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Guest Commentary

Youth Sports About Learning Fundamentals and Having Fun

Too much pressure on kids to win, unrealistic expectations, says youth basketball commissioner

By Frank M. White 

We've heard and read so many stories about coaches and parents pressuring kids in youth sports and about violence and abuse that we've almost become desensitized to it! For our kid's sake, I hope that most of us will reconsider and take action to the abuse, acceptable negative behavior and unrealistic expectations placed on youth by coaches and parents.

Curbing youth sports violence

Sports violence, sad to say, is one of the most acceptable types of negative behavior and abuse in our society.

What is "sports violence"? It is any word or action by an athlete, coach, game official, parent or spectator that inflicts harm on those involved in a sports activity.

Here's just one example of sports violence.  While this story concerns an incident that occurred in U10 basketball in St. Paul, Minnesota, it could be any sport any place in the country or at any level of youth sports, up to and including high school.   It is not a story about the program sponsors; rather, it's about how adults impact teaching values and experiences in youth sports.

The St. Paul Parks and Recreation Department has adopted a "sportsmanship program" for their youth recreational sports program. It includes reading a sportsmanship thought and Young basketball player calls out playfor those attending the games about the intent of the program and the code of conduct.

It's the first Saturday of the basketball season for players at the entry level of the program. The gym is packed with people coming to watch a bunch of young kids play and have fun, with spectators and supporters for both teams in attendance. Prior to the game, the teams, coaches and officials line up in front of the spectators and the sportsmanship reminder is read.  The hope, of course, doing so will set a tone for a positive experience for all, especially the kids.

The game starts and it's apparent that these kids are, well, beginners.  They do their best to dribble, get up and down the floor, play defense, and shoot the ball, all while trying to listen to coaches yelling directions from the sideline. But, of course, they are also young kids, so they are also stealing quick glances up at the stands, looking for approval from their moms and dads.

Pressure to win

Some of the spectators find humor in the game. Some can't resist the temptation to shout their own directions from the stands ("Shoot! Pass! Guard your man! Get more aggressive!").  Some are even yelling words of encouragement.   But it's hard to hear them amidst all the excitement and emotions focused on scoring points and winning the game!

You can feel the intensity and the pressure on kids to win.

At the same time you can hear and see in the coaches' words, actions and the expressions on their faces just how frustrated they are coaching 10-year-olds.  Even though they are coaching kids who are just beginning to learn the game of basketball, their expressions are similar to those you've probably seen on the face of high school, college and pro coaches.

It's half time and there's some relief for everyone, I'm sure, especially for the kids.

Lesson given

The second half starts and it's again clear that the kids are struggling to dribble, pass, shoot the ball and in some cases just run up and down the floor or stayed focused. They are struggling with the very basic fundamentals of the game. You cannot run a play, if you can't dribble or pass the ball and you cannot run a play if you don't understand the concepts. Whenever there is a loose ball, all ten kids go after it.  That's what they understand at this age.

The noise in the gym becomes very loud and it's hard to hear coaches yelling their directions and being able to coach.

During the next dead ball, I stop the game (I'm the supervisor of officials for St. Paul P & R), and approach the half court line on the bleacher side of the court. I ask for everyone's attention, including the coaches' and kids'.

I remind the spectators of the "sportsmanship code" read prior to the beginning of the game and why we're here. Then I launched into a speech (or perhaps it was a lecture):

I don't want to tell you what to do or how to behave (although I really did), but let me share this thought: How many of us that work have two people (supervisors) telling us how to accomplish our daily tasks and goals, and their directions are different. How difficult would that be for us as adults to be successful?

Now, think of this: today these kids are trying to learn the fundamentals of basketball. Remember, this is the beginning level of basketball for these kids and it should be about fun. But what the kids are hearing is their mom, dad, uncle or aunt yelling, "Shoot the ball, pass the ball, play defense, etc.:" And then, from the other side of the court, the coaches are yelling, 'Run the play, shoot the ball, pass the ball, cover your man, etc."

Who do we think the kids are going to listen to, mom or dad or the coaches that are volunteering their time each week to practice with the kids? This has to be confusing to the kids, and yet we all believe that we're here to support the kids learning the basics of the game.

I'm sure we really want to be encouraging but it's so easy to get wrapped up in the emotion of the game. Keep in mind why we're all here and let's play basketball!

Lesson learned?

Expressions change, you can see some adults thinking about what they just heard and maybe, just maybe remembering the reason why, they, really were there.

The game continues and the noise level goes down, the comments are more encouraging, with shouts of "Nice try," "Good hustle." "Nice pass." I thought to myself, "Wow, we really do want to encourage kids!"

Even the coaches changed how they coached; they no longer needed to yell their directions, or at least as loud!

After the game, two males approach me. I say to myself, "Oh boy, what are they going to say?"

The first gentleman introduces himself and shares that he's been involved in youth sports for 20 years and has also coached for many of those years. He says to me, "In all my years in sports, I've never heard anyone make those comments and those thoughts should be shared before every game"!  He thanked me for making the comments and appreciated the timeliness of the words.

The second gentleman also says, "Thanks" and appears to appreciate the thoughts.

Teach fundamentals first

I share this experience for several reasons; first, if this type of pressure is acceptable at the beginning and fundamental level of basketball, no wonder kids grow up in sports with too much pressure being applied by adults.

Here we were at the beginning level of basketball, more centered on winning rather than successful attempts at even the most basic dribble or pass or attempt at the basket.

The coaches were so frustrated with players not remembering positions or plays.  Yet what they failed to recognize was the kids weren't developmentally ready to even dribble, pass the ball or understand how to defend. My guess is that practice was spent on running a play to score a basket as opposed to teaching the basics of running drills, learning how to dribble and attempting to pass the ball, which also might lead to some positive attempts at scoring a basket.

We say youth sports are for the kids, but, after watching this particular game, I really wonder whether it's true. Are parents/adults more concerned about their son or daughter scoring a basket and their team winning the game than spending time each week learning the fundamental skills necessary to play the game?

After all, this is only the beginning of a child's journey in sports.  It's unfortunate that so many coaches and parents see each season's won and loss record as the only measure of success, instead of being just a part of having fun and the learning experience. My belief is that volunteer coaches in youth sports don't teach fundamentals, they're more interested in this season, and their won-loss record. The real journey in youth sports should be that each season's learning builds upon the previous season's fundamentals as athletes strive to achieve enough skills to play at the varsity high school level, or just enough achievement to enjoy playing the game, at even the recreational sports level.

Just remember that, if Michael Jordan only saw his freshman year as the end result, the rest of us wouldn't have had the enjoyment of watching him play and the endless commercials of "I want to be like Mike."

Posted June 13, 2011

Frank M. WhiteFrank M. White is the founder of Respect Sports, whose two-fold mission is to raise people's awareness about the violence and abuse that occur in sports in each community and to provide a model for leaders, administrators, parents and participants to create a new direction for youth sports that is safer, healthier and more positive.

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