The Weird Science Of Coaching Kids To Fish

Written by: Isobella Ash

Fishing & Mountain Guide Stewart Yates Talks Developmental Psychology And How An Understanding Can Help When Coaching Kids To Fish And Try Other Hobbies.

Kids today, what do you make of them? There is an ingrained, programmed response to that question, isn’t there? And that’s a good starting point when developing our approach to coaching young people – maybe time to fundamentally change our (collective) thinking. 

Through reading this piece, I would like to encourage you to explore the coaching of young people from quite a ‘scientific’ angle, concentrating on the normal psychological development of children and young people, with their physical development and limitations in mind as well. First, a quick introduction to explain my interest in this aspect of coaching fly fishing:

After my twelve years in the RAF, I found myself, just weeks after loading munitions onto multi-million-pound aircraft, working with Scotland’s highest tariff young offenders in a world-leading outdoor activities-based residential cognitive behaviour therapy program – quite a change! From there I spent a few years in the outdoor activities/social work sector and found myself undertaking academic and practical studies in Caring for Children and Young People. 

When that career path had run its course I found myself back home in Assynt, first as a handyman and then as a fly fishing guide. I achieved my ADBoS Level 2 Coaching Certificate and in doing so rekindled my passion in the field of coaching/mentoring young people and I now pride myself on being truly a ‘Family Friendly’ fly fishing guide and coach. My experience and understanding of the psychological aspect of coaching children and young people has proven indispensable to me when developing this part of my business.​

Now, this is a MASSIVE subject and this little bit of writing could completely bamboozle the reader with all sorts of quotes, references, terminology, and theory. That would be pointless and off-putting, so what I hope for is that this might act as a catalyst, encouraging you to go and find out a little more about developmental psychology for yourself. Where helpful, it might cause you to modify your views of why children and young people might be behaving in a certain way, what the best age to learn fishing or other hobbies is, and how you might get the best results from coaching this age group. 

At first, the process of psychological analysis > planning > implementation > evaluation can seem cumbersome, daunting, and overly complicated, but trust me, you are probably already doing this to some degree on a daily basis and you will very quickly become adept at going through the process. Hopefully, this might give you a little clarity and spark ideas of further development in your coaching techniques and help you be the best fishing coach you can be. This is not intended for purely professional coaches, far from it, as everyone that takes someone else fishing is a coach! 

A Sense of Self

Everyone’s psyche is different, yet everyone’s psyche is made from the same components, just in different ratios. Each of these parts needs to be developed and balanced and we all have deficiencies in various departments to some degree! This forms our ‘consciousness’ or ‘self’ which is a very fluid thing – it should change and adapt as we encounter new experiences. The younger the person, the more pliable their ‘self’ can be and of course the older we get the more solidified it becomes! You can very quickly see the difficulties that might arise if one does not recognise these fundamental similarities and differences when working with children and young people.​

A very clever guy in developmental psychology called Erik Erikson identified three key ‘Crises’ encountered through the first six years of life that need resolving in a favourable way to give the best chance of a smooth(ish!) progression into and through adolescence. Bear with me, I know this might seem a bit ‘heavy going’ but hopefully it’s about to get a bit interesting! As you read the three crises below, bear in mind that these should be largely ‘resolved’ by the time we have reached five years old, how do you fare personally? Time for a wee bit of self-analysis – don’t be scared, be honest!​

One Year Old: Trust vs. Mistrust – Do you sometimes fear a future event? Are you comfortable in your environment? Do you feel safe?​ 

Two Years Old: Autonomy vs. Doubt – Do you have self-control? Do you have self-doubt? Are you making all the right choices?​ 

Three to Five years Old: Initiative vs. Guilt – Are you a ‘self-starter’? Are you confident about going it alone? 

Erikson’s theory goes beyond five years of age, it carries on through a person’s whole life, but I have stopped here after these first three stages because it is at this age we are most likely to encourage kids to try fishing for the first time . The ‘Crisis’ in the next stage, adolescence, is defined as ‘Identity vs. Confusion’ and is often a very complex and difficult one to resolve, but compassionate and supportive coaching and mentoring can have a very positive effect throughout this period of a young person’s life and beyond.​

How did you fare personally on those first three stages? I know that I still think myself ‘deficient’ in certain aspects, ‘adequate’ in some, and maybe ‘excessive’ in one or two! There should not be any one ‘winner’ in each crisis – rather a balance favouring the positive one. Equally, there is not really a winning ratio, we are all a little different! Another way of putting that could be we all just have ‘different levels of the same thing’.

Applying This ‘Weird Science’ To Fishing

How can we use this science to understand how kids learn to fish. Take a moment to apply this idea, that we are made up of exactly the same psychological parts but with differing amounts of each part, regardless of age, directly to that six-year-old holding a fishing rod for the first time in their lives, in an environment that is very alien to them. Observe, really observe their behaviour… try and get an idea of which of those three key areas this small person has had fulfilling experiences (or maybe a little excess!) in and think about which ones could do with ‘topping up’ with some genuine compliments – should you concentrate on encouraging and praising their trust, autonomy or initiative? 

Of course, throughout the activity, you would compliment all of these attributes, but you will see a much better response if you can identify and emphasise the particular area that this person needs a boost in. Don’t go over the top, throwing compliments around like confetti, that comes across as patronising and insincere and could quickly undermine their trust in you. 

The best age to learn fishing is around six years old as it is a great time to cultivate an interest in any specific hobby but you have to accept that, even when you do absolutely everything bang-on, some kids will not take to it. Don’t take it personally, don’t blame the child or the parents or the school or the X-Box, some people simply don’t like fishing. Weird huh? This ‘blaming’ leads me onto one of my biggest bug-bears when talking about trying to encourage kids to try fishing…​

Combating Boredom

Boredom is normal. You get bored, I get bored, kids get bored, even pets get bored. What does an adult do if they are bored with a leisure activity? They take a break. What if they did not take a break and kept on repeating this boring activity, how likely is that adult to leap at the next opportunity to try it again? There is, however, an exception to this – if you are conducting that activity with kids and, although at that particular moment in time you really cannot be bothered, you keep up your enthusiasm.

Then what (hopefully) happens? The kids respond well and you find your boredom has evaporated and you are all having fun! So, in addition to keeping the activity duration appropriate and taking breaks or changing the activity perhaps you could try becoming the bored person that needs entertainment? “Show me how you did that… Oh wow! That’s cool! Nice one! Show me again… You’re a natural at this!”​ 

There are additional difficulties faced by children and young people when it comes to their own fight against boredom – do you think they want to be bored? For a start, they are young and may have not yet had the psychological experiences to give them the ability to stick at an activity that is testing their attention span – this is not a ‘fault’ it is simply a fact of their lives. To be the best fishing coach its important that you adapt your coaching as needed. Another significant possible challenge is physiological – changing brain chemistry (sometimes very rapidly changing brain chemistry) can make it extremely difficult for a child or adolescent to concentrate on any task for more than a few minutes – to consider this a ‘defect’ in children and young people was thrown out of the window decades ago.

Again, adapt your coaching to suit the situation. There is a much greater recognition and understanding of common psychological conditions these days, which is also very helpful – yes, sometimes it can seem that kids are too easily labeled, but I would sooner have it that way than sweeping real psychological illnesses under the carpet. At the very least, a cursory study of these conditions and differences in how kids learn to fish is essential for all coaches – a whole separate article in itself right there! 

Tips For Teaching Kids To Fish 

I do not want to go too deep into session planning, ideas on how to conduct and adapt the activity, or evaluating and recording. This would distract from my motivation in writing this – to get you thinking and discussing the nuts-and-bolts psychology of children and young people and how that relates to them enjoying fishing. However, I cannot resist sharing a few key approaches I employ when guiding and coaching a group that includes youngsters. Here are my top tips for teaching kids to fish!

  1. A great one to always go by is ‘UPR’ – Unconditional Positive Regard. You might think that this is a given for a professional guide but trust me, we all have our limits! Having said that, what you should do is never respond to negativity with negativity. Always start with a positive when addressing any issue, be it behavioural or technical, and always treat a person, regardless of age or behaviour with a fundamentally positive belief in their abilities.
  1. The old adage “Plan for the Worst. Hope for the Best” is very true with regards to all aspects of your session, but very often considering this from a psychology point of view is somewhat overlooked. Unexpected intense psychological needs of a group or individual can really throw you off, particularly if involving children or adolescents. Make sure you ask all the right questions before the session and if there are requirements that could be ‘outside the norm’ make sure you are comfortable dealing with them. Don’t be afraid to say that you do not think you could manage a group or individual, better to do that beforehand than find yourself in a difficult situation on the water. 
  1. Maintain authority without being authoritarian. An effective way to do this is to build a rapport with everyone in the group. When using humour, be a little more careful about how you do this with children and adolescents that you might with adults – keeping it as ‘victimless humour’, even when encouraged to make good-natured fun of someone, can be a good starting point. You can always be the butt of the joke!​
  1. Fishing is not all about fishing! There’s a whole world of other stuff around you, so if things are a bit slow take a break, sit down with a drink and snack and have a chat about other things. When you pick up on a spark of interest in entomology, geology, history, flora, fauna, or whatever go with it. Prop the rods up against a tree and go looking for different rocks, plants, bugs, take a walk over to that ruin for a look around, go foraging. Maybe you get back to the fishing after a while, maybe you don’t. Perhaps you can change location using this new subject to fill the walk, rather than a long trudge to ‘more boring fishing’. Even if fishing ends up being not that big a part of the day, it should all be fondly remembered as part of ‘That day out fishing’.​
  1. Let older children help the younger ones! My ultimate ‘Secret Weapon’ when coaching children is, unfortunately, growing up fast – my now eleven-year-old son, Corwin! He really is incredible when I have a family with kids, the ultimate ice-breaker and a very competent and patient wee ‘Mini-Guide’ with an astounding knowledge of nature as well. If you are lucky enough to have one of these, definitely use them!​

In reading this I hope I have maybe encouraged you to have a good think about the actual psychology of children and young people and how your coaching technique fits into that and aids healthy development. Just to reiterate – this writing is intended for not only the professional guides but for anyone that takes kids fishing. It really is just a scratch at the surface of a very interesting, complex, and ultimately very helpful topic, so I strongly encourage you to dig deeper! Also, I cannot recommend highly enough undertaking a UKCC Coaching Course from ADBoS or the Angling Trust (or if reading this outside Britain, whoever might run sports coaching courses in your country) regardless of your current qualifications. These courses are weighted towards the specific coaching needs of younger people, as well as adults, and will give you a superb ‘toolkit’ to help you be the best fishing coach!

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