A few years ago, I read a book called, The Compound Effect, by Darren Hardy. He was the CEO of Success magazine for many years. One of the main ideas of the book was that small things done incrementally over time can add up to big things.

The way we most often think of this is in investing our money. The concept of earning compounding interest over time is at the heart of this thinking. Start investing a little money at a time when you are young and keep investing it every month of your life. When you are older, your little bit of money that you invested every month will have turned into a lot of money.

This concept works in many other places, too. Consider education. When kids are in elementary school, we teach them the alphabet. Then we teach them to create words from those letters in the alphabet. Then we teach them to put those words into sentences and those sentences into paragraphs. But we teach them a little bit of each of those at a time, letting them learn along the way. By the time they are in middle school, they have a large amount of knowledge on how to form words into sentences and ideas that help them express themselves.

Do This in Sports, Too

We need to apply this same principle to our kids’ athletic experiences. We need to start them in a positive sports experience at an early age.

While we do not want to force them into doing something they don’t want to do, we do want to encourage them to try different things. Once they decide to try something, we need to work to provide as much fun and joy from it as we can. At these early ages, our #1 focus should be on creating a love of the game in our kids.

We also want to make sure that they are getting multiple opportunities to play their sports. Small doses many times over the course of a few months is a great way to get them started. Make sure that training sessions and contests are designed to get them excited about being there and playing. While you want to teach them skills to develop and strategies to understand the game, the biggest area to focus on is the joy of playing this game.

My biggest goal every season that I coached my son’s basketball teams when he was in 3rd and 4th grade was that he and his teammates wanted to come back for the next practice and, eventually, the next season. I wanted them loving it so much that they couldn’t wait to get back at it. Fortunately, that’s exactly what happened. He and his buddies stayed together on travel teams through those years in a few different seasons.

Then when we moved to Montana for his 5th grade year, we did it again. While he played basketball with his new friends in Montana, he also started playing soccer. He continued to fall in love with both sports because his coaches helped provide a safe environment that was a lot of fun.

One important lesson he learned during those early years is that fun is being good. The better he got, the more fun he had. The more fun he had, the more he played, and the better he got. It became a positive cycle in his life, one that led him to a good deal of personal and team success in both sports.

Most important, though, is that both sports were fun for him throughout all of his years playing. What was fostered in small increments when he was young has never left him. He just finished his senior year of college soccer, and he had as much fun this year as any year he ever played. And while he is no longer playing basketball intercollegiately, he plays intramurals and pickup games whenever he can. Why? Because he has so much fun doing so.

Start Them Young

The biggest key to him becoming the player he became and him achieving the success he achieved was that he started early. Without a doubt, those players that start at a younger age will have an advantage over players that start later.

This has been borne out to me in a very real way over the last few months. I coach middle school basketball. I coached boys in the fall, and I am coaching girls right now.

It is so obvious which players have played a lot, which have played a little, and which have never played before. The players’ skills, movement on the court, and understanding of the game say everything about the amount of time they have spent playing it.

And while a high degree of athleticism from other sports helps those who have never played before, it does not replace good, old-fashioned experience in the sport they are playing.

Three Important Elements to Teach

There are three important elements that we need to teach kids beginning at a young age:

  1. Individual skills for success
  2. Understanding of how to play their game
  3. How to be a good teammate and an athlete of great character

If we teach them the individual skills necessary for success, they will start to improve at the game. The more they improve, the more they will like how they are performing. The more they like how they are performing, the more they will want to improve. A Cycle of Success will have been started. That’s where the fun is being good concept will start for them.

If we teach them how to play the game, they will know where to go and where not to go. They will also learn why they should or shouldn’t go to those places, as well as the best ways to get there. Again, this will put them into positions to then take advantage of the skills they have learned, leading to success, which will lead to them enjoying the experience more.

Finally, if we teach them what it means to be a good teammate and how an athlete with great character is supposed to behave, not only will they be better teammates and athletes, but also their teammates will like playing with them more. If we can build teams filled with kids who have a team-first attitude and display the characteristics necessary to be an athlete of great character, those teams will be fun to be a part of, while also having their share of scoreboard success.

Don’t Overload Them

While we need to start them young and instill in them the three elements discussed above, we must not overload them with too much at a young age. Again, the #1 focus should be on them having fun.

Don’t overload them with too many skills to develop, too many strategies and plays to learn, and too many “important lessons on life.” Focus on fundamental skill development, basic strategy, and a smattering of life/team lessons that come naturally from within the flow of your training sessions and contests.

The goal is for them to find their passion for the sport and for us to help them find that passion, recognize it, and develop it. We do that by providing ample opportunities to play and work on their sport.

As they get older, the training sessions will get longer, there will be more training sessions per season, and there will be more contests, too. Older athletes are much better able to handle those increases than younger athletes. But, again, even at the older ages, don’t overload them with too much.

Coaches, athletes, and parents need to understand the impact of the compound effect dynamic in sports. If we start to use this idea with kids beginning at a young age, over time they will see their investment in their sports pay huge dividends. Like an interest-bearing bank account that grows over time, their skill development, understanding of the game, and ability to become great teammates and athletes of character will also grow over time.

And the end result?

A positive, joyful, fun athletic experience filled with much personal and team success.

After all, isn’t that what we should be seeking to create as an athletic experience for all of our athletes?