Empowering young athletes through responsibility

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I just read a newspaper article about politicians discussing if the age limit for a learners permit to drive car should be lowered to 17. One politician reasoned her opposition like this: “We should ask ourselves if it’s right to give young people such responsibility at 17 already.” Seriously? Those same kids you think should choose a career path at 15 years old cannot drive responsibly when they’re 17? Being only 23 myself and having worked with teens aged 12-17 for a few years now, I have something to say about this. A lot, actually.

The art of teaching freedom

Kids are constantly told what they can and cannot do. When they’re very small, this is reasonable, because they’d probably hurt themselves otherwise. In their teenage years, it gets tricky. Parents are slowly allowing for more leeway, teaching their kids to be more independent and take responsibility for their actions. School however, which is where they spend a large chunk of their time, doesn’t respect that gradual change.

They claim that “you’re older now, you can figure out yourself which parts of the book you need to learn” and “you’re old enough to research this topic on your own”. And they’re right with that. But they get a crucial point wrong. If you give people additional responsibilities, you also need to give them additional power. If they come and say “We don’t know which parts of the book to learn, we don’t have enough resources to find out”, they need to be heard. So, schools are essentially loading more and more weight on kids without giving them the tools or the power to handle it.

The ramifications of that

As teenagers are flooded with responsibility but no decisional power is handed to them, they start rejecting more responsibility, because they just can’t take any more. At that point, us grown-ups call them lazy. They’re not. Teenagers inherently want to take responsibility, because it’s the time in their life where everything changes and they want to find their own path. We just ruined it for them, like we ruin their favorite songs when we sing along loudly in the car. It’s frustrating when you try to grow into your role as a responsible adult while constantly being told that you can’t do certain things the way you see fit.

From classroom to gym

At the gym, we have an opportunity to empower our young athletes. It’s our task to teach them, and to teach them safely, so we do need a certain set of rules. But we have the opportunity to let them grow through and with those rules. Make a point of explaining exactly why a rule is in place, and make sure they understand it. Also, give them the freedom to question your rules; usually, they find the answers to their questions by themselves in the end. Here’s an example of a side base asking about her liberty grip:

Athlete: “Why do I have to grip that way? Can I also hold my main base’s wrist?”
Coach: “With that grip, you’re supporting the foot of the flyer, giving her stability. What are you doing with a wrist grip?”
Athlete: “Supporting the main base on her front hand.”
Coach: “Exactly. Now you have to decide who needs more help; if you have a shaky flyer, grip the foot. If you have a stable flyer but a weaker main base, grip the wrist.”

Not only is this exchange way more satisfying for the athlete than a simple “No, because I say so”, it also makes the athlete think about the intricacies of technical stunting.

We can also ask them for feedback on how to shape training sessions. Unfortunately, we cannot always accommodate the wishes of each individual athlete, but even then, it’s important for them to know that their input is heard and taken seriously. They, just like the coach, try to shape training to make it as fun and as rewarding as possible, just from a different perspective (that is no less important).

Give responsibility to those who want it

There are kids, teenagers and young adults who love to tackle new challenges and take additional responsibility. Louis Braille started developing his alphabet for the blind when he was 11 years old and finished with 16. Even though it’s extraordinary, there’s hundreds of examples like this. Teenagers are very capable of taking responsibility and changing things.

Why not hand them that responsibility at the gym? Maybe they can teach a part of the routine to another athlete, maybe they can teach a skill that only they can do. Maybe they want to get new bows for the whole team, organise an event, or start coaching. Cheerleading is the perfect playground for them to test out all of these things without any fear.

But kids should be kids!

I absolutely agree. We should not force responsibility on kids who don’t want it. But we should support and encourage those who do, give them guidance and advice when they ask for it, but not force our noses into their business at every possible moment. Let them find out what they’re capable of; they don’t need us to tell them.

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