I recently got a disturbing email 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. Lately however, his happiness on the field had been replaced by sadness, frustration and an ever dimishing self-confidence.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.
This situation begs a question: What should the 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, this incident highlights 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.