Coaching children under five? You need to read this

Guide 5 - 11

For adults working with under fives (U5s), coaching can seem like a test of endurance.

At this age, children could ‘eat you for breakfast’...
... and there will be times when we find it hard to manage their need for constant stimulation. There are also challenges when it comes to communication – young children are still in the process of developing their language skills and may not always be able to express how they feel.

So, what can you do to help?
When coaching U5s, it’s essential that adults are aware of their own responses, patterns of behaviour and emotional triggers. Why? Well, by the age of three, children are already experts at mimicking those around them. Through observation and experience, they are:

  • learning how to survive in an ‘adult’ emotional landscape
  • beginning to understand how power can be used in relationships
  • picking up on cues that shape their sense of self and how they feel they need to behave with others in order to ‘survive’.

This all sounds quite scary, but it’s actually a great opportunity – particularly if we’re aware of what’s happening and decide to work with it, rather than against it. 

To find out more about how to support young players, expand the 'top tips' below.

Our top ten tips

When children arrive, try to create a connection with them. This is especially important if it's their first session (it can be very scary to meet new people and try new things), so why not give them a high-five? This simple interaction is a great way to activate feel-good chemicals in the brain.

Make time to chat and ask how they’re feeling, then remind them of things they did last week or set the scene for what you’ll practice today. When you’re doing this, try using metaphors, e.g. " in the warm-up tonight we'll run like the wind" or, "change direction like a fish being chased by a shark". This helps to engage both the emotional and logical parts of the brain.

The presence of a guardian can help your players to feel safe and secure during sessions. This involvement can reduce over time, but initial contact is important – and not just for the child: developing a good relationship with parents and carers means that you can work together to overcome any misbehaviour in a consistent way.

Saying "can you show me?" helps to begin the development of very important executive functioning skills, such as planning. These skills are not fully developed until a person’s mid-to-late 20s, but introducing your players to basic tasks where they can start to predict, sequence and organise is an important coaching strategy.

Want your team to feel a part of your session? A great tactic is to encourage them to carry out certain tasks – and 'tidy-up time' is a perfect example: young children can collect and colour code the cones, as well as put them in order. This offers them the chance to sort items into categories, which is an important first step to understanding mathematics, number and logical thinking. Another way to draw your players into your session is to ask them to identify colours or shapes.

This might sound obvious, but positive interaction can be easily overlooked. Communicating with your team in this way will help children feel safe, valued and ready to learn – whilst knowing they have your support.

Sucking a bib, continually fiddling with a shirt or other signs of agitation could be ‘emotional leakage’ – in other words, actions that a child takes to regulate their feelings.

If you spot a player behaving this way, they may be unsure about what to do or worried that they can’t do it. Avoid dismissing them or saying "stop it" as this could force negative feelings inside. Instead, empathise and help them to develop coping strategies for when they feel this way. This isn’t easy, but being kind, patient and understanding is a great place to start.

Observing your team will help you to develop a ‘coaching radar’ for small tell-tale signs of discomfort and, having done this, you can then begin to help them to develop more appropriate coping mechanisms. This is highly skilled work, so be patient whilst you build up your experience. Watch the children closely and you will be surprised by what you begin to see.

If a child is acting out, their behaviour demonstrates a 'survival response' to the situation at hand. Understanding this is the key to improving your management of the event.

Remember to stay calm, empathise and help the player to work out how they’re feeling (this is particularly important if they’re demonstrating challenging behaviour). In reacting this way, you may kick-start a more positive response or alternative ‘behaviour strategy’. This is a long process, but an important one to consider and practice.

By changing the size of a group or the individuals in it, you provide your players with an opportunity to get better at developing new relationships. This doesn’t mean they can’t be with their friend if they want to, it means you’re widening their social circle for the benefits this might bring later on.

As young children are generally ‘time blind’, this might seem strange. However, having a clock with coloured sections indicating how long each activity will take, or writing down the schedule with timings at the side, will help to settle your players and guide them through the session.

Whilst coaching, remember to give regular updates, such as "only a short time to go before we can get a drink". Some children will also benefit from you telling them "we’re going to do this activity for five minutes" and then, when four minutes have gone, explaining that there’s one minute left.

For your team, outlining how the session or activity will proceed helps to promote feelings of safety and security. This strategy also supports children who struggle with change and endings.

Remember: as a coach, you’re a role model for your team Whilst you may only see your players for a short time each week, you should always try to demonstrate positive behaviours – e.g. remaining calm and regulating your responses. This is important as, for young children, early emotional experiences help to pave the way for the development of their ‘mature’ character traits.


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