Thursday, April 7, 2011

What's Important in Youth Sports? Part 3


Awards are plentiful in youth sports as are successful performances. In part one I asked parents and coaches to prioritize a list of benefits our children derive from participating in youth sports. I’ve tried hard not to inject my own beliefs into that process, until now. I believe whole-heartedly that experiencing success is more important than winning awards. I also believe there are ways to make the two congruent.

Why is success more important than awards? First, except for “the biggies” that may go on a mantle or special shelf, awards are temporary. Parents tell me their children have drawers or boxes full of medals and ribbons. The walls of my gym are adorned with years of trophies covered with chalk dust. No one remembers what meets they were from.

Please don’t misunderstand me. Awards are an important part of sports and most times they indicate successful performances. But they are still extrinsic and their effect is short term. Should our children celebrate when they win an award? You bet! They should particularly celebrate the team awards they share with their friends. Friendships are a long term benefit of youth sports participation and being part of a successful team will help friendships develop.

All of us involved in sports should understand that you will not get an award every time you are successful, and not all awards signify success. An average athlete who chooses to compete in a weak league may win a lot of awards. That same athlete, if choosing to compete in a strong league, may win few or no awards. The question we must answer is this, which league is best for developing the child as a whole?

My personal opinion is that choosing to compete in a weaker league simply for the sake of placing higher in the standings is a gamble. Why, because our kids are smart. Most of them will, at some point, see the big picture. At that point, most of what was done to make them feel successful will have been wasted. And even worse, these child athletes will feel as though their parents and coaches, the people they want to please the most, have no confidence in their abilities.

If Susie takes fourth place on the balance beam she may or may not get an award. But, if Susie worked hard all week to improve her cartwheel and then stuck that cartwheel on the beam at the meet, she experienced success. She knows she was successful and she knew it the instant her feet stayed on that beam. She learned something from the process of training that will stick with her. More life skills are developed in the process of training to compete than from the actual competition.

Experiencing success based on goals, whether formal or informal, is a task oriented process. Completing a task or series of tasks is part of that process, along with writing goals and measuring outcomes. The reward for success in this system is learning the process, because that is a life long benefit.

It feels great to win awards. We can all use a little ego bump once in a while. But, how we perform in relationship to our past performance and current goals will provide more meaningful information. We should teach our child athletes to celebrate these successes as much as they celebrate winning a game or placing high in an event. And, we do.

Think about the chronological order of events at a sport competition. When are the awards given? When do athletes receive feedback from their performance, their coaches, their teammates, the crowd and the officials?

Good coaches understand that performance feedback comes first and is controlled by the coach. Sometimes you celebrate. Sometimes you educate. Sometimes you console. Most times you do some of each. I suggest you find something to celebrate and do that first, followed by education or consoling and always finish on a positive note. Feedback concerning the success of a performance will always come before the award for the performance. Because it is more immediate and more closely tied to goals and expectations set by the athlete and coaches, it should create more benefits than the award.

The relationship between awards and task/goal oriented success is not black and white. It is varying shades of grey, based on who’s running the show. If a child is experiencing success based on improvement, progress, goals, what they’re learning AND getting a lot of awards, that’s great. The key is to educate our child athletes about the meaning and value of each. Coaches and parents must first understand that the benefit of winning an award is most often short term, while the benefits derived from being successful in reference to goals, whether formal or informal, are more long term.

How can coaches make pursuing awards and pursuing goals more congruent for our children? Give awards based on attaining goals. The award doesn’t have to be fancy, but should have meaning. If the Panthers spend their weekend winning a basketball tournament and get a trophy for doing so, that’s great. They should celebrate that victory. With every moment that passes, that trophy will have less and less value in terms of motivation and the learning it represents. If at the first practice after the tournament, Johnny gets to stick a big red star on a chart showing that he met his goal of having three steals during the game, and sticks another big red star on a chart for making over fifty percent of his shots during the tournament, his coach has provided an award based on past performance and current goals. This process helps Johnny develop some valuable skills.

Winning awards and experiencing success based on goal attainment are both benefits of participating in sports. Because attaining goals creates more long term benefits than simply winning an award, it will always be placed higher on my list of priorities.

Part four will cover the benefits of developing friendships and lifelong fitness habits. And, I will post my list.

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