My #1 priority in life is to be a present father to Luke, Jack & Lyla and raise them to be well-adjusted, self-aware, confident children that grow up with high character and integrity. Therefore, it is my duty to create a nurturing environment for them to develop the skill sets necessary for them to make a positive contribution to the world as the get older.
I feel very strongly that sports are an invaluable tool in accomplishing this. At the most fundamental level, youth sports should be fun a platform to teach children values like teamwork, work ethic, accountability, respect, character, selflessness, loyalty, sportsmanship, leadership, competitiveness, how to deal with adversity and how to earn success.
At the youth level, which I will define as elementary and middle school age, winning should not be the primary goal and winning should not be emphasized. The focus should be on having fun, developing movement and technical skills as well as learning how to be a good teammate, to be coachable and how to play the game the right way.
But you can do all that and still keep score!
It’s OK to have winners and losers. Not keeping score is a futile attempt to coddle children and keep them insulated in a bubble. This will backfire as we create an epidemic of entitled children whose self esteem has been built on a house of cards. Kids need to learn how to win graciously and lose gracefully. As someone much wiser than me has said, “We need to prepare our children for the path, not prepare the path for our children.”
But just because you keep score, it does not mean you have to emphasize winning. They are not the same thing. As adults, we need to…
Praise and reward the process, not the outcome.
Praise the effort, not the score.
Praise the improvement, not the win/loss record.
At the youth level – everything that is done to increase the chance of winning decreases the overall development and enjoyment of the game for the kids involved. When you emphasize winning – you create an environment where kids fear making mistakes. But mistakes are the primary ingredient of growth and development! When you emphasize winning – you reward the more mature and advanced kids and leave the others behind. When you emphasize winning – you teach kids that the outcome is more important than the process… which is a very dangerous mindset to instill if your goal is to raise happy and successful children.
This pressure to win often comes from the parents. Parents who unconsciously live vicariously through their children. You know the ones – the ones screaming like a crazy person on the sideline of a youth sporting event.
While I know this is well intended, shouting instructions to a child from the sideline stunts their development and makes the game a lot less fun for them. As parents, we should only be cheering, encouraging and supporting our little rascals… not offering instruction.
Screaming ‘shoot’ or ‘pass’ at the top of your lungs does not add any value nor does it help – in fact – it adds pressure, confusion and robs the child of arguably the most important skill set in sports – the ability to make decisions. From a fundamental standpoint, shooting the ball should be an action, not a reaction! Lastly, it undermines the coach.
Our children should only receive instruction from one person during competition – their coach.
As youth parents and coaches we should all be emphasizing fun and development and praising great attitudes and work ethics… not berating referees, anointing National Champions and creating a win-at-all-costs, high pressure environment. So, how do we do that? What are some tips to doing youth sports right?
Research has shown that the best 6 words you can say to your child after a practice or game is…
I love to watch you play.
How simple is that?
I love to watch you play.
That statement has been a game changer for me (pun intended) as a father. I have programmed myself to say that to my kids every time. And without fail, their faces light up with a big smile when I do. Please try it.
Another recommendation is for you to offer your kids these 4 reminders before every practice and every game:
- Have fun
- Play hard
- Listen to your coach
- Be a good teammate
If they can do those 4 things every time they take the court or field… then they will be getting the full benefit that sports offer at such an impressionable age. I also want to recommend you encourage your children to stay involved in as many sports as they can for as long as they can – both individual sports like golf, tennis and martial arts – to team sports like basketball, baseball and soccer. This variety is healthy for them mentally and physically… and will give them time to find what they are good at and what they are most passionate about.
Early sport-specialization is the wrong move. Trust me, encouraging your children to play multiple sports in elementary and middle school will in no way limit their ability for future success in one particular sport.
Believing that a child needs to play one sport, and only one sport, year round beginning at age 8 or 9 is a dangerous trend that is completely misguided. Playing multiple sports throughout the year has numerous benefits – but the primary one is it helps alleviate burn-out and overuse injuries.
This trend started when parents (unintentionally) began bastardizing the ‘10,000 Rule’ by Malcolm Gladwell (which states it takes approximately 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master a skill).
This has two glaring errors. One, the study he referenced was with musicians (pianists) – not athletes. There is a huge difference in the physical toll taken on a child’s body between playing the piano and playing competitive basketball (for example).
Two, the key is DELIBERATE practice:
“Deliberate practice refers to a special type of practice that is purposeful and systematic. While regular practice might include mindless repetitions, deliberate practice requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance.” – James Clear
So simply having a child ‘play 10,000 hours of basketball from age 8 to 18’ is NOT what Gladwell intended.
Logging hours is not the answer. All training needs to be intentional, purposeful and deliberate. Having been involved in elite basketball my entire life – I can promise you that 95% of what is currently going on at youth practices and training sessions is not deliberate practice.
On an unrelated, but equally important topic, the concept of ‘everyone-gets-a-trophy’ to raise children’s self-esteem does not work. It provides a false sense of accomplishment, entitlement and creates fragile egos.
By definition, it’s not an accomplishment unless it is earned.
For me personally, as a father, I do not let my children beat me in any games of skill, strength or speed.
No, I am not a sociopath. I do this to teach them about life. When I win, I teach them the importance of losing with class and grace. In games of skill, strength or speed, I will often handicap the rules (EX: give them a significant head start in a race) to give them better odds. However, I still do my best to beat them. In many instances, with the right handicap, they will win.
When they do, I congratulate them and tell them how proud I am of their effort, I recognize how hard they worked, how much they practiced and how they never quit. I make sure to acknowledge the process, not the outcome (EX: I don’t make a big deal when they win/lose, but rather highlight the role their effort and attitude played).
Most importantly, I always model the appropriate behavior whether I win or lose.
I am confident this stance will teach my children to respect the process, embrace practice, always give a great effort, earn everything in their life and handle both winning and losing with class.
And that is the key to them growing up happy, fulfilled and successful!