She questioned male and female soccer players between U9-U19 and investigations found the top four dimensions of fun were Being a Good Sport, Trying Hard, and Positive Coaching and Learning and Improving. The categorised statements were grouped into dimensions as listed and included the following:

  • Being a good sport: Playing well together as a team, Supporting and being supported by my teammates and Getting help from teammates.

  • Trying hard: Setting and achieving goals, Being strong and confident, Competing

  • Positive Coaching: When a coach encourages or treats players with respect, Getting clear, consistent communication from coaches or coach who listens to players and takes their opinions into consideration

  • Learning and improving: Being challenged to improve and get better at your sport, Learning from mistakes and/or new skills


Reviewing my current research of investigating personal strivings of emerging adulthood rugby union players (, I had reviewed and believed these players were not having “fun” within these high performance programs as they were seeking relatedness or meaningful connections away from their sporting environments and focused solely on personally developing or gaining competence through achieving personal goals or developing confidence in rugby contexts. However, the language used and coded sport specific strivings align with Visek’s work, meaning I shall be reviewing my conclusions (again!!) over the next few weeks…..

These ideas and reflections led me look into other areas for athlete engagement and player enjoyment around skill acquisition or learning development. Personal favourite, Sir Ken Robinson recently echoed similar ideas to Goldsmith’s practice design for school’s learning environments, recently describing how “education has to be urgently transformed”.

Learning is acquiring new skills and understanding; education is an organised system of learning; a school is a community of learners. All children love to learn, but many have a hard time with education and some have big problems with school. Usually, the problem is not the learners – it’s the inherent bias of education and the enforced culture of schools. For generations, formal education has been systematically biased towards narrow forms of academic ability. The result is that it largely disregards the marvellous diversity of human talents and interests

For the past generation especially, politicians have been smothering schools in a depressing culture of standardisation. As a result, they have been marginalising the very capabilities our children need to create a more equitable and sustainable world – by which I mean creativity, compassion citizenship and collaboration. Our children must learn that the human adventure can only be carried forward through complex forms of collaboration.

It’s about building schools that value the social dimension of learning and practical work. They are dedicated to fostering the right conditions for people to learn; to making education more organic and less formulaic. They recognise that schools must foster young peoples’ natural appetites for learning; that schools themselves must be creative, compassionate, democratic and collaborative. And they must be more personalised and organic.

In applying these ideas of Robinson to an age grade sporting context while tying in Goldsmith and Visek’s ideas, I perceive breaking the drill based, linear forms of coaching methodologies while allowing for and embracing collaborative exploration of talents and interests within sports or practice designs. The development and growth of compassionate and democratic environments through autonomy supportive behaviours, athlete centred practices and more organic view towards development and methods of skill acquisition shall allow athletes to maintain engagement and collectively develop diverse talents, according to their interests and current skill levels.

How does all this tie into practice or learning design and increasing player participation and engagement? Holland and Woodcock’s research (2010) recognised that having persistent determination to improve while still enjoying sport participation is crucial for sporting success at specialisation stage such as U19 athletes in Visek’s work or players involved in my personal strivings research. The qualities perceived crucial for elite youth participation include confidence, appropriate attention focus, game sense and mental toughness (Holland, Woodcock, Cumming, & Duda, 2010). For high performance programs, developing expert status requires interest and motivation within sport to increase along with proficiency of skills; however, player’s openness to experience shall continue to increase up to 20 years old (McAdams & Olson, 2010). Therefore, coaches or teachers within player’s environments need to identify what enhances a player’s interest, looking at areas such as why participate in sport, what constitutes success in athlete’s eyes and in terms of sporting context alongside what motivational impact is recognised when athlete is offered enhanced knowledge and strategic skills support. Coaches could acknowledge inspirations, responses and preferences of elite or specialising athletes, understanding player’s motivations or behavioural tendencies and offer them the competency, autonomy and relatedness within their practice design they desire.

Why the focus on quality over quantity in training scenarios or environments, such as athlete-led, games based or non-linear approaches by myself as personal preference? I believe this style of approach shall develop greater levels of participation, performance and personal development at both age grade through to senior or elite levels, sustainable throughout specialising and investment stages, akin to the organic growth suggested in Robinson’s ideas towards education. Previous research suggests that both “learning occurs in social groups through ongoing interactions between people” (Vygotsky, 1978) while Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi’s research addressed “creative people are driven by discovery and creation of problems as opposed to superior skills or ability”. Therefore, addressing Goldsmith’s ideas of coaching practice development, creating a fun, challenging atmosphere where players drive the structure and decisions shall allow you to better identify and connect to their character to become the “skilled partner”, offering guidance and encouragement in a Vygotskian style approach. I believe coaches should assist players to identify problems as opposed to solving them, offering ideas and assistance for how to think and act as a collaborative group or team opposed to offering solutions, allowing them to develop intrinsic motivation for their endeavours which leads to greater persistence, improved performance and enhanced well-being in a physical setting.

Thanks for reading; I’d love feedback or discussion around these areas or other blog posts. Please feel free to contact via email;