Who is Youth Sports For?
Sometimes we forget one of the most important elements in youth sports - who everybody is working for. It's not the coach, the Club President, mom or dad... it's our future. It's our future expressed by, shaped by, and executed by our children.
I don't mean to suggest that kids have the knowledge or sophistication to tell everybody what to do in the youth sports environment, to modify or enforce the rules, or should be allowed to control the ways things are going - at least not in an explicit way or across the board. I am providing a thesis that that there is a meta message that runs through a youth sports environment that is deeper than the construction of a soccer session, a team record, or the way age brackets are mapped out or advanced. We are using our collective skills and experience to create an environment for our kids that will allow them to absorb critical life skills with the hope that they will carry those skills into the future.
The youth sports environment is not designed to be a babysitter. The soccer field is not a place to drop our kids off and keep them entertained while we run errands or go take a nap. Youth sports was designed as a way for our generation to invest in our future. It's an approach to add value and realize yield on an investment in the human race. It's a deliberate and sophisticated learning and value add platform.
Coaching and Parenting Is Like Farming
I'm not an authority on farming, but I have my stereotypes. I see farmers as experts in making things grow. They grow crops and raise animals. Our lives literally depend on their ability to work with nature and be good at what they do. So it's from a position of respect that I offer the analogy.
Nobody - not most ordinary people anyway - really knows what to do with a seed or a package of seeds that hasn't been identified yet. If we don't know what a seed is or what it will become, we don't know what it needs to survive, right?
I'm betting that if you hand a skilled farmer a package of seeds, the first question is going to be where did this package come from? Some of what seeds will become is the result of the adult plants that produced them. The farmer wants to know: what am I working with? As a coach, this is usually one of my first questions too.
Planting seeds is a lot different than raising humans though. Humans are more complex. Looking at a set of parents isn't always a good indicator of what a young human is going to grow into. Kids can be completely different from their parents. We don't get to choose who our kids will become. It's not completely random, but it can seem random.
If we take a random seed problem to a farmer, he or she will probably tell us that we just need to plant the seeds to see what grows. We need to provide fertile soil, some amount of sunlight, and fertilizer from time to time. The PH and moisture of the soil, the amount of sunlight, and the types and quantities of fertilizer all vary depending on the type of plant we're trying to grow. Sometimes we think we're planting one thing, and another thing starts to grow in its place. Such it is with humans.
If a skilled farmer wants whatever he or she is planting to grow strong and healthy, they need to adapt the conditions to give whatever is growing the best chance of survival. If a farmer sees tomatoes coming up, they know they need stakes and scaffolding to support the fruited branches. If they see citrus, they know they will need lots of sunshine. If they see mangos, they know they will need warm and moist soil.
"Our job in youth sports is to get our players off to a strong start. We want them to have the best possible chance to survive and thrive once they are on their own. Our kids will carry our future in directions we can not fully prepare for. We need the sophistication and maturity to tune in to what our kids want and need, find a way to give it to them, and get out of the way. "
Coach and Club President
The point here is a farmer pays close attention to what's growing in front of them. They adjust their behavior and the environment as appropriate to give a young plant what it needs to grow. They don't plant seeds in one environment and expect everything to grow. Development is not one-size-fits-all activity. They may start the process in a standard way and keep that going long enough to identify what they're working with, but once they know, they are going to transplant whatever they have into an optimized environment as soon as they can - so they don't risk losing the crop.
Some might argue that we know what we're getting when we have kids. We're having kids. Human babies that grow into human adults. I would argue that this is like saying we know what we're getting when we plant seeds. We're getting plants. The problem with this thinking is that it's too simplistic.
Humans are every bit as varied in terms of strengths and weaknesses, interests and motivations, as a full blown botanical garden of plants. We don't know the types of humans that are growing up in our care unless we pay attention - close attention - over time. As baby humans begin to reveal themselves for who they are, we have to adjust the conditions to give them the best chance to survive and thrive. Parts of them will never have a chance to grow unless we give them the right environment.
Freedom and Safety
Two main ingredients needed for child development are freedom and safety. Freedom is given and earned over time - but it must be given as it is earned. Developing humans need a safe environment to express themselves and to practice their newly earned freedoms. If we hover over our kids with pruning sheers like we're trimming a bonsai, we will only get what we want to see.
Giving freedoms means giving our kids a safe place (physical, mental, and emotional) to make mistakes. We must allow them to lead the way (their way) on their own. This means adults backing off at games and in similar circumstances.
There is an underlying principle here: The youth sports experience, heck.. the entire youth development process isn't about adults. It's about developing youth. Doing this right requires adults to have enough sophistication and maturity to find creative and fun ways to give them what they want and what they need - and get out of the way.
Coaching Has Evolved
The old way of the screaming, hopping youth coach, whistle in hand barking orders at kids has its place in history. Today's coach uses different tools. By listening, intuiting, communicating, and connecting with players we slowly learn the best ways to reach them.
When I'm coaching, I'm always looking for what motivates each player. I try to get to know a little about what's going on in their lives. I watch for how they respond to instruction. Do they rise to the occasion when the pressure is on, or do they back down and go the other way. The closer I pay attention, the better I can adjust the environment, and the more effective I can be.
I should say - the more effective the kids can be. This is an important distinction. My success is tied to my players success. From a coaching perspective, my team might be losing games, but my identity is not tied to wins or losses. The more successful my players are, the better job I'm doing. It's not about them listening to me - as much it is about them learning to listen to themselves. As a coach, I'm not on the field with them.
I do provide some pictures of success. I want them to know how I define success and how success is defined by the sport. But the success of my team is, in part, the success that is aligned with the player's definition of success. They want more confidence, more skill, more camaraderie, more strength, more speed, more coordination... more fun! They want to stretch themselves and grow in the way they are supposed to grow. They want to impress mom and dad with what they learned and how well they're working together.
As a coach, I clear obstacles. I give a boost. I help them dial in a new heading every once in a while. I point out where the guard rails are. But I let them go. Especially at games.
Laying out our kids future for them is like trying to forecast a hurricane. We can get some rough trajectories, but a child, like a hurricane, is going to find their own way. The more that we as parents and/or coaches try to force a particular outcome, the more they will naturally resist and find their own way. The important aspect of their way is that it is theirs. We do well to remember that even if we perceive that "their way" not as "great" as the path we as adults have planned out for them. They will likely chose their own way precisely because it is theirs.
As a Boy Scout leader, I had the privilege of being an adult advisor on one of the Boy Scout's high adventure camps. We took a crew of 12 after a year's worth of training, into the New Mexico mountains up to 6,000 feet. Then, we hiked with 50lb packs on for 6 days into those mountains until we reach the highest peak at 12,441 feet. Then, we hiked back out for another 6 days along a new trail. We purified our own water. We lived in tents. We navigated. We ate and slept in bear and mountain lion country, and we picked up new food supplies every 3-4 days.
Contrast two crews I had close contact with along the way. One crew empowered the Scouts to run the show. Scouts made every decision. They set the pace. The chose the activities. They decided which way to turn. They motivated themselves. The adults went along - essentially as safety. We would not, for example, allow the boys to make navigation errors through dry county where a lack of water could put the crew at risk. If, however, they made a navigation error that would make them sore, miss an afternoon of black powder rifle shooting, have to pass on rock climbing, or wiped them out at the end of the day, they were free to do so. This was their journey.
The second crew's adults directed activities. They set the pace because they frankly hadn't gotten into shape enough to keep up with the boys. They criticized noise. They overruled the boy's interpretation of environmental protection in favor of a looser standard. They even washed the boys dishes during a few meals.
Which crew do you think came out of those mountains with more confidence? Which crew was better able sustain themselves on their own without the support of adult leaders?
The answer should be clear.
These high adventure camps are very well supported. But the support isn't immediately obvious. The crews check in every few days at the food pickup centers, and an entire teams are tracking each crew's progress back at headquarters, but when you're 14 and deciding to to take the left or right trail - when you realize that there's no water at your destination and decide to eat dinner (which requires water) for lunch, and lunch for dinner, support is not obvious - unless adults who are bringing up the rear make all the decisions for you.
Let Them Play
If it's better to let kids make decisions on their own at 9,000 feet in bear country, why can't kids play soccer games by themselves? Is it really in their best interest to have both a coach and parents yelling instructions at them?
I've got some news for you. Soccer is a mental and a strategic game. Kids playing soccer make on average two decisions per second when they're playing. If they have their own voice in the their head, they're making those decisions, trying things, failing at some, but learning a ton. If they have a coach's voice in their heads - occasionally it's okay. Coach has worked with them all week. Coach knows the vocabulary and the buzz words. Coach knows who needs help and and who is better left alone. And if coach is like me, he or she has a plan for developing leaders on the field and may be providing input or not providing input strategically to give a player a chance to solve problems on their own.
When kids have their own voice, their coach's voice, and parent's voices in their heads, they have to think through all three. They sometimes chose their own voice, but to do so risks coach or parents criticism. They sometimes chose the coach's voice, and they sometimes chose the parent's voice - whether that parents is qualified or not, knows the game plan or not, or is positive or not.
This much is abundantly obvious to me as a coach. When a lot of people are yelling it slows players down until they learn to ignore it. They get out of position, they lose concentration, and they become numb or critical. My teams play faster when I provide minimal input. If I'm coaching, it's usually to the bench or to bang out a key phrase or two that I know my team will recognize from practice. You can bet when I remind them of something we did in practice, it was something they have a positive emotional reaction to. It becomes an oh-yeah moment, not a what-does-he-want-me-to-do moment.
Our Role as Parents and Coaches
Giving freedoms and providing an optimal development environment isn't easy. We protect our kids from all kinds of worldly harm from the time they were born. We desperately want our kids to succeed. Any time they step out into traffic, we rush to their aid and pull them back to safety - as we should. Any time they fall down, we patch them up, as we should. And there is plenty of psychology that says it's not unusual for humans to project our own success through the success of our kids. But we also need to let our kids do things on their own.
Understanding what's age appropriate, when to guide and when to let go - these things require education. Formal and informal. We're not given a handbook when we become parents, and many coaches don't think they need to read one when they first get into coaching - especially if they are former players.
If we pay attention, our kids will tell us (or show us) what they need.
Giving freedoms means letting them make mistakes and showing them that despite mistakes, we love them anyway. It means telling them that win or lose, we love watching them play. That, after all, is what they want more than a scoreboard win. They want to know that the people they love, love them back and support them unconditionally. Mistakes should be framed as normal components of learning and improving. It's all fun - and part of the process.
What is the Right Program?
I go into more detail about how to know where our kids should play in episode 17 titled How to Know Where My Kid Should Play, but I'll recap some highlights here because they are relevant.
Watch your kids. Do they have a ball at their feet all the time? Do they chose to play soccer when they have other choices? Are they always on the move and have energy to burn? Do they find enjoyment on the field when they are surrounded by others who are into the game just as much as they are?
If you see these behaviors as a parent, you might want to explore a tryout for a competitive Club in your area - or at least make sure the coach you have is focused on educating him or herself as much as the kids. A coaching education will help the coach to provide proper age appropriate activities in training and keep kids engaged.
If you notice your child likes to play soccer, but likes other activities as much or more? Give some of those other activities a try. It's easy to keep soccer in the mix and get many of the benefits from organized team sports if you chose a recreation program. This is a low cost, low pressure way to keep kids who like the game engaged.
If you notice a kid is losing interest, look at the team and the coach for fit. Talk with the coach. Maybe another team would provide an experience more closely aligned with what your child likes. Ask you coach and talk with your kids.
If you really want your child to participate in youth sports, but they don't seem terribly interested, try helping out more yourself. Kids see the examples set by parents as role modeling. They may also turn around and want to spent more time in youth sports if they see it as a way to connect more with mom or dad. This is especially true when the kids are younger, but I've found in my own case that both of my kids enjoy the family time that is brought out by sports all the way through High School.
The important thing is to give your child opportunity to weigh in. Do your best to remove your personal opinion when you ask the questions. Your kid's behavior speaks much louder than their words.
Kids do more of what they love to do. By watching what they volunteer to do when they have a choice, we can learn important things about the direction they want to go - even if they don't know it yet.
Kids don't necessarily have the words to express what they need from life. As adults, it's our job to listen carefully, then to match growing kids to the proper environment they need. We adjust our language, our approach, and the activities we expose them to. We let them experiment and watch them for reactions. We adjust again and listen some more. It's an iterative process with kids.
The important thing to take away is that our kids should be driving our development efforts. We shouldn't be trying to conform them to something they are not. Platitudes and absolutes are almost always wrong when it comes to individuals.
As adults we need to guide and draw vs push and force. Keep kids safe, challenge them, but let them go whenever we can - free to try new things, to experiment, to play, to fail, and to get back in the game when they do.