Over 5 years ago I wrote a post about what was the driving purpose behind youth sports – winning or learning. This was turned on by an email I received from a father of a 10 year old lacrosse player. The boy had been playing the game for almost 5 years and absolutely loved it. However, his happiness on the field had been replaced by sadness, frustration and an ever dimishing self-confidence. The problem seemed to have started early on in the season when the boy made a mistake during a game and was immediately benched by his coach for the rest of the game.
For the remainder of the season, the coach only played this boy one to two minutes per game. As a consequence, the time he was on the field, the boy was totally preoccupied with “not making mistakes” and so played nervously and tentatively.
More recently, I received a response from a mom of a volleyball athlete. Here is what she wrote:
I couldn’t agree with you more. Just came home from a volleyball tournament where my daughter’s team took first place. Although my daughter seemed happy, I was upset that the coach put her in for only a few minutes towards the end of the game when the girls were winning. There was a prior tournament where the team took first place but my daughter was the ONLY player that wasn’t put in at all.
Think how my daughter must have felt, Although she didn’t express any sadness or being upset. Needless to say I was VERY upset inside. They all got medals for winning 1st place, but I felt like it wasn’t a worthy medal for the team unless all your team members played. Yes, when we signed up for this volleyball club (the girls are 13/14), we the parents were warned and the players were warned that they may not play. I’m totally new to this volleyball club and tournaments, and not sure about the rules but I feel like they should change the rules and give everyone on the team a chance to participate or play.
I realize that these coaches want to win, but is it worth it when you’re hurting young players psychologically when they are still developing their sport? I realize I’m not the only one who’s been through this, but just wanted to vent.
This situation begs a question: What should the purpose of youth sports be? Are they all about fielding the best team possible and giving one’s team the best chance of winning? Or are they all about learning and teaching young kids how to play the game, get along with each other and have fun?
To me, these incidents highlight one of the main things wrong with youth sports in this country. We are too focused on the outcome. We are too concerned with winning. In the process, we are robbing our kids of valuable learning experiences that could ultimately enhance their lives and make them better people. By making these insignificant games and tournaments too important, we are also putting them under unnecessary competitive pressure, pressure which not only kills their joy of participation, but also interferes with their ability to perform at the highest level.
Coaches who make the won-loss outcome their main focus selfishly corrupt the youth sports experience for these kids. The over-inflated importance of winning is an adult thing, NOT a kid thing. The main problem with this is that it teaches kids the wrong things about sports and the learning process. The bottom line is that no one, NO ONE can learn without making mistakes and failing. Mistakes and failure provide us with valuable feedback on what we did wrong and what we need to change for next time. Without making enough mistakes, you can never go from beginner to expert.
Unfortunately what this coach taught the 10 year old, as well as the rest of his team, is that mistakes are unacceptable and will get you benched. He also taught his young players that what is most important to him, the supervising adult, is winning, NOT how much fun the kids have or whether they learn the right things or not. To me this is criminal. He is NOT coaching a Division I college team. He is not working with professional athletes. He is, instead working with vulnerable and impressionable 10 year olds who need to be in a healthy learning environment in order to best learn and develop.
What’s a healthy learning environment? It’s an emotional and physical space created by the supervising adults, coaches and parents, where kids feel safe to take risks, make mistakes and fail without fear of embarassment or humiliation. Without this kind of environment, it’s impossible for kids to relax, take risks, learn the game and ultimately, excel.