After the crowds go home, the final scores are tallied, and our youth athletes leave the field for the last time, it’s on to real life. Whatever education they were able to pick up; coupled with the tools they got from their youth sports, home life, volunteer, and other club activities; are all that our kids have to dress themselves with as they enter the workforce.
If former players have a good grasp on the most important things: teamwork, initiative, drive, work ethic, empathy, positive self-talk, self-discipline, etc. they are going to have a noticeable advantage over peers who don’t. They going to handle stress better, use mistakes as teachers and not be demoralized by them, collaborate better, rise faster in the ranks, etc. If we accept the premise that youth sports add value in the form of life skills to our kid’s lives, then we have to consider how we might go about being intentional about developing those skills. Leaving them to serendipity seems to me a weak position to take on something so important.
The question is How. How can we be intentional about something that happens inside our player’s hearts and minds? A lot has been written about the physical impact on young bodies by sport. In this episode, we explore a good article published in June of 2013 in the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine titled Youth Sport: positive and negative impact on young athletes. The Author, Donna L Merkel, did some research and found, for example, a strong correlation between youth sports and health. She speaks about the positives such as youth sports effect on reducing the obesity problem in our kids, how it decreases the risk for a number of diseases like heart disease and diabetes. And she mentions negatives like increased risk for repetitive or overuse injuries and the damaging psychological effects of being exposed to parents that place too much emphasis on winning.
She does mention lifelong lessons, but the treatment of this aspect of sports is lighter – almost in passing. She says: “It appears that an emphasis on fun while establishing a balance between physical fitness, psychologic well-being, and lifelong lessons for a healthy and active lifestyle are paramount for success.” The lifelong lessons she calls out are related to a healthy and active lifestyle. I’ve not yet found a great deal written about the more mundane life lessons that I think youth sports equips our kids with.
This isn’t uncommon in studies. The development we’re hoping for is te kind that will help our young people become successful in life no matter what they do: bankers, teachers, public safety… We want superstars who understand teamwork, empathy, cooperation, and integrity.
How do we get intentional about this kind of development? That’s the key question to answer, right? Leaving something this important to serendipity doesn’t make sense to me. What are some practical things we can do to pull this level of foundational development from the shadows and into the light?
In this episode, I tell you what I’ve done so far, and I invite you to leave a comment – either in the comment section of the podcast app you’re using to listen to this program. In either case, I want to hear about what you or you’re Club is doing to make character development an explicit part of your youth sports experience.
For me, I wanted our program to be as explicit and easy to use as the United Soccer Coaches 5 stages of development model. USC has tables we can point to. We can print one out, put our finger on the age we’re working with, and scroll down the column to find all of the skills we’re supposed to be working on in that year. As a coach, I find this really helpful for planning and as a reference.
Why don’t we see sportsmanship, respect, or empathy on a chart like this? Why can’t I run my finger down and column and find exactly what I’m supposed to be working on to help my players develop solid character skills I know they will need when they enter the workforce? Why don’t we have patches we can give out when players demonstrate courage, or empathy, or good sportsmanship? It seems to me that it wouldn’t be too hard to catch kids doing stuff right. My kids do stuff right all the time!
This is the question I asked myself – and then I set out to create a model for myself and for my Club coaches. Before I ever put pen to paper, I went online and order up a bunch of new field signs. Field 5, 6, 7, and 8 – were renamed Integrity Field, Empathy Field, Courage Field, Respect Field, etc. I smiled as those signs went up for the first time. We were being deliberate with the message in a few keystrokes, our Club program “Character, Development, and Fun Through Youth Sports” was beginning to take shape.
I wrote down a handful of core character traits. I chose traits that I know get developed in Youth Sports and put them in rows. Along the top of the chart, I marched out the years from 3 to 18 – exactly as I had seen United Soccer Coaches do. Then… I got stuck. When do we start working on Empathy? When do stop? When do we start working on respect? When do we stop that?
I realized that the model I had drafted wasn’t going to work, and besides, I thought – even if I get such a model made, who’s going to listen to me? I’m not a credential psychologist. I have very little formal training in this area. People are going to crush whatever I put out there before it gets very far. I needed people with credentials, and I needed more perspective.
I needed a Character Committee with some verifiable expertise. Wait until you hear what I discovered!
While my team and I continue to develop an intentional whole-player development program, if you have some thoughts you’d like to add, please leave some comments. I’m not doing this alone, and I sure as heck don’t have all the answers here. We need to try at this – and we need to fail. Exactly what we’re asking our young athletes to do. We need to fail often, get back on our feet, and try again. We will make progress, and I believe with programs like these, we will transform Youth Sports into its highest and best use.
This is a call to action, of sorts, and I’d love to hear about the kind of things your Club is doing to be intentional about development.
Resources Referenced in This Episode
- Donna L Merkel. Youth Sport: positive and negative impact on young athletes, 2013, Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine. Web. 29 Nov. 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3871410/#
- Charan, Ram, et al.The Leadership Pipeline: How to Build the Leadership Powered Company. Jossey-Bass, 2011.