Where Are They Now?

By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck

It’s been almost four years since I wrote an article entitled, Everyone Calm Down, which went viral. In it, I related an experience of walking past a youth soccer game and seeing some very bad behavior from the parents on the sideline. The other day I was thinking about those parents and those kids and it got me wondering where they are now.

As I wrote back then, the boys on the field appeared to be around eight or nine years-old. That would put them at twelve or thirteen now. According to a study by the National Alliance for Youth Sports, about 70% of kids quit playing sports by age thirteen. So, statistically, most are either out or on their way out of the game I watched them play.

The aforementioned NAYS study attributes the drop-off to kids not having fun anymore. And while I’m sure that’s what most who were surveyed answered because it is a simple explanation, the true reason may be a little more complex.

One issue is that there is just nowhere for many kids to play as teens. I was a board member in a Little League with 900 players. After Little League, kids who wanted to continue could play in the Juniors division for ages 13 and 14. But after that, unless they made the high school team, I don’t know of the existence of another option. Our league fed into four high schools. With a varsity roster of approximately 25 each, that means only roughly 100 out of 900 were still on the field just a few years after Little League. So are high school-age kids not playing because there no leagues for them, or are there no leagues because kids that age just don’t want to play?

Many soccer and basketball organizations still offer recreational opportunities through the age of 18, which is wonderful. But the number of participants is much, much lower than, say, ten years younger. One of the big issues is that playing sports as a teenager, unless you’re pretty good, is just not cool. And we all know how peer pressure affects teens. When questioned why he is doing rec sports it is probably the rare high school student who has the self-assurance to say, “I’m terrible at it but I just enjoy playing.”

So not all the blame can go to the lack of fun caused either by overbearing coaches, parents, or both. But I wonder about those little kids from that competitive soccer team I observed on two occasions four years ago. What effect did it have on them when the parents exploded at a referee’s call and the ref had to blow the whistle and warn both sides that he’d clear the benches after one more outburst? The parent who repeatedly screamed at me to “Keep walking,” with veins bulging out of his neck and temples when I admonished them. Or the first time I saw this team and the little boy who cried like a baby after a minor collision on the field, inconsolable by his mom or by his dad who had earlier tried to intimidate a teenage ref into making a call.

Who would be surprised if many of these youngsters had given it up by now? Did any of us have that kind of pressure on us at that young age? How would we have liked it? Maybe some thrived in that environment, are still moving up the ladder in competitive sports and will someday be high school and even college stars. I know of at least one kid who I’m betting is in the 70%.

As a society we ought to be looking at ways to encourage young people to continue playing sports, even if their dreams of being superstars have ended. But we also need to be sure that, were those opportunities to exist, there would be kids who still loved the games enough to join in.

Brian Gotta is a former youth baseball coach and volunteer Little League board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels and a baseball coaching book which can be found at www.booksbygotta.com. He can be reached at brian@coachdeck.com

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So What if Everybody Gets a Trophy?

By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck

Anyone following youth sports has noticed a groundswell of sarcasm and criticism online and in the media about leagues that give out trophies to every kid, just for playing. The general consensus seems to be that this teaches them the poor lesson that they will be rewarded even if they didn’t earn anything. My thought is that we’re focusing on the wrong thing.

I’ve seen at least one viral video of a professional athlete walking with his daughter who has just finished her soccer game and throwing the trophy she was given in the trash. The video was touted as an exemplary piece of parenting. Thousands of views, shares and comments applaud this man, who is obviously physically and mentally stronger than all of us, for showing us how to raise strong children. The phrase “Participation Trophy” has become a pejorative. “Give everyone a ribbon” is a political insult.

As I’m writing this, I wonder what kind of impact this has all had on the trophy industry.

I don’t care if you don’t want to give trophies out to little kids. I don’t happen to think its a big deal. If the children are 5, 6, 7 or 8 years old should we really be focusing on winning and championships? At that age a trophy is not an award for athletic achievement, it’s a memento – a souvenir. My kids got dozens of little trophies for playing various sports when they were young. They liked to put them on their shelf in their room and collect them through the years. They would occasionally point them out to me and ask me if I remembered that team. It was nice. And as for making them weak, all four of my kids went on to play sports collegiality. Two of them are now pros. I don’t think handing them a small faux marble base with a gold plastic statue on top when they were nine did any long-term damage to their psyches.

And yet I will watch tee ball games where a player fields a batted ball, actually throws it to first, the tiny first baseman actually catches it and puts his foot on the base before the runner gets there and….the runner is allowed to stay at first base anyway. The parents are afraid the batter will be devastated if he is the only one who gets called out. What kind of lesson does that teach every player on both teams? Even if the child is upset, can’t we use that as a moment to explain that he did a great job hitting the ball but sometimes when you do your best it still isn’t good enough? That we should respect our opponent and congratulate them on their achievement? That we can use setbacks to motivate us to do better next time? But that would take more work than just letting him stay on base.

One season when I coached pee-wee basketball I spent all my preseason practices teaching my team to do the one thing that was most difficult for them: To dribble and pass the ball so as to move it up the court without traveling. Then, at the first game, the players on the other team are picking up the ball and straight running it down the court, maybe bouncing it one time, and throwing it in the hoop. I asked the referees to actually enforce the rules and call traveling when it occurred. This was not so my team could win, in fact I requested that they let the other players keep the ball. I just wanted the officials to explain to these kids that they had to dribble the ball so they would learn something their coach had obviously not taken the time to teach them. And so that my players would not witness their opponent breaking the rules and gaining an advantage without consequences. So that my team could see the value of the work we did at practice. But this league didn’t think that was important, and no whistles were blown.

Our society seems to want to grab onto the easiest thing it can find…to support, to blame; because that takes much less effort than actually digging in and teaching, learning, doing work, making progress. So the problem with kids and youth sports today is that “everybody gets a trophy”. Doesn’t that strike you as being a little too simple of an explanation?

Brian Gotta is a former youth baseball coach and volunteer Little League board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels and a baseball coaching book which can be found at www.booksbygotta.com. He can be reached at brian@coachdeck.com

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