In the last month, there has been a lot of talk about participation trophies and the supposed "everybody gets a trophy" culture. Professional football player James Harrison decided to send
which caused a lot of conversation. What we typically hear is that this "culture" is causing our athletes/children to become weaker and more entitled. Usually, it is a dad who grumbles, "we didn't all get trophies when I was a kid." Maybe, maybe not. What I think is getting missed in this conversation is, "who cares?"
There most certainly are tremendous athletes out there who received participation medals, or trophies or ribbons, yet they were somehow able to overcome this and excel in athletics. How is this possible? There are two reasons. The first one is that these awards, for the most part, satisfy a short term need of a young athlete. They feel they worked hard, and are proud of the recognition that they were on a team or involved in a sport. But, for most kids, this satisfaction is only short term. They don't sleep with that trophy for the next year (maybe a week), and they may put it on their shelf in their room, but they don't need to bring it everywhere they go. Most of these athletes don't stop playing sports because they received a trophy, in fact, some may continue playing because of it, and help increase their satisfaction of participating. Parents reward their kids in different ways, whether it be through a snack, time on a computer game, TV time, more play time, etc. These are all short term rewards as well, and we don't feel they are destroying our kids. And that's all a trophy is. A short term reward.
I am certain I received some sort of medals, trophies, and ribbons in youth athletics as a kid, but I don't recall receiving a single one of them. But for some reason, our generation believes we were mentally tougher and better than our kids' generation because we didn't get trophies. Have you seen some of the young athletes out there today? There are some phenomenal young athletes in this country, and in this neighborhood. Kids are working harder than they ever had to because of the knowledge we have on health and fitness, and how competitive the environment is. Kids are getting convinced by their parents to play one sport (see article below) at a young age just so they can potentially excel. And all the while, many of these great young athletes, who may end up being college athletes, receive participation awards.
This leads us to the second reason trophies don't matter, which is understanding the ineffectiveness of single variable parenting. Parents often focus too much on single variables instead of looking at the literally thousands of variables that will affect the outcome of their child, or in this discussion, young athletes. One of the easiest examples to site on this is whether or not you should physically discipline your children. Whenever this discussion comes to the forefront, people step forward and say, "my parents spanked me and I turned out great," and another group steps forward and says, "my parents didn't spank me and I turned out great." The truth is, there is no definitive answer on this either way. You could never have a long term study with a control group. So many other things go into how you turned out as a human being other than whether or not you were spanked. How much time did your parents spend with you? Did you feel loved? Did you have a strong support group of friends, teachers, coaches? What kind of neighborhood did you grow up in? And so on.
This concept applies to young athletes as well. Athletes succeed or don't succeed because of a large number of variables. Way down the list of success or lack of success would be whether an athlete received participation trophies or not. To me, when people focus on these single variables, it's laziness, or a lack of willingness to examine the big picture. Every day, parents have at least 200 decisions to make that may affect the outcome of their child or athlete. No one is going to get all of these right, if there even is a "right." The job as a parent is not do everything right, but to minimize the number of big mistakes you make. So, the next time your young athlete has a bad play, bad game, or receives a trophy for participating in a sport, keep it in context. Those are just very small things in the big picture of an athlete's life.
Understanding Aptitude and How it Relates to the Single Sport Athlete
People are born very similar. We have ten fingers, ten toes, two eyes, two ears, one nose, etc. But we also have obvious differences. These include things like height, skin color, eye color, hair color, facial features, etc. We also have differences the eye cannot easily detect. These include the nine types of intelligence
such as spatial intelligence, music intelligence, logical-mathematical intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, spatial intelligence, and so on. Most people have difficulties understanding those who excel in fields such as Mozart, van Gogh, or Einstein. These individuals clearly had special gifts no one else had. And although people of genius or success in any field work hard, most understand they were born with unique gifts. To put it simply, I could work on music 18 hours a day and never come close to what Mozart could do in five minutes of effort. That's because Mozart had a much higher aptitude for music than I do.
People are born with an aptitude in every aspect of ability, whether it is math, art, music, etc. Most never reach their aptitude because of the amount of time and effort it takes. But, if we all put in the same effort in every area, we would NOT be equal. We have different aptitudes in different areas. And although these aptitudes are not recognizable by just looking at someone, most people understand it as fact.
One of the nine types of intelligence is bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, which essentially is our athletic ability. Everyone is born with athletic ability, but we are certainly not born equal. This is difficult for people to understand, however. If I told you all you needed to do to be taller, smarter, better looking, or more artistic is to work harder in these areas, you would scoff at its ridiculousness. But, for some reason, people generally believe that our aptitude in athleticism is different. That if we work hard, we can always do better. That if we spend more time on something in athletics, we are guaranteed success. However, this is the EXACT same as saying if we spent more time on music, art, or being more attractive we would be guaranteed success in these areas. It's simply not the case. In my life, if I had the best track coaches and access to the best training, work ethic, equipment, etc., I not only would never have competed with Usain Bolt, I never would have made a US regional final in the 100 meter dash. That's aptitude.
So, how does this apply to the current state of youth athletics? Despite several studies indicating that well-rounded athletes are more successful, parents continue to be pressured into having their kids focus on one sport at very young ages. Although more doctors, coaches, and experts are speaking against young, single-sport athletes, what is not being discussed is aptitude. Just like you, your kids have an athletic aptitude. They will absolutely improve the more they work at something, but only to their highest aptitude.
More and more parents tell me their child just plays baseball or lacrosse or football, or soccer, etc. And these are parents of 8, 9, and 10 year olds. They believe the best chance for their athlete to succeed is to focus on one sport. But this is not the case. As kids get older, aptitude begins to show more and more. Some kids who played just baseball, football, LAX, basketball, etc., will get beat out in junior high or high school by kids who either only played that sport seasonally, or in some cases, may not have played that sport at all. Those kids simply had a higher aptitude. For the most part, as kids get older, they get more coachable, and can learn more quickly. For that reason, coaches are often looking for aptitude when they build their teams. This is even more evident at the highest level of professional sports. We often hear of guys getting drafted into the NFL and NBA who are described as "raw talent" or players who have a "big upside." That's aptitude.
When parents understand aptitude and its application to sports, they may be more likely to encourage their athletes to play multiple sports. There are many benefits, short and long term, for kids to compete in several sports. The benefits of being a young single sport athlete, short and long term, are extremely limited. The only reason kids should stop playing any sport is through natural attrition, which is when the athlete determines they can no longer compete, they have another sport in the same season, or they simply no longer enjoy playing. It shouldn't be because they feel they can only compete if they play one sport. For better or for worse, our aptitude often dictates our success.
When it Comes to Youth Team Sports, Scoring is Overrated
With fantasy sports and several round the clock sports networks, it's easy to lose sight of how games are won. Fantasy sports teaches us only scoring is valuable. What we see today on sports networks are dunks, touchdowns, fantastic goals, and home runs. What we don't see are smart passes, great defense, consistent blocking and tackling, and bunting your teammate over when your team needs it. This is not a criticism of the sports networks. That's what people want to see. But due to the constant bombardment of these highlights, people lose sight of how games are won.
When I was in college, we had an All-American running back on our team named Bob Beatty. Of course, he scored several touchdowns, but he could have scored more. Often Bob would get tackled inside the five yard line, and we would hand the ball off to our big fullback who scored more touchdowns than anyone in the Iowa Conference that year, including Beatty. Beatty could have scored every one of those, and he probably wanted to. But, as teammates, no one ever questioned Beatty's value because he didn't have as many touchdowns. The team knew he was significantly more valuable than our fullback, as he gained more yards, was a great pass receiver, an excellent blocker, and a supportive teammate. Point being, as you get into high school, college, and pro, teammates are able to see value (or lack of) in each other that outsiders do not.
So I cringe when parents are talking about their young athletes and the first thing they discuss is how many touchdowns they scored, baskets they made, or goals they scored. Of course, that is bound to come up, and that is understandable. But, when kids hear their parents bragging and talking about points and goals, all that does is reinforce the fantasy and highlight mentality that scoring is everything. When I talk to my brother about his kids, I want to know how they played. Were they aggressive? Were they working hard? Are they getting better? Did they work well with their team? Are they enjoying playing? Of course I hear if they scored, but that is tertiary to several other things I want to know about their play.
There is absolutely value in scoring and I don't want to minimize that. The drive and effort it takes for an athlete to push themselves to get into the end zone, score a basket, or hit the puck into the net is extremely admirable. Just make sure your young athletes understand that winning at high levels is a team effort. And to be a part of a winning team, you need to do several things well. Not just the scoring.
Youth Sports: It's Not About the Coach
If you have kids in a "competitive" sports league or watched a youth game of a relative or family friend, you more than likely have seen an overzealous coach. It's the coach who's always yelling at players and referees. The coach who's not playing all the kids. The coach who bases his team's success strictly on wins. It's the coach proudly holding a trophy in the air along with the kids after a win. In general, it's the coach who feels they are one of the competitors. They are not.
Across the country, many of today's youth sports programs put way too much emphasis on winning, and this is reflected by the coaches. Coaches of youth programs should not have winning as their number one goal. Quite frankly, winning is easy if you are willing to take shortcuts, which is what is happening. There are a number of negative side effects to having a "win first" attitude.
The biggest problem is early age attrition. Coaches may decide not to play kids who have yet to peak. Many of these kids could end up quitting, either because sitting on the bench is not fun, or their parents feel they won't have future success and convince them to stop playing. It's not always clear how good an athlete will become when they are four to ten years old. Kids develop at different ages, and a coach and a program's goal should be to keep as many kids playing sports for as long as they can. Coaches and parents should never be the reason an athlete stops playing a sport. Athletes in a competitive environment are not going to have the exact same playing time or play all the positions, however, a coach should never completely shut down the athletes who have not quite developed. Coaches should spend just as much time coaching them as they do their star players, provided they are willing to listen.
Finally, parents and coaches need to keep things in perspective while their athletes are competing in youth sports. A main goal of a youth sports coach is to keep kids playing by creating a fun environment. Secondly, you are trying to teach them how to do things the right way, so when they practice, they continue to improve, and put themselves in position to be successful when they get older. Never in high school or college did a coach base my playing time on how good I was when I was nine. Although winning is fun for the athletes, parents, and coaches, understand that winning games when you are eight doesn't mean a whole lot. It's absolutely okay to put kids in a competitive environment where the kids are trying to win. Just make sure the team/league is focused on the kids. Because it's not about the coach.
Stapleton All Sports is interested in attracting energetic, athletic coaches to work with kids ages 4-10. If interested in applying, contact Gabe Hurley at firstname.lastname@example.org