Imagine you’re coaching a big soccer game, against an undefeated team that has beaten your team in all your previous matches. Your 11-year-olds are playing well and are ahead. Then, in the closing minutes, the official makes a bad call that goes against you and, because of it, you lose. After the game, the parents of your players scream at the official. The kids are disappointed, looking up at you. What do you do?
Or you’re coaching tee-ball and one of your 5-year-old players has failed to get a hit so far. Now, he’s up again in a crucial situation and is nervous. All eyes are on him. His first swing misses high. The second misses low and knocks the ball off the tee. You call him over to offer some help. What do you say?
Or you’re a parent and your 14-year-old daughter has just come off the basketball court. In the final seconds of the game, with her team behind by a point, she was fouled and awarded two free throws. What do you say if she missed both of them and her team lost? What if she triumphed? (Tune in on Wednesday for the answers!)
Coaches can be enormously influential in the lives of children. If you ask a random group of adults to recall something of significance that happened in their fourth or fifth grade classroom, many will draw a blank. But ask about a sports memory from childhood and you’re likely to hear about a game winning hit, or a dropped pass, that, decades later, can still elicit emotion. The meaning that coaches or parents help young people derive from such moments can shape their lives.
But today’s youth coaches often struggle to provide sound, evidence-based, and age-appropriate guidance to players. Part of the problem is that of the 2.5 million American adults who serve as volunteer coaches for youth sports less than 10 percent receive any formal training. Most become coaches because their kid is on the team ― and they basically improvise. I did this in soccer and, through my over-eagerness, almost destroyed my then-6-year-old son’s delight for the game.
But a bigger problem is that youth sports has come to emulate the win-at-all-costs ethos of professional sports. While youth and professional sports look alike, adults often forget that they are fundamentally different enterprises. Professional sports is an entertainment business. Youth sports is supposed to be about education and human development.
That’s why it is so disturbing that, over the past two decades, researchers have found that poor sportsmanship and acts of aggression have become common in youth sports settings. Cheatinghas also become more accepted. Coaches give their stars the most play. Parents and fans boo opponents or harangue officials (mimicking professional events). They put pressure on children to perform well, with hopes for scholarships or fulfilling their own childhood dreams. Probably the most serious indictment of the system is that the vast majority of youths ― some 70 to 80 percent ― drop out of sports shortly after middle school. For many, sports become too competitive and selective. In short, they stop being fun.