Coaching Youth Sports: Beyond Winners and Losers

Coaching youth sports is a rewarding job, particularly for adults who see their roles beyond winning and losing.

Coaches of youth sports are role models and key players in making sports experiences gratifying and beneficial for children and teens. According to the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS), “sports participation is one of the greatest resources available for instilling valuable life skills in children.” Unfortunately, those valuable life skills can become secondary to winning. Not only do coaches help kids have fun and experience winning and losing, they also play an important role in positive youth development.

While they deservedly celebrate the winners, coaches also recognize the efforts of all children who work hard to be good at sports. Coaching helps kids develop resilience, cope with disappointment, learn from mistakes, and make adjustments to strategies. These are all important aspects of developing initiative, an ability that children use in all aspects of life.

Why Is a Sports Coach Important?

Coaching youth sports is one of the most important ways adults influence the positive development of youth. Beyond the development of strategies and skills associated with a particular sport, a sports coach can ignite a child’s curiosity, teach positive social and team skills, cultivate resilience, promote self-awareness, model integrity, foster resourcefulness, encourage creativity, and nurture empathy. Educator and sports consultant Dr. Jennifer Fraser, debunks myths about coaching young athletes, showing the differences between tough-minded and positive coaching strategies. In her article, “How to be a Positive and Winning Youth Sports Coach,” she outlines eight ways youth sports coaching can positively influence athletes.

What Does Coaching Youth Sports Involve?

Researchers have studied the role of youth sports coaching for many years. Studies show that sports coaches who give positive reinforcement, provide effective feedback, and foster a caring climate provide the best developmental outcomes for children.

1. Provides Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is used in coaching youth sports to bring about desirable changes in behavior and to teach children to take responsibility for their actions. Coaches do this in a variety of subtle and overt ways. Sometimes it is a gesture, like a nod of a head, a smile, or a pat on the back that lets players know they performed well. Other times, it may be verbal praise for trying hard, executing a good strategy, or treating another player with respect. Praise is most effective when it makes players feel good about who they are on the inside. For example, even when children lose, they can still feel good about how hard they worked or how their abilities have grown.

2. Gives Effective Feedback

Coaching youth sports is about looking for teachable moments. They facilitate a growth mindset in their players, showing them that everyone can change and grow through learning. One technique used by coaches is to serve up a feedback sandwich. 1) They begin by identifying something positive. For example, “Rob, I really liked the way you pushed yourself during the game.”  2) They coach for improvement, being direct and firm but never demeaning. For example, “I’m going to work with you on how to kick the ball more successfully….”  3) They end with encouraging words for kids, stating a bright outlook for the future. This technique works well with children, particularly when youth sports coaching involves the regular monitoring of change and giving helpful feedback as improvement occurs.

3. Creates a Caring Climate

One of the most positive aspects of coaching youth sports is the ability to develop a caring relationship with individual children and teens. When sports coaches truly care for their athletes, they form a bond between themselves and their team that gives members a sense of belongingness. Research shows that when kids feel like they belong, their attendance, motivation, and retention increase. Elements of caring include listening, empathizing, respect, and acceptance—regardless of winning. Modeling these behaviors to children through youth sports coaching has been shown to foster their ability to care for themselves and others, and also ignites a passion for learning.

Sports vs. Other After-School Activities

When young people rate their participation in sports compared to other after-school activities, like arts, academic interests, community service, and faith-based activities, sports gets mixed grades. Why? Sports are often over-focused on winning and competition and under-focused on developing internal strengths like empathy, respect, and caring.

Proponents of youth sports often make blanket statements about the benefits of sports, and parents tend to have their own opinions about the value of sports in children’s lives. Studies indicate three important aspects of sports participation that affect positive development—intensity, continuity, and balance. When all three are present, kids seem to benefit the most.

Adolescents score sports high in giving them opportunities to develop teamwork and social skills, but low in opportunities to experience positive relationships with adults and peers or learning how to help others. Since studies maintain that one of the most important experiences we can give kids is to help them become caring adults, it seems imperative that youth sports coaching focuses on creating caring environments that teach respect and how to develop positive relationships. If young people perceive this caring environment, they are more likely to feel connected and demonstrate caring behaviors to others.

Winning may be foremost on the minds of many sports coaches, but if it is remembered that coaching youth sports is about nurturing positive development, their coaching will be rewarded by children who grow to succeed in life.


Fry, M. D., & Gano-Overway, L. A. (2010). Exploring the contribution of the caring climate to the youth sport experience. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 22, 294-304.

Hanson, D. (2008). The variety of organized youth activities in the United States and adolescents’ developmental experiences in them. In R. Bendit, & M. Hahn-Bleibtreu (Eds.), Youth transitions: Processes of social inclusion and patterns of vulnerability in a globalized world (pp. 151–162). Farmington Hills, MI: Ridgebrook

Zarrett, N., Fay, K., Li, Y., Carrano, J., Phelps, E., & Lerner, R. M. (2009). More than child’s play: Variable- and pattern-centered approaches for examining effects of sports participation on youth development. Developmental Psychology, 45(2), 368-382.

(This article was originally published June 20, 2011. It was updated with new research and information Oct. 13, 2018).

Coaching Youth Sports Beyond Winners and Losers | Roots of Action

Published: October 13, 2018

Tags: , , , ,