Allowing Young People the gift of ‘Responsibility’ through Struggle, Failure and Freedom
During my years of teaching and coaching young people in classrooms, lecture theatres, and sports environments I have noticed certain patterns in those who go on to be successful and happy. I would like to share my observations with you and explain how ‘less’ can lead to ‘more’ when it comes to nurturing young people.
It may sound simple to say but the one thing above all else a youngster who thrives has, is a wisdom that “they are in control of their own improvement.” If you asked them, “Who makes you better?” they would instantly respond, “ME! I make myself better.” They have a sense of personal control and self confidence which allows them to take this responsibility on their young shoulders. The key word is Independence and it leads to fantastic results in their psychology and their behaviours. They seek out great people for advice, they bounce back from failures, they risk, they dream and they improve themselves at fast rates in many areas of their lives. In sport, they win. They win big in fact. They become great role models, they are a joy to work with and they always improve. They inspire others around them and they make their coaches look brilliant!
The opposite of this are those that generally look to others to improve them. They hand over responsibility to teachers, coaches, parents, trainers, physiotherapists, psychologists etc. They believe that other people improve them and that basically if they listen to the expertise and take the incoming motivation, then they will progress in life. Often they struggle to improve. Expertise can’t be used and fear creeps in to the areas where true self esteem is missing. Nothing really gets earned and they enter yo yo cycles of enthusiasm, new coaches and often injuries.
The Help Illusion
The ‘Help Industry’ (of which I am part of), comprising of coaches, analysts, physiotherapists, psychologists, nutritionists, S&C trainers, performance directors, private tutors, therapists etc has obviously been brilliant for top performers in sports and business. Expertise layering on to already successful characters has clearly been a positive move at world level sport. In a way, great players make the helpers look good. Characters in squash such as Nick Matthew, Nicola David, Amr Shabana, Sarah Fitzgerald, Jonah Barrington and Susan Devoy make their trainers appear outstanding and I am sure this would be admitted. I notice that many ‘so called’ gurus of coaching and training, who have helped many world class performers, have had no impact and some negative impact with many others. The ratios are often negative. This validated phenomenon called the “Halo Effect” goes further than just making the individual helper look like an “Improvement God” but actually starts to make the whole “HELP industry” look necessary to young people and their loving parents.
Worryingly, as Universities and Governing Bodies churn out thousands of people ready to fill those roles, all willing to be paid and all willing to make careers out of giving all the help, expertise and support any youngster could wish for. Precarious times…..
Bottom Lines – People have started to think that other people make them better, not themselves. All these “helpers” have wonderful ideas and expertise but what can happen is that the more they help you, the less personal responsibility you feel and then the less confident in yourself you become and the cycle begins.
Tough Times Make Tough People, Cosy Times Don’t
In terms of character development and personal drive, youngsters of today have had it harder in many ways. This is because as they grew up they have had so many people offering to take “responsibility” away from them. They have been inadvertently spoiled because there are more people offering to fix things for them. There is more money about to pay for other people to do your thinking for you. It happens at School too, at least in the UK. There doesn’t appear to be a way to FAIL anymore. When people fail they fall back to a certain level of luxury and care and attention. A re-sit here and a bit of easy coursework there always allow people to progress. We even see passing of responsibility with equipment now. “All the gear and no idea” is a funny saying but actually has key point hidden in it. Responsibility gets passed to kit, rackets, grips, courts, balls and shoes. Not forgetting all the latest recovery clothing, drinks and massage machinery.
Bottom Lines – there seems to be no harsh ‘wake up’ call anymore. There is always someone to pick up the pieces and make you feel like you are working hard when YOU are not! There is always a ‘side door’ to take, an excuse to make a person/piece of kit to blame. Somebody will sponsor you, pay for all your flights, lottery fund you or help you for free!! Self Responsibility drops away, real issues not faced and true self esteem is never earned.
Don’t Deprive Them of the Struggle
What is never going to change is that we have to overcome struggle, in order to strengthen ourselves. Things have to be hard for us so we go inside and change. Pain is a massive motivator. Embarrassment, letting somebody down, being banned, losing, being outplayed, poor form, financial ruin, an alternative miserable life and other tough situations will always occur if you let them. And let them you must. Top performers always say how they learn from the bad times more than the good. That not only takes a certain mindset but takes a certain amount of SUFFERING to go through. It is the suffering that can be your ultimate character builder. Wanting to avoid that feeling again and wanting to replace it with success really drives people on. People don’t run out of petrol very often do they? Somehow they always get to the pumps! Even those “forgetful” types! Why I wonder? Too much misery….
Helpers beware here, don’t add to the suffering too much. Don’t add guilt or blame or punishment, simply just get out of the way and let the person feel it themselves. This will be hard if you are used to rescuing or you are worrying about your own reputation as a coach or parent. We all have our ways of getting attention after all and “Helping” when other “nasty people” won’t, is a banker! Resist giving the solutions, resist diverting or softening of the experience and give the situation space. Allow the contemplation and then ask them how they intend to move on. By all means stay supportive and humane but let the reality of the hurt stay a little.
Bottom Line – Look for struggle, embrace it, overcome it, let youngsters feel it and they will earn genuine personal strength when they come through it. Support them mildly but use struggle as character building tool.
A Way Forward
Developmental work of any kind is difficult. This is because each and every situation has a life of its own. There is no correct scientific way to work with Humans. It is chaotic, random and complicated. This is why growing is an ART form. The main point being made in this piece is this; The best person to navigate the perils and joys of growth and character development is surely the person themselves. (not including many medical psychological conditions, where expert help is vital)
Without an experience in doing this, how can they ever be blamed for failing when adult life kicks in and when they leave juniors in sports terms? I propose that less is more when it comes to helping young people develop their sporting craft and life characteristics. Hand back responsibility; challenge them to improve themselves and set expectations related to improvement, performance standards and behaviour. Shatter the “HELP ILLUSION” as quickly as you can and remind them that coaches and the rest of the help gang are just the cherries on top of a very deep and high quality cake that must be baked by them.
Development of People first, Players second
I am not saying anything groundbreaking here but the “law of familiarity” can be at play if we are not careful. That being we don’t pay attention to the obvious things because it is so basic and familiar. The hardest part for coaches and parents is sometimes the basic and familiar wisdom of letting go and allowing young people room for mistakes and growth. This does not mean being lazy or not caring, quite the opposite. You get good and bad coaches just like you get good and bad police officers, mechanics or doctors. Some will be great at building independence and responsibility in people and will have it strong in their philosophy and behaviours. Some will not and believe in a more controlling / lazy approach to helping people, who they often just see as players. Each person to themselves but research and experience continues to suggest that successful people made it because of something from within themselves. I think that is worth remembering because that is where youngsters need to be skilfully encouraged. Help the person to grow from within, and then the player in them will thrive.
If you are interested in trying any of the tasks and activities I have designed to help youngsters get in charge of themselves more in terms of inspiration and action, then contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org