Fixing Youth Sports

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” – Chinese Proverb

The Aspen Institute recently released an article on why we need to fix youth sports, 7 Charts that Show Why We Need to Fix Youth Sports.  On September 6th, the organization hosted their Project Play 2020 Summit, with a focus on getting “kids off the couch without running them into the ground.”  As the title of their article describes, they present 7 charts that paint a picture of the decline in sport participation.  As usual, The Aspen Institute does a fantastic job in presenting the issues, making it quite clear that there is a problem that needs to be addressed.  However, there are still NO solutions being presented.  Over the past several years, we have all been presented with statistics on youth participation in sports.  Most of them depict a picture of constant decline; yet none of them present clear solutions.  With the companies that make up the founding members of Project Play 2020 (like Nike, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and Target), one would think they have come up with LONG-TERM solutions for this issue.  And one would have hoped that they would have presented these solutions with the doom and gloom statistics.  At the end of the article linked above, they do list a few initiatives; but there are no specifics.  How are you going to train coaches?  What does “Encourage Sport Sampling” mean?  And what are the other 6 strategies?  Why not share them?

What I hope Project Play 2020 does not do is provide one-time goodwill gestures.  Their solutions should be long-term, with a persistent focus on turning the ship.  A one-time camp, or instructional clinic for coaches won’t cut it.  But, far too often, we see these annual instructional camps as a solution.  And a newspaper article, or a spot on the evening news touts these camps as a way to solve the problem.  A mom or dad that is volunteering to coach cannot grasp the game in a few hours or one weekend.  There has to be a presence.  Install a “lead Instructor” in an area for a year and use them as a resource for the volunteer coaches.  Mandate attendance to weekly camps.  Volunteers should also shadow these lead instructors as the instructors work directly with kids.  It’s easy for someone to tell others what to do.  But what makes more of an impact is to see the instructors teach the kids directly in an environment that they will be in when they teach the kids.  Volunteers need to see how it should be done.

We can train coaches, provide more leagues and build more sports complexes; but it all comes down to parents.  Parents need to be held accountable for kids being less active.  The Aspen Institute provides Parent Checklists that are designed to help parents try to build an athlete for life. With all due respect to what the Aspen Institute is trying to do and the information they provide…really…a checklist?  Parents should not need a checklist to help them understand what they should be doing.  Turn the TV off, open the door, and get outside!  If kids aren’t active, it’s the parents fault.  I have no problem saying that because it’s true.  We give our kids, whether intentional or not, too many opportunities to not play.  If our kids see us watching TV all day, what do you think they will do?  If our kids see us playing video games, what do you think they will want to do?  Go for a walk and bring your kid.  They don’t want to go?  So what?  You’re their parent.  MAKE THEM GO!  Yes, they will fuss for a bit but in the end, they will enjoy it.

The last piece I’d like to address is MONEY.  When I was young, I read a biography on Ted Williams.  He used to walk to the local park and toss acorns in the air and hit them.  How much do acorns cost?  Last I checked, they were free.  Playing sports can be very inexpensive, and we need to do a better job of showing people that it doesn’t take much money to play.  I pass by fields all the time that are being unused.  Basketball courts are vacant.  You don’t need to spend $120/hour to rent space at a state-of-the-art facility to improve your skills.  You need a desire to get better.  That’s it.  We’ve become spoiled and have forgotten to keep things simple.  Want to improve your swing?  Go buy a whiffle ball and bat at a gas station for $2.  Want to get quicker?  Buy sidewalk chalk at the dollar store and draw an agility ladder on the sidewalk.  Want to get better at catching fly balls?  Have mom or dad get you a tennis ball and throw you pop ups.  One of the initiatives I’d like to see from Project Play is to help the low-income households understand what they can do with what they have.  Don’t have a ball, roll up a pair of socks.  There’s no use in building facilities if they don’t know what to do there.  They’ll collect dust.  There’s no use in providing them with high end equipment.  When time takes its toll on the equipment, will someone be there to replace it?  Keep things simple and “teach them how to fish.”

It’s sad to see ballfields going unused after school and on weekends.  Kids should be running around and playing.  We don’t need all kids to be playing organized sports.  Just get them active.  And it’s not that difficult.  Let’s stop with all the surveys.  We get the point.  Now it’s time for action.


Advice for a First Time Youth Coach

With every new season, whether it’s the Fall or Spring, Youth Baseball ushers in a whole new crop of fathers or mothers that serve as coaches.  Most of them volunteer because they have a son or daughter that they would like to coach.  Regardless of their reasons, they take on a tough job; but one that can be incredibly rewarding.  Spending the last two years in Little League, I have seen some great coaches; but have also seen some coaches that should never be allowed to have that responsibility.  The good ones coach all players; are organized; create a positive environment for the kids; and truly want to see their kids improve.  The bad ones coach only a select few; yell at players when they make an error; are not prepared at practices or games; and create an environment for kids that have them begging for the season’s end.

For those that are new to Youth Coaching, below are a few helpful tips for you as you begin your journey and take on the responsibility of mentoring a group of kids.

Set the Expectations from Day 1

This is absolutely necessary.  You must tell the kids what behavior will not be tolerated.  And your tone does not have to be harsh.  Be firm and get the message across.  Speak slowly and make sure you make eye contact with all the kids.  This ensures that you connect with everyone.  Too many youth coaches (regardless of the sport) lose control of their teams because of the actions of one, or several kids.  I’ve found that setting the expectations at the outset goes a long way in making sure the kids stay in line.  And make sure they know the consequences of what bad behavior will bring.  Recommended consequences are (first time) a discussion with the player and their parent and (future instances) a seat on the bench while the rest of the team practices.  And you need to follow through on your words.  I’ve seen many coaches threaten punishment; but when bad behavior is repeated, no consequences.  Now the kids know that your threats are empty.  Spending time during practice on keeping the kids in line only wastes time that could be better spent on improving their skills.  Setting expectations on day 1 improves the chances that more time will be spent on skill work than on discipline work.

Always be Prepared

John Wooten said it best, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”  Winging your practice plan just won’t work at the youth level.  Actually, it doesn’t work at any level.  Preparing a practice plan reduces, if not eliminates, any downtime between drills.  Prolonged downtime between drills is a breeding ground for losing the kids physically and mentally.  And once you lose them, you then lose practice time as now you have to figure out how to reel them back in.

Coach Everyone, even the Kid that Plays in the Dirt

One of the most disappointing things I see at the youth level is coaches neglecting certain kids on the team.  This can occur for a number of reasons.  Maybe the player has very little ability.  Or maybe they aren’t interested in what’s going on and they begin to wander, literally!  When coaching a Little League team or Rec league team, you will find yourself coaching kids of varying ability levels.  And some kids don’t even like the game.  Maybe they are there because their parents signed them up just to get them doing something.  And you will also have kids that love the game and have some talent.  This is a big reason why parents and kids move to travel ball, so they can ensure that they players on their team are players they want on their team.  A lot of times youth coaches gravitate towards these kids because it’s “easy” to coach them.  Some coaches may feel it takes too much effort, both physically and mentally, to coach the kids that have little ability or that don’t want to be there.  You can’t allow this to happen.  What I’ve found is that those kids may begin to love the game if they find success.  Just because a player doesn’t have the talent today doesn’t mean they won’t have the talent tomorrow.  Take it step by step.  One of your most rewarding moments as a coach will be seeing these kids achieve success, regardless of how small it may be.  Get these kids interested in the game and then you’ll really begin to see them grow.  And in the process, makes your job much easier.

Wanting to Win is not a Bad Thing

It annoys me when I read blogs or articles speaking about how coaches place too much emphasis on winning.  For the 30 years that I have been involved in sports as a player and coach, there have always been (and will always be) coaches that placed a large emphasis on winning.  Nothing has changed.  Its just that 30 years ago, you didn’t have blogs or social media exposing every youth coach that screams at their players to win the game.  I don’t believe there is  anything wrong with communicating to your players that you want to win every game.  But, as a coach, you should never compromise yourself or your team to do so.  There are benefits to a team when you focus on winning.  First, it drives your players in practice.  And when they’re driven, it increases the probability that they will improve.  Improving one’s skills usually then translates to a player having more fun.  Second, when losing a game, coaches should discuss with the team why the game was lost.  When things don’t go your way, you need to understand why, and then work to improve.  There are so many lessons to be learned when you lose.  Coaches that communicate to their team that “we don’t care if we win or lose” better hope that they don’t lose too often.  By nature, humans are competitive.  And if you’re losing often, and your team is not performing well, you need to be sure you stay true to the “we don’t care if we win or lose” mantra.  If you show frustration, your players will begin to question your true intentions.

Never Forget the Influence you have

As a first time youth coach, you will likely have players where this is their first season playing in the sport.  By the end of the season, the hope is that they tell their parents that they want to play again next season.  And we as coaches play a significant role in helping a player make that decision.  We should be held accountable for a player’s interest in the sport.  If we run boring practices, chances are our players will not enjoy coming to practice.  If we don’t work with all the players, chances are the players we neglect will not be excited about playing for the team.  If we aren’t honest with the kids and tell them where they need improvement, they won’t work on their weaknesses and see limited improvement, if any.  The vast majority of those that coach youth sports are volunteers.  And in many cases, it’s hard to get individuals to coach.  So, in many cases, league organizers are just happy to have bodies that will coach a team.  But, if we’re at all interested in youth development, we should all understand and respect the responsibility that we have as coaches.

I’ve been lucky enough to have coached baseball at various levels.  I’ve coached players at the Collegiate level, and currently at the Youth level.  I’ve also worked with High School players through lessons and camps.  But, the most fulfilling is at the Youth level.  Yes, it is a challenge; but to see the smile on a kid’s face after their first hit; or after they make their first play; or catch a ball for the first time makes for the biggest reward you could get.

Best of luck to all that are embarking on this great journey.