When parents are considering getting their children into youth sports I feel it is very important to look into at least a few items before committing. #1 - What are the goals of the child and our family's involvement in the activity? #2 - What are our family values that we are not willing to sacrifice for the activity? #3 - What will be the long term effects of the participation in this activity?
At this point in my coaching career of 23 years I am estimating that I have directly coached around 2500 athletes in mostly wrestling with bit of soccer thrown in. So, I have seen and heard a lot within all these experiences. A lot of times I am hearing goals mentioning scholarships and going pro or making the Olympics. Sometimes I am hearing parents of 8, 9, 10 year old children telling me the goal is to get over 100 matches this season. Less and less I am hearing things like I just want my child to have some fun, learn more about themselves, learn how to interact with others, to grow and develop a lifelong healthy lifestyle, learn how to set goals and come up with a strategy to accomplish them or learn how to deal with not accomplishing them, learn more about time management, etc.. Secondly, I am seeing the trend of more pressure being put on families to keep up with the pace of the increasing number of one sport specialist and the "success" at all costs mentality. And so, with this comes a lot of sacrifice on the part of families to spend more time and money on training, competition, fancy equipment and much more. So we are talking hours in the car driving to and from, expensive clubs, hotel stays and all that this involves...Finally, what will the long terms effects of all this end up being?
Leaning on my own experience again, I will estimate that out of these 2500 I can think of around 165 that gained scholarships and I know of 5 who have gone pro. Now, granted I coach mainly wrestling which does not have a pro sport and so 2 of my former wrestlers have made it to the NFL and 1 played pro baseball. 2 of my soccer players have made it to pro soccer. Anyhow, these numbers lead to about a 6.6% of athletes gaining scholarships which is higher than the national average of 1.6% and as far as going pro about 0.2% which is roughly equivalent to the national average of 0.125%. The main point of me sharing these statistics is to make the point that setting goals of gaining scholarships and/or going pro(especially too young) are somewhat unrealistic and we may be setting up our children for failure if this is the case. Building up to my next point of emphasis is that NO ONE gains a sports scholarship with any accomplishments before their high school career. And so I see another crazy trend of way too much competition in general at a younger and younger age. I will suggest more training and less competition for most athletes especially under the age of 11. Here is an excellent article from USA wrestling addressing this subject:
Next subject: family values! This is probably the most unsaid and therefore perhaps the most overlooked aspect of choosing activities for our children. However, I personally feel it may actually be the most important in setting the tone for the long term effects. For example, if you are a church going family, how often are you willing to give that up to go to Sunday competitions and or practices? I think it will be important to vocalize to the children the family values up front and often to reinforce this as you navigate through their youth sports careers. When they see your example of placing family values first, they will inevitably follow this lead. One final note on this, hopefully, we always keep the student in front of athlete as academics should always be prioritized over athletics. So, when we see their grades suffering due to their participation in sports then perhaps time management needs to be discussed and not at the sacrifice of allowing a kid to be a kid with some normal activities in their lives also.
Lastly, as we have mentioned a couple of times in this blog: long term effects: I have mentioned in other blogs that I have seen very successful athletes not lead so successful post sports career lives and this troubles me. I have looked into this matter extensively and one trend I am seeing is too much of the athlete and/or family identity being associated with just the sport.(Sports are a part of our identity but not the totality) And then when the sport is removed, I am seeing collapses in family and individual health. Also, another factor I am noticing is when the success is achieved through negative reinforcement(or flat out abuse) more often than not the actions of the athlete later in life are reflecting this negativity. There are no doubt some athletes in the later years who can benefit from constructive criticism but we have to be aware not to do this too early and too often. Setting goals based on performance and not outcome and goals based on personal improvement and not compared to others are long term healthier approaches based on what I have seen through all of my years of competing along side tremendous athletes and having been Blessed to coach so many!