We have written many original articles over the years (including posts on this site) on the value and importance of some old-fashioned but still relevant values in youth sports: a) sportsmanship b) what it means to be a real team player and c) why communication, attitude and behavior is important when it comes to coaching youth sports, and how it can help build confidence and character in young people.
But sometimes we wonder if people will ever be truly able to move past the absolute over-emphasis on winning at the youth level.
We still celebrate winning on a regular basis. Look at the Little League baseball World Series every August. This is not to say there is something wrong with that longstanding tradition, but it’s hard not to wonder if we haven’t left behind a trail of disillusioned youngsters who weren’t the "winners"—but were subjected to mental and verbal abuse from those closest to them in the name of trying to “win a championship”.
Name a city. Name a sport. It’s the same everywhere.
To be clear, as we often stress in the seminars we do for youth sports organizations and coaches, as parents, we've made plenty of “mistakes” ourselves. To this day (even with our four sons now adults) it’s sometimes hard to shed the competitiveness that too many of us carry as parents and/or as coaches.
Thankfully, we are seeing in some countries and in many youth sports, a renewed focus on fun and player development rather than “winning” at young ages in sports. The intent is that, even for elite players, they should enjoy their sport but also spend more time trying to improve their skills rather than playing 100 games a year and playing in as many tournaments as possible to get more “medals”.
Does that mean everything we do know is wrong? That it’s wrong to try to "win" and earn “medals”.
We don’t think so, but hopefully a new emphasis will translate into new attitudes around kids in sport. But the reality is, these things take time.
When you are a Mom or Dad (maybe not all Moms' and Dads', but an awful lot!) and you’re watching your 12 year-old daughter compete in a baseball or soccer game, for example, what are your natural instincts? In most cases, it is of course to hope that your daughter plays well, has personal “success” and that their team “wins”.
While that might well be a natural instinct, and “healthy” on one level, something else seems to have arisen through the years. That is, that generations-worth of emphasis on exactly that last objective, winning, has seemingly made it difficult to model and teach those other values and objectives we spoke of above—and are supposed to be teaching every day in every aspect of our lives: sportsmanship and the importance of acting appropriately when you are part of a “team”.
These things may sound simple, but they must not be, or there would not be so many instances, large and small, of parents going over the top, or coaches doing the same.
But it’s not always the big “incidents” that get media play or are nowadays captured on You Tube. It is the little lessons (many bad) that we model and reflect in our attitude: the comments that we as adults and supposed role-models make about kids, coaches, administrators, umpires and referees.
When we yell at a teenage referee at a soccer game for 10 year-olds, it reveals something about us and diminishes us. That is not the best “us”, and not what we strive to show our own kids, or any youngster.
And it may just send the message to kids that this kind of behaviour is OK, because it’s "sports", and competing is about trying to get an edge, to “win”.
Whenever we criticize a player on another team, it’s the same thing. Or talk about our child’s coach to other parents, it has the same effect.
Eventually the toxicity spreads—most importantly, to the kids themselves.
If you’re interested, check out some of our original articles on this site by clicking on posts of interest on the right-hand of this space.
We don’t have all the answers. No one does. But many people seem to care about this subject, and if more and more people—parents, coaches and all those involved in youth sports—can genuinely try to fight their “natural” inclinations and step beyond our own self (and sometimes selfish) interests, maybe we can slowly help change attitudes- starting with our own.