This week thousands of athletes around Northern Michigan will begin their fall high school sports seasons. But there is rising concern about the direction and future of youth and high school athletics in our country.
I have been coaching youth sports for 34 years, getting my start coaching my brother’s elementary school soccer team while I was in middle school. Since then, I have coached kids from kindergarten to high school and have served locally on several youth sports boards. Over the past 30 years I have observed a shift in youth sports that in many cases has not been for the betterment of the kids.
There are now books, blogs, magazine articles and even a few national organizations such as the Center For Kids First In Sports that are calling for reform and overhauling of youth sports in our country. In 1978 Michigan State University launched The Institute for the Study of Youth Sports (ISYS) because of national concern of negative and unhealthy practices occurring in children’s sports. The ISYS offers resources to parents, players, coaches, athletic directors and sports organizations to “maximize the beneficial physical, psychological, and social effects of participation for children and youth while minimizing detrimental effects.”
NOT WITHOUT PROBLEMS
In Northern Michigan we are fortunate to have several well run and organized youth sports programs. But we are not without our problems. If you look at the challenges that do exist today in youth sports, the cause and the solution are in both communication and the parents.
Just last year in Northern Michigan, a parent made a death threat against two board members of a youth sports league. A few years back two parents got into a fist fight during a sporting event, resulting in their sons being kicked out of the program.
Last year, a coach sent an e-mail to another coach warning that he was going to have his players try to cause bodily harm to the players on the other team if the coach ran up the score on his team again. These are just a few examples of many that are causing alarm over youth sports in our region.
Nationally, there have been stories of parents killing other parents over disagreements about youth sports. ESPN did an undercover story on kids getting paid to play on teams at the age of 10 and parents betting on games.
There are countless stories of fights breaking out in stands during games, profanities being hurled at players, coaches, officials and other fans. It is almost unexplainable that otherwise normal and logical thinking adults become crazed out-of-control idiots once the whistle blows at their child’s sporting event.
The ISYS found that by the age of 15 close to 70% of kids quit the sports they have been participating in since their youth. The primary factors for quitting according to the study include “They were not having fun, too much pressure, too much emphasis on winning, overbearing coaches and parents, the coach played favorites.”
A few years back The Citizenship Through Sports Alliance convened a panel of youth sports experts from across the country to evaluate youth sports in the United States. CTSA is a coalition of national, amateur and professional sports organizations, including the NCAA, Major League Baseball, the NBA, WNBA, and NHL. The panel evaluated community based sports programs serving children ages 6-14 assessing hundreds of programs on their child-centered philosophy, coaching, health and safety, officiating and parental behavior. The overall grade and health of youth sports in the country was a “D.”
So what is the answer? In my observations, youth sports programs along with middle school and high school sports teams that struggle or have challenges are usually a result of a lack of communication combined with poorly laid out goals and objectives. When parents and players don’t understand the mission and the expectations of the program or the team, that’s when the problems begin.
Youth sports programs must detail their mission and objectives. Is your program developmental and ensures that everyone gets to play? Or is competitive and not everyone gets to play equally? Not every program is suited for every kid or family so the more detailed the information you have the better decisions parents and players will make on whether your program fits their needs.
The same holds true for middle school and high school sports teams. Athletic departments and coaches need to detail in season and off season expectations of the athletes and the time commitments involved.
Parents and adults must change their approach as well. If we are acting like wild lunatics in the stands why should we be surprised if our kids behave the same way during their games? A big part of youth sports is teaching kids life lessons, helping them to transition into adulthood and to help with their physical and mental well being. Parents need to ask if their behavior is contributing to that and if the program or sports team their kids are on contributing to those objectives.
Here are some tips for parents, players, coaches and sports organizations boards:
• Do You Want To Do This?: Most of you get started in a sport because your parents want you to play or your friends are playing.
But at the end of the day if you are playing for everyone but yourself you’re playing for the wrong reason. Be honest with your parents and coaches if you would rather play a different sport than the one your playing. Speak up.
• Communicate With Your Coach: Your coach probably is not getting paid or if they are they are making a dollar an hour if they are lucky. They are coaching because they enjoy it and good coaches which are 99 percent have the best interest of all their players at heart. So if you have a problem, concern or don’t understand something, go to your coach. No matter whether it is a lack of playing time or you want to know what you need to do to become a starter meet with your coach and take their words to heart. Share your objectives with your coach, let them know if you want to play college sports.
• Be Respectful and a Good Sport: When your coach asks you to do something, say yes sir or yes ma’am. Remember you not only represent yourself and your team when competing, you are also representing your school and community, so be a good sport at all times. Shake your competitors’ hands after a game and thank your coaches after every practice and game.
• Be Committed: Once you get to the age (typically high school) where sports become competitive, you have an obligation to get better, not just for yourself, but for your teammates as well. At the high school level most programs have off-season training recommendations. You should also consider going to sports camps to get better. If your family can’t afford these camps check to see if they have scholarship programs.
• Sportsmanship: Be a good sport at all costs. No foul language or booing. Be supportive and positive in the stands and at home. Clap for the opposing team. If you are one of those lunatics in the stands or a parent that has to yell out coaching instructions to your player, here is tip that will fix that problem, sit in the visitors section and you will keep quiet throughout the game.
• Let The Coaches Coach: If you are not on the coaching staff don’t coach your kids before or during the games. Leave it to the coaches as you will only cause confusion, and while you might have been a star athlete 20 years ago, techniques have changed and evolved since your day in the limelight. Leave the coaching to your kids’ coaches.
• No Gossiping or Rumors: This might be the biggest “killer” in youth sports today. The gossip and rumor mill is hurting programs and even teams at the high school level.
I know a high school football coach that had a nearly career ending experience after a couple of parents spread false rumors about him because they were upset over the lack of playing time their kids were getting. If a program is not for you, look for a different program that fits your expectations. Get facts before speaking by seeking out coaches, board members or athletic directors. It is amazing some of the crazy rumors and gossip that circulate through youth sports programs.
• Don’t Undermine the Coach or Program: If you are second-guessing the coach, then your kid is going to do the same thing. If you don’t have anything good to say about a coach or a program, don’t say anything at all, because more than likely it is not the coach or the program that is a problem, it is you.
If your son or daughter comes to you because they are not getting enough playing time or they are not getting to play the position they want, you need to encourage them to take it up with the coach.
Basically, once players get into 6th grade, they need to advocate for themselves with the coaches. As parents we should not say one word to the coach when our kids reach middle school unless it is thank you or, hey coach is there anything I can do to help with fundraising, team meals you just let me know. The only exception to this is if you learn that a coach is being physically or verbally abusive
• Get Involved, Not Over Involved: Youth sports programs succeed from parental involvement, so consider serving on a board and be a positive contributor. Be a coach or assistant coach and make sure you clearly understand the program’s objectives and convey that to the parents and players. Once your kids get to middle or high school, turn the coaching baton over to their coaches, and if you have the experience consider coaching at that level.
• College/Pro: Very few, if any, of the youth sports programs in our region exist for the purpose of training your son or daughter for college or professional athletics. If that is your goal or your kid’s goal that will need to be pursued outside of the youth program. At the high school level coaches have a responsibility to the team and the school and not serving as farm systems for college programs. However high school coaches will point players in the right direction when it comes to those who want to play a particular sport after high school.
A major economic impact study is currently being conducted on youth and adult sports and their impact on our Northern Michigan economy. Rick Coates will detail the results of that study this fall.