Like many adults, I started coaching youth sports when my two sons were old enough to play on teams. My sons, fraternal twins, began playing soccer at age six. I soon realized that I could spend a lot of time with them if I coached their teams. As I began this journey, I realized that I enjoyed working with young people. I quickly came to feel as though I was answering a call to put talents to good use.
I eventually coached my sons in soccer, basketball and baseball. I only coached one season of baseball. The sport was too slow to maintain my interest and my sons fortunately shared these feelings. I continued to coach them in basketball and soccer until they got out of high school.
I began to referee soccer when I was about 40 and quickly advanced to referee high school, adult amateur and college soccer. I also was enticed into serving as an officer for a local youth soccer club. I eventually served 3 years as president. Once my sons had graduated from high school and moved on I continued to coach soccer for another decade. I enjoyed helping young people develop skills as well as life skills.
Age and personal circumstances eventually caused me to stop coaching and officiating. As I look back now on over20 years of involvement in youth sports, I find that I have formed strong opinions about how youth sports are operated in this country. I believe that young people gain a lot of positive things from playing on youth sports teams. I also believe, however, that much of what goes on in the world of youth sports has little to do with the best interests of our children.
Twenty-five years ago, there were travel teams in different sports. Many kids still played on local rec league teams. Teams would play 8-12 game seasons that would last perhaps three months from the first practice to the last game. The costs were minimal and kids from various economic backgrounds played on these teams.
Today, travel teams are the norm in many youth sports. It costs hundreds or thousands of dollars per year to play on these teams. Teams play in tournaments almost every weekend during a season that may last five months or more. In many cases, the seasons run into each other and teams play games almost year round. Parents spend thousands of dollars so that their children can play on these teams. Many parents also hire private coaches for their children. I have a nephew who is embarking on a career as a teacher. He played college baseball. Today, he coaches a fall travel baseball team and gives private pitching lessons to four young men whose parents are convinced their sons can be major league pitchers.
As the emphasis on youth sports increases, kids are put under tremendous pressure. A kid on an AAU basketball team may play five games in a weekend tournament. He may be suffering from a cold and have a poor tournament. At the end of the weekend, the team coach might tell the players there will be extra practices in the upcoming week. On the way home, the player’s father may berate him for his poor performance. The parent is concerned that the child might lose his place on the team and thus his exposure to college coaches.
In my time as a soccer coach, I was fortunate to mostly coach elite travel teams. I once saw a coach get into a fight on the field immediately after a game with a defender whom the coach felt had let in the tying goal just before the final whistle blew. I saw a coach keep his players on a practice field after a game where they had barely beaten the team I coached. As we were leaving the park, those players were being forced to run wind springs as punishment.
I have witnessed all kinds of poor behavior from coaches and parents. I once coached a team with a player whose father was so convinced that his son was a budding star that he screamed non-stop at his son, opposing players and the officials. He was so loud and annoying that I finally had to ask him to stand by himself at the end of playing fields away from everyone else. A number of youth leagues around the country have held events where no parents could come and watch games or where parents had to sign pledges to stay silent during games so that their kids could play without worrying about what their parents were yelling.
I have developed some opinions over the years about how adults should treat youth sports. Some of them can be briefly summarized here:
- Parents should be seen and not heard during and immediately after games. Players are humiliated when their parents yell at them and criticize their play in front of others. Such critiques should be done in private.
- Coaches are usually volunteers who, for the most part, have the best interests of kids at heart. Coaches are not necessarily geniuses in the sport they coach. If the kids like playing for the coach parents should avoid criticizing the coach. When coaches do act inappropriately parents should not confront the coach; but should quietly go to league officials.
- There is no excuse for anyone—coaches, players, parents—to use profanity during games. Use of such language is generally a sign that the person cursing has problems expressing himself or herself or has anger issues that he or she should be dealing with. Kids watch how adults behave and often mimic that behavior.
- Kids play a sport to have fun and to acquire better skills at the sport. Kids aren’t going to remember the scores of games in the future when looking back. They will remember the experiences they had. The adults who organize these games should remember this and not focus too much on winning. I told teams that I would not talk about winning games; but would talk about getting better and having a positive experience on the field. I told them that winning and losing happen for a number of reasons, many of them beyond our control. They should focus on what they can control.
- One of the lessons to be gained from playing sports is that we have to take personal responsibility for our actions. Don’t blame losses on someone else or look for scapegoats. All of us make mistakes in every game. We should look at the things we did poorly and figure out how to improve.
- Most kids don’t respond well to yelling. I have learned that kids tune out coaches who constantly shout during games. Communicate calmly with players. Balance positive and negative comments. Don’t make it personal when critiquing kids.
- As adults we have to realize that the most important lesson we can impart to our children is that someone always loses in a competition. Life is about losing and how you handle it and learn from it. Life goes on no matter the score in a game. As adults we must realize this and act accordingly.
When I run into young men and women today whom I coached years ago they usually call me “coach”. They talk about the experiences they had while playing and they want to tell me how they are doing today. They do not talk about trophies or championships or specific games. What they remember is the journey, not the end destination.
Youth coaches are helping to build character, not sports champions. We are teachers and mentors. We should never lose sight of this as we coach young people. Life is a process, not a giant scoreboard.
Greg Tyler is the Library Director at the United States Sports Academy. He has also taught courses at the Academy in sports law. He worked for years in youth sports as a coach, league administrator and as a soccer referee. He has a law degree and practiced law for a number of years.