In an earlier post, I told you about my youngest son’s early season football experience with his line coach/defensive coordinator. Well, here’s an update which I’d like to share with you. It came as a surprise to me, and in the middle of a terribly difficult week for our family. Whether the timing of it was a coincidence or a result of the events of that week, we may never know. But I have no doubt that it will have a profound effect on my son for the rest of his life.
Last Tuesday, my wife’s father passed away. He was 80. My mother-in-law and he were married for more than 57 years, and they adored each other. They have five children, all of whom are married, and 14 grandchildren. As my brother-in-law said on the day that Dad died, the “in-law” is just a formality. Not one of us - children, grandchildren, or in-laws - ever felt like we weren’t one of the most important people in their lives. And my three children were no exception.
The older four grandchildren were with him when he passed away, my older son and my daughter among them, as were his children and their spouses, and Mom. Fifteen of us gathered around Dad to say goodbye and to pray for him on his journey to Heaven. As difficult as it was to lose Dad, it is equally heart-wrenching to watch your children suffer and not be able to ease their pain.
We had told my youngest son to go to school that day, and to go to football practice afterward. Adhering to his routine would distract him from the inevitability of his Grandpop’s passing, which we all knew would come in a matter of days, if not hours. Dad died late in the afternoon, during football practice. There were many things to take care of before the funeral home was called, so there was no rush to get my son over to his grandparents’ house. We sent my oldest son home to get him after he came home from practice.
When he arrived, he went up to Grandpop’s room to say goodbye. He was terribly shaken, kneeling at his grandfather’s bedside and sobbing. It took about ten minutes for him to collect himself. He joined in the pain and grief of the family, as well as the reminiscing that begins the healing process. It was an emotional night, but within our sorrow was the sense that Dad couldn’t help but be proud of the family, his family, and the love and support that was demonstrated that night and throughout the following days. By the time the evening ended, thirteen of his grandchildren (the 14th was away at college and on her way home), all his children and their spouses, and Mom all gathered in their home, as we had on so many other joyous occasions, mourning our great loss, sharing stories, and thanking God for the tremendous gift he had allowed us to share.
Wednesday, most of the grandchildren that are in grade school and high school stayed home and spent the day around the family. During the day, my youngest son and I had a few minutes alone together. I asked him how he was doing, and how his day had gone the day before. What he told me both surprised my and filled me with pride. It also demonstrated that maybe more coaches do “get it,” even if they don’t always know how to express “it.”
The offensive linemen were taking a break from drills. They were sitting down, waiting for drills to resume, when the coach approached them. They stood up to get ready for the next drill. The coach stopped them for a minute, and called my son to the front of the group. The coach put his arm on my son’s shoulder, and said, “I’ve been meaning to do this for a while now. I want you all to know that here’s a kid, a senior, that knows he won’t play a lot. If he were on almost any other team, he’d be starting and having a lot of success. But he never complains, he does everything I ask him to do, he works hard. He’s a great teammate and a great kid, and he’s been a pleasure to coach. I just wanted him to know that I appreciate him and that I’m glad he’s on the team.” His teammates that were gathered around him all cheered.
The coach may never know how much that meant to my son, or to me. He could not have known that my son was only minutes away from receiving the worst news of his young life. The same coach who had made him feel so bad earlier in the season had lifted his spirits higher than he could have ever imagined.
There are two lessons to be learned here. The first, a lesson I (again) learned, is that we too often judge people solely on the little snippets of them that we see in public. There’s more to a person than the small slices of them that we encounter. They’re seldom as bad (or good) as they appear to be in those snapshots or sound bites. I made a judgment about the coach based on the way he interacted with my son on that one day. I was wrong about the coach and his motives. And while I don’t excuse the language or tactics of the former interaction, I have a better appreciation and respect for the coach than I did earlier.
Second, we cannot always know the effects of our words on the young athletes we coach. We cannot assume that we’ll get a chance to make up for earlier mistakes. We cannot know what each of them faces everyday, or what events they may have to endure. Each interaction we have with one of our youngsters can have tremendous impact, positively or negatively, whether it’s for a day or for a lifetime. We just don’t know which ones they might be.
Because of that coach’s words, my son will know that hard work and dedication and selflessness and camaraderie count for something, even if it’s not always apparent. I have no doubt that my son will remember that moment in front of his teammates for the rest of his life. When he thinks of the day his Grandpop died, he won’t remember the sadness. He’ll remember all of the special moments he shared with him. He’ll remember how he felt in front of his friends on that day, and how proud his Grandpop would have been to hear that story.
For that, I can only say, “Thanks, Coach.”
In an earlier post, I told you about my youngest son’s early season football experience with his line coach/defensive coordinator. Well, here’s an update which I’d like to share with you. It came as a surprise to me, and in the middle of a terribly difficult week for our family. Whether the timing of it was a coincidence or a result of the events of that week, we may never know. But I have no doubt that it will have a profound effect on my son for the rest of his life.
High schools around the country are starting their fall sports seasons in earnest (although many high school fall sports teams have been practicing all summer). What’s unique about falls sports at the high school level is the “camps” that most of the coaches hold prior to the beginning of classes. High school athletes, and specifically those playing football, are subjected to the same torturous schedules that many professional football teams endure. Some teams go away to camps, much like in the beginning of the movie “Remember the Titans.” Others use the school’s facilities, often keeping the boys sequestered at school for twelve-hour days with three practices each day. The camps are not unique to football, nor to sports. Drive by any high school this time of year and it’s likely you’ll see lacrosse, soccer, cross-country, and band camps with similarly grueling, all-day schedules. That’s a “luxury” not afforded other high school coaches in other seasons - an athlete’s undivided attention for, in some cases, more than 100 hours over two weeks without the pressures of school, homework, or studies. It’s a good opportunity for coaches to get to know their players. And it’s also a good time for player’s to get a good idea of their coach’s character.
My youngest son plays football for his high school team. He’s a senior, an undersized lineman (6 feet tall and 200 pounds) who is a good-but-not-great athlete. He’s just finished a week of 9-hour “two-a-days,” and is starting a week of 12-hour “three-a-days” for a team that has a winning tradition and a recent appearance in a state championship game. He won’t win a starting job because the next smallest lineman is 6’2” and weighs 245 pounds, and he doesn’t possess the athleticism to allow him to overcome his size limitations to play on the line or to excel at another position. Neither he nor I are under any illusions about his place on the team, the amount of playing time he’ll see this year, or the likelihood that he’ll play beyond high school.
What he is is smart, loyal, and dedicated. He’s a good student, ranked in the top 10% of his class. He enjoys the camaraderie of the team, being around his friends and sharing in the experiences. He’s respectful of his coaches. He’s been to almost every off season weightlifting session, workout, team event, and summer practice session the team has had over the last three years. As a coach, he’s exactly the type of kid I’d want on my team; the one who works his tail off, shows up on time and ready for all the practices and games, supports his teammates, never gives the coaches a bit of trouble, does everything that is asked of him without complaint, respects the game, and gets along with everyone on the team.
So why is it that the coach felt it necessary to insult and embarrass him?
Because of an injury to the starting offensive tackle, he had a chance to start the season’s first scrimmage. His team scrimmaged a team from a larger classification that’s had some success over the past several years. The first-team offense scored three touchdowns in the first three series of plays that they ran, and he played every snap of those series. One touchdown was a sweep around my son’s end, where he made a key block to spring the tailback into the end zone. The other two scores were pass plays in which the quarterback was under no pressure and was able to step up in the pocket and make an accurate throw to an open receiver. He made his share of mistakes, missed a few blocks, but on the whole had a good-but-not-great scrimmage. Yet for all his hard work over the past three years, for his loyalty and commitment and respect shown to his coaches, for his cooperation and teamwork, and even with the success the team had with him on the field during the scrimmage, the coach felt is was necessary to verbally abuse him. And not privately, but so loudly that practically every one of the several hundred spectators could hear the insults clearly. He used language that was so vulgar and foul that, had the math or science teacher used it, would have sparked outrage from the community and garnered at least a long term suspension, if not dismissal.
At the following day’s film session, the abuse continued. My son was again insulted by the coaches using the same vulgar language, embarrassed in front of his friends and teammates, and summarily demoted to the second team in front of everyone. Why? Because he missed a few blocking assignments.
Coaches have every right to be tough and demanding of their young athletes. As kids get older, the expectations are higher and the demands are greater. Challenging a kid to get better, by whatever tactics the coach chooses to employ, is certainly acceptable as long as those tactics are safe and appropriate to the age level. At the high school level, coaches are within their rights to award playing time to whomever they want, using whatever criteria they want. I don’t always agree with that criteria, especially when kids who work hard and support the team do not get rewarded for their loyalty. Many coaches’ egos are so out of control that it’s more important for them to win a football game by a score of 42-0 than it is to reward kids with playing time and risk losing a shutout. But I’ll defend their right to make those decisions, even when I disagree with them.
What no coach has the right to do is to insult players, to embarrass them in front of teammates and spectators simply to satisfy their own ego, and to do so using language and delivered at a volume that would have a Marine Corps drill sergeant taking notes. That type of behavior by a coach and “role model” should not be tolerated by anyone at any level. Yet too many youth sports organizations and high school administrations sell their souls to the devil simply to satisfy their own egos and field a “winning” program. No organization or administration should allow any coach, no matter how successful he or she is on the playing surface, to abuse and insult the players with whom they have been entrusted.
I expect that football coaches will yell at football players, and my son is not exempt. If he makes a mistake, the coach is going to yell. If he makes a lot of mistakes, the coach is going to yell a lot. Sometimes he’ll even get yelled at for somebody else’s mistakes. I get it, and I accept it. But coaches can be tough and demanding without being verbally abusive, disrespectful, and demeaning. What lesson are we as coaches teaching kids when we demand unselfishness, effort, loyalty, and respect without reciprocating it?
There are many great coaches at all levels who are successful without insulting their players, and successful not only on the scoreboard but in teaching young adults how to challenge themselves to be better in all facets of life. Those are the coaches who engender loyalty and dedication and effort that goes much deeper than simply trying to avoid being embarrassed. Those are the coaches that have a lasting, positive influence on a player long after his or her playing days are over. Those are coaches that players, parents, opponents, and spectators respect and admire. Those are the coaches that I want all kids to experience. Those are not the coaches who, unfortunately, coach at my son’s high school.
(Sixth in a series)
The past several posts have focused on how to develop an effective youth sports program structured around all participants. There are myriad studies about how participating in youth sports activities provides tremendous benefits to kids, assuming that the programs are structured to convey those benefits. Information is available from a number of sources on how to structure an effective program, develop a set of guidelines and processes, educate coaches and administrators, create a supportive and constructive environment, and manage the activities.
A chief complaint among parents whose children participate in youth sports is the lack of communication between the “management” (administrators, league officials, and coaches) and the participants (parents and players). This extends beyond just schedules and directions, but includes rules, expectations, contact information, grievance procedures, and coaches’ training. In fact, we started Wagdogs primarily to help overcome the communication issues we encountered in our roles as administrators as well as parents/participants.
Among the core elements of the model youth sports charter developed by Rutgers university is “[r]egular, two way communication between the organization’s leadership and constituents.” But the essential task of informing and educating all of the participants about a program’s mission, goals, objectives, and expectations is often overlooked. It’s not always an easy task, but with digital tools available today, it’s easier than ever to make sure that everyone knows exactly what’s expected of them. Time invested in communicating with constituents will pay big dividends.
In our experience, there are four key elements that can help ensure an effective communication plan: Formulate, Communicate, Educate, and Escalate.
The key to an effective youth sports organization is the formulation of goals and processes consistent with the organization’s mission. Organizations should document their approaches to everything from how to recruit volunteers to how to develop a budget. Specific to that process, it is essential that the goals of the organization are tied to expectations for each participant role (e.g., coach, player, parent) and that they are clear and unambiguous, with an associated disciplinary/grievance process.
Now that you’ve documented your organization’s mission and processes, the hard part is over, right? No! The hard part comes next. It’s essential that you communicate the information that you’ve developed to everyone in your program, and that you encourage them to share their knowledge with others in the organization. Many of the problems that arise in the course of running a youth sports organization can be avoided if the rules and procedures are well-defined, well-documented, and publicized. If parents, coaches, and players know what to expect beforehand, misunderstandings are kept to a minimum. If your organization is an ultra-competitive one, make sure parents and players know going in that there will be cuts, limited playing time, and demanding schedules. If it’s recreational and instructional, make sure that all of the coaches know and adhere to the charter and do not introduce competitive aspects that are at odds with your goals.
Now that you’ve gotten your processes and polices defined and everyone knows what they are, it’s time to devise tools and mechanisms to educate your organization about how and why they should support the organization’s goals. It’s much easier to elicit acceptable participation when people see a direct benefit to the requested action. You may, for example, require every coach to have a preseason “parents meeting” at which they lay out their goals for the team, their coaching philosophy, attendance expectations, and other pertinent information. Some coaches might see that as an unnecessary waste of time.
One of the key processes that you should define and publicize is a clear escalation policy for any complaints for infractions that arise. If a parent has an issue with a coach, your policy should state how that is handled. Maybe you’ll require that s/he first talk to the coach face to face or in a mediated session. The next step in the process may be to make a formal, written complaint to a specified person who will review the complaint in accordance with the grievance procedure and determine next steps. Whatever policies or processes you define and implement, make sure everyone is aware that there is a formal process by which issues are resolved. Do not accept or tolerate anyone’s circumventing that process.
In many respects, it’s both easier and harder to administer a youth sports organization. Social and cultural changes have made conspired to change the perception and goals of many of the parents whose children play sports. The amount of time and money invested in a child’s youth sports experience can be, and often is, substantial. The financial investment too often leads to an emotional investment that is at odds with the benefits of participation, and sometimes with the child’s abilities.
On the other hand, there are more tools and information available today than ever before. Organizations have arisen to combat the negative influences within youth sports. In addition to the Youth Sports Research Council at Rutgers University, there are organizations like the Positive Coaching Alliance, PositiveSports.net, and the Natioanl Alliance for Youth Sports, just to name a few. Many of these organizations offer tools, documents, guidelines, and training to help with the sometimes daunting task of managing youth sports. In addition to tools like Wagdogs, many organizations are effectively supplementing automated league management and youth sports administration tools with their own web sites, Facebook and Twitter pages, blogs like tumblr, and other digital communication outlets.
Tying the key elements above into a “social marketing plan” can be an effective way to eliminate many of the headaches. Social marketing is a term used to describe the implementation of marketing and other concepts and techniques to achieve specific behavioral goals for a social good. In an upcoming post, we’ll talk about ways you can develop a social marketing approach, using the available tools and techniques at your disposal to make your to help ensure positive participation.
NEXT: Social Marketing and Affecting Positive Behavioral Changes
(Fifth in a series)
About three years ago, Miller Donnelly, then a nine year old hockey player, made a satirical three minute video known as The Magic Hockey Helmet. In the video, Miller explains the magic of the hockey helmet in this way: “It does something simply amazing. When I put it on, it changes me from a 9-year-old boy to a 20-year-old man…The minute I put on my magic helmet and step on the ice, adults treat me much differently. They yell at me, they curse me, and they call me names. They treat me like I have been playing hockey for 15 years and get mad when I make a mistake.”
While the outlandish behavior that occurs at youth sports events receives the majority of the attention in the media, those incidents account for a very small portion of what constitutes poor sportsmanship at youth sports events. It’s the behavior described in Miller Donnelly’s video that is at least as troubling as the more violent adult outbursts. You would be hard pressed to remember the last youth sports event that you attended that did not include parents or coaches berating officials, kids sitting on the bench for long periods of time, parents yelling instructions to their children from the sidelines, fans taunting opposing players or applauding their miscues, and kids being yelled at for making mistakes.
Having been a coach and administrator for more than 15 years, well past my own children’s involvement in youth sports, I know firsthand the emotions that arise when watching kids play sports - especially my own. But I’ve also witnessed how much more enjoyable an event is for the youth athletes (and for me!) when they are allowed to play a game without worrying about whether the adults will misbehave. Not only do they enjoy it more, their play is much better since there is less fear that a mistake will precipitate an outburst. The relaxed atmosphere does not lessen the competitiveness of the event, rather, it puts it into the proper perspective and enables the kids to enjoy their participation.
As parents, coaches, officials, and administrators, we have an obligation to change the culture of youth sports so that the young athletes can experience all of the benefits of participation, many of which we’ve enumerated in previous posts. Although it’s a challenge, it’s imperative that we do what we can to ensure our kids are playing in a safe, supportive environment. Here are some things to consider implementing both personally as well as more formally.
Define what sportsmanship means to you and our organization. There are many different perspectives on what constitutes good sportsmanship. Almost all of them have some element of respect included: respect for the sport, for coaches, for opponents, for officials. In an article in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, a study of young athletes 10-18 years old found that they identified five elements of sportsmanship: a full commitment to participation, respect for the rules and officials, concern for social conventions, respect for opponents, and avoiding a “winning at all costs” attitude. If you show respect to others, your kids will learn to respect others and the rest of the elements of sportsmanship - fair play, playing by the rules, winning and losing with class, etc. - will take care of themselves. Whether you are a coach or a parent on the sidelines, the way you react to a situation will determine how the kids will handle similar situations. Demonstrate positive behavior. Stay calm and composed in stressful situations.
Make it about the kids. The goal of youth sports should be to have fun while enjoying healthy competition. An emphasis on winning only serves to create poor attitudes and unrealistic expectations for your child. Young athletes that focus on fun and competition are more likely to talk about how much they love the sport. Rather than ask “Did you win?’, try asking “Did you have fun?” Make sure your kids understand that giving 100% effort and doing their best is the only requirement.
Make sure everyone knows what is expected of them. Although it would seem unnecessary to define adult behavior guidelines, sometimes adults need to be reminded of what is expected of them. Many programs and approaches have been developed over the years in response to the adult behavioral issues at youth sports events and to educate them on the nature, purpose, and benefits of youth sports. The Rutgers Youth Sports Research Council has developed several programs that can be used to educate participants. Organizations ranging from Little League to local community leagues have developed codes of conduct that parents must read and sign. These documents spell out expectations for parents whose children participate in their programs, and many also spell out penalties for infractions.
Emphasize sportsmanship in your program. If your organization’s underlying philosophy values sportsmanship over winning, then sportsmanship will be part of your organization. If you focus your organization and its parents and coaches on helping young athletes master specific skills and improve their level of play, then you are more likely to teach the values of working hard, cooperating with others, and becoming well-adjusted adults.
Create a climate that promotes and rewards sportsmanship. According to an article in Education World, there are four key elements to creating a sportsmanlike environment:
- Establishing a Positive Philosophy
- Defining winning in terms other than the scoreboard leads participants to develop sportsmanlike attitudes and behaviors. The philosophical outlook starts with the organization’s leadership, and is integrated into all aspects of the program, from coach selection to officiating. The leadership must evangelize its philosophy and ensure actions and behaviors are in line with organizational goals.
- Striving for Excellence
- Legendary basketball coach John Wooden said “Although I wanted my players to work to win, I tried to convince them they had always won when they had done their best.” Winning is not the ultimate goal in building a youth sports program. Instilling the ideals that will be the foundation of success for both individuals and teams is. When success is related to putting forth the effort to to realize individual and team potential, then everyone can be a success.
- Teaching Moral Principles
- There are many outside influences that must be overcome in order to impress upon young athletes the importance of demonstrating sportsmanship. With all of the televised sporting events available, it’s easy for both athletes and coaches to be confused about what constitutes sportsmanship. In every game and in many practices, there are ample opportunities for your athletes to demonstrate sportsmanship; helping an opponent to her feet who was knocked down during a play, regardless of the result of the play, congratulating a player from the other team on the game winning hit, complimenting a team on their effort. Teach kids that opponents are there to test their ability, and that being an opponent doesn’t mean being an enemy.
- Providing Positive Role Models
- The best way to develop children who exhibit good sportsmanship is for the parents and adults in the program to demonstrate it themselves. Coaches should be “ethical role models” for the children they coach. Every decision made and action taken should be ethical, within the rules, and fair. The kids will notice, and they’ll learn their sportsmanship lessons from their observations of adult behavior.
Kids don’t learn their values in a vacuum. They are greatly influence by the adults with whom they come in contact. Coaches and administrators can have a significant effect on what the kids in their programs learn about competition, sportsmanship, and fair play by the actions and reactions of those adults. The best way to develop a positive, supportive, and fun program is to ensure that the adults that administer and coach in those programs support the organization philosophy and that they demonstrate respect and sportsmanship in fulfilling their responsibilities. Not only will it result in more fun for the kids involved, it will foster their competitive instincts and allow them to improve their skills free from negative influences.
Next: Four Key Steps to Ensuring Success
(Fourth in a series)
Finding advice on what constitutes a “model” youth sports program is as elusive as finding evidence of alien life. Getting administrators to agree on how a “good” youth sports program should be organized is even more difficult Although much has been written and said about what is wrong with youth sports, and who’s to blame for its problems, scarce attention has been paid to how to help organizations focus on their most important priority - the kids.
There is almost universal agreement that having young children participate in organized sports is a valuable experience. Yet there is no consensus on what that value is, or how it can be assured for every child that participates. Each parent or child has different reasons for participating and when those reasons are inconsistent, problems arise. When expectations are clearly stated and communicated, and when parents know what to expect from administrators, coaches, and officials, everyone can enjoy, and benefit from, the experience.
So how do you go about creating an organization that ensures positive experiences, age-appropriate competition and instruction, and a focus on participation and fun? It’s not easy! While there are lots of organizations that are “doing it the right way,” there is not a lot of direction available to help in emulating their successes. Even so, administrators can develop organizations that balance participation and fun with competition and winning, and can ensure that every child in the program has a positive experience. However, it takes a committed team of volunteers who are willing to develop and document the appropriate principles, implement and communicate guidelines and processes, and work diligently to uphold them.
One of the most important steps in developing a well-respected program is to define and document all of the aspects of your program, from the mission statement to interviewing and selecting coaches to defining a grievance process. Ensuring that everyone involved in the organization has a clear understanding of the organization policies and procedures is an effective way to head off problems.
The Youth Sports Charter
The Rutgers Youth Sports Research Council is a division of the Department of Exercise Science and Sports Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Their research is centered on the influence of physical activity and organized sports on the healthy development of children and adolescents.
Among the resources available is a model for a Youth Sports Charter. Developed in partnership with the New Jersey Recreation and Parks Association, and in conjunction with a select group of individuals who administer outstanding youth sports programs, the team identified the core elements of a quality youth sports program. What emerged from their work was a set of guidelines that highly effective youth sports organizations have in common. A Youth Sports Charter: Guidelines for Recreational Youth Sport Agencies is structured to allow organizations to employ a variety of processes and methods to meet the prescribed guidelines.
The Youth Sports Charter covers many aspects of running a successful organization, from developing a mission statement to instituting financial oversight and processes. Key elements of the charter include recruiting and training volunteer coaches and officials, developing disciplinary and grievance processes, and educating parent and players about the organization’s philosophies.
Positive Youth Sports Model
The Positive Youth Sports Model™ was developed by Community Health Solutions after examining information it collected on athletic performance, positive youth development, teamwork, and leadership. Its primary objective is positive youth development, defined as the process of helping young people grow into healthy, ethical, caring, and responsible people. Their development is influenced by their families and by the community around them, of which youth sports can be one of the most important influences.
The Positive Youth Sports Model uses sports instruction to teach seven important life skills that are essential to the success in both sports and life: School engagement, healthy living, positive character, self-direction, teamwork, leadership, and community engagement. The site offers The Power Series as a set of handout tools to help coaches and parents in teaching the skills through sports. Each tool is designed as a one page handout based on the one of the life skills of the model, and there are tips for coaches on how to deliver and use the handouts to encourage participation.
The second part of the model encourages coaches and administrators to implement T.E.A.M. Leadership: Teach, Enforce, Affirm, Model. The T.E.A.M. Leadership model is a simple approach to helping kids learn positive life skills.
Those are just a two examples of tools and approaches to use in helping to create a fun, rewarding experience for the kids who play youth sports in your programs. Simply following a script or completing a document will not transform your organization, however. What goes into those documents and processes is important, but the level of commitment to upholding the mission of your organization is what will determine how well your activities serve the needs of your young athletes. If your youth baseball program values participation and instruction over competition, then you can’t look the other way when a coach decides to let players sit on the bench so that the team has a better chance to win. Conversely, if the star player never comes to practice but is always available for games, then your organization must have clear and well-known guidelines for how lack of attendance affects playing time, and must enforce them consistently and regardless of athletic skill.
Next: Defining and Modeling acceptable standards
1 note /
(Third in a series)
Jay Coakley is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. He’s also an author and an commentator on sports, society, and culture and focuses primarily on youth sports and socialization issues. Coakley has said the he has offered groups of students $100 for a photograph of eight or more adolescent girls playing sports unsupervised by adults. In 15 years, Coakley says, “I’ve never received such a photo.”
Youth sports become more organized every year, from manicured fields kept in pristine condition to expensive uniforms that resemble those at the high school and college levels. Seasons are extended an extra couple of weeks, teams regularly travel to play in out-of-state tournaments requiring overnight stays, and even the food at the snack stands gets better every year! Without adult involvement, none of these changes would have occurred. Are these changes good for youth sports?
Adults, and specifically parents of youth athletes, have been fingered as the culprits for everything that is wrong with youth sports. And there are certainly legions of psychologists, sociologists, educators, and others who are more than willing to point the finger. While the most glaring of poor behaviors are not at all typical, they’re the ones that are reported the most widely, and those incidents fuel the perception of an epidemic of out-of-control parents at youth sports events. But there are more subtle influences of adult involvement in youth sports, from the level of organization to the behaviors on the field and in the stands.
The push to get parents out of youth sports is being fueled primarily by those who see the boorish behavior evident at far too many contests. It’s the rare event that does not include parents berating officials for bad calls or coaching their child from the sidelines or bleachers. But there are also those who think that youth sports are too organized, and that kids are missing out on fundamental lessons taught on the sandlot fields, where they develop skills like negotiating, conflict resolution, and leadership.
Tim Donovan, the Director of the Youth Sports Institute based at the State University of New York at Cortland, has been traveling around the state of New York promoting Sandlot Day 2010. On that designated day, the kids make the rules. They decide what to play, say, home run derby vs. baseball vs. wiffle ball. They decide what to wear (uniforms or not). They make the lineups. The program’s guidelines give the players choices like coach the bases or not, umpire among themselves, and make any rearrangements necessary to play. The guidelines are only suggestions. Parents are welcome to attend, but they’re not to be involved in the activity in any way. Donovan is not averse to organized sports. He just thinks that there should be other opportunities for kids to play sports where they are in charge of the game and the rules. “We’re not the sports sheriff,” Donovan said. “We think organized baseball is great. But we think it’s also good for kids to play home run derby, to have passion and a sense of ownership about their sports.”
It’s unlikely that youth sports will return to the sandlots. It’s much easier to get on Xbox and play a virtual basketball game than it is to find three other kids from the neighborhood for a 2-on-2 game. That’s assuming a kid can even find a court near his house. While it’s important to encourage kids to get out and play pick up games, it’s equally important that adult involvement in organized youth sports contests provide some of the same benefits by removing the adult egos and tuning in to what’s best for the kids. That doesn’t always equate to winning a game. Most parents involve their children in youth sports with the best of intentions. Somewhere along the way, those intentions get distorted. Eliminating or minimizing parental involvement is not the answer, implying that all parental involvement is detrimental to a child’s participation.
Parents have a significant impact on the positive outcomes of their children’s participation in youth sports. A child’s perception of their skill level, a key factor for young participants in whether they continue to play sports, is derived from two sources: their ability to demonstrate appropriate skill, and their parents’ feedback on their ability. That is to say, if a parent thinks his or her child is performing well, then the child will also believe they are performing well. Parents have the ability to override outside perspectives and cues and instill a sense of confidence in their child.
It’s important for parents to base their positive feedback on skills improvement rather than on comparison or on a standard of skill development. Telling Sally that her throws are stronger and more accurate will increase her confidence and motivate her to continue her improvement. Adding “you need to be able to throw as good as Betty” will have the opposite effect. The feedback must, however, be accurate. Even at ages as young as 8 or 9, children can evaluate feedback and compare it against their performance. If the feedback doesn’t match the skill level, then the feedback could undermine participation and enjoyment. So telling Sally that she has the strongest arm on the team when in fact she can’t reach first base with a throw will discourage her from continued participation.
As parents, how do we walk a fine line between being appropriately involved in our children’s youth sports activities and becoming too involved? If we create a positive environment that supports development and enjoyment and provides honest, non-critical feedback, our children will enjoy youth sports and will be open to the lessons it can teach. Despite what other parents and coaches are doing, we can emphasize behaviors and attitudes that reflect a positive approach to youth sports.
- Require your children to honor the game, and personally demonstrate the behavior that you want them to emulate, regardless of what other people say or do
- Attend your child’s games regularly, and cheer positively
- Make sure your child gets to games and practices regularly and on time
- Applaud good plays by all participants regardless of team, and be friendly to fans and players from the other team
- Ask your child how they would like you to be involved, and respect their feedback
- Make sure you know and put your child’s goals ahead of yours
- After games, do more listening than talking
There is a consistently strong message in the research concerning the effect parents can have on their children’s youth sports activities and enjoyment. Parents play a critical role in how much benefit their children receive from their participation. Despite the media frenzy around out-of-control parents, study after study confirms that parental participation, with the appropriate level of involvement and attitude, is vital to the success of youth sports. Rather than exclude parents, youth sports administrators must send the message that they want and value positive parental involvement in their organizations. The healthy development of their children’s physical, social, and emotional growth depends on positive, involved sports parenting.
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(Second in a series).
“Youth sports are about building better kids, not building better athletes,” says Dr. Bruce Svare, Director of the National Institute for Sports Reform and author of the book Reforming Sports Before the Clock Runs Out: One Man’s Journey through our Runaway Sports Culture. But the continuing emphasis on early specialization and the “professionalization” of young athletes increasingly causes us to miss this point.
Regular season high school games are broadcast on national television, and prized high school recruits announce their college plans on ESPN. Parents spend years of weekends shuttling kids from one practice or game to another, often changing clothes and equipment en route with barely enough time to gulp down a sandwich and a drink. Niece’s birthday party? Can’t make it, we have a game at that time. Mother’s day dinner? Sorry, the traditional soccer tournament is that weekend and we’ll be out of town. Induction into the National Honor Society? Sorry, Timmy can’t attend the ceremony, he’s got a standing appointment with his personal trainer - we waited two years to get into his program and can’t risk getting kicked out!
Not that long ago, sports was an extension of the educational experience. The sports culture of a generation ago was defined by high schools, summer leagues, community recreation programs, sandlots, pick-up games, and a distinct beginning and end to a specific season. But sports has become a serious business in the last two decades, and there is more pressure building to maintain the cash cow. The explosion of media outlets has created an insatiable appetite for programming. And while the professional leagues and college athletic programs have billions of dollars thrown at them by major media outlets for the broadcast rights to their events, many small cable channels are also looking to fill schedules. And much like inexpensive reality TV shows, high schools and youth sports programs are all too eager to help fill the schedule, for a small slice of the huge pie. For example, in 2009, ESPN and ABC paid Little League $4.7 million for the rights to broadcast not only the Little League World Series games, but the regional finals.
Youth sports are becoming less about what’s good for the kids and more about what the adults want. Seasons don’t end because kids are told they need to start specializing in a sport if they hope to be successful. Personal trainers and private instructors are hired for 10 year olds. But most kids want to play several different sports, and specializing at age 11 or 12 has very little to do with whether a child will play on a high school team, let alone at the college or pro level. What we’ve created is overcommitted kids, exasperated coaches, and really tired parents.
In survey after survey of kids who play sports, two themes emerge loudly and clearly: kids play sports to have fun, and kids would rather play on a losing team than sit on the bench on a winning team. That’s not to say that “fun” eliminates any seriousness or competitiveness for kids who play sports. In his 2006 report Sports, Youth, and Character: A Critical Survey, Robert K. Fullwinder, from the Institute for Philosophy & Public Policy at the University of Maryland, states that “…young people may be more serious about their games, and less “childish” - less in need of fun, amusement, or work disguised as play - than critics of youth sports believe. The challenge for youth sports organizations…is to find the middle ground between the two extremes. At one extreme, adults can forget that youth sports is for the enjoyment of the youthful participants. At the other extreme adults can render “enjoyment” into a notion that excludes the serious approach to sports favored by many boys and girls.”
Why kids stop playing sports is a complex issue, and has as much to do with the kids themselves as with their youth sports experiences. The primary reason that most children cite for quitting sports is “it’s not fun anymore.” But the definition of fun is subjective and complex. Sports can cease to be fun because a child develops other interests and would rather spend time on them. Other children may find their physical maturity peaking, and that they are less skilled than teammates, so they leave for some other activity. And of course, some leave because of a series of negative experiences that have taken the “fun” out of participating.
The challenge facing youth sports organizations is to create an atmosphere that’s fun, competitive, serious, enjoyable, repectful, supportive, and cooperative! Not an easy task, but certainly one worth the effort. Creating such organizations takes the commitment and participation of everyone, from administrators and coaches to parents and players. Fun and competitiveness need not be mutually exclusive, and we’ll highlight organizations that are successfully combining the two in future posts.
Next: The Role of Adults in Youth Sports
In this ongoing series, Wagdogs takes a look at the current state of youth sports. We’ll examine the challenges presented to players, parents, and administrators in creating a program that promotes cooperative and supportive participation, helps ensure the safety of all participants, and emphasizes the values and principles of youth sports beyond just winning and losing. Wagdogs will examine real-life situations and provide suggestions for creating a model youth sports program. We’ll show you tools and techniques to improve your program and help it run more smoothly and enjoyably for all participants. We’ll also highlight programs that are leading the way in refocusing youth sports on its core mission.
(First in a series)
The continued growth of youth sports programs has triggered an increase in the numbers and types of adverse incidents that arise from a highly-competitive environment which, until recently, had little need for nor experience in setting participant guidelines. Combine that growth with the skyrocketing cost of higher education, mix in the money spent annually by families on their children’s participation (registration fees, travel, lodging, meals, uniforms, professional instruction, equipment, etc.) and the mounting financial pressures of the current economic climate, and it’s easy to see how youth sports can become more than just a game that kids play.
There is no question that youth sports programs are far different than they were a generation ago. The level of instruction, increased knowledge of fitness and nutrition, and the structure that surrounds all aspects of a child’s participation have combined to raise the intensity with which adults and children participate. With that increased intensity comes an almost daily onslaught of stories involving parental misbehavior. Many of these stories defy belief. Here are a few. See if you can determine which of them are actual events.
- A father of a little leaguer puts Ipecac in his 12-year-old son’s juice bottle and tells him to give it to a specific teammate that has taken his playing time. Many of his other teammates drink from the bottle, and eight of them are taken to the hospital.
- Parents win $125,000 settlement from their local Little League, after their son sprains his knee while sliding into second base.
- Three parents file a civil rights lawsuit after a 6-member evaluation panel leaves their daughters off the high school girls basketball team.
- Police issue a ticket to a woman for leaving her daughter alongside a highway because of the daughter’s “unsatisfactory” performance in a soccer game.
- A father, unhappy with his son’s playing time, hires a private investigator to tail the basketball coach, and to call authorities if the coach is seen drinking and driving.
Hard as it is to believe, every one one of these incidents is a true story. And the list grows everyday, from the ridiculous to the tragic. Granted, it may be that 24-hour news channels, the power of the Internet, and our appetite for information makes it seem that there are more of these incidents than in years past. But the goal of a model youth sports program should be to eliminate the types of attitudes and behavior that give rise to these and more serious issues. Youth sports programs should strive to create an environment that rewards healthy competition, mutual respect, and enjoyment for all participants.
Over the next several weeks, Wagdogs will examine the issues facing youth sports programs, and provide information and resources for helping players, parents, and administrators overcome them. We’ll identify steps to take to create a youth sports program that balances winning with social development, fun with competition, and intensity with respect. There are many examples of how youth sports programs, administered properly, can help our kids become respectful, involved, and responsible adults. We’ll focus on several areas including:
- Why kids play sports (and why they quit)
- The role of adults in youth sports
- Defining and creating successful programs
- Modeling acceptable behavior
- Four key elements in ensuring success
- Best Practices
- Using “Social Marketing”
- How to use technology to support your objectives
Along the way, we’ll cite helpful resources, provide sample documents, identify best practices, and enlist expert opinions. We also ensourage you to participate by offering your opinions and ideas, citing your experiences, and helping us highlight the programs that are “doing it right.”
Next: Why Kids Play Sports (and why they quit)
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In the blog post below entitled High School Coach Suspends Himself, we told you the account of Jenks (OK) High School football coach Allan Trimble, who was found to have illegally recruited an out of state player to his highly successful football program. The Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association (OSSAA) found 7 additional recruiting violations and suspended Coach Trimble and the Jenks Athletic Director indefinitely.
During his suspension, Trimble will forfeit more than $8,000 of his coaching salary. That sounds like a lot of money, until you read further he is technically employed as a school district administrator, and in his capacity as Director of Football for the school district he is paid $83,219. In addition, he receives a car allowance of $2,400, a $300 phone allowance, and a district retirement payment of $300. And to round out his compensation, he receives a stipend of $16,243 for his “extra duty” assignment as Head Varsity Football Coach. Without the suspension, Trimble would have made $102,462 from his 2009-2010 contract, according to this story.
On March 1, Trimble appeared before the Jenks School Board to explain his actions and his desire to return to coaching. After the hearing, one school board member issued a prepared statement supporting Trimble. Trimble is eligible for reinstatement in June if approved by the OSSAA.
Although Trimble should be dismissed for his history of flaunting the rules, my instinct tells me that he’ll be back on the Jenks sideline in the fall. We’ll keep an eye on this story and see if the Jenks School Board and the OSSAA have the courage to send the right message to the kids in their school district.
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