Age, Ability, and the Quest for Victory in Youth Sports: Lessons in Ethics

 

As I began this analysis of youth sports and the prohibitions it puts on participants in terms of age, and in one extreme instance, in terms of ability, I reflected on my experiences in youth sports.  Those reflections then melded into the experiences my nine children had in youth sports.

An undeniable epiphany emerged, as if true epiphanies can be denied, and struck me in the form of two questions: 1) What is the purpose of youth sports; and 2) Who is supposed to benefit from youth sports?

The responses might seem to be superfluously obvious.  Of course, the proper response to both questions is youth!  Sure, the parents and the adults always do it “for the kids!”

What are we really teaching youths in sports? Are we teaching them moral and ethical ideals when we emphasize winning above all else? Or do we only create smaller versions of our (perhaps needlessly) hyper-competitive selves?

In youth sports, the fledgling future pros can learn the direct applications of those ideals we hold highest in our culture and society – fair play, team work, dedication, hard work, and all the other epithets clinging to sport – and it is through their participation in youth sports that they can become “responsible citizens.”  At least, that is the indomitable dogma taught to us by the sporting temple priests and priestesses.

Insidiously, though, the ominous specter of adult “organization” crept into my idyllic notions of kids going out to play.  That’s correct – to play!  Children play at everything and anything.  Their imaginations can take them to places we adults haven’t been since our fifth Christmas.  I have seen my children take the box which housed my wife’s new sewing machine and create an entire universe with its own inventions and neologisms to utter.

But let a parent see one of them exhibit any hint of athletic ability for any kind of physical activity and the rush is on to “develop” that ability.  The manifestations of this “rushing” take the form of “organizing” the activity, no matter if the child likes it or, God forbid, does not even want to be “developed” in the ability the parent or adult has so astutely identified.  And there it is – “Youth Sports” with all the glory, glamor, and muddled ethics adults can conjure.

You must forgive my cynicism, but I have seen far too much of this.  From ages being falsified for participation, to denial of participation because of well-developed and natural ability, to parents fighting in the stands as their 8-year-olds engage the game on the field or court, to actually witnessing a wedding at half-time of an 8-9 year-old youth football game between one of the older, and presumably more venerable, coaches and the sponsor of the 9-year-old cheerleaders.

An aside here:  the able groom was 56 and his not-too-blushing bride was 48.  But it was an event to celebrate … let’s see … oh yes, youth sports!

When adults present false birth certificates so that the more physically developed children will have an edge, and when some organized league actually prevents a truly gifted, but otherwise eligible, player from participating because that talent is “too advanced” for the other children, and when parents are having Donny-brooks in the stands — such that some of them must be taken to the emergency ward for treatment — then, either I am missing something or the entire purpose of youth sports has been balanced on some precarious fulcrum of victory – and only victory!

Indeed, children do learn from play.  It is a natural function of the human condition.  Yet, when adults intercede to make things “better” it is far too often the function of an adult seeking vicarious achievement through a child.

The preoccupation, then, becomes one of, you guessed it, winning.  Simultaneously, it is not the parents or other closely allied adults who share in the culpability of this tragi-comedy.  There have been far too many “wannabe” coaches who feed the parental dreams, and who imagine themselves as reincarnations of Vince Lombardi.

I believe William Shakespeare had more in mind when his Hamlet declared “the play’s the thing” than merely revealing the conscience of the king.  At least, I choose to think it so.  Playing is participating and that is what kids really want – the opportunity to play, no matter how good or bad they may perceive themselves to be.  The play is the thing!

I cannot deny the underlying premise upon which youth sports are based – the teaching of fundamental values which have framed our societal structure.  Learning those fundamentals must not be tied to victory or loss, and I believe it is imperative that we adopt a line from Rudyard Kipling’s view in his glorious poem, If: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same.”

Sport, as I see it, and here I am a heretic to the long held dogma, does not “build character;” rather, it provides a laboratory in which we as children or as adults have an opportunity to test those principles of character to which we have been exposed.

In this laboratory, we are supposed to develop a personal ethos, a personal code by which we live and contribute to the world in which we survive.  Above all, sport is supposed to give us the drills which test our values.  The genesis of those values has been, is, and always will be the lessons we learn from our adult role models, be they parents, older teammates, or coaches.

A prime function of participating in sport is to play for its own sake and to develop our individual character reflective of an ethical foundation which we have witnessed around us.  What does a child learn from those in authority who have lied about our age?  What bent framework of moral behavior ensues from watching parents brutalizing each other in the stands?  And what emptiness of soul is left when the only reward we can distill from sport is winning?

The lessons from sport must reflect the values we espouse as a social moral order, and it is in youth sports that those lessons must find their genesis.  There is no greater antithesis to what sport is than to deny that lessons, valuable lessons, are to be learned from defeat.  Kipling would not know what to make of modern day youth sports.  And, sometimes, neither do I.

Those lessons of “life” and of ethical import which sport is intended to teach seem to me to be summarized in what a coach once told our team as we were preparing for a big game: “You guys are going to get knocked down more times than you want to.  We all know that.  The sadness is not that you get knocked down, but that you don’t get back up.  If you are the kind of men I think you are, you will always keep gettin’ back up!”  And with that, we went out and won the State Championship in football.

Learning how to participate, as well as being given the opportunity to do so, learning how to win and lose, finding the practicality of our society’s ideal notions, understanding sacrifice for a greater good, helping a teammate, being responsible, and developing a healthy sense of self, these are the lessons our youngsters need to be practicing in sports.  This is what should be implied by those who profess to be “developing” our youth through sports.

The great opportunity sport gives us to practice and display such intangible human elements as honor, integrity, respect, dignity, promise-keeping, and fair play is both a gift and a burden for those who would mentor our youngsters in sport.

Without such a commitment those finer qualities, we like to believe our society holds will begin to weaken – and the fabric of who we are will soon follow.

Dr. Arthur Ogden, the Chair of Sports Management at the United States Sports Academy, can be reached at aogden@ussa.edu. Ogden has coached college football for 12 years, including as defensive coordinator at Auburn University, and served as a Director of Athletics at the collegiate level for 10 years. His doctoral dissertation on Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy of education won the coveted Dilley Award for Outstanding Dissertation of the Year in 1995.

 

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