All Have Won, and All Will Have Prizes?: The Challenges of Youth Sports

See Jimmy pitch the ball. See Dick hit the ball. See Dick run to first base. See Dick get called out. See Dick’s parents yell at the umpire. See other parents join in. See Dick walk back to the bench and hide his head in his hands. See Dick’s dad yell to Dick telling him to “Be a man and suck it up.”

For those of you who have been to see youth sports, you may know that these occurrences are not uncommon. According to a survey of parents, 84% of them have seen violence in sports, and 45% kids report that they have experienced comments and abuse of some sort. Parents want to see their children succeed and sometimes don’t know the limits to their enthusiasm. As parents, we have to keep in mind that every child on the playing field in any sport has dreams, hopes and emotions. Also children’s greatest teachers are not only their parents, but other adults around them. The question that we want ask ourselves is, “What do we want our children to learn from sports?” Skills acquisition? Confidence? Cooperation? Social Skills? How to win and lose with class and dignity? Integrity? Honor? Or do we want them to learn, poor sportsmanship, aggression, complaining, cheating???

The Game of Life

I think that we all can agree that in life, we are going to have many more experiences of loss in life than we will have “wins.” Being human and having the opportunity to experience emotion presents us with many opportunities. We have choices with every interaction. In my humble opinion the greatest learning in life comes from the losses. As I teach many people, the purpose of failure is that it tells you when it is time to learn. When you find yourself feeling emotions that are unpleasant to you, ask yourself what the emotions may be trying to tell you… ask your children the same thing. Let sport be more than an opportunity to play. Let it be an opportunity to learn about life.

So, just what is your underlying goal in helping your child? Many parents want to keep their child from experiencing pain, and for so many of us, we see failure and loss as painful. So, if our kids win, they don’t feel pain… right? Not so fast, my friend. What if they won but did not play. Another  question is who else’s pain do we want to avoid??? Our own. Our kids often become extensions of ourselves, so when they fail, we fail… when they lose we lose. In our own aversion to pain, we can take those feelings out on any number of people (other players, refs, coaches, and our own kids) without seeing its impact. The impact on our children is often that they believe if they win, people will love them more. After all, look at the way we idolize professional athletes. So they learn to win at all costs, and that is one of the most destructive messages that has permeated our society.

Anger Everywhere

Why is there so much aggression and arrogance in sports today? 44% of kids surveyed stated that they dropped out of youth sports because they were unhappy. 56% of kids feel that youth sports are too competitive. So why do we define winning from the score at the end of the game. This does not sound like our kids are winning. When I was coaching 6-8 year olds in soccer, one of my players came up to me and asked me what the score was. I asked him if he had fun playing, and he said, “Yes.” I said, “The score doesn’t matter. We all won. Just have fun.” Learning is winning, and learning comes from the experience gained in losses.

In sports, we want our children to learn confidence, respect, pride and integrity among other things. It is not a sign of confidence or integrity to mock other children and do the victory dances in the end zones while pointing at the other team. You have to ask yourself, that if your children are doing this, is this an extension of what you want them to learn? I haven’t seen any physicians mocking each other after completing a difficult surgery or see businessmen spiking their briefcases after big deals (well not exactly).

Life Lessons

As a parent, keep in mind what you want your children to learn. I have presented some pretty challenging viewpoints here. I hope you will consider them. As a parent, you have a tough road — to monitor your own emotions while guiding your children, to lead by example, and to prepare them for the rest of their lives. What I ask people to ask themselves at the end of every day is, “Did I live my life with truth, honor and integrity to myself and others?” Ask yourself this at the end of your child’s sporting events, and hopefully you will continue to make better choices as the season progresses. I will end this with a top ten list that I wrote for the Chicago Tribune a few years ago. I wish you and your family all the success in learning to grow together. Remember to have fun.

Top Ten Ways to Know When You Are Too Wrapped Up in Your Child’s Sport

10. You want to be an official of your child’s sport because you think you can make better calls than the other referees.

9. You have your child practicing every night at home until after dark.

8. You start talking about your games when you were a kid during your child’s games.

7. You start calling players on other teams names and make calls or noises when they’re trying to focus.

6. You start calling players on your child’s team names or make calls or comments, hoping they’ll mess up and your child will get more playing time.

5. You coach your child’s team and let your kid play more than others because you think he or she is better than anyone else on the team.

4. You make your cry before, during or after a game by your actions or comments toward him or her.

3. Your child wants to quit playing and you want to keep coaching, telling him he’s a quitter or a loser.

2. You encourage your child to play with an injury or illness, telling her she’s a loser or weak if she doesn’t.

1. You threaten your child, a player, another parent, coach or official with physical harm for any reason.

Image credit: Bob Johnson

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