Sunday, September 18, 2011

What's Important in Youth Sports - Part 4 (Concl.)

In part one of this series, I asked readers to make a list of benefits our children derive from participating in youth sports and asked that those lists be prioritized from most important to least important. In part 4, I will touch on the benefits of developing friendships and an active lifestyle. These share the potential of becoming life-long benefits and follow parallel paths in the transition from childhood to adulthood.

There are few things in life more valuable than good friends and good health. You could list these as the two greatest benefits of youth sports participation and would get few arguments against your decision.

If playing sports landed you a friend for life, you are blessed, as is your friend. Time works against our children and decreases the odds of maintaining friendships over the long haul. Mobile families, whether moving across town or out of town, are a detriment to long term friendships. Most youth leagues draw athletes from numerous schools and multiple school districts, another hindrance. With many factors working against the development of life-long friendships, it's rare that those relationships survive. But what a great benefit when they do.

Should developing friendships be a priority in little league? YES! This is an area where parents can play a huge role in the world of youth sports without concern over stepping on the toes of coaches, officials or league administrators. Much can be done outside the competition setting to create opportunities for our children to form relationships with their teammates.

Although the odds are against our child athletes developing long term friendships with their teammates, the good news is that the friendships made never completely go away. They are simply pro-rated by time. A few months ago, I was shopping for an appliance and came across a teammate from my little league baseball team. We had played together from the age of nine to thirteen. Now in our fifties, we stood in the store and talked for nearly half an hour about the good ol' days. Even though that team had completed several undefeated seasons, it wasn't the wins and losses we talked about. We talked about our teammates. Our friendship hadn't gone away, it had merely suffered from a separation due to high school, college, family and careers. It had been pro-rated by the other happenings in our lives.

Does participating in youth sports transfer into an active lifestyle as an adult? I have to admit, I've never looked up statistics on this matter. My gut feeling is that child athletes may be more apt to lead active lives as adults, but this benefit is no guarantee.

Like friendships, there are many variables that affect the transition from childhood into adulthood. The health benefits of an active childhood are quickly lost to a sedentary adult lifestyle. An adult must make the choice to be active. That choice is more easily made by someone who's experienced an enjoyable little league or school athletic career. Lifestyle and friendship development face the same negative influences during the transition to adulthood. Anything that pulls us out of the gym or off the field separates us from a healthy, active life. Adolescence, college, starting a career and starting a family are a few of the pulls that come with maturity.

An active adult will more often than not be healthier than a sedentary adult, but activity is not the only piece of the puzzle. Diet, exercise (what type of activity), stress, daily habits and relationships with family and friends are all pieces of the healthy adult puzzle. We, as adults, should develop systems to help us win the battle for good health just as we develop systems for helping us attain our goals at work, coaching a team, etc.

Can our system include the activities we loved as kids? Yes, particularly if we aren't afraid to play like a child. It may be difficult to find eighteen players for a game of baseball, but it only takes three to play 500. When's the last time you bounced a tennis ball off a wall and fielded it on a short hop? A quarterback, receiver and defender are all you need for a game of one-on-one pass and catch. Be creative, like you were as a kid. Find or make up activities that are fun. If other adults say you’re silly for playing these childish games, ask them to join in. Sometimes, acting childish is a very healthy thing for an adult to do.

What is most important to the development of our children, the gratification of short term benefits or the accumulation of life skills and the long term benefits they create? Here's my list of what I feel are the greatest benefits our children will get from youth sports (in rank order).

NUMBER 1: FRIENDSHIP - Friendships may be hard to maintain over time, but the effort to do so is well spent. Even if a close friendship isn't maintained, do your best to decrease the pro-rata of those friendships over time. Crossing paths with old teammates is always a great time. Create opportunities for child athletes to develop friendships.

NUMBER 2: LEARNING GOOD SPORTSMANSHIP - The only difference between being a good sport and being a good person is the setting. Practicing good sportsmanship will help our children develop into good people.

NUMBER 3: DEVELOPING SELF-DISCIPLINE - Everything we do in life is enhanced as we improve our self-discipline. Self-discipline is a skill. It improves with practice and education. Youth sports are an excellent environment for teaching its concepts. Success, in large part, stems from self-discipline or luck. Which do you want guiding your life?

NUMBER 4: HAVING FUN - Having fun is a great benefit of youth sports. It is the web that connects all the benefits. Having fun can lead to friendships, a desire to return to the activity, great family moments and good sportsmanship, to name a few. The "fun gauge" is one tool coaches and parents can use to monitor their child's sports experience (it is not the only tool).

NUMBER 5: ACHIEVING SUCCESS - Youth sports is a great environment for learning the process of being successful. That process can then be used and improved throughout a lifetime. If this was a list of goals for youth sports, rather than benefits, I would place this one much higher. Any child that participates in a sport year-round should be in a program where a system is in place that teaches "success skills" such as goal setting, training systems, self-discipline, etc.

NUMBER 6: LEARNING THE DECISION MAKING PROCESS - Children in sports have ample opportunities to make decisions. In this setting, good decisions lead to success, celebration and a positive learning experience. What's great about youth sports is that a bad decision comes with minor consequences but still creates an opportunity for a positive learning experience. If we allow our children to experience both sides of the decision maker's coin, they will become more adequately prepared for adulthood (or more importantly, for adolescence).

NUMBER 6.1: LEARNING GOAL SETTING AND GOAL ATTAINMENT SKILLS - Okay, I'm cheating a bit on the prioritization, but I believe goal setting, decision making, training choices, etc. go hand-in-hand.

NUMBER 6.2: DEVELOPING SELF-CONFIDENCE - Self confidence is a by-product of good goals, good training and good decisions. It increases with success. Success is affected by all the above.

NUMBER 7: WINNING - Children benefit by winning. It is a rewarding experience and many times it validates the process used to win. But, winning is an easily manipulated concept and pales in comparison to success based on the attainment of goals.

NUMBER 8: WINNING A LOT OF AWARDS - What is the value of an award? Is there value in something that is taken home and put in a box, a drawer, on a shelf or hung on a bulletin board with dozens of other awards? Is the goal to get as many awards as you can, or is the goal to get the award that signifies you've done something successful? Does giving every child in a competition an award mean every child was successful at that particular competition?

I know I'm in the minority on this issue, but I believe the value of an award increases when fewer awards are given. By giving fewer awards our children won't have boxes or bulletin boards full of ribbons and medals, but the ones they have will be meaningful. Assuming a child's self-esteem is bolstered by receiving an award for last place is a concept that needs to be revisited in our industry. We must think of the long term effect on the child. How long will a child remain in a sport if they are repeatedly asked to stand at the bottom of the awards stand. Our children are smart. They know they are in last place (or near last place). Why do we need to give them an award to commemorate that moment. Give them an award for accomplishing a pre-determined goal or four out of five goals for the competition, whatever, just send them home with an award that means something.

Ask your child to go through all their sports awards and pick out the five that mean the most to them. Watch them go through the elimination process. I'd like to hear what you learn from their endeavor.

NUMBER 9: DEVELOPING A HEALTHY LIFESTYLE - Although participating in youth sports may increase the chances of leading an active life as an adult, I believe that influence is small. If more of us were willing to play like children that might change. Boredom is the biggest enemy of persistent exercise. Instead of choosing a treadmill, how about playing kickball, dodgeball or rolling around on a scooter (like you did in elementary school). When's the last time you chased after a frisbee thrown by a friend across the playground? Youth sports serves as a reminder that being active can and should be fun.

So, that's where my 30+ years of coaching children have left my beliefs about the benefits of youth sports participation. I'm sure if I asked a hundred of you to submit your lists, no two would be the same. Feel free to post comments. I'd love to get some feedback and improve my education through your experiences and thoughts.

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