Saturday, May 18, 2013

Youth Sports Are Red Hot...

You may have heard of the terrible tragedy in Utah a few weeks ago a 17-year-old boy is accused of fatally punching a soccer referee. The boy was charged last Wednesday in juvenile court with committing a homicide. [1] This happened at a recreational game after the referee called a foul and issued a yellow card on the accused boy.

A week doesn’t pass by when I speak with parents or have directly observed myself extremely unsportsmanlike behavior from kids, coaches and spectators alike right here in Southeastern Oakland County.  While the temperature outside is just starting to warm-up the climate in youth sports is red-hot!

Shouldn’t we be using youth sports as a tool to develop character qualities such as determination, integrity, and discipline rather than an overt emphasis on winning and putting up numbers? While the above example is extreme there is no doubt in my mind we are placing way to much pressure on kids to perform rather than placing the emphasis where it should be on long-term and gradual improvement. Not only will this method take the insane pressure off kids but it also provides the opportunity to learn from their mistakes rather than being devastated by them.

School sports in America should be built on a strong educational foundation. For example, the mission statement of the National Federation of State High School Associations indicates that it “will promote participation and sportsmanship to develop good citizens through interscholastic activities which provide equitable opportunities, positive recognition and learning experiences to students while maximizing the achievement of educational goals” (NFHS Mission Statement). [2]

Mission statements make good talking points but actions speak far louder than words in this case. Youth sports at all levels need leaders that are brave enough to draw a line in the sand by not allowing little things to chip away at the integrity of the team for the sake of winning a relatively meaningless game in the big picture of a child’s life.

An excellent example of one such leader just happens to be the current manager of the St. Louis Cardinals of Major League Baseball. I thought his insight on this subject was terrific and wanted to share it with you:

Imagine that you are in the most stressful situation that you could possibly be in with all of your family and friends watching. Imagine that you are asked to do something that is so physically difficult that most people fail three times more often than they succeed. Then imagine that the people that you respect and admire the most in the world are screaming at the top of their lungs at you while you are trying to do this difficult task. Sound Tough? Well... welcome to the world of youth baseball.

I believe that this issue has stunned me more than any other issue we have talked about. I guess that I must have grown up in a cocoon or something, but I played hundreds of games as a kid, and there were never parents and coaches screaming like they are now. I guess that it is due to the pressure of trying to get your kid the scholarship, or the pride of having them accomplish something that you were not able to. But, whatever the reason, it is ugly...Just ask your kids.

It had been a while since I was at a youth game, and when I showed up, I couldn't believe what was going on. There were moms and dads screaming at Johnny Jr. to "get his elbow up" and to "stop swinging at the high ones." The coach on third base was telling him that his "elbow was too high" and the first base coach were telling him the old "keep your eye on the ball." Poor kid didn't know which end of the bat to grab by the end of it all. I couldn't help but feel sorry for all of them, because they were all trying to do their best, but failing miserably.

As I talk to everyone in the game from current players, to Hall of Famers from our past, I always ask them, "How did your parents act at your games?" It is overwhelming and near unanimous that they never heard a word from them. A couple, myself included, would hear a distinct whistle, voice, or clap that they recognized after they did something well. But there was never any screaming or yelling, or instructing coming from their parents during the game. Coincidence that all the people I talked to had the same kind of parents? I don't think so.

My point? Let's get back to the fact that less than 1% of the kids that play youth sports go on to play that sport in high school, let alone, collegiately or professionally. Let's talk about the incredibly fortunate ones who do make it all the way to the highest level. They will tell you that the best thing their parents did for them was to be a silent source of encouragement during the game, and an ice cream buyer after. For the 99% who are just playing for fun, please let them have fun. If you think that yelling (even encouraging words) and mechanical instructions are helping your child, the odds are that you are making it more difficult, and more stressful for them. They have the rest of their lives to learn about pressure and stress. Let them have fun. You will be amazed how much more enjoyable the game will be for you, when you take the pressure off yourself to be worlds best hitting instructor, and to just be a spectator, and fan of your child doing something that they love.

Mike Matheny

I have a philosophical dilemma that I have struggled to reconcile for many years when it comes to who the best coaches in this country are. On the one hand I think coaches like Matheny are wasting a great deal of their skill on professionals who have already mastered their craft. Conversely I know of untold numbers of coaches whom toil in relative obscurity and are making a tremendous impact on the lives of young people and that influence extends well beyond the playing field. The more I think about this I believe the most well known coaches aren’t necessarily the best. In fact the men and women doing the best coaching you likely have never heard of and they probably like it that way.

Phil Loomis
Youth Athletic Development Specialist

Final Thought

“We all must take personal responsibility for our own behavior. Part of the fun of sports is the emotional thrills it brings, but we must not let our emotions get the best of us and act inappropriately. Moreover, we should not support the products endorsed by professional athletes or teams that display inappropriate behavior on a regular basis.”

Daniel Gould, Ph.D.
Director, Institute for the Study of Youth Sports
Michigan State University [3]


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