“Seeking for the IDEAL”- participatory practices for athlete-centered junior coaching

Written by Mira Lönnqvist (Metropolia UAS), Nea Vänskä (Metropolia UAS) and Merike Helander (The Office of Ombudsman for Children) / Finland

© Mira Lönnqvist

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Athlete-centered junior coaching is ideally based on the opportunity for the young athletes to be heard and to have the opportunity to influence on matters that concern them in their sport. By enabling participation of young athletes, the coaches can enhance their motivation and inspiration to maintain in sports, take care of their health and wellbeing, challenge themselves to learn new skills and engage in team activities. This blog presents ethical principles and participatory practices for junior coaches to promote young athletes’ involvement

Why is it important to enable participation of young athletes?

The athlete-centered coaching promotes the young athletes’ holistic wellbeing, emphasizes their self-determination and autonomy, and targets to meet their individual needs. In recent years, a growing number of the research findings support the use of positive pedagogy and autonomy-supportive behavior in junior coaching. 

What parents and coaches wish for the young athletes is that every one of them is able to join the sport with enjoyment, feeling of appreciation and motivation and that the participation enables the children to develop their health and comprehensive wellbeing, self-esteem and self-perception, team and interaction skills. Overall, in junior coaching the learning of abilities that are beneficial in sports but also in all other aspects of the young athlete’s life and future, are considered important. 

In recent years, many have realised the need to consider children’s wellbeing and right to protection and participation in sports. For example, the growing number of children’s overuse injuries and adolescents dropping out of sport club activities at early age have raised concerns about the children’s wellbeing in sports. At the same time, there is an ever-growing number of children who move inadequately to maintain their health.

Safeguarding the children’s rights is the responsibility for all parents and adults working in the sport clubs. According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), children and youth have the right to give their opinions, and tell their views freely on issues that affect them. In addition, the child’s views need to be given due weight in accordance with the child’s age and maturity. This right needs to be considered also in sports. UNICEF published (2018) Children’s rights in sports principles that emphasize the children’s right to participate in sport in a safe and enjoyable environment.

Show Interest – Discuss – Esteem – Ask – Listen 

One of the key elements in creating a safe and enjoyable environment supporting youth participation in sports is the interaction between the coach and the young. The I-D-E-A-L- principle concretizes the basic practices for the junior coaches to consider in interaction with the young athletes. The I-D-E-A-L -principle guides the coach also to build open and respectful communication that enhances the young athlete’s involvement, learning and self-confidence, and help the coaches to identify the individual needs of the athlete.

I    = Show Interest in young athletes’ views and opinions.

D = Discuss with young athletes and seek solutions that are in their best interest. 

E = Esteem and show appreciation for the young athletes’ point of views and tell how their views have had an impact on the decisions made. Reasons for decisions should be explained in a manner that the young athletes can understand them. 

A = Ask athletes regarding the issues they consider important to have influence on

L = Listen in respectful way what the young athletes are telling you and take the athletes’ opinions and views into consideration when making decisions that will affect them in their sport. 

It is important indeed that the athletes

  • have an active role in the decision making process
  • have a variety of ways to express their opinions and their views
  • have the right NOT to share their opinions or views regarding their sport
  • are given information about the results of the questionnaire, group discussions 

and how the information is being used 

  • are consulted and discussed with how the results will affect their sport practices

When the athlete can trust the coach and the climate in sporting activities is safe, acceptable and encouraging, the young can rely to have their voices heard regarding the hopes, needs and worries about the sporting activity. Feeling of trust and acceptance also enables the athlete, parent and the coach to react and respond if something hinders child’s wellbeing and motivation in sports. 

Participatory practices – what and how

Participatory practices include a range of activities that the coach can use and modify according to the needs, timeframe and individual needs of the youth involved. The positive, respectful and safe atmosphere and interaction is the base for all participatory actions. In addition, the coach can ask the children and youth, how they wish to participate and what decisions they wish to have influence on.

Useful issues to involve the youth include e.g. common rules and practices in sports and in the team, factors that influence motivation in sport and ways to enhance enjoyment and learning in trainings and goals for the team and/or season. Also, the coach can ask the athletes to identify their own and team’s strengths and areas of improvement. It is also useful to gather information about the atmosphere in the team on individual basis, identify how to enhance the learning, feeling of belonging and acceptance for the individual children.

Step 1. Choose the most suitable way to collect the youth’s perspectives considering the context and timeframe.

Before involving the young athletes, they need to understand that participation is voluntary and that they can safely express their views. If the coach suspects that the young might be afraid to express their views openly in front of the coach or team, or the issue is sensitive, then the young athletes’ views can be gathered anonymously by using for example a questionnaire or an application.

Examples of participatory practices:

  • Individual and strength-based conversations with the athletes on regular basis
  • Individual questionnaires (voluntary, anonymous if needed) 
  • Strength-based group discussions
  • Workshops with creative and functional methods: planning of the upcoming season and goals together, identifying what needs to be done to achieve the goals. 
  • Questions written on the flipchart and an opportunity to answer them with post-it-notes
  • Quick feedback round with positive notes and issues to develop after each training session for example during stretching etc.

Food for thought!  Put into practice “Athletes in charge” week where athletes act as coaches: they plan and implement all the exercises and drills during that week. The youth feel empowered and the coach can have new ideas for the training sessions. Based on a lived experience, this is very worthwhile, a win-win situation for the athletes and the coach!

Step 2. Collect the views of the athletes with the chosen method.

Remember to emphasize strengths and solutions in all discussions and information gathering!

Individual discussions or questionnaires (examples of themes/ questions) 

  • How many times per week do you wish to train? What is the optimal length of a training session for you?
  • What is the best thing about taking part in the training? 
  • What do you wish to change in the training session or issues involved in sport participation?
  • What would your dream training session be like? What would be the first step to achieve that?
  • What motivates you to do sports and this type of sport?
  • What are your strengths as an athlete/ team member? What are the team’s strengths? What do you wish to learn to do better? What should the team do better? 
  • How do you wish me as a coach to support your learning and involvement in sports?
  • Imagine the upcoming season and think about an enjoyable season – can you describe it to me? What would it be like?
  • Is there something that you worry about? Have you noticed any teasing or bullying in your sport (in your team)? Would you like to tell more about it?
  • Is there something else you wish to discuss? 

Group discussions / Workshops before and/or after the sport season

  • A team or a group of individual athletes can for example plan actions or create shared goals for the upcoming season by discussing together with the coach. The coach can support the involvement of each athlete so that everyone can have their voices heard and influence the planning.
  • The coach can use functional/ creative methods for example drawing, photographing and writing on post-it-notes (see picture).
© Nea Vänskä. 

Step 3. Discuss and reflect the main results of the gathered information with the children (without compromising the anonymity of the participants)

It is useful for the coach and the youth to hear and to reflect what changes and decisions are made based on the collected information. The children have the right to have information on how their views influence since it creates trust that the youth understand that their opinions are appreciated and considered. However, involving youth in decision-making does not mean that the children can decide by themselves. Adults are always responsible that the decisions are based on the best interests of the child.

In the step 3, the coach can gather feedback about the chosen participatory practice and consider the needed changes for the next training session. The most important part for the coach in the step 3 is to “Talk the walk, walk the talk” – meaning that the decisions made together with the youth are put into practice, followed and reflected on how they work.

At best, the participatory practices enabling the active involvement of the youth are part of everyday interaction with the young and used in regular practices in the sport club. By fostering the youth involvement with the participatory coaching practices, the coach can create training sessions and team actions that meet the needs and interests of the youth and inspire the learning, motivation and empowerment for all.


Mira is pediatric Occupational Therapist and Senior Lecturer in Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, Finland. She promotes The Rights of the Children and Positive Pedagogy by teaching, training and participating in projects regarding wellbeing of Children. Based on the “talk the walk – walk the talk”-principle she does also part-time clinical work as a pediatric O.T. and voluntary work on regular basis e.g. by participating in junior coaching as an assistant coach in HJK junior football team.

Nea is pediatric physical therapist and senior lecturer in Metropolia University of Applied Sciences.

Merike is the lawyer in The Office of Ombudsman for Children.


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