What is Wrong with Youth Sports? / by James Leath

Last week I asked one simple question, “What is wrong with youth sports?” There were a variety of things people pointed to that diminish the experience kids have playing youth sports. Lack of quality coaches, low funding, cost-prohibitive, and corruption came up a few times. However, there was one thing that was mentioned with every, single, response. Typically, it came in all caps, followed by a few exclamation points. PARENT COACHES. 

I read a study a few days ago that shows major drop in American youth sports participation. I say this often, but it is worth repeating. Kids do not need us to play sports. Yeah, they may need a ride to practice or the game, but leave a bunch of kids on a field with a couple balls and some cones on a Tuesday afternoon and they would be just fine. They would pick teams, set up rules, and play.

No need for whistles and barking coaches. No need for referees or a board of directors or a booster club. No need for instant replay or timed quarters.

Actual games were fun, sure, but do you know what was more fun? Waiting in a parking lot with 32 boys for the game bus. Then, after the game, hanging out at the pizza parlor with 32 of my best friends. Win or lose, we stunk, we were dirty, and we were tired, but the cheerleaders were there (some of them were wearing our away jerseys) and we wouldn’t miss that moment for the world.

Don’t you remember doing that as a child?

I have played on a lot of teams for a variety of sports. I was even lucky enough to receive a few checks for playing football. Yet, my favorite memories growing up playing sports were not on artificial turf under the lights, but during a 20-minute recess with my buddies. I remember playing my heart out in the front driveway of my neighbor Clint’s house and hectic games of freeze tag during recess at school. These memories bring a smile to my face faster than going to some elementary school championship at some high school at 3pm on a Friday. It was during the pick-up games with the upper-graders (man, those 7th graders are huge!) where I had to improve, or else I would get smashed.

You know what we learned during those times playing games without coaches?

We learned how to create a team. We learned how to create a play to respond to the other team's strategy. We learned some kids are better leaders than others. We learned that so-and-so cheats, but because they are bigger we had to beat them not with strength, but with our wit. We learned that there is a winning team and a losing team - no ties, even if 3 hours of play came down to a free-throw contest.

All those things lead to the development of emotional intelligence. We learned how to be mentally tough in the face of adversity. We failed, succeeded, and learned who we were in the process. Youth sports is a training ground for dealing with life as adults. We should treat it as such. Let the kids fail. Let the kids have a couple Ls in the win-loss column because they were not hustling. No one likes to lose, and no one likes a quitter. However, kids don’t quit because they are losing. Kids quit because they don’t feel like they are part of the team. They quit because the coach yells too much, and they don’t know why.

Kids quit sports because they are looking to be part of something. They are looking for an identity to try on. When they want to try another sport, let them! Encourage them. That is what childhood is for - trying new things.

Young athletes are kids; they are not mini-adults. They have a hard time paying attention to one thing for a long time because deep down they know, they are out there to play, and this is just a game.

Keep it simple. Let the kids play.