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8162X: Winning isn't the Anything
Keeping the youth in youth sports

“Winning isn’t everything;  it’s the only thing.”

This quote is widely and mistakenly attributed to Vince Lombardi. It was in fact first spoken by a coach who you probably can’t name from Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. The misattribution is fitting, because when it comes to youth sports, this is a concept that far too many coaches and parents get wrong. Some insist that their hearts are with the kids, but come crunch time, their mouths are firmly channeling Coach Lombardi.

Youth sports, like most other worthwhile endeavors in life, in fact operate within a different set of goals and measures of success, wherein winning ranks low, if it all. Or at least it ought to.

Don’t get me wrong, we are blessed with many, perhaps mostly, wonderful coaches who get it. And the positive experiences I’ve found among parents far outweigh the others. But it is the other experiences that tend to stand out, perhaps because they are so stark, and so inappropriate.

I’ll not rehash the annals of Grown-ups Behaving Badly here (and as a long time sports parent and part-time youth coach, I’ve seen it all); we all know it when we see it – the drunk parents screeching at 10-year-old children on the field, the irate coach berating a volunteer referee while his players stare wide-eyed; the spectators who carry on belligerently for hours after a lost game like the fate of the free world rests on the outcome.

This is not a problem I know how to fix, except to call on the other parents, the silent majority, to break their silence and serve not just as role models, but as occasional cultural change agents. 

And I’ll also recommend two concepts for all to consider: (1) Try Quiet, and (2) The Kids are Alright.

Try Quiet. You may not realize this, but your kid probably hates it when you shout instructions from the sidelines, well-intentioned as it may be. It is confusing, chaotic, and often, incorrect. The coach probably doesn’t like it either, there are too many voices, too many instructions and it’s too late; the time to coach is at practice, game time is for performance and fun. 

Your child is conditioned to respond to your voice, so when it comes from a cacophony of screeching from the crowd, this can be confusing. It also may be wrong. My family learned this early on, in a peewee soccer game, when a handful of parents shouted instructions with increasing shrillness at a hapless 9-year-old. These instructions were, alas, incorrect. The coach, bless his mellow soul, merely gave us The Look. Lesson learned. 

Don’t get me wrong, decades of watching sports in bars as a Chicagoan trained me to watch out loud; I watch and play sports loudly, and while I put a high value on friendly contests, I am unapologetically competitive. So, I must continuously remind myself that I am among children.

Our local soccer league experiments with “Silent Sundays.” On those designated game days, spectators are to limit themselves to quiet generic encouragement, i.e. golf claps. It’s remarkable and wonderful. Everyone should try it. The kids love it.

Another place to try quiet is in the back seat on the ride home. This isn’t “Perry Mason” and it isn’t “SportsCenter.” Your kid doesn’t want to hear your hot take from the front seat and doesn’t want to break down his second at-bat in the third inning. Let the kid be in the moment, relishing the thrill of victory, pondering the agony of defeat, or planning the next in-app purchase, this is your child’s moment, not yours. Silence on the ride home; try it.

The Kids are Alright. One thing you may learn if you give yourself the chance is that many kids bounce right back after a loss. With the benefit of an ice cream cone and the passage of perhaps five minutes, the formerly fierce opponents will be frolicking together on the former field of battle, happily recreating the crucial last play in full dramatic kabuki; if you let them.

But the players take their cues from us, and our attitudes about loss and adversity and human fallibility will be the lessons they remember, not the score of the game, nor the close judgment call by the umpire over which some adults can’t seem to stop loudly replaying to anyone within earshot.

Many local sports leagues, if not operated under the auspices of the local Town Rec department, are nonprofit labors of parental love. There’s a tremendous amount of blood, sweat and tears occurring behind the scenes, with work done mostly by volunteers, so be forgiving if the service is a little rough around the edges from time to time. The first priority is safety, along with learning and fun, achieved through the opportunity to play games. Parental comfort and preferences rank a distant third.

Refereeing is a tough job, and it’s tough to find good refs. It’s tough to find referees that are willing to put up with the low pay and sideline abuse from their putative friends and neighbors. They generally just love the game and want to help some kids have fun playing it. So seriously folks, think long and hard about what you say to the referees. And if you are following them out to the parking lot after the game to continue your lobbying and insulting, you are doing it wrong.

One way local leagues cope with the shortage is to rely on youth referees. The Mid-Valley soccer league here has created a youth referee development program. It is an amazing achievement and well-deserved point of pride. Young referees are trained and mentored by the program director, supported by coaches and parents, and make some spending money along the way. That’s a model that should be replicated elsewhere.

I love the youth sports programs here, and I love watching and coaching the kids who play it. Sometimes I get ahead of myself though, as I delve deeply into analysis with a fellow coach, a little voice reminds me that we are discussing the athletic achievements of a middle school student. When I was that age, sports were a lot less formal, a lot less intense and a lot less frequent. Many of us were forced to get our playing time in sandlots and playground pickup games, with nary an adult around to mediate or shape our experience. We survived. We may even have learned some life skills along the way.

Some kids are ready for more. They want as much intensity and competition as they can get. Others are not; and recreational level play is plenty enough. The valley has a challenge in dividing limited resources among a small pool of players. Many leagues must struggle to choose their point on the spectrum between recreational and competitive orientations. The pendulum swings. To the extent that advocates for both ends of the spectrum can respect each other’s views and collaborate, the stronger the opportunities with be available for all kids.

Some parents get confused about what their kids are ready for, though. So let’s be completely frank: your child will not get a college scholarship in one of the primary ball sports. Nope. Ain’t gonna happen. The odds are terribly against you in this dream, so you’d be better served focusing that intensity on academics, and leave the sports for fun. Because the research is clear on this point: pushing the kids too hard, too soon, leads to burnout and injuries. I know, I know, if you don’t get the personal coach like the Joneses did, little Johnny won’t make it in the Bigs. And that’s true to a point; it can be an arms race. It’s also true that little Johnny risks growing up to be a teenage Tommy John if he overuses that arm. Look it up; it’s fugly.

That said, a little personal training for a growing athlete can be a good investment to help your child break through a skills or mental obstacle, and can be a worthwhile investment.

On the topic of coaching, I cannot coach my own children. I must choose my advice carefully, and deliver it sparingly, and separate each occurrence glacially. That’s why we paid someone else to teach our kids to ski. And when I feel compelled to give some coaching advice to my own son in a game, I ask one of the other coaches to do it.

Oops, I just revealed my trick. Hi son, you’re looking good out there bubba, don’t change a thing!

Malcolm McMichael lives in Carbondale with his family, family hamster and an extended family of outdoor gear. In his spare time he finds better ways to embarrass kids than being a jerk on the sidelines.