Adult obsession with winning is killing youth sports in America

JohnOSullivan-Header“My daughter is the tallest fourth grader in her class and loves to play basketball,” said a father to me recently. “Sadly, I know that she will ultimately grow to be of average height.  Since she is now only allowed to rebound and give the ball to shorter-ball handler players on her team, she will never develop the skills she will need to play basketball.

“After her last game, she told her 5-year-old sister that she did not shoot or score because her job is to rebound and play defense, because that is what her coach told her. What should I do?”

The plight of this parent highlights what I believe to be the greatest obstacle to a child-centered youth sports environment.

It causes many children to drop out and quit.

It turns the focus of youth sports away from the priorities and needs of children, and towards the values of adults.

It cuts at the very essence of what sports is supposed to be about: a quest for excellence.

Sadly, this girl and millions of kids just like her are playing sports in an environment not designed to make them better in the long term. They are caught up in an adult obsession to solely measure youth sports results in wins and losses, and it is killing youth sports in our country

Comments by NBA stars Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, as well as basketball coach Alan Stein, about the emphasis on playing games instead of practicing, and winning at the expense of teaching the game the right way, have made headlines recently. They reminded me of this great video by NBA coach Stan Van Gundy about the massive amount of youth basketball coaches dedicated to winning as opposed to skill development.

But this is not a basketball problem. It is a youth sports problem. It exists in every team sport.

Our obsession with winning is the enemy of excellence in youth sports!

We have turned our attention away from developing excellence in our athletes, and now only focus on immediate success. As a result, we do the following:

  1. Play too many games and do not practice enough
  2. Select “talent” for short-term gains instead of identifying and developing all athletes and focusing on long-term potential
  3. Make cuts and select all-star teams at younger and younger ages, making youth sports an elitist undertaking for early developers and those with the financial means to participate.
  4. Require year-round participation to be a part of elementary school-age youth teams, which goes against the advice of physicians, psychologists and sociologists.
  5. Teach and coach strategies that provide short-term results at the expense of long-term development.

I know there are some reading this just dying to write that I am anti-competition, and believe we should give everyone a trophy and sing Kumbaya after every activity regardless of outcome.

That is not me.

I am competitive. I love winning. I have coached high-level athletes who have gone on to be college, national team and professional soccer players for over two decades. And I believe that every time an athlete takes the field, he or she should give maximum effort in the pursuit of victory.

+READ: Effort Injuries are Taking Kids Out: is “positive” parenting to blame?

But players who play to win is one thing, and has nothing to do with coaches who only coach to win, and organizations who create environments focused on winning and not development. Their approach actually robs kids of their athletic education, and sets them up for failure later in life.

These coaches love to say, “we are developing winners,” but they are not. They are actually developing losers because they are not giving their players the tools to compete and win later at higher levels of sport. That 4th-grade basketball player I mentioned above is not learning to dribble or shoot, two essential skills for any basketball player, especially one who won’t crack the six-foot barrier! And why, “because her job is to rebound and play defense” to help the team win!

The biggest problem today is that players flock to clubs and coaches that win, and rarely do parents take the time to think, “Is this a good place for both my child’s long-term athletic development, and personal development?”

Great coaches and developmentally-focused organizations often lose their best players to these “elite” winning clubs who promise championships and scholarships. True athlete-focused coaches play all their players, and lose a few games in the process by teaching for the long term, yet season after season end up having to find new players to replace the ones who left to the “winning” clubs.

+Read: Manchester United’s Tony Strudwick shares youth development philosophy

You see, teaching a tall 10-year-old to dribble and play guard will likely lose you a few basketball games, but it will make that 10-year-old a better basketball player.

Teaching your young soccer players to be creative, to try and pass out of the back and beat players 1v1 will cost you goals and games, but it will make them much more adept players when it really matters. And letting everyone pitch in Little League, as well as limiting pitch counts and actually practicing instead of simply playing games, will develop better baseball players, but not win you all your games.

Our obsession with winning is without a doubt the enemy of excellence in youth sports.

Joe PaternoI have always loved this quote from the late Joe Paterno:

“There are many people, particularly in sports, who think that success and excellence are the same thing. They are not the same thing. Excellence is something that is lasting and dependable and largely within a person’s control. In contrast, success is perishable and is often outside our control. If you strive for excellence, you will probably be successful eventually. People who put excellence in the first place have the patience to end up with success. An additional burden for the victim of the success mentality is that he is threatened by the success of others and he resents real excellence. In contrast, the person that is fascinated by quality is excited when he sees it in others.”

Excellence is all about the process, while winning is all about the outcome.


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