Youth Sport Coaching and the Opposable Mind

Last Wednesday morning, I was part of an exciting roundtable/thinktank – Youth Sport Coach Development in the United States: Where Do We Go From Here? (hosted by BU’s Institute for Athletic Coach Education, Up2Us, and the Boston Youth Sports Initiative). It was a morning where about 4 dozen passionate, thoughtful, and involved individuals set aside egos and began working towards the common goal of optimizing the resources and information needed to empower the next generation of youth sport coaches. While there was a common goal backgrounds of participants varied greatly: academics in sport psychology and sports pedagogy, national governing body representatives, community sports organizations, national sports organizations, and coach character educators.

While listening to the discussion, I could not help but think that this discussion was a prime example of the need for the “opposable mind.” The opposable mind is an idea trumpeted by Roger Martin. It suggests that often in life (business in particular) one is faced with what appears to be either/or decisions (i.e. profit big or provide incredible quality), those that engage the opposable mind do not accept the either/or scenario. Instead they think “integratively.” They hold two seemingly opposite ideas in their head for a while and work towards a solution that can serve both masters. The ability to think in this manner provides very fulfilling solutions and successful enterprises.

While I listed to academics, player development specialists, idealists, and practical administrators discuss visions of youth sport coach development, I was struck by the either/or conundrum that continued to be a sub-text: You can coach for positive character or you can coach for winning.

I struggle with this. Perhaps I can’t take the only coaching for character because sports without competition is simply not sports. It’s kids running around aimlessly – perhaps getting fit, but not reaping so many additional benefits that come from competitive play. I struggle with the notion of coaching for winning alone because this idea is simply nonsense. Winning and losing do not make the games great, it is the competition, the team work, the shared stories, and the effort. Perhaps most importantly, my opposable instinct tells me that sport is not at its best unless both positive character and competitiveness are being fueled regularly. The coach that neglects either is not truly doing the young athlete justice. The coach that can do both feeds the student-athlete achievement zone.

Is it possible to coach to both masters in today’s society of highlight reals, big money sports, entrepreneurial coaching, helicopter parenting, and all the rest of the silliness? Absolutely. Just put on your opposable mind, believe it is possible, and commit to it.

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