In Focus/Positive Coaching: Youth sports hold a lesson for leaders

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  • RIn Focus/Posi t ive Coaching

    Youth Sports Holda Lesson for Leaders

    Roberta Vasko Kraus

    emember when sports wasjust plain backyard, unorganizedfun? You played all day. There was aplace for everyone on a team, and itdidnt matter too much whether youwere good at every type of game.Fun and more funthats all sportswas. But these days many kids arejuggling two or three sports atschool and in recreation leagues andare traveling to games. There is timefor little else, and scoring and win-ning equates with success. Someparents have even resorted to hiringa personal trainer for their child, andsome have gone so far as to pay asports video company to documenttheir child playing middle-schoolsoccer, in hopes of landing a collegeathletic scholarship.

    Although some LiA readers maythink these scenarios are exaggera-tions, many parents are living theirlives this waythrough their chil-drens participation in sports.

    As a sports psychologist I am fre-quently approached by parents whoask how they can better motivate orcoach their sons and daughters insports. In mentoring these parents Ihave developed some strong beliefsabout why positive coaching is cru-cial for todays young athletes, and Ihave identified a list of dos anddonts.

    MISPLACED PRIORITIESTodays young athletes are viewed asan inherent measurement of acoachs, schools, or athletic pro-grams success. Schools, coaches,parentsand to some extent even theathletestend to value only whatthey can measure. For instance, whatkinds of questions do you ask yourchild after a game you were unable toattend? Do you ask, Did you havefun? or, What did you learn? Alltoo often parents questions are morealong the lines of, Did you win? or,How did you do? Such questionstranslate to, How many points didyou score? How many goals didyou stop? Did you make all yourfree throws? or, How much playingtime did you get? In the eyes ofmany parents and coaches, competingpurely for the love of the sport is notreason enough to play.

    Parents are quick to tell me thatwhat is most important to them is thattheir children enjoy the sport andimprove. But research from the U.S.Olympic Training Center bears a dif-ferent story. Some experts in the fieldsuggest that an overwhelming major-ity of parents would rather have theirchildren sit on the bench of a winningteam than play on a losing team.Interviews with the children of thesesame parents, however, have foundthat the childrens views tend to beoverwhelmingly the opposite: most ofthem would rather play on a losingteam than sit on the bench of a win-ning team.

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    REDEFINING SUCCESSWhat has become paramount for mein my work as a mental trainingcoach is the need to get parents toredefine sports success.

    If we truly believe that success isnot always measured in the win col-umn, how do we evaluate the accom-plishments of a team that loses moregames than it wins? Recently Ilearned about an individual who hadthe opportunity to coach a team ofninth-grade boys in a competitivebasketball league. The team endedwith a record of 616, yet despite thisI believe the team had a very success-ful season. Here are my reasons:

    The team opened the season withthree straight losses, dropped one gameby forty-nine points, and finished theregular season with five straightdefeats. It began the postseason tourna-ment with a win that earned it the dis-tinction of playing against the leaguestop team. In a fantastic upset, theunderdogs beat the 171, first-placeteam. But they lost their next twogames and were eliminated from thetournament. There was no trophy, andsixteen losses spoke plainly of wherethey ranked in basketball ability. Sowhat made their season a success?What played out both on the court andoff, in school and at home, that madethis group of young men better humanbeings and winners in the eyes ofeveryone associated with the league?

    The players showed respect forofficials.

    Editors note: In Focus is an occasionalseries that takes close looks at specifictopics of importance to leadership andleaders.

  • At no time during the seasonor postseason did one of the teamsplayers, coaches, or fans receive atechnical foul.

    When things were goingbadlyas they often did given thisteams level of skill in such a com-petitive leagueno player everblamed a teammate.

    No player or parent ever com-plained about lack of playing time.

    There was never a situation thatcame even close to turning into a fight.

    The players carried their posi-tive attitudes home because their par-ents supported the team through thetough losses.

    The greatest gift the playerswalked away with was somethingthat the parents and coaches taughtthem through role modeling.Although the players never becameaccustomed to losing, they under-stood the basic truth that winning orlosing basketball games had no corre-lation with their value as people.

    It was obvious to any observer thatthe parents and coaches believed inthe value of competition but also sawthe need for the positive belief thatvalue can be found in defeat as wellas in victory.

    NEGATIVE FALLOUTOne has only to open any local news-paper to read about the negativity andeven violence that youth sports canbring out in people. Negativity isbecoming more and more theaccepted norm for behavior in thestands, and it is sending a distinct andmisguided message to young athletes.In various coaching surveys, coachesidentify criticism and constant nega-tive feedback from parents and them-selves as the most damaging influ-ences for young athletes.

    Although children receive benefitsfrom participation in competitivesports, they also often experiencenegative feelings such as low self-esteem, aggressive behavior, and

    excessive anxiety. Low self-esteemmay develop from receiving negativeverbal and nonverbal messages orexperiencing aggressive behaviorfrom the parents and coaches. Youngathletes self-perceptions and motiva-tions are significantly related to thequantity and quality of feedback theyreceive for performance successesand errors.

    THE ANTIDOTETo prevent these potential negativeeffects, parents and coaches, espe-cially when dealing with children

    under the age of fourteen, shoulddeemphasize the importance of win-ning and instead encourage theimprovement of effort (the only thingthe athlete can control) and playing avariety of sports. In the long run thebehaviors we give the most attentionto are the most readily acquired andreinforced. Numerous studies haveshown that coaches and parents whoexhibit more positivity than negativ-ity are more liked and respected bythe athletes and that the athletes workharder and perform better under thesecircumstances.

    Here is a list of dos and donts forparents of young athletes:

    Do your best to be both positiveand honest about your childs athleticabilities, competitive attitude, sports-manship behavior, and skill level.

    Dont be a sideline critic at thegames.

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    Dont try to relive your athleticexperiences through your young ath-lete in a way that creates negativepressure.

    Do take the time after everygame to give your child a clear, vividaccount of what he or she did well.

    Dont forget that as children getolder, their priorities will probablychange.

    Do teach your child the valueof competition and all that it has tooffer in regard to performance goals.Improvement of effort is the onlything under the athletes control.

    Dont forget that no matter howtall, big, fast, or skilled your childbecomes in sports, he or she is stilljust a kid and should be able to actlike one.

    Do be open to being coachedby your child. Ask your child howyou can best support him or her insports and then honor your childswishes through your behaviors.

    Dont forget that all those won-derful lessons about life, courage,teamwork, and maturity that youbelieve sports have to offer your childcan also be learned by being a mem-ber of the school band, the dramaclub, or the student council. Sportsare not for everyone.

    TRUE CHAMPIONSParents of young athletes need toremember that if outcomes were theonly measure of success, most ath-letes would be failures. The nexttime your young athlete competes,manifest a positive attitude, enthusi-asm, and love for the game as attrib-utes of a true champion. If there isone fact we know about humanbehavior, it is that we participate anddo our best in what we like, andavoid and do poorly in what wedont like.

    Roberta Vasko Kraus is an enterprisefaculty associate at CCL in ColoradoSprings. She holds a Ph.D. degree fromthe University of Denver.


    In the long run the

    behaviors we give the

    most attention to are

    the most readily

    acquired and reinforced.