(About a 3-minute read)
Hopefully in the very near future, we will step back and look at the fundamental reasons why so many of our youths are struggling. Often, we don’t look far enough downstream or deep enough below the surface. In my mind, two major trends have been building momentum for years (decades!). So much so we’ve come to the dangerous point of acceptance: “That’s how we do it here. That’s how we’ve always done it.”
The first trend is the professionalization of youth sports. The concept instills a sense of urgency to abandon the developmental tasks of childhood and adolescence for the implicit or explicit possibility of making a living playing sports. This is dangerous on so many levels, but I’ll just offer a few.
Rigid schedules and training rob children of the diversity of experiences required to master emotions, executive functioning, and problem-solving. These experiences are processes and require lots of practice in unstructured settings (not micro-managed by adult directives)—not in the least playing, creating, and exploring with other kids.
Adults tend to view through the lens of products. Adults are goal-oriented in a different way than kids and force this thinking on minds not ready to accommodate the structure. The result (no pun intended) is youths who only see the trophy, the scholarship, the fame, or the paycheck (or consumer products in myriad forms). This is the perfect playbook for a rise in anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. A perfect playbook for an empty core where what is most precious should reside. Instead…I am nothing without the result. It’s not a loss, I am a loser.
The second trend is the abuse of power. Favoritism, nepotism, and random doses of reward and punishment are signals of supposed leaders who have not figured out or do not care what happens as a result of their actions. The ego is a trickster and can rationalize just about anything. Whether it’s making empty promises to kids or outright lies to powerless parents. Or parents playing the same misinformed game with their kids. Or adults living their unfulfilled dreams in borrowed flesh.
The data continuously reveals that a small percentage of young athletes reach the pinnacle. The numbers also reveal that youths quit organized sports in adolescence—most of the time very early in this stage. What the numbers don’t reveal is the sense of self (taking form at this stage) for either group. How has the experience changed them? What do they think about themselves? Others? Life?
Once, a father told me that a tennis coach barked at a group of seven and eight-year-olds, “I’m here to train college tennis players.” This dad found another place to play. Most likely, no one in the group will fulfill that coach’s dream. And, at that age, college is just a word on a hoodie.
Fun has gotten a bad rap in a results-driven world. But fun is a secondary feeling elicited by the primary emotional systems of seeking and play. We were born to explore and play reciprocally and creatively, and both lead us to become more fully human in all developmental domains. Fun is not trivial. Its absence for kids is no small thing. Fun is the root of freedom, the first scent of interests and abilities—something we value as adults.
It’s an honor to coach. Once you’ve been a parent, you sense that you are always coaching someone’s son or someone’s daughter. As a coach you’ve been given power and the freedom to choose. The choice is not trivial. The first principle is always, “Do no harm.” But you have to know what kids need to obey the principle.
image credit: Ken Treloar, unsplash.com