by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.
The phrase “kids are not little adults” has been thrown around in coaching and player development circles for many years. But what does this phrase mean exactly? What truly differentiates children, from teenagers, from adults? Why do adolescents behave in such peculiar (and seemingly irresponsible) ways at times? The answer lies in brain development. The following piece will highlight the basics and establish guidelines for working effectively with adolescent athletes.
As the brain develops from childhood to adulthood a series of changes take place. Although we are actually born with the same number of neurons we possess as adults, the way those neurons connect and interact changes dramatically throughout a lifetime. Brain development starts from the brain stem and works forward to the prefrontal cortex as we develop mentally. At approximately three years of age the hippocampus matures, allowing us to retain memories for the first time. Next, the regions of the brain that handle language and motor development mature allowing us to read and build friendships. The final part of the brain to fully develop and interact with the other regions is the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that controls executive decisions (planning, judgment, and decisions). Therefore, a failure in concentration, focus, motivation, and consistent effort from teenagers is directly linked to a completely normal, yet undeveloped brain…not necessarily laziness or stupidity as some people observe.
Coaches who C.A.R.E. for developing adolescent athletes follow guidelines similar to the following…
Consistent – Teenagers actually thrive under consistent guidance and rules, although they sometimes do not show it themselves. At the beginning of a season or each individual practice, establish fair rules and guidelines that are mutually beneficial for a learning environment. For example, “When one person speaks others listen”. Once these rules and guidelines are established, there is no guesswork involved. Coaches must also maintain the same consistency with applying these rules and guidelines. If coaches and team leaders do not model the same behavior toward rules and guidelines, do not expect your athletes to abide by them either. Create a short list of your “non-negotiable” rules of behavior as a coach and be sure that these standards are highlighted and maintained on a regular basis by both athletes and staff. The same is true for skill development. Establish a few fundamental skills that will serve as building blocks throughout the season and revisit them regularly to establish effective habits.
Action – In general, teenagers also have a shorter attention span than adults. Therefore, activities that are geared toward learning through movement and mutual discussion allow for natural shifts in attention. Rather than speaking at an individual or group for extended periods of time, allow for mutual collaboration and movement. Discussion and action also serves as a great measuring stick for how much the individual actually understands and can apply what is being taught. When discussion time is needed, be specific and concise with the message. Once the athletes get back to action, it will become clear if the lesson has been learned.
Reinforce – Reinforcement goes hand-in-hand with consistency of rules, guidelines, and actions. It also includes positive reinforcement. When an athlete shows mastery (or improvement) of a skill, be specific with feedback to reinforce effective habits at least as often as modification and correction is made. Do not fudge the truth and praise athletes for ineffective skill development or behavior; critiques are needed too. However, be aware of how much criticism versus positive reinforcement is being given and celebrate successes together. Specific and timely reinforcement with equal distribution (favor towards the positive as often as possible) will enhance the learning environment and mutual respect between athlete and coach.
Experiment – The adolescent brain is heavily matured in creativity, but not as much in the consequences of acting upon these creative thoughts. Common teenage thoughts begin with “What if…” statements, so use these thoughts to your advantage as a coach in the controlled environment of practice. Teachable moments will arise in abundance! Allow players to experiment with new techniques and strategies. When the appropriate series of events unfolds, stop and highlight any lessons learned from the experience. In this way, consequences will become more directly attributed to the experimental “What if…” statements. One of the most effective ways to learn is through experimentation and making mistakes. As long as these experiments and mistakes are made (and framed) as lessons learned, athletes will be less concerned with making mistakes in competition. Again, effective coaches are consistent in both practice and competition as well. So if mistakes are made in competition, acknowledge these mistakes as lessons learned for improvement instead of detriments to growth and development.
Every coach and every environment is slightly different. However, all effective coaches consistently evaluate themselves as much as their athletes. Those who C.A.R.E. for athlete development respect individual differences and also maintain a healthy and controlled learning environment at the same time. By understanding some fundamentals of human development coaches can become more effective leaders of player development as a result. For a more descriptive and scientific view on the subject of adolescent brain development, follow this link to a piece written by Dr. Laurence Steinberg (2005).