The priority of youth sports and youth coaching is to prepare our children for the challenges of life. Note, not to prepare them to ‘win at all costs’, inflate the value of athletic performance in society, to maintain the now near status quo that a high-level athlete is somehow the embodiment of success and of greater value than the artist or intellectual development. If youth sport and for that matter, much of all of organized sport is a window to society, something terribly wrong has occurred in the last quarter century.
Lessons Learned In Sports
Let us go back a few years, to a vastly different time of the 1950s and ’60s.
Like many, I was raised where sport played a role in active participation in the world. Within recent memory, subject to the ravages of World War II and now home building careers and raising families. The great growth of suburbia, grand family holidays, extended family get-togethers and the dream of a world where anything was within reach. Sport played a role, a backdrop if you will, of a young western world. Camelot and healthy fitness was part of our school system. A young President John F. Kennedy contended that physical exercise played an enormous role in creative and intellectual growth. Participation in sport was part of our daily lives but with a greater lesson.
Camaraderie, Sportsmanship, And Perseverance
We may have been winning letters in school sporting activities but along the way, we were winning in something far greater, life and for that matter preparing for the many challenges that lay ahead. Sport can be one of the great conduits to teach a better value system, of team camaraderie, sportsmanship, perseverance, triumph over adversity and much more. We learned to get along, to try, to give it all you can and when we failed we learned to get back up to try again, with each and every setback a crumb in the long road to goal achievement began.
Sport taught and sport served a purpose that so many decades later we remember for what it was, clinging to the notion it still delivers the same lessons today yet typically blind to the uncomfortable reality it is at the cornerstone of some of our most concerning societal problems. Sport does not quite teach but rather conditions and like any conditioning vehicle, it swings in either direction, from good, to ‘not so good’ to terribly wrong. The sport of the past is rarely the sport of today.
Related Article: Adolescent Sports Participation & Mental Health
Flash forward from the black and white images of the 1960’s, move past the out of context quote of a legendary sport coach that suggested ‘winning was the only thing’ and jettison quickly through the 1980’s that replaced ‘substance’ with ‘style was everything’ and the difficult reality is that organized sport, for all its grand opportunity has been performing dismally in many corners for many years.
In the modern ‘look at me’ era, likely there is no greater function that has conditioned a generation than sport. From generations whose heroes rocketed to the far off space with humility to athletes that ‘spiked the ball’, pranced and preened for every possible camera and sound bite, reinforcing said belief to generations and now, years later, every achievement regardless of how common, how average, is hailed. Cue helicopter parenting reference, insert the dopamine hit for every ‘like’, quaint heart sign and ‘retweet’ and at the root, youth sport played an uncomfortable role at conditioning highly questionable attitudes and conduct.
Where youth sport and sport as a whole came off the proverbial rails is a difficult time to pinpoint but I suspect sometime in the early 1970s with the evolution of athletes into global brand development. Like any societal change, it came in slow ‘bite-sized’ shifts and did not appear significant in the immediacy but years later it is difficult to see similarities in the sport of today with its past.
A Shift In What’s Important
Turn back the clock to the start of the 1970 World Cup quarter-final between Brazil and Peru the sports legend Pelé performed what is often hailed as one of the great marketing coups in history as moments before the kickoff, as live television beamed across the globe, he bent down to tie his Puma’s. Product placement, brand identity and in many ways, the start of the ‘look at me’ conditioning tool via sport. From elite sport down to the most important area of sport, children, attitudes, and habits changed and slowly those lessons once so central were often bled from the youth sports system.
Sport became important, very important and instead of participating and watching from time to time, we became immersed, obsessed of the minutia and shifted from ‘doers’ to ‘watchers’, and for that matter consumers of everything associated with the sport. Thus the value of sport to society shifted dramatically and the values taught within youth sport changed.
To which I add a personal statement, and please I note such as an individual often respected for having an enormous role in elite sports coaching and development, but one is not a better person because they can throw, catch, strike or hit a ball. Regardless of the sport, regardless of the level of ability including being the greatest the sport has ever seen, it does not make one remotely a better person. It means simply, one can throw, catch, strike or hit a ball well. That is all and that is everything.
For each mention of ‘Student-Athlete’, do remember being a student comes well before becoming an athlete. In fact a true coach, one that rises above the sport and helps athletes develop well beyond a game, place a priority on academic excellence and never, not once, not ever, compromises scholastic efforts for athletic success. This includes universities, including those prestigious Ivy League schools that cater to athletes in order to field a better team, as well as unique scheduling to adjust to significant preparation time which includes not only practice but tournaments and bowl games, or provide privileged athletes tutors that other students do not have at their disposal to ensure they meet their minimal GPA levels.
The list is endless, appalling on many fronts, but ultimately comes down to a very simple yet profound point, one should attend to school whether at the academy or university to attend school, not to make sport a priority. We need to get away from the misguided notion of playing a sport well making one a better person or attending a particular academic institution because of their team, promises of playing time or stardom. Go to school for school. Building the mind is strong.
Importance Of Character Development
The focus of youth sports development, albeit this should be obvious, is on the youth and their character development. It should not be if they are more advanced in sport at an early age or moving past the ‘January baby’ advantage. Participating in sports should provide important character lessons that are part of their broad learning experience. A child playing a sport well and becoming a professional athlete is not equal to seeing a generation be exposed to the benefits of healthy exercise, participate in recreational activities and most importantly gain the confidence to face challenges in life. On that note, I watched a group of young children involved in a team sport today. I very much doubt one will advance to a higher level. However, the lessons they learned of teamwork, camaraderie and building confidence could be a foundation for future leaders of communities and business.
Where did youth sport go wrong in the last thirty plus years?
Likely it begins far simpler than what most consider for we forgot youth sport is meant for the youth, not to use as a marketing tool for global products and services but for the children and their future.
Secondly, and this requires enormous emphasis, student comes before athlete. Whether preteen sport or at the collegiate level, we should not allow academic development to be collateral damage for better teams and players. If sport is truly for the athlete, then let us place the future of the athlete first. Student before athlete.
Thirdly, and likely the most difficult notion to impress, playing a sport well does not make one a better person. Bring athletes of all ages down from the pedestal and ensure they uphold the same standards of the balance of society. Sports should be a vehicle to reinforce ethics and values.
Finally, we all win when children play and it is time to give sport back to children.