Kids are dropping out of sports, they are falling out of love with programs designed far above their emotional and physical level and with the wrong focus being put into play. It’s time to get back to the core of youth athletics and remember just how important they(the kids, the programs, the lessons) really are. Then we need to take a look at our programs and put these lessons into our practices and games, as parents we need to demand no less of the programs we pay large amounts of money too, and as admins we must require this of our coaches. We aren’t training mini professional athletes, we are working with kids of all levels who may or may not play sports through high school, but who all equally need these valuable life lessons.
1. The most obvious and yet still often overlooked/under trained quality of youth sports are the physical factors. Even though this seems like a no brainer, there are still practice fields filled with teams that are being lectured too more than they are getting hands on learning. Coaches are going straight to tactics and kids are missing out on the fundamentals no longer taught in PE classes like cutting, balance, pivoting, quickness, and flexibility. Over the last 10 years I’ve seen a steady decline in the ability of kids to handle athletic movements needed to cut, dodge, and run properly, as well as rising injuries not usually seen in children. Lots of sprints and laps, too many games in short spans of time, and not enough physical development training.
2. Sports provide one of the best opportunities for kids to face failure and then have the choice of how to handle it with guidance in a safe environment. Learning new skills makes us grow, it stretches us and makes us less fearful of future new skills. Failing is uncomfortable for a child who doesn’t know how to face it and see how they can use it to improve. Kids who play sports are going to be more confident facing difficult situations because they know that they can keep trying and getting better. That means success in more than just athletics as they grow up.
3. Each kid comes into our programs with different perceptions of authority depending on their relationships at home. Sports need to provide a safe and judgment free zone where players can learn to trust their coach. Coaches who respect, guide, and positively lead players build youth athletes that will be better prepared learn from teachers and leaders in other areas. Not only will they learn to trust authority, but also to appropriately question it. In an environment where kids are encouraged to think for themselves and make decisions, they become problem solvers instead of quitters or complainers. When coaches avoid scripting or over-coaching, they build this kind of environment for their teams.
4. Team work is learning to work with others for a common desired outcome, something many kids routinely struggle with. That means putting differences aside and supporting, encouraging, and staying on task. When coaches put culture as a priority, team work skills are built that will benefit our kids for life.
5. Trophies, awards, stats, recruiting announcements are all external motivators that are squashing our kids’ ability to self-motivate. Kids that want to tackle challenges because they know how incredible it feels to overcome them are going to find more success in life. There isn’t always going to be someone handing them a medal for a job well done, are we teaching them the value and self-fulfillment that comes with rising to a challenge? Is effort praised and are outcomes looked at as products of that effort rather than the goal?
6. Sometimes kids get frustrated, struggle, don’t understand, and they need to ask for help. Kids that can advocate for themselves will thrive instead of shrink away or quit. Coaches who are approachable and who provide an environment that feels safe for questions, help, and encouragement will make self-advocating much easier on the players. Parents who support their kids in speaking to the coach themselves help build this skill that they will need in school, on the field, and beyond.
7. Mastering a difficult skill is huge confidence booster. Trying something difficult and seeing improvement, even if it’s not perfect, is also a great boost. Sports provide kids a chance to realize that they have the ability to do things outside of their comfort zone. So many kids come onto the field each season with low confidence. Good coaches find ways to build it up and help the athletes see improvements, no matter what their athletic ability may be.
8. Leadership skills are important for kids as they get older and a team environment provides the opportunity for players to step up and lead by example. When kids realize that their actions affect more than just themselves, that they can affect the entire group, they get the chance to lead and choose good decisions. In an environment that offers opportunities for players to step up at practice and at games, leadership skills rise.
9. As kids develop, they go through a natural phase that is somewhat selfish in nature. Being a part of a team challenges that development to grow and expand, to put the goals of a team in front of their own direct needs. Athletic teams present kids with situations where they need to set up another player, work together, and become a part of something bigger than themselves.
10. Balance is a goal that even adults struggle with. Kids who play on sports teams have better time management skills as they must learn to schedule school, friends and family, practice, and games. Coaches who understand this balance can be better prepared to handle academic and family conflicts with practices. Kids also learn when they have over committed and have thrown the balance off and when they need to reassess.
It’s on all of us to keep the great take aways from youth sports accessible to our kids. As coaches, admins, parents, we have a responsibility to make decisions that will support a positive learning environment that is fun, developmental, and enjoyable for youth athletes of all abilities.