As a researcher, I spend a lot of time immersed in the world of youth sports. Tournaments, games, practices, you name it. During the years I have spent on the sidelines, I have started to see very clear patterns that, while imperceptible to most parents and coaches around me, shape everything that happens on and off the field. Hidden elephants in the room, if you will. Over the coming paragraphs, I’m going to address five patterns I see as the most common issues that seem to cast a shadow over everything we do in youth sports – even though we almost never acknowledge them. For parents of young athletes, these are realities with which you will likely be confronted if your kid spends any substantial length of time in sports – and with which you will absolutely be confronted if your kid is halfway decent.
1. When the lights come on and your kid takes the field, your rational self is going to lose out to your emotional self
You must be ready for this reality. You can – and should – embrace the visceral emotion that sports can bring on, but if you cannot be self-aware enough to step back and check in regularly with your rational self, you and your child are in for a long and bumpy ride. And I’m not even really talking about the normal ways we tend to describe the negative side of emotion in sports, like screaming at refs and emailing coaches at 2 AM and making your kid cry for striking out. Those are just matters of human decency and you should not do those things. The point I’m really trying to make here is that we all have two tracks running in our brains at all times (Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman details this process in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow), and the track that is tied to our most emotion-driven immediate reactions is much better at stealing the spotlight from our more rational, deliberative track. And sports are a perfect storm for losing ourselves to an emotional response. For most parents, they are the first time that you see your kid competing in a social setting with his or her peers. If that weren’t emotional enough, all the other kids’ parents are there, too, and there are clear social and psychic rewards for your kid outperforming the other kids. That’s not a recipe for rational behavior. But we must resist the urge to reward our more primal selves or we will be making decisions about our child’s futures that are driven by in-the-moment emotion instead of reason.
2. Your brain is programmed to resist my advice in the previous bullet point
Gee, thanks, right? But, again, success in this area is not measured by 100% control all of the time; success comes from being able to be aware of how these factors may be shaping your decision-making. Sports are an incredibly powerful context where we not only see normal cognitive biases obscuring our thinking, but we see the effect of these biases magnified because sports are so meaningful in our society. As humans, our brains struggle with some things that have been hardwired in since the beginning of time but which have failed to adapt to more modern contexts. For example, we are incredibly loss-averse, so we will feel even more pressure to sign our kid up for a travel team when we see the other three kids on the block do it. We don’t want to miss out on an opportunity and see our kid fall behind. We also struggle with sunk costs, which is why you may feel compelled to keep pouring thousands of dollars into your daughter’s private basketball training even after you’ve started to realize that she may not have the ability or interest to progress to the next level. Similarly, we are ego-protective and our brains do everything they can to justify why the choices we have made are the right ones. However, some self-awareness can go a long way toward preventing long-term damage to your relationship with your child. You won’t be perfect, just as I’m not perfect, but you have to be aware of your imperfection in order to minimize the damage.
3. The pursuit of winning is (pretty much) ruining youth athlete development in the United States
Look, I’m as American as the next guy, but our obsession with winning in the United States has had some really negative effects on the early development of our young athletes. In fact, the pretense of winning (in terms of both games and seasons) undermines the developmental process at virtually every turn. I don’t believe in drastic measures like not keeping score but there’s a difference between trying to win and trying to develop the long-term habits that lead to winning – and we often sacrifice the latter for the former. In my experience, coaches and clubs who attempt to focus on the long-term development of their young athletes often have to do so at the expense of emphasizing the things that can artificially manufacture wins at the lower levels of sports participation. As you watch your child play sports, try not to let yourself be romanced by the fancy in-game tactics and narrow position-specific game planning of a team or coach; it is far more beneficial in the long run for the emphasis to be on phasing in those things at developmentally-appropriate times. The catch-22 is that parents often mistake a program that has misaligned priorities geared toward producing wins instead of development as being a superior program because of the results on the scoreboard. You’ll need to look deeper at what is driving the on-field successes and setbacks and see the bigger context. And remember: the development of good athletes and the development of good kids don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
4. Youth sports are currently designed to serve the interests of adults
In conjunction with the previous point, my experience as a researcher and consultant suggests that we need to take a step back and ask some difficult questions about what we are doing with youth sports – and why we are doing it. This may not be a popular opinion, but I argue that the youth sports industrial complex, which generates some $15-billion annually, is really set up to meet the needs and interests of the adults who run it. Whether it’s coaches defying science and best practices to require kids to specialize in their sport year-round if they want a spot on the roster or travel teams and tournaments requiring thousands of dollars in travel and time commitments from younger and younger players to create a massive spectacle of an event to justify those very costs, we see a system where lots of people wring their proverbial hands over the professionalization of youth sport all while being complicit in the system itself. And I don’t blame you! The system is bigger than all of us and is set up in such a way that makes us have to make difficult choices and sacrifices that we shouldn’t have to make. The line between sporting success and failure shouldn’t require us to make a trade-off between our sanity and our children’s best interests. And yet, because we often try to treat the symptoms instead of the causes – and we see incentives and rewards that are too high-stakes to permit much change – we are left with few choices but to follow the crowd. I would recommend that you and your family (children included) take some time to define what you are and aren’t comfortable committing to this process. There aren’t always multiple pathways to success in a given sport, but there are often more options than we are able to see.
5. Your relationship to your childhood sports experiences often holds back the progress we can make in developing our kids
We are constrained by our own experiences in sports, owing to the fact that such meaningful and visceral experience is hard to disconnect from, especially when that experience was part of a formative period in our lives and tied to our identity development. And who could blame us? Yet this issue is compounded by the fact that so many of our youngest teams are coached by our least qualified coaches: parents. When we have well-intentioned parents coaching teams, the lack of expertise tends to produce two primary negative outcomes: an overreliance on that coach’s own childhood experience of what his/her coaches did a few decades ago and/or an overcompensating focus on modeling what professional athletes do in an effort to fast forward development. Think about this: did you do exactly what your parents did when raising your kids? You probably found some of what they did outmoded, and yet we do this with sports training all the time. We are really limited by our experiences, which in turn is limiting our capacity to re-envision what sports could/should be – and how best to develop our young athletes to achieve that vision. If you find yourself coaching your own children, be willing to take a step back and away from your personal experiences and be willing to recognize that while what Gregg Popovich does with the San Antonio Spurs may have some benefit for children to understand, running nine-year-olds through a Spurs practice is not going to accelerate their journey to the NBA; if anything, it’s likely to be developmentally inappropriate and have little effect beyond confusing them at this stage.
What can you do?
Some of these issues are beyond our individual control. Even those issues within our control can be difficult to manage. But the first step toward progress in any situation is to recognize and acknowledge that there may be a problem. By shining a light on these patterns that I see impacting virtually every youth sports environment I’ve studied, my hope is that an increased awareness can lead to some more thoughtfulness about our children’s development as athletes. We cannot necessarily control the youth sports systems within which our children are embedded, but we can take measures to try to positively impact how we contribute on an individual level to those systems.