Thursday, February 9, 2012

Have Youth Sports Gotten Out of Hand?

Let me start with four disclaimers: 1st. This is a self-indictment as much as an observation of the climate of my community. 2nd. I love sports. I love the values and growth they can instill in young men and women. I love the drama of great contests. I enjoy the display of great talent and athletic giftedness.  I enjoy the excitement of the sports venue. I have participated closely with high school, D1 and even professional sports many times in my life and like it. 3rd. I understand that many sports have inherent physical and emotional risks and those risks can actually add to the personal growth and development that comes from sport. 4th. I love to win. I enjoy winning and don’t like to lose.

Now for my rant… What are we thinking? I heard a friend just relate how a local middle school wrestling coach is coaching kids to break the bones of their opponents. How the stands full of ravenous parents and kids cheer when bones of their opponents are actually broken and limbs are dislocated. How there were no moments of silent concern for a competitor who had been injured and writhing in pain.

Are we sacrificing our young kids’ health for our own entertainment and self-fulfillment? Have we become so barbaric that we condone the significant injury of our own kids so we can reassure our own fragile egos? Have our youth sports devolved toward the complete pagan lack of compassion of the Roman Coliseums where gladiators fought to the death to the delight of the cheering crowds? I’m not suggesting a Barney-the-Dinosaur-"everyone’s-a-winner" milk toast competition, but I am asking the question, “Have we gone too far?”

My own son waited three days through headaches and nausea to tell us and his coaches that he thought he might have a concussion, because he feared losing a starting spot on the football team. He had already overcome ACL injury and repair two years before. ACL’s and bones fortunately can be usually be repaired, but brain injury can have life long debilitating prospects. I have to ask myself, “Have I so overvalued sport in the life of my kids, that they are willing to risk permanent neurological injury?”

I talked with a mother of a young boy the other day. He was a 9 year old, but already a pretty exceptional athlete. He signed up for baseball and wanted to be on a team with his school friends, but a coach who had seen his talent on the football field recruited him and refused to release him to the team of his friends because, he “didn’t want this kid playing against him.” The mom wisely said, “This is ridiculous,” and pulled the boy out of the league. Really! At 9 years old we are forcing a young boy to make an MLB decision because we as adults can’t handle the possibility of losing a little league baseball game? Are we really still trying to give these kids a fun, learning, little league sports experience or are our egos so delicate that we can’t. Can we not just make the investment into the kids’ lives and not involve our own need to convince ourselves were not losers. Are we so lacking in self-esteem that we have to put our own needs above the benefit of the kids we have agreed to coach?

I heard about an exceptional swimmer, who had already been considered for the US Olympic team by the time she was a young teen. 5 hours a day of training all of her life: in the pool two hours before school, two hours after school, and an hour of weight training each night. Before the kid made the Olympic team she finally just completely burned out. She never wanted to swim again.

I hate to hear about the kids who give up their childhood, family, faith, and friendships to participate in a sport at a high level for several years only to discover that they now can’t stand the sport and are burned out before they reach college. They have been indoctrinated so heavily with a win-at-all-cost philosophy that they can’t even experience healthy relationships. They can’t successfully re-enter society without totally re-casing their lives. They have burned bridges of healthy friendships for the sake of a select team pennant and missed important family celebrations to “chase the dream.” (I could also make arguements for the scores of kids who are wonderful examples to the contrary, but I'm making a point here)

Sport is not a great financial investment for most families. For every 100 kids in High School football only 8 will play in college and less than 1 will play professionally. I would guess most other sports are similar. Those aren’t great odds for the parents who want to ride the gravy train or see their kids eventually get paid to play. So, those thousands of dollars spent to participate in youth sports, professional training and travel had better be an investment in the personal and character development of the kid.

We need to be interested more in our kids learning a good work ethic, good morals, and healthy relationships, than winning at all costs, because the cost to society is steep. When we turn out kids who have been coached on the field by coaches of questionable character, who can win a game but not pass a simple test of integrity, we have failed our communities. What kids learn in life is more “caught” by observation than taught by words. We become like those we are around the most. So kids who spend several hours a week with a coach with bad values begin taking on those values themselves.

Here is a suggestion: let’s enjoy sports again, let’s give our kids their lives back, and let us adults have enough emotional health so we don’t have to base our self evaluation on whether our kids win or not. Let’s invest in the integrity and health of our kids, so the next generation doesn’t have to reap the consequences of our misplaced values.

Coaching youth sports is a privilege given to those we want our kids to emulate. Coaching that is sold to the lowest bidder, the one who will win the most games, without any concern for the lack of ethics it took to get there is just wrong. I have experienced some stand out coaches in a couple of different sports who were winners and yet didn't sacrifice themselves or their teams on the altar of win-at-all-costs questionable morals and ethics. These leaders were confident enough in themselves to give up their own egos to shape their students into real winners with real values. They made unpopular decisions that cost some wins for the sake of personal integrity. And they developed a team of kids with values instead of giving in to the delicate egos  of those who felt they “had to win.” I appreciate all those coaches out there doing the right thing.

Sports are a huge business and millions of dollars are spent each year on training, equipment, travel, etc… and most providers have an expectation of a high return on investment. Professional team owners want to make a profit. High School and College Alumni want bragging rights and recruiting supremacy. Parents want their kids to have a winning experience and maybe a college scholarship. Kids want to win too.

I get it, there is a lot riding on sport these days, but what if we backed off and came back toward the middle just a little. Lower the stakes, make it okay, even expected, that people follow the rules, make it okay to play our best even if we don’t win, make it okay to highlight the other valuable aspects of sport, not just the almighty "W," and make it healthy and fun again. Take the barbaric, “destroy the enemy, so I can feel good about me” back to “lets’ come together, play our best, and leave with our heads held high.”

Don't think that I am suggesting a generation of mamby-pamby, whimpy competitors, I'm just saying lets put some good old fashioned American values back into sport and lets value ourselves and others enough not to have to base our own self-esteem on the athletic success of our kids.

Well, enough of my rant. Before the next season is over, you may have to remind me of what I have just written. Just tell me to take a deep breath and ask me, “Have we gone too far?”