Friday, August 2, 2013

On childhood athletics

I hate the current state of kids' sports, where everybody gets to play and nobody ever loses. One of the benefits of playing sports as a kid is that you learn how to handle disappointment and failure in a relatively safe environment. Losing that Little League game might feel like it's the worst thing that's ever happened, but it isn't cancer or homelessness or even school.

On the other hand, coaches often err on the other side and humiliate kids. That's where I think this "no losing" movement got its start. Because it hurts--it really, really hurts--to see your kid humiliated. It is a horrible feeling when your child goes from loving a sport and putting hours of effort into practice to never wanting to try that sport again. Even if that feeling is temporary and normal and understandable, it's not something you want your child to experience. And that feeling--the feeling a parent gets when she looks at her child feeling that kind of humiliation--might just be the reason parents lose it and punch coaches. I'm not saying that kind of violence is excusable or justified, just that I know where it comes from.

So what should coaches do? They should think about the purpose of the team. What is the goal here? The goal is not always the same, but if you're working with kids, developing them physically and emotionally should be part of it. Yes, kids need to learn to live with disappointment and failure. They need to learn to work as a team even when one player makes a serious error, or when "working as a team" means that some people have to sit on the bench.

But there are emotions that go along with those things--disappointment, sadness, anger, embarrassment--and those emotions are normal and more or less universal. So as adults, we should expect those emotions and help kids through them. Part of that is coping with them when they surface. Another part of that is managing how, when and where we tell kids disappointing news.

A really good coach can give a kid the news that she isn't playing, or isn't first string, or didn't make the team, in a way that makes her want to work harder next time. Ideally, the child will be told when she's alone, or in a small group of other kids receiving the same news. If the coach has to announce who's playing in a team meeting, then the kids who are disappointed should be pulled aside afterward. The coach can then explain why they weren't picked, what is expected of them now (Are they still required to come to the game? Will they be possible substitutes for the kids who are playing?) and what they can do to improve so that in the future they will be picked. Is it just a matter of age? (Not a lot of Freshman make the varsity football team.) Is it skill level? Would extra practice help? A private coach? New equipment? Do you feel like the child isn't giving her all and she needs to change her attitude? Or is this a matter of talent and does this kid need to understand that she will probably never be picked for the team?

All of this should be done privately so that the child is not embarrassed in front of the rest of the team. And it should be done in such a way that the child feels valued as a person, and so that her effort is assessed and appreciated. Most importantly, our expectations should be age-appropriate. A Junior in high school can reasonably be expected to understand that not everyone can play every game, and that the coach wants the best players to play. This isn't "fair," perhaps, but it's life, and a seventeen year old should be able to deal with her feelings on her own and/or have a support system (friends, parents, teachers) she can go to to for help if she needs it. A kid in elementary school, however, should not be expected to just deal with it. She may never have faced this kind of failure before. She does not have a sense of time that allows her to understand that she will probably get picked next year--next year is like next millennium when you're ten--and she doesn't have the emotional sense to understand that her anger, frustration and disappointment will go away after a time. She needs help from adults to receive and process this information.

So don't water down sports. Don't eliminate all disappointments and make it so that nobody loses, ever. Everyone has to learn how to lose, how to fail, and how to deal with situations that just don't seem fair, but are out of our control. But do think about the news you're about to give, and how the kid you're talking to is going to receive that news. Do give parents every opportunity to help their kid through the situation. Do give kids the option to deal with disappointing or potentially embarrassing news privately. Maybe even give them a chance to save face. ("No, I couldn't make it to the game." "I don't like to compete. I just come to practices to keep in shape." "The coach decided to red shirt me to see how I develop next year.") Do help kids learn from losses.

After all, that's what these programs are supposed to be about, right?

No comments:

Post a Comment