Again I wanted to explore the role of sports in youth development, and society as a whole. I am a former athlete. I know firsthand how important sports can be in molding a person’s character. In my playing days, I was fortunate to be a part of several championship teams. Sports can be a unifying agent. It can unify schools, communities, and, most importantly, people. Regardless of whether we were winners or losers, our teams always represented our communities and schools to the highest standard. And finally, I have friends for life. Regardless of geography, we are connected by what we accomplished collectively on the field. Sports was not about winning or losing – it was about learning non-cognitive skills such as commitment, teamwork, respect, leadership and sportsmanship.
What I see now, even as a sports parent, is a most troubling development in youth/amateur sports that has manifested itself over decades. With the growth of television broadcasting and other forms of distribution, players can now get national, perhaps global exposure that they never had before. Even if they have not yet built the maturity to deal with such attention, they are forced to deal with it now. If they fail, it’s not a local failure. It could be a global one. Sports rights deals at the college level are at unprecedented levels. College sports is a big business now. We see football coaches in particular being fired for not winning championships, even if they have a stellar won-loss record. Bo Pelini at Nebraska won 9 games this year, yet he was fired. The only exception I can fathom to this distorted criteria is if a coach is fired “for cause.” It could also be inept coaching on the field, as we have seen countless times at schools such as Georgia.
I only bring up these two examples not to single out these schools, but rather to demonstrate that something has gone awry in amateur sports. Let me give you another example. At Ohio State, they are on their third quarterback this season due to injuries. This student-athlete, Cardale Jones, is being asked to start his first game in perhaps the most important game of the year for the Buckeyes: the Big 10 Championship. And what does he say on Twitter?
“Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS”.
Notwithstanding his horrific sentence structure and use of grammar, doesn’t this student have his priorities backwards? Cardale, you go to college to get an education FIRST. You’re offered an opportunity to get a free education and play football at an elite program while getting your college degree. Yes, you’re getting an audition to hopefully make it to the NFL, but you’re a student-athlete, not the other way around.
We have created a culture where you are forced to specialize in one sport at a young age, and that “winning is everything.” So what happens when you lose? How do you deal with not winning? Have our sports programs trained its coaches well and created support systems to ensure that our kids are developing character and learn how to deal with missteps? What do the deluge of criminal acts taking place our high school sports programs, our college programs and our professional franchises tell us about the direction our society is heading? Am I the only one who is saddened by the fact that we seem to live our lives around the sports event, and forget about life in general?
I believe we can fix this at the youth/amateur level very quickly. We must reset our expectations at what the purpose of youth sports is and what it is NOT. My kids’ school is a member of the Positive Coaching Alliance (“PCA”). Positive Coaching Alliance is a national non-profit developing “Better Athletes, Better People” by working to provide all youth and high school athletes a positive, character-building youth sports experience. I recently heard one of their representatives speak and received a complimentary copy of one of their books, titled, “Positive Sports Parenting: How Second-Goal Parents Raise Winners In Life Through Sports.” It’s a brief read, and it may seem obvious. However, it is extremely important for EVERY parent to read it cover to cover. It reminds us as parents to focus on life lessons and let the players focus on competing and let the coaches focus on instruction. It reminds us that winning is not the primary purpose of youth sports. It reminds us that many of these coaches and referees are either volunteers or doing this NOT for the money. Finally, it reminds us that we as parents have a responsibility to ensure our youth athletes focus on what’s really important about youth sports: not winning, but on self confidence, physical fitness, grace in both victory and defeat.
All of us – parents, coaches, educators, and children can refocus efforts to instill the true values that are derived from sports. It’s time we stop this “winning at all costs” mindset and start teaching our kids the true meaning of sport. Sports is not about “ends justifying the means.” Sports is a tool, just like the arts, that build character. And strong character makes you successful not only on the fields of sport, but also the fields of life.
It’s time to reset our priorities and start building successful student-athletes. I want my kids to grow up in a society where our athletes do not regularly dominate the news cycle for off the field conduct. I hope you do as well.