Coaches, A Little Common Sense Please!

By John O’Sullivan

“My 8 year old had 6 days of soccer last week!”

“My 11 year old’s coach said he could not play on any other soccer teams except his. No futsal with his friends, no indoor, nothing but this team.”

“My 13 year old was told that if he did not commit to play Fall baseball, on top of spring and summer ball, the high school coaches would hold it against him come tryouts next year.

These are all actual emails and notes I have received from parents regarding the pressure to commit to a single sport, and a single team. This pressure was placed on them by coaches who should know better! That’s right coaches, we should know better than to think that we can force kids to love our sport, demand that they give up everything else to pursue a single activity, and threaten them with future exclusion for, gasp, having more than one activity they are interested in. It’s time for us to grow up!

I say us because I used to think this way. I am a coach. I face the same issues with over-committed, over-scheduled, and exhausted kids as you do. I look around when half my team is missing from practice because they are running cross country, and fight back the urge to take out my frustration on the players that are actually present! I know how it feels. But our kids need us to act like adults. They need us to keep some perspective. They need us to provide wise counsel, but then let them be kids.

How can we do this? Well first, how about what NOT to do.

Adding more to their schedule, and demanding unrealistic and harmful commitments from young athletes is NOT the way to do it. You don’t create love of the game through fear; you create it through enjoyment. You don’t ask 8-12 year olds to play one sport exclusively. You encourage them to try multiple activities, and you become such an amazing coach that they love your sport the best, and they want to be there. Then you give them some time away, so they are begging to come back, and can’t wait for your team to start up again. You create an environment that promotes love of the game, enjoyment of sport, and an embrace of struggle and failure as part of the learning process. You educate your athletes and their parents.

The best science shows us that single sport commitment at a young age leads to double the risk of injury, a much higher rate of burnout, and a large number of athletes who quit before you ever know whether they will be any good or not. There is a five fold increase in shoulder and elbow injuries in young baseball and softball players. Orthopedics are seeing massive increases in overuse injuries because of year round, single sport competition. We have organizations that cut kids at age 8 and 9, as if somehow you can predict whether a kid will make it at that age. You cannot.

You cannot force a child to love a sport. And love of a sport, in my opinion, is equally important as talent, coaching, and deliberate practice in determining whether an athlete will compete at the next level. Unless their desire to play matches the effort needed to succeed, they will never make the commitment necessary to get to the next level.

Coaches, I am not throwing you under the bus here. You should not have to run practices with half your players absent. I think it is highly appropriate to let parents know at the outset of a season what your realistic, expected commitment is. Those expectations should align with developmentally, age appropriate guidelines issued by your sport’s governing body. For instance, US Soccer recommends an 8 year old have two 75 minutes practices a week, plus a 40 minute game. Certainly not three practices, a makeup game, and 4 tournament games in a week, as one dad told me his daughter had.

I also think it is imperative that children who are balancing multiple activities in the same season are monitored closely for overuse and exhaustion. Parents and coaches need to be on the same page in terms of balancing commitments, and enforcing mandatory rest on players. I remember once I had a team of 13 year old elite soccer girls, who were training 3x a week for soccer, and playing 1-2 games on the weekend. Then I found out that 12 of them were also running cross country five days a week before soccer. Some of them had not had a day off in 4 weeks. No wonder they all were limping through training, and icing their knees afterwards.  This was not healthy commitment to multiple sports; it was over-commitment and harmful.

Should a kid be thrown off the team in elementary school for not making every practice or game, or not get to play in games because they missed a session? Of course not. Is it fair to let them know that the team has standards, and that the players who are making the commitment might play more, and might improve faster. Sure, that makes sense to me. This puts the ball in the kids court, so to speak. As long as your standards are applied equally and fairly (you cannot let your best player miss and then not apply them, while applying them to all the other kids) than you are teaching kids a valuable lesson: you get out what you put in.

Here is my final appeal to my colleagues in the coaching business. Whether we are volunteers or professionals, we are the gatekeepers for youth sports. We are the mom or dad that so many kids are lacking these days. We are supposed to know the latest in science, best practices, and long term athletic development. Are you following them?

Our words and actions have a tremendous impact on kids, as we are in a position of great trust. Those words and actions can stick with them forever, and it can be your words that helps a young man grow up, or a young woman deal with tough times. Your words will be passed on to their kids some day. Are you choosing them wisely?

Have you ever thought about what your athletes will say about you?

Will they consider you a person of positive significance in their lives?

Or will they consider you the one who made them quit by forcing them to act like adults, to over commit and over train? Are you the one taking the “play” out of “playing” sports?

I hope you will join all of us at the Changing the Game Project and give sports back to our kids. Choose the hard right, rather than the easy wrong, and don’t force kids to choose a single sport at too young an age. Stand up to parents who are harming their kids by stealing choice from kids, and stealing their sports education by focusing on winning over development.

Yes, they are your customer, but the customer is not always right. Sometimes he does not know what is right. But you should. You must. You are a coach. Make sure you act like one, for your kids’ sake!

John O’Sullivan is the Founder of the Changing the Game Project, and author of the national bestseller Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High-Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports back to Our Kids. He is a longtime soccer player and coach on the youth, college and professional level, and a nationally known speaker on coaching and parenting in youth sports. His work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Soccer America, and SoccerWire.com, and he recently gave a TED talk on “Changing the Game in Youth Sports.”

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One Response

  1. Baseball coaches can learn a lot from how USA hockey does things. As a coach of both sports I think about this every baseball season. Coach on the bench/ in the dug out not from it, multiple sports create better athletes. Winning at lower levels is for coaches not players, they do not think systems and remember things that happened not scores. My all star baseball experience this year reminded me of a football game, too much yelling from parents… all coaches can at least relate to the fact that parents can pass the tests and coach or be quiet and let us help the development of their children and the game
    Oh yeah, it is a game.

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