Youth Sports: Just for Fun or Always for the "W"
There are strong arguments to support both sides of whether or not it is human nature to be competitive. However, just being competitive alone is not a deciding factor on whether or not participating in an organized sport programs will lead children to value winning more than playing fair or having fun. There are many variables that need to be considered starting with the mindset of the organization, the mindset of the athletic director or director of coaching, the mindset of the coaches, the mindset of the parents, the mind set of the family, the mind set of teachers and other educators in the athletes life, the mind set of friends, the mind set of the team, the mindset of the players closest to the athlete, and the mindset of the players themselves. Keeping in mind chapters 1-4 of Jowett and Lavallee’s Social Psychology in Sport we will focus primarily on how the Coach-Athlete relationship impacts turning something that is meant to be fun and teach fair play into a win at all costs culture or mindset.
After running youth sports organizations and coaching three different sports for almost 20 years, with little athletic ability, I can say that it is up to the coach to set the value of the lessons taught and how they should be understood, applied, and enjoyed. I have witnessed countless coaches through the years coach the win and not the athlete. Allowing the athletes with the most perceived talent and abilities to play a majority of the game. I have also witnessed countless coaches coach the athlete, their well-being, and the overall love for the sport and team. I have seen many variations on both themes as well. No matter the outside influences on the athletes and team, it is the coach’s responsibility to set the tone and attitude of what truly matters in this form of competition. The coach determines whether the focus should be on training to win, or training for the fun of the playing experience and development of fair play.
I have coached both recreational and competitive youth soccer. I have had teams and players that have struggled throughout the season. I however coached the athletes, the individual players and took interest in them beyond the pitch. I made sure they knew that if they played for their enjoyment of the sport and the enjoyment of those around them, they could never lose a single game because the scoreboard was not what mattered. What mattered was their ability to go home, look themselves in the mirror, know they gave it everything they could, and had fun doing it. That is what winning looked like. The funny thing is through the years of using this coaching style I was able to take countless teams of misfits, discarded players, even players other coaches deemed unathletic and make success athletes out of them. Teams that went from scoreboard losses of 4 to 8 points to the reciprocal scoreboard wins.
I have a one particular success story of a young man who had quit playing soccer after several years of coaches and his father constantly telling him how he should play, how often he should practice, what he should practice, and what he should play. He lost his love for the sport and doubted his talents and he just gave up. He came to one of my practices with a friend one day and was completely floored by the fact I never yelled, never forced them to run, never forced them to practice, encouraged them to talk and horse around. What really threw him for a loop was the fact they wanted to practice, they were setting up their own drills, helping each other learn, and teaching me when they could. This young man came to a few more of our practices before requesting to join our team. He played with me the rest of this year and rediscovered his passion for the sport. Now 7 years later he was recently signed and playing pro football in Spain.
Obviously, this young man got himself where he is today. However, his passion was taken from him early on because he was not ready for the type of coaching style he experienced early on. Once he was able to see what the game truly could hold for him, his passion returned and he was able to use that and his talents to pursue his future. The coach and their coaching style really play an intracule role in how an athlete will value winning. Coaches help to shape the mindset of their players and determine the atmosphere they want their team to have on the field for games and at practice.