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In this podcast episode, I interview college professor and author Dr. Jennifer Etnier about the importance of having a positive impact on kids when coaching youth sports. Her book, Coaching for the Love of the Game: a Practical Guide for Working with Young Athletes, outlines simple strategies that coaches can use to be sure that a kid’s experience is positive, while also promoting sports and continued physical activity. As a sport and exercise psychologist, Jenny works in youth sports alongside athletes, other coaches and is a coaching educator. She is also a parent of two 13-year-old sons and one 15-year-old daughter.

Big Ideas

Youth sports are huge!

  • More than 20 million children in the U.S. are involved. Their coaches range from professional coaches to casual, part-time coaching volunteers, like parents or former players.

Kids need good coaches.

  • Training to be a coach is typically not required or provided and so unfortunately for many kids, their experience in sports can be negative and even harmful.
  • We need to ensure that the people who are volunteering to coach have the necessary education to create a positive sports experience for our youth.
  • Coaches need to create a climate where it’s about each player’s personal improvement and not about the outcome. Players should always be treated with respect, compassion, and empathy.
  • When coaches aren’t positive, kids quit. Statistics show that 70% of kids will drop out of sports before the age of 13. If the experience is bad, they don’t want to go back to that sport.

Kids need to be physically active.

  • Involvement in sports should be a positive experience. Kids should have fun, develop as individuals, and grow to love the game.
  • When kids aren’t active in sports, they have a much harder time becoming physically active as adults.
  • Studies show that children who exercise during the school day do better on various measures of cognition, memory tests, and problem-solving. Being physically active helps with executive function.
  • If kids can’t participate in organized sports, especially as they get older, there are other ways to be active. They can hike, run, try a spin class or yoga with friends.

Parents need to be more supportive.

  • Active parents are associated with active kids. Making an activity (walks, bike rides, tennis) part of your family routine is a great way to connect with kids and just have fun.
  • For the vast majority of kids, the youth sports experience is merely a way for them to be physically active and to socialize, not to become a professional athlete. Out of over 7 million high school athletes, 150,000 will get NCAA scholarships. Of those, 1400 are going to play a sport professionally.
  • Our dialogue around youth sports should shift away from scores and winning and instead focus on what the kids learned and how much fun they had.
  • Kids want their parents to cheer for everyone at their games. Try to offer praise and empathy and quit being critical.


Jenny: “I’m passionate about improving the youth sports experience. Instead of trying to help individual coaches solve individual problems…I wrote this book hoping to have a more pervasive positive effect on the sports experience.”

Audrey: “A lot of times people get into coaching because they love the sport themselves but they don’t really have any training in communicating with kids, developing positive relationships with kids, and some of these important things that really help them create that positive experience.”

Audrey: “Sometimes the coaches that people see on TV are not always modeling the practices that great coaches really practice.”

Jenny: “‘Great coaching’ doesn’t mean we won state championships. ‘Great coaching’ means we had an incredibly positive experience and we felt moved toward our potential as athletes and as young people. When I think of a great coach, I’m not thinking of the winningest coach. I’m thinking of the coach that had the biggest, most long-lasting, positive impact on the largest number of kids.”

Jenny: “We want (kids) to develop their character, to develop friendships, to learn how to be their best selves in competitive settings and how to deal with victory and defeat. We don’t put them out there to be yelled at, to have the pressure of winning. And sometimes we forget that.”

Audrey: “Sometimes we get really caught up in scores, test metrics, and all this stuff when in the bigger picture, character development and becoming a fully-formed, happy human being are more important goals.”

Audrey: “It’s those great coaches who really build kids up, help them learn skills, and develop a love of the game, that end up probably winning more anyway. Because it’s the backward path that is actually a better path than threatening, demeaning, and making people feel bad.”

Audrey: “Whether you win or lose doesn’t really matter. Nobody remembers that game when you were eight years old, but you will remember having a lot of fun with your team and having the pizza party afterward.”

Jenny: “If you ask children, they know how to define fun.  Fun for them means that the coach cares about me. It means that the coach develops a practice that keeps me active and helps me improve my skills.”

Jenny: “It’s the coach who makes every kid feel like they’re valued and who meets every kid exactly where they are. Your job is to make every one of those children feel like they’re the most important player on the team. If you do that, then you’re the best coach ever.”

Jenny: “The coaches have already demonstrated their commitment to these children. They’ve already demonstrated their commitment to the sport. Now I think these coaches just need to have in their hands a toolkit that allows them to work effectively with kids to make sure that they all have a positive experience.”

Audrey: “The important stuff for me was always being in the van with my friends, going to games and stuff. I loved the social aspects of sports.”

Jenny: “In the country of Norway, there’s a national policy that says nobody is going to care about keeping score until you’re a teenager. Before that, the priorities are safety, friendship, and enjoyment. Actually they’re not priorities, they’re rights.”

Jenny: “Unfortunately, the vast majority of kids in youth sports end up having some negative experience that chases them out of the sport. It’s partly this mistaken notion that winning matters.”

Audrey: “Exercise and activity are so important for mental health, physical health and just wellbeing in general, our happiness. Organized sports are a good way to get kids regular exercise.”

Jenny: “People who are physically active as children have stronger or better self-regulatory skills, which allows them to be better decision-makers. The physical activity behavior sets the stage for more positive choices in terms of a healthy lifestyle.”

Audrey: “For adults and kids, getting your heart pumping, a little bit of activity, just clears the cobwebs,  makes you better at everything else.”

Jenny: “If children are dropping out of youth sports, and we’re not offering physical education in the schools to the extent that we used to, and as we all know, the pressures in our society are such that we’re becoming increasingly sedentary, then where are they going to be physically active?”

Jenny: “It’s almost a public health imperative that we ensure that our youth sports experience is positive because we actually have huge numbers of the kids when they’re little but then we don’t cherish that opportunity to make sure that they all have a positive experience and stick with it. If we could, if we could crack this nut, it would solve all kinds of challenges that we have in this country.”

Jenny: “The best coach is the coach who truly loves those children and values every moment that they have to have an impact on that kid.”

Jenny: “If your child is engaged in youth sports, take a minute to ask them, ‘When I come to your games, how do you want me to behave? Children say they want parents to be at the game, but they want us to be silent and attentive. If you’re going to cheer, then cheer for both teams. Cheer for everybody. Cheer positive feedback to everybody at appropriate times. Offer praise and empathy–that’s it.”

Jenny: “Parents have got to be supportive. Quit being critical. Quit telling kids what to do. Sit back, relax and enjoy the game. Tell them how much you enjoyed watching them play. And that’s it.”

Coaching for the Love of the Game

More than 45 million children play youth sports in the United States each year, and most are coached by parent volunteers with good intentions but little training. This lack of training and an overemphasis on winning often results in stress and frustration for coaches and players alike, which can discourage young athletes so much that they walk away from sports altogether. With this new guide for amateur parent coaches, Jennifer Etnier, author of Bring Your ‘A’ Game, aims to change that. Etnier offers a system of positive coaching that can be applied to any sport, from the beginner level to high school athletics, and explains that good coaching requires working with young athletes at their developmental level and providing feedback designed to keep children engaged and having fun.

Etnier gives easy-to-understand guidance on important aspects of successful coaching—including information on the development of children’s motor skills, communication with a young athlete’s parents, and nurturing a growth-oriented mindset—making this a critical resource for youth coaches of all experience levels.

About Dr. Etnier

Dr. Etnier’s research focuses on the cognitive benefits of physical activity. She is a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine and the National Academy of Kinesiology (FNAK# 525) and has received the Health and Human Performance Teaching Award, UNCG Alumni Teaching Excellence Award, School of Health and Human Sciences Teaching Excellence Award, School of Health and Human Sciences Graduate Mentoring Award, and the UNCG Graduate School´s Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award. Dr. Etnier is Member-at-Large of NAK and a member of five editorial boards for peer-reviewed journals. She was formerly the President of the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity and Editor of the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity. She is the principal investigator of the Physical Activity and Alzheimer’s Disease 2 study (PAAD-2). To learn more, go to Dr. Etnier has also written two books for the lay public titled Bring Your ‘A’ Game and Coaching for the Love of the Game.

Coaching for the Love of the Game by Jennifer L. Etnier, Ph.D. Official Trailer

Julia Taylor Morton Distinguished Professor
262 Coleman UNC Press site



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