September 15, 2006

Youth Sports in America

In the interest of writing something potentially useful, consider the following as a contrast the recent tone of the blog which has lately focused on people getting thrown around by animals, boats, or other people.

I read a few articles about youth sports for my graduate class about Sociology of Sport, and it got me thinking about youth sports, but not necessarily in the same sense that the articles did. I questioned the purpose of athletics for elementary school kids. Don't get me wrong, I'm not questioning whether or not they should exist, but more what they should aim to accomplish. After all, with no youth sports, I'm still back in Raleigh working as a burn-in test engineer, so the value of said sports is not lost on me, and I'll ferviously argue in favor of their existence for a variety of reasons, but that's not what I want to discuss here. I want to approach the issue from a different angle.

What is the point of youth athletics from a coaching perspective? In other words, when I take a bunch of 10 year olds out on the mat, what should I be trying to do? There are three major schools of thought here, and they're not mutually exclusive. I think you can balance all three together and come up with an ideal situation. The first goal is winning. A coach trains his athletes so that they will have maximum success at their current level. If that means learning technique that might not work (this applies to any sport) at higher levels, then so be it; the goal is to win now. Second is the goal to learn the basics and have great technique, be it wrestling, shooting a basketball, hitting a baseball, or whatever. This can be done to the exclusion of focusing on winning. The entire goal is to get the technique right and to prepare for competition at some point in the future. If competition is involved, the athletes learning under this model might get beat by wrestlers in the first group. Finally, there is fun. This model puts the enjoyment of the athletes ahead of learning technique or winning or pretty much anything else. Order might not be at premium as much as keeping the kids happy with the sport and wanting to come back the next season.

I personally tend to gravitate toward the second mondel. This model focuses on technique in preparation for future competition. The competition at the current stage is unimportant compared with the learning taking place that will be applicable in the future. I think I lean this way because of my own experience in youth wrestling. I was coached under this model, and because of it, I took some lumps in my first few years of competition. However, the lessons I learned in that environment prepared me well for high school and college competition. This model of learning was a major contributing factor to my having better technique than most of my age-mates. Some were stronger, faster, or more coordinated, but I had an edge on a lot of people with my technique. Of course, some of my good technique is due to the outstanding coaching I received the whole time I was a competitive athlete, and I see the results of bad coaching every day, even with kids on my college team. However, I wonder how much of the bad technique I see with older kids could have been avoided by participating in a program where good, solid technique was the goal, rather than just something to be passed on the way to winning elementary school championships.

But what is the best way to do things? I would put forth that the best is, not surprisingly, a combination of the three. However, I would put development of technique at the top; the captain of the team, so to say. If ever forced to decide among the three, you always pick technique. That said, having fun and winning should be a part of youth athletics, as they play well off of each other. Winning is more fun than losing, after all. The pitfalls, however, of focusing soley on winning have been discussed, and focusing solely on having fun can quickly devolve into barely contained chaos, where the only thing accomplished is the burning of energy (I realize that for some parents this is perfectly acceptable). As the first guide on the path of athletic participation, I think the coaches have a greater responsibility to prepare the athlete to move on to higher levels of competition and accomplishment. Fun comes in here as a way to help ensure that the athletes keep progressing up the ladder. Hours spent in dull repetition and strict learning aren't the best catalyst for the development of a love of sport, so the fun has to be there. The smart youth coach will recognize this fact while also keeping in mind that a sport becomes more fun as your competency increases. It's not fun to shoot baskets for an hour and miss them all, but it's a lot more fun when you have a reasonable expectation of success. This holds in all sports, and requires the coach to balance skill development with the enjoyment of the athlete.

As a youth coach, I go forward with a plan in mind. Keep things light when possible, focus on developing technique, only look to competition when appropriate, and only use the results as a measure of the individual athlete's developmental progress. Always remember that a winning youth wrestler is not necessarily a good youth wrestler. Realize that this step is hopefully the beginning of a long wrestling career, recognize the responsibility that comes with being an athlete's first coach, and act accordingly.

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