Ten rules for healthy youth sports (Part II)
Posted by Dean Holden at July 24th, 2013
by Doug Abrams, 16 July 2013
In late June, I spoke about “Ten Rules for Healthy Youth Sports” to the parents and coaches in the Twisters Roller Hockey League in Hallsville, Missouri. The previous column presented the first five rules, and here I present the final five.
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5. Don’t say or do anything to the referees that you would be embarrassed to say or do in front of your child on Main Street.
When a call goes against the team, referees can hear insults from parents and coaches only when the adults yell so loud that their own children on the field or the bench can also hear. When parents or coaches physically confront (and sometimes assault) referees on the sidelines or in the parking lot after a game, everyone sees the bullying. The adult’s verbal or physical abuse would not win the children’s respect on Main Street; the conduct wins no respect at the game either, even if no child ever says anything about it.
Over the years, a few players have called me aside privately to apologize for their parents’ unruly behavior in the stands. Parent-child relationships suffer when embarrassed 12-year-olds must make excuses for their parents. Youth sports serves families best when the role models are the adults, and not the 12-year-olds.
4. Welcome the players’ mistakes.
Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden accepted his players’ mistakes as part of the game. “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything,” he would say. “A doer makes mistakes.”
I used to strike a bargain with my hockey teams before the first practice. The bargain was the same for U-8 mite teams and the high school teams, and it defined the coach-player relationship all season.
The players’ part of the bargain was to try their best in practice sessions and games, and to work on skills they found difficult as well as ones they had already begun to master. Players cannot learn or have much fun when they anticipate backlash from their coaches or teammates whenever something goes wrong. Words hurt, and backlash had no place on our team.
The coaches’ part of the bargain was to teach, support and encourage each player as they made mistakes and tried again. Coaches promised not to chastise, single out, or ridicule a player for giving 100% effort and coming up short. This reassurance operated in practice sessions and games alike, not only because “a doer makes mistakes,” but also because mistakes create opportunities to learn.
Young athletes can take correction delivered by supportive coaches. Indeed, constructive criticism is one reason why teams have coaches in the first place. But harsh criticism brimming with intimidation does not toughen youth leaguers, sharpen their skills, or enhance their competitive spirit. Calling out a player for a mistake might work sometimes in professional sports, but it can shatter the self-confidence of youth leaguers who know that they have given their best effort and expect support from their elders in return.
By tolerating mistakes, the coach helps players avoid “fear of failure,” a mental barrier that can easily bring a team down. Players who fear the coach’s wrath for doing something wrong are more likely to play tentative and unsure, producing a cascade of yet more mistakes that can turn close victories into close defeats. For coaches who want to win every game within the team’s reach, the key is not the mistake itself, but how the team reacts.
3. Smile most of the time at your children’s games.
Bob Bigelow, a leading national advocate for healthy youth sports, advises parents and coaches that they should be smiling most of the time at the field, rink or gymnasium. Bob is a former first-round draft pick and NBA player, and he knows what he is talking about. Once adults stop smiling, harmful conduct such as benching players and abusing referees often follows close behind.
Sports should provide fun and fulfillment for the whole family – for the players who try to win, but also for their parents and coaches who sacrifice and root for them. Parents and coaches defeat a major purpose of youth sports when they deny themselves the enjoyment that they seek for their children.
2. Protect the players’ emotional safety, and not only their physical safety.
Parents and coaches tend to understand “physical safety” – the need for proper protective equipment and careful enforcement of safety rules, for example. But safety in youth sports also means “emotional safety.” Adults have succeeded when players finish their youth sports careers both physically intact and emotionally intact.
Among other things, emotional safety means providing each player fair and equal opportunity to participate in every practice session and game. Chronic benchwarming is a badge of shame, and it is a major reason why so many kids quit playing sports by their early teen years. Players sign up because they expect a fair opportunity to participate. They do not sign up to warm the bench for a 30-something or 40-something coach who thinks that playing only some players might help win a game whose score everyone will forget in two weeks anyway.
Emotional safety means exactly what Hans, the skate sharpener, told Coach Gordon Bombay in The Mighty Ducks: “Show them how to play. Show them how to have fun. Teach them to fly. That’s what they’ll remember.” Hans nailed it.
1. Help your son or daughter try to win within the rules.
Now that you have heard nine rules for making youth sports a more fulfilling experience for the players, what about wanting to win? I purposely cast this rule as “Number 1” for a reason. Too many people mistakenly believe that sportsmanship means downplaying the desire to win, but sportsmanship actually depends on the desire to win within the rules of the game.
Except in the youngest age groups, winning and losing matter. If the score consumes parents and coaches in a T-ball game for five-year-olds, the adults should have their heads examined. But when players get a little older, they understand the difference between winning and losing. They want to win, and their parents and coaches should want them to win, provided that sportsmanship does not take a backseat. Here is what I mean:
At its best, a game or match involves teams or competitors who each wants to win with clean play before shaking hands at the end. True sportsmen care about the score, and they do not let up on the opponent during the game. But true sportsmen also care about three basic values – fair play, adherence to the rules, and respect for the opponent and the game. In youth sports, sportsmanship and the desire to win are perfectly compatible, provided that the adults and players remain committed to this trio, and that the adults also remain committed to assuring fair and equal opportunity.
For the parents and coaches, the ultimate question is not whether they want the team to win, but what prices they are willing to pay to try to win, and what prices they are unwilling to pay. Benching or ridiculing players is too great a price, for example, and so is resorting to verbal or physical abuse that is meant to intimidate referees. But teaching skills and rooting for the players to carry the team as far as their abilities permit are perfectly sportsmanlike.
Words and Deeds
I concluded my talk in Hallsville by candidly acknowledging how easy it is to approach a microphone or keyboard and deliver a sermon about values in sports, as I was doing that afternoon. Words come easy. Deeds are the tough part.
Every parent and coach knows that it takes extraordinary maturity and self-discipline to do the right thing when they are actually on the bench or in the stands during a game. Pressure can build mighty quickly. Good parents are emotionally invested in their children, and good coaches are emotionally invested in their teams.
As participants try their best to win, they may feel tempted to stray from the trio of values that define true sportsmanship — fair play, adherence to the rules, and mutual respect. The British Association of National Coaches marks the right path: “Sport without fair play is not sport, and honours won without fair play can have no real value.”