The Growing Complexity of Youth Sports

I’ve learned a few things coaching youth sports (mostly basketball) in the last 7 years, and I thought I’d share some of my current perspective.

“Youth Sports” is not simple any longer.  It is a very complex collision of societal, cultural, and psychological forces. I’ve brought a very naive perspective to the table based primarily on my own experiences.  I use to believe that youth sports was a bastion of purity in competition, teamwork, and character building.  But it’s not like I remember.

As parents, the most important people in our lives are our kids.  This fundamental detail (and many others not discussed here) account for an amazing explosion of youth sports growth and dysfunction.  From year round leagues, to multi-million dollar facilities, to super elite camps, to sport specific tournament destinations, to rapidly escalating fees and time commitments, to massive amounts of angst exhibited every 4 months as the next club sport tryouts begin…If you are over 30, this isn’t the youth sports you grew up with.

I won’t address all areas in this piece, but thought I would start the discussion with a few things I have learned in the last 6-7 years coaching my two boys.  What follows are the first few of a long list, and few ideas on what you can try in your journey as a volunteer coach.

Lack of Clear Goals Creates Opportunity for Bad Outcomes

In the absence of a clear vision for success, there really is only one obvious metric remaining — winning.  Winning tends to fill the void all on it’s own.  Trust me, you don’t want that.  Many parents, kids, and coaches really (and I mean really) want to win.  They would never say it that way, and honestly they might not even believe that’s what they are communicating, but the experience is very clear.  Win, or we are not having fun.  Win, or we don’t feel we have gotten better.  Win, or we don’t feel like we’ve gotten our moneys worth.  Just win.

I’m not saying winning isn’t important (or fun) because it is.  But winning as the primary/only measure of success, especially in youth sports, will burn you.

In order to counteract this perspective, it is important to develop and define a clear picture of success — then talk about it all the time.  Make sure your kids hear it.  Make sure your parents hear it.  And make sure all coaches hear it.

When I first started coaching, I just wanted to share the game I love, teach fundamentals, and see if I could help my kids get better.  Unfortunately, that’s not very specific.  There are lots of obvious gaps, and those gaps are quickly filled by others beliefs, hopes, dreams, or fears.

As you get started, focus on few key “age appropriate” goals.  For example, in our 5th grade there are a few main goals.

  1. Teach how to play on a team, and play as a team.
  2. Teach Effort and Attitude above all else.
  3. Help kids fall in love with the game.

These few examples act as anchors in how we coach.  These help us resist the urge to make awfully stupid, short term decisions when kids make mistakes — robbing them of a chance to learn and experiment.  “Safe to fail” experiences are critical.  The kid who makes the mistake, more than anyone else in the gym, knows they’ve made a mistake.  My job is is to make that mistake safe…to make it OK.  It’s all part of the learning process.  If I can do that, the kids rapidly adjust and figure out better ways.  If they figure it out on their own, they feel competent.  When they feel competent, they are open to more learning.  If they’re learning, they improve and continue to feel engaged.

Interesting note — if they improve rapidly, they also tend to WIN.  Weird, right?  But I digress…

Youth Sports is a Past-time for Some, and a Business For Many

Parents often imagine sports the way they experienced them as players.  When I was a kid, the business was not as crazy as it is today…by a long shot (and I grew up in Southern Indiana where basketball came before church).  Local sports teams were often left alone, and no one younger than 8th/9th grade was on anyone’s radar outside the area.  There wasn’t even a radar.

As a coach of some very talented kids, I am starting to see how much manipulation and hi-jinx actually occurs behind the scenes.  Nearly every game we play, or tournament we enter, an AAU coach or affiliate is approaching me about certain kids.  These conversations are sales-heavy, and always focus on how much development and exposure a specific kid will get.  The sales process starts with me as the current coach and confidante to the family.  It then slowly evolves into an ask for a “warm transfer” to the parents, and ends in an all out full-court press (excuse the metaphor) for complete commitment and allegiance.  Paid coaches with name recognition, uniforms, shoes, bags, and even trips to play are all part of the pitch.

Folks, I am talking about 5th graders here.  Let that sink in for a second.

So there is a lot that we can do.

  1. Work hard to keep perspective.  Your kids are not a commodity, and the percentage of scholarship athletes, much less professional athletes, is tiny.
  2. Kids in youth sports cannot handle the pressure that comes with pleasing an adult that is benefiting financially from that kids abilities, and shouldn’t be asked to.
  3. Keep clear boundaries for your kids regarding their chosen sports.  For example, driving 50 miles one direction for practices, or borrowing money to go to major tournaments,  send a clear message to kids that the world is now revolving around them and their abilities.
  4. Let them play multiple sports and change seasons.
  5. Let them choose non-traditional sports to play.
  6. As a parent, work hard to recognize that fear drives an amazing amount of your decisions, and talk with other parents for support.

#6 brings me to my last important learning.

Fear Drives a lot of Bad Behavior and Decisions

Most of us deeply underestimate the youth sports culture.  Youth sports has mostly stopped being simple.  Money has grown, the competition for spots on teams has intensified, social status has been inextricably woven together with athletic achievement, and parents are scared.

Many see athletics as a way to keep kids on the straight and narrow path, and teach kids important life lessons they don’t get at home or in school.  Others see it as an way to give their kids opportunities they will never be able to provide on their own.  And still others look at the social status of being “on the team” as the best or last guarantee that their kids will find acceptance in the world.

I don’t pretend to know answers to these challenges.  This is a complex social system wrapped around fears, hopes, dreams, money, and status that exist in relation to each other.  There is not a simple answer, but I have come to understand the complexion of the system much better and can empathize with the parents, coaches, and kids inside it.

As a coach, I used to think parents had lost their minds.  As a parent, I thought coaches were inept.  Everyone was acting so irrationally!  Well, I’ve learned that much of this behavior is completely rational based on the system we are all in.  “Youth Sports” is perfectly designed to yield the outcomes we are getting.  Judgement will not help, but honesty and open dialog can.  I can also work diligently to make it easier on those I encounter.   I hope this is a start.







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