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The Decorah Eagles: Lessons for Youth Sports?

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Since April I have had a front row seat watching the Decorah Eagles, one of best teams in the nation, at work.

Who are they? A baseball team? A lacrosse team?

No.  These Eagles are actually, well, a family of American bald eagles from Decorah, Iowa - members of the bird family Accipitridae and a proud symbol of America - whose teamwork between the eagle parents (coaches) and the players (eaglets, now fledglings) set an example from which every youth sports stakeholder- parents, coaches, fans and especially young athletes - can learn valuable lessons. 

A little back ground is in order. The non-profit Raptor Resource Project, which specializes in the preservation of falcons, eagles, ospreys, hawks, and owls, installed a video camera that monitored an eagles' nest 24/7 beginning back in February as the nest was just being prepared. I, along with millions of other viewers around the world, was given the gift of a front row seat, courtesy of Ustream, which allowed us to watch real-time, stream video of the eggs hatching, the eaglets growing, weathering the many challenges they faced in the wild, and finally, this past week, leaving the nest for the first time (becoming fledglings) and taking flight.

Lessons for youth sports coaches

What are some of the lessons I think youth sports coaches can learn from watching eagles care for and successfully raise their young?

First, the lesson of unconditional love: like the Decorah Eagle with eggsmother and father eagles, sports coaches are most successful, in my view, when they treat all players fairly and are committed to teaching them the skills they need to succeed, both in sports and out.

Second, that like eagle parents, if a coach gives players the tools to succeed, and understands that each will develop on their own, unique developmental timetable, whether they ultimately succeed (literally or figuratively fly on their own) will be up to the athletes/eaglets themselves (what is called natural selection or survival of the fittest in the wild or moving up the competitive ladder in sports). The three eaglets were born on different days (the first hatching on April 2nd, the second on April 2nd, and the youngest on April 6th), yet their parents played no favorites. All were treated the same, and given the same chance to succeed. So, too, it should be with youth sports coaches who have players of different ages, different skill levels, and different personalities: give every member of the team an equal chance to succeed by giving them equal playing time (before age 12 or 13), and significant playing time (up to, but not including high school varsity or elite level competition), and the rest will be up to them.

Third, that, like eagle parents successfully raising eaglets into fledglings, coaching requires dedication, patience and the ability to stay calm, cool, and collected. The three eaglets, branded E-1, E-2 and E-3, have different personalities: one was the "class clown", one was overly vocal middle child, and the third the laid back mellow team player. As I watched the "coaches" raise this diverse group, I realized that the eaglets had a successful outcome because of the dedication, devotion, patience, and unconditional love their parents showed them. Sure, I witnessed the coaches bickering about certain things (where to place a new twig in the nest, which was downright hilarious to watch), but for the majority of the time they were modeling teamwork and how to win.

The Decorah Eagles taught regular viewers of the video feed other lessons as well: like how to fight off the competition (owls), how to play in any weather condition (literally buried under snow during a storm at one point) and how to respect each other (an occasional peck by one eaglet to the head of another eaglet was the most sibling rivalry we ever saw), and, ultimately how to play well, have some fun and to win against the toughest competition nature could hand out.

A duty of stewardship

The eaglets are now out of the nest and on the wing, but are still being fed and watched over by mom and dad, yet soon they will all go their separate ways to live their own lives. I cannot claim to have played any role in how the eaglets were raised, though I have felt like a god mother, always watching and worrying. Pride is for those who have directly helped to determine the positive outcome: the eagle parents and the folks at the Raptor Resource Project, who have dedicated their lives to bringing back an eagle population that was close to being decimated in the 1980s. As one of the wonderful guest writers, Sherri Elliott, posted on the Raptor Research Project website, "If there's one thing the worldwide audience can take from this adventure it is that all life is so very, very precious, and as stewards it is OUR obligation to protect and preserve."

I wonder, if every youth sports venue across America sent a live video feed to the web to put on to display every action by the coaches, players, officials, and parents during a sports season, would we as parents be able to claim a similar sense of satisfaction as the eagle parents? Would coaches be able to claim their season was a success, even if they lost some games along the way, because they treated all their players equally, with the same respect, with the same commitment to helping them learn new skills and become better players? Would our young athletes take away lessons that they could use when their sports careers ended to survive in a competitive world outside of sports?

Like Sherri Elliott, I, too, feel that it is our duty as the adult stakeholders in youth sports, to see sports, like life, as "so very, very precious," and our obligation to be stewards of the game; "to protect and preserve."

If, as adults, we do not all contribute to healthy sports outcomes, I fear for the future of youth sports, just like the Raptor Resource Project feared for the future of eagles. I worry that the wrong kind of stewards will turn something that can be so beneficial to kids into something that is no longer about the process of learning and growing but only about winning and separating winners from losers.

I am betting on the Decorah Eagles in all of us.