Upon reading Lynn Zinser’s NYTimes piece on Azarenka’s medical timeout, I felt it appropriate to address the “win-at-all-costs” strategy in sport. As Dr. Bergeron notes, character development and sportsmanship should trump winning any day of the week, most critically at the youth level.
Though well-intentioned, parents and coaches contribute to the increasingly winning-obsessed, stat-focused, talent-glorifying youth sports culture of today. While it may seem harmless, such a culture can lead to young athletes experiencing less enjoyment, heightened performance anxiety, and increased risk of burnout.
In considering the toxicity of today’s youth sporting environment, parents may quickly turn to the sensational headlines revealing off-the-field father brawls and coach vs. umpire physical altercations. However, these violent physical confrontations, thankfully, are rare. The subtler, nonviolent everyday interactions between parent-child and coach-athlete are far more common and perhaps just as harmful.
So, how to assist youth in developing different perspectives on sports – in essence, how do we change their relationship with sports?
In our attempts to create the ideal environment for young athletes, we may wish to consider why kids themselves enjoy sports as well as the nature of their own performance goals. Fortunately, this issue is already well-studied. Youth sports organizations have surveyed thousands of children on why they play their sport, and two themes continually prevail: “fun” and “self-improvement”. Kids form a connection to a sport or activity when it is enjoyable and they feel competent. In other words, they recognize that their skills are improving.
While children have a natural curiosity to learn and will respond positively to being successful, “winning” is rarely identified by young athletes as a motivator for playing their favorite sport. “Being the best” and “obtaining a college scholarship,” too, are seldom mentioned. Those desires are often adult-constructed and media-driven. (To note, if sports parents were to realize that the odds of a high school athlete getting an athletic scholarship is just 2% and getting a full scholarship far worse, they may soon start constructing different desires of their own.)
As the children are the central participants in youth sports, and have candidly reported on “why” they play their sport, it is unsurprising that the most successful youth athletic programs seem to be those whose team, coach, and parent goals are aligned with those of the children. Most importantly at the youth level are the following goals:
- Personal growth and development (this includes learning such skills as working well with teammates, sportsmanship, leadership, building friendships, accepting defeat, and physical skill development)
The primary focus, then, should not be on a young athlete enjoying an undefeated season, nor must it be on the player excelling at such refined skills as perfectly executed double plays and drag bunts. Those are undoubtedly important, perhaps primarily so at higher levels. However, at the youth level these are not as significant as helping the athlete develop a sense of passion for the sport. Many elementary school-aged children lose their passion for sports during these years because they feel unable to live up to the pressure-filled expectations that accompany a winning-oriented competitive environment. This typically results in a high dropout rate, occurring most frequently at the middle school level. The importance within youth sport, then, lies on evaluating a player’s success or failure based on happiness, not on performance.
A young athlete’s goals can change in a positive way over the course of a season when their coaches create a focus on “personal excellence” rather than a focus on “winning.” This means that when parents and coaches stress positive communication, teamwork and doing one’s best – acting excellently – a child will believe that he or she can accomplish more challenging goals. The opposite happens in a zero-sum, results-oriented climate, typified by many professional sports coaches, which focuses on winning at all costs. It is understandable why children whose sense of self-esteem and worth are placed solely on winning would have trouble demonstrating good sportsmanship after a loss.
So, stressing a climate of personal excellence and reinforcing positive episodes for your children – for instance, good performance, good hustle, good examples of sportsmanship or leadership – will help build confidence and increase their passion for participating. Asking young athletes questions like, ‘What did you do well today?’ or ‘What was the most exciting or fun part of the game?’ rather than ‘Did you win?’ sends a powerful message. After all, in a child’s eyes, when a parent or coach’s love and approval depend on the adequacy and competency of performance – in other words, “the better I play, the more love I’ll get” – sports are bound to be highly evaluative and highly stressful.
Shifting towards a culture of enjoyment, self-referenced growth, and personal effort and away from a culture narrowly-focused on winning and statistics may effectively cultivate passion within our youth athletes. And while it can lead to success on the field, passion results in sustained performance, rich social experiences, and positive self-esteem.