In my last post, 4 bad things about youth sports today, I detailed a few troubling trends in the world of youth sports. It was a depressing post to write. I needed a few weeks to recover.
Now it is time for the good news: those trends are real and they are troubling, but they have not diminished the many wonderful things about youth sports today. Like a slightly bruised apple, youth sports have a few dark characteristics that require mentioning. In spite of those minor bruises, however, the majority of youth sports programs today are delivering just the sort of fun play and character development we should celebrate.
Here, then, are a few of the lessons and values that properly run youth sports programs can teach our kids:
- The importance of teamwork. This might be the single most important benefit for kids playing team sports: being part of a team with a larger purpose. Most young teams are formed through some combination of skill, planning, and chance. Because of this, almost no kid playing a sport today gets to choose her teammates and no team is composed of players with the same strengths and interests. I have certainly never witnessed a team that starts off the season as a group of close friends. Life is like that: we don’t choose our classmates, our coworkers, or our neighbors. What youth sports teach is that we need to find a way to succeed despite these differences. It is great preparation for life.
- The value of effort. All sports require effort. The myth of the “natural” who steps into a sport and does not need to work to improve is just that: a myth. Learning that improvement requires effort in practice and that victory requires effort in games is an invaluable antidote to the impression kids sometimes have that one is either “good” at something or “bad” at something. What we learn when we participate in sports is that what matters is improvement, and improvement requires effort. Just as important is this simple fact: a lot of things happen in life that we can’t control, but effort is not one of them; if we always try our best, good things will usually happen. This is an attitude that translates to all areas of life, but sports are an area where kids can witness it firsthand.
- The need for respect. I do not spend my time involved with youth sports because I think it is important that kids can run faster, throw better, or kick harder. I believe it is one of many important ways that we can help kids develop character. One of the areas where it is most helpful is in establishing the centrality of respecting others. There are, in sports, many opportunities to show disrespect toward teammates, opponents, coaches, and officials. It is natural to feel emotional and competitive, and sometimes it is tempting to lash out. Participating in a properly run youth sports program helps us learn to avoid such temptation. On my own team, we show respect by listening to the coaches when they are talking, by encouraging and supporting our teammates with positive words and actions, by showing good sportsmanship toward our opponents during and after games, and by politely accepting whatever calls the referee makes (even if we think she/he is wrong).
- The power of persistence. Most things in life worth pursuing require persistence to achieve mastery. It is true of piano-playing, algebra, and even, in some cases, relationships. Sports are no different. Athletes young and old must stick with it through good times and setbacks if they expect to truly improve. In youth sports the payoff from such persistence often comes over the course of a single season, when a team can come together to perfect a difficult play or an individual can become successful at performing a move that was initially difficult. That visible and fairly quick payoff makes kids realize that persistence pays off. It doesn’t require much for them to see that it works in other areas of life also.