Where do most youth coaches get it wrong?

Coaching young people is I believe one of the most challenging client base we get to work with.  While being the most rewarding, it brings its own unique set of challenges.

Mistake One

The first while seemingly obvious is the problem I see again and again, partly spurred on by coaching schools, which seem to have no clear understanding of this client base yet.  They apply adult coaching models to young people. It seems like it would work, it seems the logical thing to do but it is grossly ineffective most of the time.  It is problematic on many different levels and often causes a coach to feel like they’re getting nowhere with a young person, which is demoralizing to both client and coach.

Let me explain.

Adult coaching models are set up from the assumption that the person you are coaching has fully-formed abstract thought and can therefore self-reflect, hold opposing views as both correct and see outside of their own experience,. As adults we take this thought process for granted. Coaching by its very nature is an abstract process.

However, abstract though is not something we just have; it develops and grows and forms through experience and biological changes. These changes started at around 12 and sometimes last until our mid twenties. So therefore we can’t apply these adult coaching methods to the same degree because the young person sat in front of us does not have abstract thought fully developed. Similarly, these adult coaching methods take into account that the adult is pretty much responsible for everything in their lives and that they have full control. Because the young person is just that, a young person, they don’t have full control over everything in their own lives; they are to some degree still under the control of adults. So therefore we can’t coach them the same way as we would coach adults and need to make allowances for these differences. As subtle as they are, they are important things for us be aware and take notice of. This is often the reason coaching models don’t work so well with young people and we need to take a more free-flowing approach. It can be detrimental to the coaching relationship if a coach insists on sticking rigidly to a model with lots of worksheets attached. It might work with a very well-adjusted young person, however from most in my experience it is pretty ineffective.  Now this is clearly a decision the coach has to make and this is just my opinion, but in my experience of coaching young people we have to be flexible with the model, throwing it to the side and playing around with it. Let the young person lead the conversation a little bit more and perhaps just not use a model at all, but just be there. We have to be the opposite of what they are used to; young people are put through systems and models daily in their school life, so I think coaches need to be the antidote to what they’re already experiencing.

Mistake Two

Another mistake the coaches often make is their assumptions about what the young person wants. Because of the nature of youth coaching as in someone else is paying for it, often we take into account what the school or the parents want without fully checking that really that is what the child wants. I don’t think people do this maliciously or knowingly, but what the coaches often fail to do with young people is find out if what everyone else wants for them is lined up with their identity and what they want for themselves.  It’s easy to make an assumption, for example that a bright child wants to get A* grades and go to university, but that might be wishful thinking on everybody’s behalf.  We don’t ask enough questions, we don’t try and figure how the young person sees this and the coaching doesn’t work because we’re trying to move the ship in a direction it doesn’t want to go.

I think in all our excitement of shaping the new young life in front of us we can forget that the person does not have as yet a fully formed identify, and I would in fact argue that all identify is fluid but for young people this is even more so. They haven’t quite yet had the time or experience to discard the unwarranted and unwanted, flippant things that were said to them as children, haven’t quite made sense of their past and may still be under the control of people who are shaping their identity in a negative manner.  As an adult we may choose to stay away from people who say mean things to us, or tell us we are no good and make us feel bad; sometimes young people don’t have the luxury. Coaches often fail to even look at the current identity that this young person holds for themselves and begin to challenge it. In fact, in my experience identity is something most coaches don’t even begin to touch on.  So for example, we might be working with a very bright student who is very capable of going to Oxbridge and that is the end goal.  All seems simple, right? No. Have we checked that Oxbridge and Russell Group universities is something that child sees as a possible identity for themselves?   A young person who’s grown up in a very middle-class, aspirational home where universities are being spoken about and education is really valued will probably have no problem in imagining this new identity for themselves. However, for a child who is the first in the family to go to university, where education isn’t necessarily valued and often spoken about quite negatively will find it really difficult to embrace this identity and is therefore more likely to lower their standards.  In most coaching, identity is nearly always the issue and yet it is something not often approached or even considered.

Mistake Three

Often I find coaches don’t set the coaching relationship up right from the start. As I mentioned earlier, when working with young people we have so many agendas to take note of.  The schools agenda, the parent’s agenda, or the agendas of organization we are working with.  Newer coaches often don’t challenge this enough. I am very clear for example with schools and parents that I will not work towards anyone’s agenda other than the young person’s and if that young person’s agenda isn’t in line with what the parent or the school wants, then I probably wouldn’t coach them. If the agenda of the person paying is at opposite end of the spectrum to the person you are coaching, you have set yourself up for problems you really don’t need.  We can stand in our integrity as a coach like this; we have to be very honest and very clear as to whose agenda we are working towards. Someone else may be paying but that doesn’t mean we are working towards their agenda, but that of the young person in front of us – the only person that we can influence and the only person whose actions we are talking about. So get this clear from the offset and don’t waver in your commitment to your client – the young person.