Don’t Steal the Reps from Your Athletes

By John O'Sullivan

Imagine you went to your child’s algebra class and got to be a fly on the wall. Imagine the teacher was being assessed on your child’s test results in two days. Now imagine that instead of teaching your child how to problem solve, and the concepts behind doing algebra problems, she just took out the answer key and said “here are all the answers. I will put these up on the board during the test so if you can’t do the problems, just put down what I write on the board.”

This is a farcical situation, right? It would never be OK for our child’s math teacher to do this, as we can all agree that no learning would take place. By the same token, if we do our child’s math homework for him every night, we can all agree that he is not learning math, right?

The children are getting the answers and solving the problems, but they are not the ones doing the reps. Yet how often does this happen in sports?

I was listening to a fantastic conversation the other day on my new favorite podcast, Train Ugly’s “The Learner Lab” (you can get all ten episodes of season one here). It is 10 episodes of pure awesomeness if you are interested in how to cultivate a growth mindset, how to learn better and faster, and how to build great cultures and teams. In episode 6 on neuroplasticity, the hosts raise a great point:

In any learning environment, be it sports or school or work, if we want learning to take place, parents and coaches need to be aware of stealing the reps from our children.

They gave a great analogy that bears repeating. Imagine you are in the weight room and doing squats. You put some added weight on the bar, and your goal is to do 10 reps. After three you are really struggling, and your spotter, instead of helping or guiding you, takes the bar from you and does the last 7 on your behalf. It seems like a ludicrous scenario. You needed a spot, perhaps you wanted a bit of assistance, but you didn’t want your spotter to take the bar and complete the task. We can all agree that scenario will not make you stronger or any better at doing squats. Stealing the reps does not help in the weight room.

So why do we think stealing reps helps on the sports field?

In my experience, I think many coaches and parents think they are being the metaphorical spotter. They think they are guiding the young athlete toward improvement, and by fixing her positioning or yelling the correct decision to make they are promoting development. In reality, in many cases, they have stepped in and taken over the bar. They are doing the heavy lifting, and the athlete has his autonomy and decision making stolen from him. 

Joystick coaching and sideline coaching from parents are basically stealing reps from your athletes, and when we steal the reps, it is only an illusion that learning is taking place. We are stealing opportunities to get stronger, smarter, creative, aware, and make decisions. How do we know this? Let’s go back to the podcast, and outline four things that research says are necessary components of a great learning environment:

  1. The brain is like a muscle, we need some struggle to grow: You will not get stronger if all you do is do five-pound dumbbell curls day after day. You need to add weight. You need stretch. You need desirable difficulties (check out this great podcast we did on this with Jessica Leahy, author of The Gift of Failure). Some resistance and struggle are necessary to grow, so when we see it, embrace it. It means our athletes are in the learning zone. If we always intervene and solve problems, we will get short term improvement, but miss out on long term learning.
  2. Growth takes time and patience: We don’t just do one set of push-ups and expect big results. We don’t eat healthy for one meal or one day and realistically expect to lose 10 lbs.  It takes time, reps and patience to build a new skill. Progress is slow and steady, and sometimes there are regressions, but if we stick with it long enough, growth happens. We must not let our expectations surpass our patience when we are coaching or parenting young athletes, and when we see them struggling, we cannot just assume that since we taught it they have learned it.
  3. We don’t learn by watching someone else do it: To see the results, the athlete needs to do the work, not simply watch others get all the playing time or practice reps. Our belief is “if you pick them, you play them.” This is 100% true for youth sports in middle school and younger, perhaps starts to phase out in high school varsity scenarios, and yes, in college and professional sports you must earn your time. But back to youth sports. Skills are developed by actually doing them, getting the reps in, making mistakes, assessing, and trying again. They are developed in interleaved, game-like practices where they are deployed in their environment, and not blocked training or standing in lines. Every young athlete needs practice reps and every player needs game time, and if you cannot make that happen as a coach, you should either quit coaching or never pick the kids in the first place.
  4. We can improve any skill if we do the work: Of course, we all cannot master every skill or be the best athlete in our given sport, but everyone is capable of improving. People learn at different rates and at different times, but given enough time and an optimal learning environment, people will eventually learn. It takes focus, effort, time, but any skill can be learned and improved upon as long as we create an environment that keeps our athletes engaged and with a growth mindset.

How people view learning and talent development

I am not saying that there is never time for coaching or teaching. Of course there is. But how we coach and when we coach are huge factors in determining whether learning takes place, or whether we have created the illusion of learning taking place. And this illusion of learning can be addictive for parents and for coaches, because we see our kids doing better at something, or making the right run, or hitting the right pass, and it is intoxicating.  But in reality, all we have done is steal the bar and done the last seven squats ourselves. So how can we overcome our tendency to steal the reps?

Here is some helpful advice for Coaches:

Turn technique into skill: Skill is best defined as the ability to deploy a technical, physical task in a game-like environment. If we block our practices and repeat the same exact technique over and over (think hit 100 x 7 irons in a row, or pass a soccer ball with a partner) the science tells us that in the short term those athletes will perform that task better. Practice will look good, but the transfer of that technique to the competition will not take place, and the learning is not sticky. Research shows that skill developed in a randomized practice is stickier and transfers better.

Ask questions instead of giving answers: Instead of telling your right defender to pinch inside or step up, ask her “where should you be right now?” Instead of yelling “shoot” or “pass” say nothing and allow your athlete to make the decision and assess his choice. Then maybe you ask “What problem were you trying to solve? What did you see there that made you play that pass? Were there any other options? Do you think one of the other options was a better choice?” Help them discover the answer by guiding them through the process, rather than giving them the answer. If you help them start to see the why they will eventually pick the right how!

Using the competition as a quiz: Competition should exist to measure progress and see what your athletes have learned. If you do not give them the space to explore and make mistakes, how will you ever know if they have learned something? This does not mean no coaching is allowed, but keep it to a minimum, and recognize if your coaching during competition is of the “promoting learning” or the “problem solving” kind.

By the same token, here is some helpful advice for parents:

Be their #1 fan: start by remembering your kids already have a coach or two, so do they need another one. During games, never coach your child and tell her where to run or what technique to choose. Some parents tell me “well the coach never helps!” Maybe after reading this, you will understand why. The coach is leaving space for your child to learn, and so too must you. If your coach just doesn’t know, and you do, then please volunteer and coach yourself. The world needs more good coaches.

Ask them 3 great learning questions: Post-practice or competition, when your child asks you “how did I do?” the door has been opened for you to take them down a path of self-discovery and ask these magic questions:

  • What went well?
  • What needs work?
  • What did you learn from today that you can work on in practice in order to improve?

If you help your children see the good and the bad of their performance, and help them formulate a plan moving forward, good things happen.

Embrace the desirable difficulties: I think this is much harder to do as a parent than as a coach (trust me on that one as I have a lot easier time watching my athletes struggle than I do my own kids!) If your child is in a good learning environment, or even if she is in a poor one and this is an opportunity to learn about what it means to have a lousy coach, if we can keep the focus on “what did we learn from this” it is an opportunity for growth.

When you are invited in, step through the door: If you have knowledge of the sport, and your child does not know what to do, it is a great opportunity to go out in the yard or the park and demonstrate. Play catch with them. Engage with them in the sport. Research shows that when parents are able to play with their kids and do so without taking away their child’s ownership or enjoyment, those kids are more likely to continue playing.

Finally, for both coaches and parents, the best thing we can do is see the big picture and be patient. (I have called patience the missing ingredient in talent development in this article). Recognize that anything worth achieving will take time, and be focused on the right finish line in terms of sport development. Winning all your games at 9 or 12 is not necessarily the best preparation for being successful as a high school or collegiate athlete.

Next time you head out to the field, pretend you are in the weight room, and your young athletes are at the squat rack, attempting to lift more weight or do more reps than ever before. Be a guide. Be an encourager and supporter. Be a spotter. And be a shoulder to lean on when things go sideways.

But never, ever, steal the reps.

John O’Sullivan is the Founder of the Changing the Game Project, and author of the national bestseller Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High-Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports back to Our Kids. He is a longtime soccer player and coach on the youth, college and professional level, and a nationally known speaker on coaching and parenting in youth sports. His work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Soccer America, and, and he recently gave a TED talk on “Changing the Game in Youth Sports.”

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