NTC 25
Play leads the way for youth cycling club in Cheltenham

Play leads the way for youth cycling club in Cheltenham

Home » Kids and Young People » British Cycling Go-Ride

In this blog, coach and Chair of Cheltenham Town Wheelers Cycling Club Nicky Harverson explains how a play-centred approach to coaching children at their club has seen them return week in week out with smiles on their faces.

Play is fundamental to positive experiences and enjoyment for children and young people. It has been overlooked for far too long in the way we coach them.

The powerful thing about play is that it includes everybody even those who want to progress to the higher elite levels of sport. Most importantly, it includes children who show up every week regardless of ability. We lose so many children to sport because we don’t make it fun, we don’t create those positive experiences and those welcoming spaces for them, and play is inherent in that

So often and for so long, the norm when coaching children has been to provide play as a reward at the end of a session. When we came out of lock-down, we noticed that children at our club had lost the joy of connection and we soon realised that they needed to connect first before they got on with the session.

For us, it starts by creating a space for children to play before the session starts. It started off with a few minutes of them chatting with each other and connecting and that’s now developed into 15 minutes of play. That 15 minutes of play has created connections and bonds that were missing. It also serves a purpose for us as coaches. We can observe chat and understand what’s going on in their lives and that’s really important to understanding them.

Play and fun are at the heart of our approach to coaching and we’ve seen the impact. We started out with 20 riders and before Covid that had grown to between 40 and 50. Now we are up to over 100 members. We’ve had great support from British Cycling along the way and they can see the benefits of this approach. But, it’s not just the numbers that give us confidence that what we are doing is working. We often measure the success of a session on the number of smiles we see on the faces of children!

The environment is also important and needs to be conducive to play and fun as well. We operate on a piece of land offered to us by Cheltenham Borough Council. It’s an amenity tip that can’t be used for much else other than dog walking. It’s overgrown, grassland but to us and the kids it’s a rich playground of lumps and bumps to ride over and play with. They help set up the course that they are going to be riding around and that sense of ownership of the session what they are doing is so vital.

Play and fun in isolation isn’t enough to change the way we coach our children and young people, in the way that will help them develop a lifelong love for cycling or indeed any sport or physical activity. It has to be set within a much broader approach. I’ve recently become a champion for Play Their Way, a campaign that advocates for a child-first approach to coaching children and young people which means prioritising children’s rights, needs and enjoyment when taking part. Too many of them don’t enjoy taking part and walk away as a result.

It’s about putting them and their needs first a bit more than we maybe do now. The first step to that is understanding and really knowing the children you are working with. We talk to our young people all the time and ask them if they feel safe and if they feel looked after. If you don’t understand them, the sessions are going to be far less fun.

We also pride ourselves on providing a safe space for children to be their own characters. It’s important to create an environment where children aren’t afraid to say that they’re not enjoying themselves. Some children come to a session one week and not want to ride a bike and just talk to us and their friends, about school, and what is going on in their lives – and that’s fine. 

I’d ask coaches across our sport, and especially those who work with children, to reflect on what play means to them and the way they coach. To me it is a space where you can create, have fun and learn. If we want our young people to love not just our sport but any sport for life, we should do more of it with them!

To find out more about child-first coaching, click here.


Join Us