Here’s one of the main problems that we all face in youth, junior and even high school sports: We all seem to subscribe to the performance-outcome model in youth sports. That is, peak performance, winning and beating the opponent are the primary objectives of the activity, NOT LEARNING!
When the outcome is the main objective, then everything is skewed towards this end including how practices and games are conducted and, MOST IMPORTANT, how coaches and parents interact with their child-athletes before, during and after training and competition. When winning or “producing” move into the foreground, the learning process gets terribly compromised and the young athlete’s personal experience within the sport is either pushed far into the background or completely ignored.
Why is there so much heartache in youth sports? Because our whole system for measuring “success” is geared towards the outcome. Did we win? Did we outcompete the competition? Did we perform error-free? Did we qualify for states, regionals or nationals? Success is defined by winning and failure is defined by losing.
When the youth sports system functions in this way, the athlete’s emotional well-being and his or her learning often get ignored. When we stop paying attention to the “youth” in youth sports, then it’s like the tail wagging the dog: The kids involved in the process get forgotten and become vulnerable to being emotionally abused by the very adults (coaches and parents) who are supposed to be guiding, protecting and teaching them.
We need to approach our sports the way we are supposed to approach academic education. The purpose here isn’t to get A’s & B’s, but for each child to LEARN to the best of his/her individual capacity! Education is the goal, not the outcome of a grade point average. Youth sports needs to be treated just like any other learning environment where we need to make learning and education the primary focus rather than fielding the best team and winning.
If education is to be the primary focus in youth sports, then to be really effective, it must focus on the unique needs and sensitivities of each and every individual learner. Just as academic education should be geared to ALL LEARNERS, not just the smartest and brightest, athletic “education” should give each and every athlete regardless of innate ability and talent, an opportunity to use sports as a nurturing, self-esteem enhancing growth experience, an experience in which they can learn about themselves and their bodies, and, in the process, gain invaluable life lessons.
What would happen if each and every coach had his/her priorities clearly aligned with the critical goal of education in the forefront of their mind? How many coaches would then get angry and verbally demeaning if a child made a mistake or failed? How many coaches would punish an athlete or team for failing or emotionally lose control because their team lost in the championship game? How many would continue to only give the best athletes their attention and playing time while ignoring the less skilled ones? How many would then lose interest in and ignore the athlete who struggled with a slump or performance block?
Chances are pretty good that if coaches approached their youth sport duties with their primary goal being education, kids would learn and perform better, there would be far less heartache and tears and athletics would take on a constructive, life shaping role in our children’s lives!