Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Choosing a Path for Your Child in Sports—All Things are Sold

In his essay on Compensation, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes about the dualistic nature of the world we live in. He states, “For every thing you have missed, you have gained something else; and for every thing you gain, you lose something… In nature nothing can be given, all things are sold.”

As our life experience grows, most of us realize the essential truth of Emerson’s views on compensation. As discussed elsewhere in this blog (You're NOT too Small, Heavy, or Slow!), compensation plays an important role in an athlete’s success. An athlete, small in stature, may also possess extraordinary quickness; one who is slow may have exceptional strength. These compensatory attributes often provide athletes with different paths to success.

But as a parent or coach, have you also considered the compensatory effect of your choices? Have you considered how the same excesses that lead to athletic “success” may also exact an equal or greater price? Do you know what you’re selling?

Take for example a high school girl’s varsity basketball team that I helped coach during its “Open Gym” and Fall League preseason. The head coach, a friend with whom I played years ago, is a knowledgeable, hardnosed disciplinarian. In pursuing excellence, he’s more likely to chastise a player’s mistake than compliment one’s success. Fun is secondary to work. The preseason commitment for players, stretching over a three-month period, involved three voluntary two-hour practices and one game per week. Perfectly legal under the by-laws of our state’s high school association, the time commitment of these preseason activities approached that of my regular high school basketball season many years ago. Under the grind of this heavy preseason schedule and my friend’s uncompromising coaching style, a number of girls quit (and still others considered doing so).

So in the balanced equation that is Emerson’s law of compensation, what do these players gain and what do they lose?

I fully expect that this team will enjoy greater success on the court. (It’s already evident in their early season record.) They will win more games than they otherwise would under many other coaches. They will take pride in their accomplishments, appreciate how hard work has prepared them for success, and possibly apply this lesson to other parts of their lives. With their shared sacrifice, they may enjoy an even closer bond with their teammates. And for a few, the likelihood of a college scholarship may be improved.

But to the opposite, a price is also paid. Girls who might have enjoyed the high school basketball experience (and still succeeded on the court) were lost early on. In at least one instance, participation in anther sport was sacrificed. For some, the tough, critical coaching style may diminish the experience as a whole. What should be a fun, rewarding, and successful experience, may instead become a chore—just one more activity to list on their college application. Players may “burn out” later in the season. More troubling is the potential long-term effect on each girl’s desire to continue playing sports. I suspect that many of the girls on this team, though appreciating their high school basketball experience, may never want to pick up a ball again once their “career” is over. The enjoyment and health benefits of continued adult participation will be lost.

So what’s the best path? Do the benefits justify the excesses and price paid? In the example cited above, are the possible rewards worth the long practices, extended season, and other sacrifices made by the players? That’s for every administrator, coach, parent, and athlete to decide. But it’s a decision that should be made with full awareness of what’s lost to the path not taken.

For my part, I believe that the type of high school experience I described above is too skewed towards the work/sacrifice component. I suspect that it’s not atypical of many other high school sports programs that have morphed into coach-driven, all consuming extracurricular activities. Sports seasons today are too long, participation in other high school sports is diminished, and joy too often sucked out of the young athletes who want to participate in organized sports at this higher level. Self-directed play is also a casualty of the extensive time commitment associated with today’s organized sports activities.

Maybe I’m wrong about this. Possibly the girls on my friend’s team will enjoy their season and learn valuable life lessons. Maybe they will see their sacrifices as worthwhile. It will be interesting to follow these girls over the next several years and to learn what each of them thinks in retrospect about her experience.

But in regard to youth sports, coaches and parents should undoubtedly seek a more balanced approach—one that protects joy, while also encouraging a child to begin appreciating the importance of hard work and its connection to success. Positive coaching and parental support, with an age-appropriate emphasis on winning, should dominate the organized youth sports experience. Encouraging excesses early on, and paying the compensatory price, is simply a wrong-headed approach. For each parent and coach, the goal is to help each child achieve his or her potential while also preserving the long-term benefits (joy, continued participation, health) for every child!

Copyright 2009-2012 Jeffrey S. Rhoads; All Rights Reserved


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