Dillon's huge grin will be one of my fondest memories as a youth coach. The 12-year-old youth baseball player had just made the game-winning play in a come-from-behind win against our cross-town rivals. His triumphant jump in the air was the exclamation point on a great youth sports story.
But Dillon's tale isn't of a star athlete winning another game. It's about a kid whose interest in baseball at the start the season was flagging, who saw the sport as just one of his many activities, but who finished the year with a passion for baseball.
The secret to his transformation? A team focus on the three things that should drive all youth sports: that kids learn, be challenged to compete, and have fun.
When we create an environment where kids like Dillon can achieve the trifecta of Fun, Learn, and Compete, we tap a special place in their souls and transform mere activity into passion. Engagement soars, performance improves, energy spikes, and enthusiasm reaches an all-time high.
Whether we are a parent, a youth baseball coach, a piano teacher or the faculty advisor for the chess club, our mantra should be the same: to create a fertile environment where kids can learn, compete, and have fun:
- Fun. Above all, we should encourage kids to have fun in all of their activities. One important measure of whether we are succeeding is if the kids want to play again next season. If they didn't have fun, the answer is often "No." If it's "Yes," they'll be back again, no matter how many games the team won or lost. Good things happen when we have fun, often without even knowing it. We work hard, we learn, we focus on the needs of others, and we laugh.
- Learn. Kids should gain insights about the sport, discover new things about themselves, and learn life lessons. One of the great things about kids are that they are sponges. Often times our job as coaches is simply to set the stage and get out of the way, at which point a kid's natural curiosity takes over and we only need to channel it in a productive way. Other times, though, we need to help them connect the dots between effort and success, uncover a hidden strategy, or gain a deeper insight into unfolding events.
- Compete. Kids must be taught to compete. Life is full of competition - for scholarships, jobs, and even mates! Youth sports provide a perfect environment in which kids can learn how to read a competitive situation and elevate their performance to succeed. Healthy competition challenges kids to know themselves, and they become skilled at managing around their weaknesses and leveraging their strengths. This acquired skill-set is ideally learned as a youth when activities aren't life-or-death, and when we can encourage risk-taking and learning from mistakes.
Another facet of competing is that kids must be at the right level. Things shouldn't be too easy or too hard. The sweet spot is where the outcome is in doubt, neither success nor failure is guaranteed, and our efforts as coaches can make the difference.
Dillon was a perfect example of the possibilities. Throughout the season our three coaches chose our words and actions carefully to create and reinforce an environment, on and off the field, where kids learned, were competitive, and had fun. The result is that Dillon is a baseball player for life. He still enjoys his other activities, but baseball has become his passion.
As we infuse the Fun, Learn, Compete model into our efforts with kids, we quickly see that the three concepts feed off of each other: learning becomes fun, the thrill of competition fosters new learning, and kids enjoy the challenge.
The best coaches and parents help kids enjoy all three.
Dan Clemens is the author of A Perfect Season: A Coach's Journey to Learning, Competing, and Having Fun in Youth Baseball (Quiet Path 2010). It is available at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble and other bookstores.
A leadership and communications consultant, he's been a youth coach for 9 years and maintains a website for coaches at www.CoachClemens.com. You can email him at Dan@CoachClemens.com.
Posted March 16, 2011