Sunday, January 2, 2011

What's Important in Youth Sports? Part 1

What benefits do we as coaches and parents want our children to derive from participation in youth sports? What would the following list look like if you prioritized it from most important to least important? Give it some thought and give it a try. Really, take a few minutes to give each line some thought, decide if it is more or less important than the others and make a list.

Having fun
Learning goal setting and goal attainment skills
Developing self-discipline
Learning the decision making process
Developing friendships
Achieving success
Winning a lot of awards
Learning good sportsmanship
Developing self confidence
Developing a healthy lifestyle
Choose 2 or 3 of your own and insert them wherever you’d like

This is the first part of a four part series on these topics.


How important is winning? If the goal in sports is to score more points than the other team, shouldn’t athletes and coaches focus on achieving that goal? Is it wrong to try your best to win a game or competition? Winning a game is an appropriate goal if a child plays within the rules of the game and the guidelines of good sportsmanship. Since the nature of sports is to win the competition by scoring more (or less) points, children should be encouraged to give their best effort toward that endeavor.

Before going further into this discussion, we must first distinguish between being a winner, winning a competition and being successful. The team that scores the most points in a game wins the game. In that instance the players on that team are the winners. Being a winner is defined as somebody or something that wins a competition or somebody or something that is or seems likely to become very successful or popular. By definition, an athlete can be a winner without winning the competition. It’s no wonder parents and coaches are often confused or misguided about how to use these terms. This confusion can be detrimental to children and greatly decrease the benefits of participating in youth sports.

The best advice for adults is to “tell it like it is.” If Suzy’s team scored more goals than Sally’s team, Suzy can be told that her team won the game. Sally can be told that her team lost. Sally is not going to suffer permanent psychological damage from hearing this. In actuality, she will be more psychologically balanced by understanding the win/loss dichotomy.

According to the definitions presented above, it’s possible that Suzy could be told she’s a winner because her team scored more goals than the other team, and Sally could be told she’s a winner because she blocked six shots on goal and refrained from turning cartwheels while the play was at the other end of the field. Assuming these were previously discussed goals.

Coaches and parents should be cautious when telling an athlete they lost the game, but they are a winner. Explaining how Sally was successful in attaining her goals even though her team lost the game would be a better choice of terms. Keep in mind that long term goals should be based on the desires of the athlete and short term training goals should be set by coaches. In order to provide the best feedback, parents need to be aware of the goals.

By helping our athletes understand winning, losing and being successful by using terminology that isn’t confusing, we will allow ourselves to do a couple more great things. First, we can keep score at little league games!!!  I’ve never understood why we tell our children the goal is to make as many baskets as possible in the given amount of time and then we tell them we aren’t going to count how many baskets they make. Talk about confusing. Second, when our children understand winning, losing and being successful, we will have more opportunities to teach good sportsmanship. The difference between being a good person and being a good sport is only the setting. By teaching good sportsmanship, we are teaching good people skills.

Having Fun

Yes, this is the most important goal in youth sports participation, but is it the greatest benefit? That’s for you to decide. I look at it this way. The benefit of having fun is short term unless coupled with something that is long term, such as developing friendships or a desire to return to the activity.

The value of having fun decreases if taken in the context of the moment. In this case, once a child changes activities, the fun is gone. No matter how much fun I was having playing sports as a child, when I was called in for dinner and saw spinach waiting on the table, fun was no longer a thought.

There’s nothing wrong with participating for the fun of the moment and youth sports, when done right, will create a lot of fun. That in itself is worth the effort to play. In reality, fun most often leads to friendships and a desire to return to the activity.

Coaches, parents and league administrators should keep in mind that each child will have their own idea of what’s fun. What’s fun for one child may not be considered as fun for another child. What’s fun one day may not be as fun the next day. Winning can be fun. Running, jumping, throwing, catching and kicking can all be fun. Sitting on the bench and talking to your best friend can be fun. If we recognize where our children’s joy comes from, we can do a better job of increasing that joy and attaching fun to long term benefits.

Learning Good Sportsmanship

I’ve chosen winning, having fun and learning good sportsmanship for the first part of this series because they are very much intertwined. Good sportsmanship leads to more fun. Bad sportsmanship leads to less fun. Winning with good sportsmanship is a great thing. Losing with good sportsmanship can also be a great thing. Winning without having fun or winning combined with poor sportsmanship eliminates the benefits that should be created through youth sports.

The key to having fun in youth sports and properly managing winning and losing lies in how people react to the game or competition. These reactions, from players, coaches, parents and officials are called sportsmanship. If a person’s reactions are positive and good, they are a good sport.

How do children learn good sportsmanship? From the people they watch in sports settings. What’s the difference between being a good sport and being a good person? The answer is the setting. A good person in a sports setting is a good sport. When it comes to learning good sportsmanship, who has the most influence on our children? Our potential to influence children is a combination of admiration, respect and time. If our children admire athletes they see on TV, the way those athletes behave will influence our children’s sportsmanship. The same is true for the people our children respect. This could be coaches, teachers, family members or friends. And, time plays a role in a person’s potential influence on children.

Fortunately, parents have the tools to control most of the factors influencing their child’s sportsmanship education. A parent can add commentary to end zone celebrations seen on TV. A discussion about the difference between Barry Sanders respectfully handing the ball to the official following touchdowns and Terrell Owens pulling a Sharpie from his sock to autograph the ball may keep a child from making a poor choice in their next game.

Our children spend a lot of time with teachers and coaches. Parents can, and should play an active role in choosing these people. If your sports league doesn’t allow you to choose your child’s coaches, choose another league. Sports skills, scores and trophies aren’t nearly as important as the role models your child will be following. If you’re not allowed to choose your coach, you should at least have the opportunity to get to know the assigned coach before committing to a team.

Children’s respect for others will be based on what they’ve been taught is important. Children should have a strong sense of family values, what’s right, what’s wrong, etc. before becoming involved in sports. It’s important that parents seek role models who reinforce the lessons being taught at home.

Part 2: The benefits of learning goal setting and goal attainment skills
Developing self-discipline
Learning the decision making process
Developing self-confidence

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