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April 1, 2009
Unrealistic expectations of adults (spectators and coaches)?

What values are we teaching in youth sports?  Do we place unrealistic expectations and too much pressure on our youth in sports?

As parents when we register our kids into those beginning sports programs and activities, are we really looking for a fun and safe activity for them or are we hoping and dreaming of something else?

Let me share my observation and experience.

This story is not about the program sponsors rather, it’s how adults impact teaching values and experiences in youth sports; in this case it’s the sport of basketball.

Keep in mind the parents of the kids involved in this example grew up at a time when the culture represented the thought of “I want to be like Mike”.

For the past 15 years (or so) I’ve been able to observe the 10 & under basketball program for boys and girls sponsored by the Saint Paul Parks and Recreation Department.

My first involvement was as a volunteer coach when my youngest daughter wanted to play basketball.  I volunteered to teach about 10 young girls some of the fundamentals of basketball, dribbling, learning how to pivot or footwork, passing the ball and how to set a screen.  During my two years of coaching this group of young girls, they all learned some of the basics but in varying degrees of success.  I was careful in my attempts to avoid trying to teach too much or things beyond their capacity to succeed to some degree.

My next experience with this program was as a hired mentor and teacher for the beginning officials at this level of basketball, clearly learning and beginning experience for new officials.  I’ve continued in this capacity into the current season.

I’ve also have helped both Minneapolis and Saint Paul Park and Recreation Departments with their current sportsmanship programs.

Remember, the program I’m talking about here is the 10 & under basketball program (sometimes the kids are as young as 6) which is the entry level of basketball offered by St. Paul.

On Saturday, December 6, 2008 I want to share the following story about the first day of the program.

The gym is packed with people coming to watch these young kids play; spectators and supporters for both teams are in attendance.

At the beginning of the game, a brief statement from the sponsor’s sportsmanship program is shared to those in attendance read by both coaches.

The game starts and it’s apparent that these kids are for sure, beginning basketball participants that are attempting to dribble, get up and down the floor, trying their best at playing defense, shooting the ball, all while trying to listen to coaches yell directions and coach but still taking a quick look at the significant person in their life in the stands.

Spectators are finding humor in the game, some are yelling directions and coaching, (shot, pass, guard your man, get more aggressive are some of the comments) some may even be encouraging but it’s hard to hear any encouraging words, rather the excitement and emotion is centered on scoring points and winning the game!

You can feel the intensity and the pressure for kids to win.

At the same time you observe and hear the coaches and their frustrations of coaching 10 year olds.  You can see the frustrations on their expression and through their actions.  The same actions or frustrations you may observe of any coach, coaching at a high school, college or even professional basketball games.

It’s half time and there’s some relief for everyone, I’m sure especially for the kids.

The second half starts and it’s again clear that the kids are struggling to dribble, pass, shoot the ball and in some cases just run up and down the floor.  They are struggling with the very basic fundamentals of the game.  You cannot run a play if you can’t dribble or pass the ball, you cannot run a play if you don’t understand the concept, whenever a loose ball goes in one direction, all ten kids go after the ball.  That’s what kids understand at this age but if you looked at the coach or spectators, you’d think that these were high school age players at least the understood and have gained some success of learning the basics.

The noise in the gym becomes very loud and it’s hard to hear coaches yelling their directions and being able to coach.

During the next dead ball, I stop the game and approach the ten second line (half court) on the bleacher side of the court.  I ask for everyone’s attention, including the coaches and kids.

I remind the spectators of the “sportsmanship code” read at the beginning of the game and why we’re here.

I then shared, “I don’t want to tell you what to do or how to behave” (I really did) but let me share this thought!

How many of us that work, have two people (supervisors) at the job telling us how to accomplish the goals we all have at work?

How difficult would that be for us as adults to accomplish our goals?

Now, think of this, today these kids are trying to learn the fundamentals of basketball, remember this is beginning level for these kids.  But here’s what the kids are hearing, mom, dad or uncle, aunt are yelling “shoot the ball, pass the ball, play defense, etc.” and then from the other side of the court, the coaches are yelling, “Run the play, shoot the ball, pass the ball, cover your man, etc.”  

Who do we think the kids are going to listen to, mom or dad or the coaches that are volunteering their time each week to practice with the kids?  This has to be confusing to the kids and we all believe that we’re here to support the kids learning the basics of the game.

I’m sure we really want to be encouraging but it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the emotion of the game.  Keep in mind why we’re here and let’s play basketball.

Expression change, you can see some adults thinking about what they just heard and maybe, just maybe remembering why they really are here.

The game continues and the noise is reduced, the comments are more encouraging, “nice try”, “good hustle”, “nice pass”………, we really do want to encourage kids!

Even the coaches changed how they coached; they no longer needing to yell their directions…….as loud.  I still didn’t see any embracing hugs from coaches or encouraging words as both coaches centered on winning, you know if coaches don’t win they will surely lose their jobs! (Tongue in cheek)

After the game two males approach me, oh boy, what are they going to say?

The first gentleman introduces himself and shares that he’s been involved in youth sports for 20 years and has also coached for many of those years.  He shares, “in all of my years in sports, I’ve never heard anyone make those comments and those thoughts should be shared before every game”!  He thanked me for making the comments and appreciated the timeliness of the words.

The second gentleman also says, “Thanks” and appears to appreciate the thoughts.

I shared this experience for several reasons; first, if this type of pressure is acceptable at the beginning and fundamental level of basketball, no wonder kids grow up in sports with too much pressure being applied by adults.

Here we were at the beginning level of basketball, more centered on winning rather then successful attempts at even the most basic dribble or pass or attempt at the basket.

The coaches were so frustrated with players not remembering positions or plays but not even recognizing that these kids couldn’t even dribble, pass the ball or understand how to defend.  My guess is that practice was spent on running a play to score a basket as opposed to teaching the basics of running drills, learning how to dribble and pass the ball which might also lead to some positive attempts at scoring a basket.

Finally, in our programs we say the activity is for the kids, after watching this particular game I really question are parents/adults more concerned about their son or daughter scoring a basket, the team winning rather then spending time each week in improving  each time they play and as they learn to navigate the fundamentals.

After all, this is only the beginning of the journey in sports, unfortunately some coaches and parents see each season as the end result and not a part of the learning and fun experience.

Just remember that, if Michael Jordan only saw his freshman year as the end result, the rest of us wouldn’t have had the enjoyment of watching him play and the endless commercials of “I want to be like Mike”!


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