Coaching Nine and Ten Year-Old Gamers
In last week’s article, I dove into coaching second and third graders. These tend to be players who are usually seven and eight years old. One of the key features I touched on for this age group is to cultivate a mindset of being calm and grounded. Children often respond much more to energy and tone than actual word content. In truth, all people respond more to tone and body language than words. In Never Split the Difference, former lead negotiator for the FBI, Chris Voss, explains the “7, 38, 55” rule. Only 7% of our communication is “verbal” or the words while 38% comes from tone, and 55% from body language.
They call this the “Song, Music, and Dance” of human communication. As children age, however, their capacity to grasp more abstract concepts increases. At the younger ages, as you may recall, I advised focusing on keeping them busy and engaged. Players will learn by doing it.
As they move into the fourth and fifth grade however, they want to know why. As a coach, why is an answer, not a question. From my perspective, this is one of the most fun ages to coach for that reason. Being able to give players the reasons that stand behind what they are doing makes coaching any game more interesting. However, this set of articles is also around mindsets for the coach. And in this article, I want to touch on the Second Principle of being an effective coach: Coaching Whole Heartedly.
Coaching Whole Heartedly
We have this strange idea around coaching, especially toward boys, that some emotions are “bad” and only a very limited number of emotions are “good”. Without realizing it, we can inadvertently stunt or stifle a player’s development.
Let’s be frank. One of the biggest values in sports is that it gives us a chance to deal with failure in a productive and healthy way. That might sound crazy to some, especially in a culture that idolizes success. But think about quotes from Michael Jordan:
I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed. — Michael Jordan
That’s a great sentiment, but missing shots hurts. It can be embarrassing and painful. As a coach and a mentor, one of the things we need to do is to role model appropriate mature emotions for our young charges.
Many coaches miss this important principle. They become so focused on the outcome that they can lose emotional balance by themselves. I personally have lived through some spectacularly bad behavior from coaches. I always tried to be aware of my own shortcomings and intensity (you don’t have to yell at a player to freak them out). However, this is an area that most of us tend to overlook, ignore or just try to “stuff”.
Online gaming gets a lot of attention for being toxic — and toxic environments are not productive. However, trash talking and playing dirty is not confined to online environments. It’s just easier to snapshot, copy and paste, and spread around for all to see. The underlaying cause of emotional immaturity and fragility remain.
A Role Model
More than ever, young people need role models on how to handle adversity and challenge. This is one of the reasons we insist on sending a minimum of two staff to every esports league and event. We want the coaches to role model healthy adult interactions in a competitive environment. We want the players to see what it looks like and we want to teach them to do it.
This starts by the coaches having the right mindset. There is a small library of books you can read on this topic and there are several key ideas from these two key books. “From Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” by Angela Duckworth, we learn that practice is twice as important as talent. Or as one of my son’s had on a T-shirt, “Hard work beats talent that doesn’t work hard”. But from an emotional maturity point of view, the core idea is to redirect attention back to what we can control. In her book “Mindset”, Stanford professor Carol S. Dweck created a model for how to think about challenge.
When we have a “fixed” Mindset, we are often afraid of what they cannot control. The real issue is that if you think your sense of self, your identity is derived from outcomes, you have a serious problem. Anything that threatens that outcome threatens you personally. However, if you have a growth mindset, you realize that outcomes are not in your control. Only your effort is within your control. The outcome is one measure of your capability but not the only measure. This provides a level of psychological protection.
Players who are primed to have a growth mindset, can find the energy and motivation in a hard challenge. Players who are primed to have a fixed mindset often avoid challenges as they find them too threatening. You see this with players playing “down” — facing inferior opponents to guarantee win, what has become known as “Smurfing”.
Priming for Success
You may have noticed that I mentioned “Priming”. I am glad you noticed. Priming is when we engage with another person in such a way that we influence their behavior. In this context, adults very often inadvertently prime young players in either a fixed or growth mindset by giving them complements. If you connect a player’s success to something they do not control, it is more likely they will be primed to a fixed mindset. If you connect their success to an attribute or behavior, they do control, you are more likely to prime them to a growth mindset. It is all about connecting behaviors with outcomes.
For example: if you tell a player she won because she was “smart”. Believe it or not, that can lead to a fixed mindset. Why? Because how smart we are — is largely viewed as a fixed resource. We can’t dial it up or down on demand. In contrast, if you complement a player for their effort, you are priming them for a :”growth” mindset. As I like to think of it, if you can’t control it, chances are it falls in the talent bucket and it is what it is. If you can choose the level of something however, then it is a growth skill. Take the trivial example of making a tight fist. You can choose how loose or tight you want your grip. That is control. Effort, focus, and concentration tend to be “control” attributes.
You can try harder. You can concentrate more or pay attention. These behaviors make a difference.
Reinforce the Positive Identity
At the end of the day, we use this term a “performance” goal with our players. It was a mantra or a statement they could use to help them focus their attention and guide their emotions during competition. The key idea here is from “With Winning in Mind” by Lanny Bassham, that the body will do what it can visualize. The trick? There are no visualizations for the word, “Don’t”. When you tell a player, “don’t swing at balls” the brain is left with the image, “Swing at balls” and guess what happens? We always inverted that to, “hit strikes hard”.
When players worked and made mistakes, we did not focus on the mistake, we focused on, “do it again, only do it the way you know you can.” Another tool I used frequently was, “Finish strong.” or “End on a high note”. We would practice until they achieved a satisfying outcome — the one that would linger with them long after practice was done. My goal was to reinforce the identity of how they wanted to be, who they knew they could be, just given the opportunity. We reinforced the practices that helped them build that identity.
There’s a lot more I can say about coaching nines and tens, but at this age, they are capable of connecting their actions to outcomes. As a coach, the “Second Principle: Coach Whole Heartedly”, reminds us that we have to coach the emotions as well as the actions. Losing is hard. Making mistakes can be frustrating. But outcomes do not have to define us. There can be tremendous dignity in taking a stronger opponent to their limit. As Babe Ruth said,
It’s hard to be (someone) who won’t quit.
Of all the skills you can give players at this age, in my experience a solid emotional base for competition and challenge is one of the most important. To give players that skill, you need to develop it within yourself.
- Voss, C., & Raz, T. (2016). Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It (1st edition). Harper Business.
- Michael Jordan’s Quote.
- Duckworth, A. (2018). Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (Reprint edition). Scribner.
- Dweck, C. S. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Reprint, Updated edition). Ballantine Books.
- Meaning of Smurfing.
- Priming and the Psychology of Memory