Good Sports, Bad Sports

May 3rd, 2013 by Nathaniel Reade

Why youth sports make adults crazy, and what we can do about it.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Every weekend in communities across the country, it’s often the adults who are the ones behaving like very bad children when it comes to youth sports. This poses a major problem in a nation struggling with obesity and sloth: According to one study, about 70 percent of youth players quit by the time they’re 13, mainly, they say, because coaches and parents have taken the pleasure out of it. We get our kids into sports because we want them to be active, have fun, make friends and learn good values. Then too often we undermine all of that by yelling at officials, criticizing or asking our kids as soon as they get in the car, “Did you win?”

I’ve been one of those horrible adults. In 30 years of coaching soccer, I’ve yelled at players on the field. I’ve screamed at refs and opposing coaches. This bothers me enough that I wanted to understand what it is about watching our kids play a game that makes adults so nutty, and what we can do about it.

Part of the problem, I’ve learned from the experts, is that organized youth sports are relatively new. Fifty years ago, most kids entertained themselves with sandlot games and rarely played organized sports until high school, in much smaller numbers. Today, almost 90 percent of American kids play youth sports, often starting at age 5. This is a great thing, but it also means we’re still figuring it out. It puts pressure on leagues to find coaches, and thrusts parents into roles for which they have far too little training.

And let me tell you, coaching is hard. We tend to think that if we’ve played a sport we can coach it, but that’s like thinking that if you paid your bills last month you can teach high school math. A great coach has to control and teach a gaggle of kids without resorting to the three deadly sins of lines, laps or lectures while simultaneously satisfying the demands of parents and league officials. It can require as many hours as a part-time job.

Coaches and parents also struggle in youth sports because we are adults, and thus don’t think like kids. Kids have less-developed memories, less peripheral vision and even less hearing than we do. They often can’t remember which side of the field is left or right, much less how to do that fancy play you diagrammed.

Also, sports games have become the place where we spend the most time watching our children perform, and sports are at their essence emotional. Unlike, say, a piano recital, a sporting event is usually based on conflict. When do we swear at the television? During a ball game, not “Downton Abbey.” Good athletes have to learn emotional control, but spectators watching the Super Bowl sure don’t.

Many adults also impose their own sports histories on their children without realizing it. Maybe we want our child to be the star athlete we weren’t. Maybe we want to protect our kids from the pain we suffered. Or maybe we want our child to experience the same amazing sense of self-worth we felt when we won. Richard Ginsburg, a sports psychologist at Harvard, wrote in his excellent 2006 book “Whose Game is it, Anyway?” about “the addictive high that comes from winning.” A victory makes us feel good about ourselves and the world. It can be a mood-altering, and thus dangerous, drug.

Whether to avoid the pain of a loss or experience that winning high, parents and coaches become experts at justifying their own needs as what’s best for the kids. A coach I know refused to use players he feared would hurt his chances of winning because, he said, he didn’t want to contribute to “mediocrity.” I told myself that it was only fair to the “good” 11-year-olds that I limit the playing time of the weaker ones, thus tossing out the true concept of fairness and team. Some parents think that if they push hard enough, their kids will earn a sports scholarship to college. But as Ginsburg points out, less than 1 percent of all high-school athletes get any kind of a sports scholarship, so that’s a pretty bad bet on which to gamble your child’s happiness or health.

Power tends to corrupt, and adults in youth sports have all the power. I know a coach who claimed to be trying to motivate a kid by yelling at him so relentlessly that he induced a panic attack. The parents who ride the refs think they’re promoting fairer enforcement of the rules. So what can we do to control ourselves?

To begin with, the experts say, Forget about the scoreboard. Winning is fun for kids, but so is playing. When my son was 10, his team lost 20 of 21 games, usually by enormous margins. I assumed he must be as miserable and humiliated as I was watching – until I noticed that he and his teammates had forgotten it all five minutes later. They were having fun with their friends. It dawned on me then that I played soccer in middle school, high school and on clubs in college, and I can’t remember a single score. But I can remember the jerk coach and the funny teammates. Adult pressure to win not only kills the pleasure of playing, but leads to other problems, such as injuries, cheating and steroid use.

Instead, realize that failures teach us. A great coach I know tells his players, “This is a game of mistakes.” Even the pros make them. In games he lets kids make their own decisions, including the wrong ones, because it’s the best way to learn. Athletes freeze up when they’re punished or criticized for errors. And you learn more from the times you fell down and got up again than from the times you cruised to easy wins.

It’s insanely easy to point out all the things that a kid does wrong in a game, so keep it positive. Kids are remarkably sensitive, even to our facial expressions. This can cause them to blame themselves and react with either anger or rejection of the whole sport. Harder but better is to point out what players did right. Maybe they were getting crushed the whole game – but they didn’t give up. Maybe your daughter missed five easy lay-ups; what about that nice steal? Ginsburg advises parents to say absolutely nothing about a game for a day afterwards except “Did you have fun?” and “What did you learn?” If you do decide to give feedback, he advises five precise positives for every bit of constructive criticism.

Instead of focusing on performance results, focus on improvement. Psychologists say that in sports, as in life, talent is a smaller part of success than hard work and persistence. And people who focus on getting better, rather than being good, not only perform better, but they are more able to bounce back. Good coaches will set a goal before a game – three passes in a row, maybe, or playing hard to the finish – and reward the kids for how they did on that afterwards.

It’s very hard to watch our kids struggle, but we delude ourselves about our amount of control – that’s why it’s important to let go. In youth sports, victories and losses are most often determined not by the coaching or parenting but by the particular levels of physical development of the kids who show up that day. Unlike adult athletes, kids play at wildly different stages in their physical and mental development. Today’s star might be tomorrow’s benchwarmer, and vice-versa. After all, Michael Jordan was cut from his sophomore basketball team.

Kids learn from watching our behavior, so walk the walk and talk the talk. We don’t want them mouthing off at the refs, so why do we do it? Ginsburg suggests that parents at games think about the values they hope athletics will teach their children, such as effort, teamwork or sportsmanship, and then make these values the metric, not the score. A great veteran coach taught me to always shake the opposing coach’s hand before the game, smile and wish him good luck. It sets the tone that we’re here for the kids, not for war. My players are often mystified when I congratulate a good play by an opposing player, but they get the message that we love a good game, not a victory. In the stands, it’s more fun when we treat the other team’s parents as fellow boosters, not an alien tribe.

Silence is golden. Many rookie coaches – and parents – think they can “teach” their players during games by barking out instructions. But as one expert points out, the time to teach is in practice. By the time a kid hears that direction in a fast-moving game, it’s probably too late to act on it. Best to skip the robo-coaching and let them play.

And nobody should yell at the officials, no matter how terrible the calls. Some parents seem to think it’s their job description to insult the officials, even when they have the thinnest grasp of the rules. And for what? I once emailed a league official about a ref who clearly didn’t know an important rule, concerned that he might change the outcome of an important game. This official agreed to instruct the ref, but also pointed out that even if the ref’s bad call did change an outcome, this would be an opportunity to teach our kids that authority figures – teachers, police, bosses – often make mistakes, and that we need to learn to endure unfairness. The adult who rides the ref isn’t helping his team, and he’s probably embarrassing his child.

Ask yourself, and ask your kids: What do you want in the long run? If your child describes a dream of playing in the big leagues, help him or her to get there by encouraging hard work and persistence. But if they’re burning out, pulling back or feeling tired, back off. My long-term goal now is to help my players and my sons to love the game and to stay with it for life. Pushing too much could be the best way to ruin that.

It is really hard, but I’m slowly learning to ignore the scores, standings and statistics. I figure that if my kids want to play in the next game and sign up for the next season, then everybody wins. To learn more about positive coaching and setting children up for success both on and off the field, visit the Responsible Sports website.

Nathaniel Reade has been an editor and writer for scores of magazines, including GQ, Spirit and SKI, on subjects ranging from West Nile Virus to snowshoeing in Labrador. The comic young-adult novel he recently wrote with his 12-year-old son, The Pencil Bandits, has been described as “Oliver Twist meets The Marx Brothers meets The Boxcar Children.”