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I Know the Problem with Youth Sports.

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Ah, youth sports. You may, like me have a love-hate relationship with it. After having experienced the best and the worst of it, I think I may have solved the mystery of what makes youth sports suck so bad.

It's adults.

There are so many instances in which adults are the ones who make things worse, more complicated, or just simply take the joy out of the things that should simply be fun. I have spent my career in the field of special education and I have said countless times that it’s the adults who get in the way. Intentionally, or not it happens.

Sure, as adults we have many more years of experiences that sometimes get in the way of our ability to let things go. We’ve seen it all and therefore our brains are overrun with the ‘what ifs’ and, for some of us, we can’t help ourselves. I spent many years trying to increase the number of students with disabilities who were included in the general education classroom and time and time again the obstacle was always the adults.

I assure you, if you take a group of kids – with and without disabilities – they will figure it out. They will find ways to play, learn, and include one another on their own. Their natural inclination is to problem solve and include. Kids are so much smarter than we give them credit for.

It’s no different with youth sports. I assure you, if you ask a group of 7-year-olds who they want to play basketball with, the answer is simple – their friends. They want to play together and have fun. Kids inherently know that the focus of childhood sports should on fun, not championships. Young children are not born as über competitive, cut-throat jocks. That’s simply just not the case. So, who is creating this atmosphere? You guessed it. Adults. This matters because youth sports is about way more than just the sport itself.

I am, sadly, seeing kids as young as 6 get cut from teams because of ability. I have watched teams form as a hand-picked roster by one or two insanely competitive coaches. What kind of message is this sending to our children? Last I checked, team sports were created to do just that – create teams; a group of players of all abilities to build comradery while having fun and learning the game. Where has that gone and why is it changing at such a young age?

If parents could figure out that the performance of their children really isn’t an extension of themselves, maybe things could change. I mean, how many touchdowns does your kids’ team have to score for you to finally feel like a man, Jim? Does having your daughter on the best soccer team make you sleep better at night, Karen?

If kids really just want to play, learn the game, and have fun, then adults are ruining it. And guess what? They aren’t just ruining it for the kids, they are ruining it for the other adults, too.

Now with this said, we’ve had some pretty awesome coaches. Our swim coaches are consistently everything you would ever want in a coach. We’ve had great soccer coaches who fostered a bonded and supportive group of players. And it’s only when I see these glimpses of how awful it can be, that I instantly become filled with gratitude for the great coaches we have had. Some of our kids’ best coaches were the most inclusive people – ability never mattered – only the desire to work hard, have fun, and learn the game.

We need more coaches like that, and fewer cherry pickers. Not just because they make the sport better, arguably they do; but because they teach our kids the things that really matter in life. These great coaches are the ones who will teach our kids to be includers, supporters, and encouragers.

I have no idea what the future holds for my children. I do know, however, that I have zero expectation or hope for them to be the best, fastest, most decorated at any sport. I am smart enough to not only know the statistics, but I also believe in them. If that somehow does happen to my children, well, color me surprised and rest assured that was meant to be and it was completely out of our control.

In the meantime, no matter whatever sports our kids pursue, we want only the basic things for them – to have fun, work hard, and learn the sport. That’s it. Oh, and maybe meet some other really great friends and families who feel the same way. Because the truth is, in real life, they won’t always be on the best team. They won’t score every goal, or win every event.

They will, however, have to learn how to work with others. They will have to face failure and disappointment. They will be faced with the decision of whether or not to include others who may or may not look, act, or perform like they do. So, do I want our children prepared to focus only on competition and getting the win? Or do we want them experienced and well prepared to be kind and inclusive people?

Youth sports is way more than just a sport and I want our kids to learn the lessons that will apply in real life. Stacking the deck won’t ever do that. Stacking the deck will, however, make some parents feel really good about themselves which isn’t the point of youth sports anyway. Youth sports should be about making the kids feel good, and the best coaches already know that.

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