Choosing the Best Youth Sports Program for Your Child

By Jeffrey Rhoads

Ideally your child plays for a coach who is an excellent instructor-one who recognizes teaching opportunities and communicates lessons in a positive, uplifting manner. But in addition to a good coach, participating in the right youth sports programs is essential to your child’s enjoyment of sports. Choose the wrong program or league, and you risk damaging your child’s desire to play sports.

Just as a coach should find a team role in which a young player can succeed, you must locate the youth sports program that best suits your child’s age, interests, and level of play. Only by providing your child with a progression of playing opportunities that match these factors, will you provide him or her with the best sports experience.

Starting Out
For the youngest children playing organized sports for the first time (ages five through eight), the emphasis is primarily on fun and basic skill instruction. Fun at this level is running around with a minimum of structure and rules. Within a couple of years, your child can more fully participate in the adult version of the game and begin to learn additional individual skills and team concepts. Competition is also introduced at this level. Youth sports programs that are developmental in nature and participation-based are essential to children in both of these age groups. You should make sure that your child’s youth sports leagues emphasize these principles.

As your child ages and his or her skills develop, you may see your child excel in one or more sports. You will then face the decision of placing your child in a more advanced, competitive league. Possibly your child will have the chance to play with older children. An opportunity for your child to begin specializing in a sport may also appear. In these decisions, carefully weigh the pros and cons. If your child truly enjoys a sport, exhibits a competitive nature, and is more physically mature, playing at higher levels with better players will usually improve his or her level of play. But advance your child too quickly and you risk your child’s confidence and enjoyment of the experience.

Avoid SpecializationExplore Multiple Sports
Specializing too early presents the risks of injury, burnout, and loss of crossover benefits from other sports. Several studies (most recently a 2011 study conducted by Loyola University Medical Center) have found a higher incident of injury associated with early specialization. For children who have not yet reached puberty, specialization in a single sport is also risky because physical maturation (changes in body type) may limit their ability to succeed in that sport. For example, a young girl who grows to be six feet tall is unlikely to find success as a gymnast.

Try to balance your child’s development against these risks and select youth sports programs that you feel best match your child’s particular personality and ability. The right youth sports program should challenge your child, but also enable them to enjoy the entire experience.

Should your child participate in select travel teams, you should still look for a program that provides good instruction. A league that is comprised mostly of competitive games, but little practice time, will not provide the opportunities for a coach to teach and develop his or her players.

Also remember that competitive, talented athletes often still enjoy leagues which emphasize participation. These leagues can provide a chance to play with friends in a more relaxed environment. They also offer better athletes the opportunity to develop and exercise leadership skills. As a parent interested in your child’s happiness, you could do a lot worse than placing your child in a participation-based instructional league.

Provide Opportunities for Self-Directed Play
And finally, provide your child with opportunities to play pickup games with other kids. This unstructured, self-directed form of play complements organized sports and affords your child with other essential benefits.

Jeffrey Rhoads has coached youth sports for over 25 years. He has worked with all levels of young players–including both absolute beginners with limited athleticism and more talented athletes who went on to success in high school and college. Mining both his experience as a youth coach and his own joyful, sports-filled youth, his writings provide valuable guidance for parents, coaches and players on how to create a great youth sports experience. He is the author of The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the Best Youth Sports Experience for Your Child.

His blog, Inside Youth Sports, can be found at: www.insideyouthsports.org

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The Role of Organized Sports in Your Child’s Life

By Jeffrey Rhoads

Sports provide your child with many benefits including physical exercise, fun, confidence and a sense of community. And for many children, sports are the most natural and joyful way of expressing grace and excellence in their young lives.
With these benefits in mind, and hoping to provide the best opportunities for your child, you and other parents dutifully sign up your young children for the local youth program of choice.  Surely this is the single best way for children to pursue their interest in sports, develop their abilities, and get the most out of the experience.  But is it?

Benefits of Organized Sports
Organized sports, administered by adults, offer one path for a child to learn and appreciate sports.  Skill clinics and traditional developmental youth leagues ideally enable knowledgeable coaches to teach children specific sports skills and team play along with sportsmanship and life lessons.  Proper instruction, balanced with competition suited to the age group and skill level, can provide the program’s youth participants with a great experience.  In addition, activities are supervised, helping to ensure the safety of your child.

Don’t make the mistake, however, of believing that organized sports by themselves will provide your child with the best overall sports experience.  Organized sports are only one part of the equation.

Rich Beginnings
In my youth (and possibly yours) playing and learning sports was a multi-faceted developmental experience.  It began with my Dad introducing me to sports by playing catch and providing some basic instruction.  Too young to play in a youth league back then, I can also recall my Dad occasionally taking me to a local baseball field on a warm summer evening to watch a Little League baseball game.  Mostly, I remember the stop afterwards for an ice cream cone.  In elementary school, a gym teacher began our basic instruction in a variety of games and modified sports.  Games of kickball during gym class and recesses provided a fun introduction to team sports.  At seven or eight, I played in my first neighborhood pickup baseball and football games.  Being one of the youngest, I only hoped to get an occasional chance to catch the ball and take some swings at the plate.  I was thankful for the opportunity to play with older boys and be part of the neighborhood group.  As I grew and became a more accomplished athlete, my role increased–and this success only fueled my enjoyment and interest in sports.

Learning to Become Self-Reliant
But it’s essential to understand that these neighborhood games were much more than just playing sports.  They were also about learning how to interact with other children–without the help of parents or other adults.  We learned how to recruit neighborhood kids, organize the game, deal with arguments, balance our individual competitive instincts against the needs of others in the group, and otherwise manage the game so that everyone wanted (or at least continued) to play.  Often, it was a balancing act to keep everyone satisfied and the game going.  Depending on who was playing and our mood, the games emphasized either relaxed fun or more serious competition.  But most importantly, we controlled our experience–we learned to become more self-reliant.

A Complementary Role in Years Past
For us, the organized sports activities of our youth were separate, complementary experiences that helped fill our weekday evenings and Saturday mornings.  In some ways, organized sports represented the formal test of our daily fun and games.  We accepted that these youth leagues were run by parents, more structured, and usually more competitive.  It was still an exciting, satisfying experience–run by caring coaches who balanced competition, learning and fun.  That’s not to say there weren’t moments of stress, fear, and boredom–or the occasional poor coaching.  In my first year of football, I was the youngest (and lightest).  Trying to tackle bigger boys was a scary experience.  While playing youth baseball, I also recall each year facing a pitcher who had an unbelievable fastball, but who also was very wild.  We all were fearful of that pitcher, but knew that if we took enough pitches there was a good chance that he would walk us (but hopefully not hit us).

So what were the crucial elements comprising my youth sports experience?  They were involved parents, gym teachers, neighborhood pickup games that provided an opportunity for unstructured, self-organized play–and organized sports.  The latter was only a part of the whole.

Organized Sports Today
But it’s a new world–and some of the changes are clearly ones for the better.  Title Nine, for example, has opened the world of sports to millions of young girls.  Other changes include more two-paycheck families, more single parents, 24-hour news that sensitizes us to the potential dangers our children face on their own, and an expanded universe of non-sports activities available to a child.  Unlike Title Nine, these changes are more mixed in their benefits and drawbacks.  But one truth is certain, parents now lead lives filled to the brim with personal and family activities.
In a generation of busy parents, it’s no surprise that organized sports have now taken on a much larger role.  Scheduled, highly structured, and safe, organized sports more easily fit into today’s lifestyle.  Why not expect that organized sports can be the beginning and end of your child’s sports experience?

Unfortunately, placing these heavy expectations on an organized youth sports program is bound to result in failure of one kind or another.  A limited number of volunteer coaches with varying degrees of expertise, multiple age groups and skill levels bunched together into single leagues, and different attitudes regarding how to balance fun and competition, all make it difficult to produce a program that fully satisfies the needs of every participant.  As a result, complaints arise that traditional youth sports programs are too competitive, do not provide equal playing time, and fail to give younger beginners and less-skilled children the best opportunity to learn and have fun.

A Better, More Balanced Approach
So how do we provide the best sports experience for our youth in today’s world?  I would suggest that parents embrace a principle embodied in our past–balancing participation in organized sports with the other developmental opportunities that include direct parental involvement and separate, self-directed play by the children themselves.  Don’t simply outsource your child’s sports education to an organized youth sports program.

Even in a more complex changing world, you still control your choices.  Spend some time playing catch with your child, place limits on “electronics” time, let go a little (take a chance like your parents did with you) and send your child outside to play with other neighborhood children.  City, suburb, and rural neighborhoods all present different safety issues and potential risks. Only you can determine how much risk you are willing to assume.  But ask yourself, “Is your neighborhood really any more unsafe than the one you grew up in–or has our omnipresent 24-hour news cycle simply sensitized our society to the potential dangers?”

If you are not comfortable with unsupervised play, or your work schedule keeps you and your child away from home during the day, then try to find a facility where your child can play with others in a self-directed setting.  For example, it’s not unusual in the afternoon at the local YMCA to see younger children involved in either a fun two-on-two pickup basketball game or a more competitive full court game.  The YMCA provides a safe, semi-supervised environment that still provides children an opportunity to do their own thing.

And finally, take an active interest in your child’s organized youth sports experience.  Find the local programs that offer the best blend of fun, learning, and competition that fits your child.  Be supportive.  But also strive for a healthy balance between parental involvement and providing your child with the freedom to explore sports on his or her own.  Don’t believe that organized youth sports programs are the entire answer or that you are a poor parent for not placing your child in every available program.  You may find that everyone in the family benefits from less emphasis on organized sports.

Check out the lastest OnDeck Newsletters

Our popular OnDeck Newsletter is back for April in its soccer and baseball/softball editions. Articles by Tony Earp, Brian Gotta, Jeffrey Rhoads along with lots of important sponsor offers make these a must-read.

The Positive Coach: 3 Teaching Qualities to Look For in Your Child’s Youth Coach

By Jeffrey Rhoads

Ideally, your child’s coach is a good teacher; someone who both understands the sport and how to communicate his or her knowledge. This coach not only teaches sports skills, but also conveys the game’s values. The coach’s kids also have fun.

But how does a youth coach achieve these ends? Most experts believe that a “positive” approach to coaching is the best way. It’s the one that provides the greatest benefits to the largest number of kids.

So what defines a positive coach? Here are three qualities that parents should look for:

1. Believes in kids-expects improvement. For each child under his or her tutelage, the exceptional coach sees opportunity for growth. This coach does not accept the child’s ability as fixed, but instead recognizes the areas in which the child may eventually excel. He or she can see how certain attributes (size, quickness) are compensatory-providing success in areas other than the ones in which they present a more obvious weakness.

This coach sees the entire spectrum of ability, both existing and latent. He or she finds small ways for each child to succeed. The exceptional coach believes in each child and the child’s potential to find joy in playing the sport. And most important, each child begins to incorporate this belief into his or her own sense of what’s possible.

2. Uses positive language to sandwich criticism. Whenever possible, a coach should use the “sandwich” technique while instructing. A coach should first encourage the player on what he or she was doing right; next, state the problem; and finally, indicate what action or behavior the player should have taken [what was done right – the problem – best action].

For absolute beginners, struggling younger players, and children with more sensitive personalities, a coach can soften the criticism and emphasize the positive. Older, more experienced players, on the other hand, respond well to constructive criticism-especially when they understand that their coach appreciates their talent and has higher expectations for them.

3. Frames difficult situations as either an opportunity or lesson learned. Practices and games in youth sports are filled with failure. Overmatched beginners, players having less athletic ability, and teams missing key components, will all struggle against superior opponents. From a purely win-loss perspective, there are lots of losers.

But a positive coach breaks down each contest into smaller ones, finding opportunities to foster relative success. By reframing the goals of participation, this coach can still teach important lessons no matter the outcome.

Here’s a simple example. During the basketball season, I will occasionally have my players run a “Suicide” race where each player progressively touches lines further down the court, always returning to the starting baseline. I don’t use this race to get my kids in shape or to punish them for poor performance. Instead, it’s sometimes useful to regain their attention or to simply have some fun. (Many enjoy the challenge of the race even though they’ll moan and groan about it.) But here’s the problem. On most teams, there are children of different ages, sizes, and athletic ability. There are always one or two children who will win the race and a couple of other children who will usually finish last.

Although this drill may appeal to the fastest ones, it’s not inherently fun for the slower ones. But by shouting words of encouragement to these children, giving attention, and casting the race as one against another player of similar ability (or even themselves), a coach can get these players’ best effort. Although they lose the overall race, they still strive to do their best. They work hard; they persevere; they learn to take pride in their effort. A race lost from the start is “framed” to achieve a positive result.

Losing a game is a failure-but it also represents a great teaching moment. If a coach frames the loss as a lesson learned, and practices to overcome the problem, the players will also view the loss as a necessary part of growing and becoming better players. Likewise, when playing a superior opponent, a coach can cast his team in the role of the underdog-and emphasize the opportunity for his players to play their best. An opportunity to relish the challenge of possibly upsetting their more talented opponent.

When you’re considering the merits of your child’s youth coach, keep in mind the above three qualities. In most instances, your child will benefit from a knowledgeable coach who uses a positive approach. Besides providing skill instruction, these coaches engage your child in a way that builds self-esteem, confidence, and a joy for the game itself.

Jeffrey Rhoads has coached youth sports for over 25 years and worked with all levels of young players. He is the author of The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the Best Youth Sports Experience for Your Child. His blog, Inside Youth Sports, can be found at: http://www.insideyouthsports.org.

“Framing” Your Child’s Play

Every child wants to be successful. As a parent, you obviously want your child to have fun and succeed in youth sports. A barrier to this outcome, however, is that most participation-based youth sports programs (and many neighborhood games) are comprised of children with differing abilities. Whether these differences are based on talent, experience, age, or body type, they generate moments of failure for many kids. Overmatched beginners, players having less athletic ability, and teams missing key components, will all struggle to compete. In a purely win-loss scenario, there are lots of losers in youth sports.

Good instruction and organized programs well-matched to your child’s current skill level can of course provide your child with a better opportunity to enjoy success. But even as your child progresses down a normal development path, he or she will likely face many difficult moments. So when your child is frustrated, disappointed, or otherwise struggling, how can you and your child’s coach help?

Your child’s perceptions
Social psychologists refer to “framing” as a process of understanding and explaining events relative to the context (circumstances) in which they occur. As a parent you ideally see the bigger picture-the changing nature of your child’s participation in sports throughout his or her developmental years.

But a struggling child is unlikely to see past the reality of his or her current shortcomings. He or she doesn’t see personal differences and flaws as “having character.” And the future is distant to a child who is picked last, made fun of by other children, or feels unable to compete. It’s not surprising that many of these children develop a negative view of playing sports.

Through the use of framing, however, you and your child’s coaches can help bring a more balanced perspective to your child’s view of his or her youth sports experience.

How coaches can positively frame competition
If your child’s coaches are good teachers, they will provide both essential instruction and a positive, supportive learning environment. To create this positive setting for beginners and lesser players, they will commonly frame each player’s performance relative to other children of similar age and ability. With a chance to contend, each of these children will naturally begin to enjoy competing, giving his or her best effort, and striving to become better.

Where possible, a good coach breaks down contests into smaller ones, finding opportunities for each player to succeed. These “contests within a contest” enable a coach to frame the competition in a way that benefits every player. For example, during a basketball practice, a coach might have his players run a “Suicide” race where each player progressively touches lines further down the court, always returning to the starting baseline. There are always one or two children who will win the race and likewise lose it. Although this drill may help get kids in shape, promote team bonding, and appeal to the fastest ones, it’s not inherently fun for the slower ones. But by shouting words of encouragement to the slower players, giving attention, and framing the race as one against another player of similar body type and ability, the coach can motivate these players to give their best effort. Although they lose the overall race, they begin to enjoy competing. They see the connection between effort and reward-and they strive to win.

Framing team roles
In addition to framing competitive situations, a good coach will also frame a player’s team role. For beginners, the coach will emphasize to both the player and team how even minor contributions (e.g., setting a screen in basketball that leads to a layup) are important to the team’s success. For older, more talented children, the coach can frame the player’s role not only as it relates to obvious contributions (scoring), but also to the less apparent ones (leadership, making teammates better).

What you can do
But if a coach does not positively frame your child’s participation and team role, then you will need to do so. Cast your child’s participation and contributions in the proper light. You can easily frame the child’s mastery of a skill relative to their age, experience, talent, or past performance to provide a relative sense of positive progress and success. Explain how differences in age or experience (relative to other players) may make it more difficult to excel now. Try to show your child how a certain physical limitation (e.g., small in stature) can often translate into a positive attribute (e.g., quick, and strong). And always remind your child that his or her physical body is constantly changing and that this change can lead to new opportunities.

Emphasize how small contributions can make a huge difference in a close game. A child who has an understanding of his or her capabilities, and grasps the concept of playing a team role, will always find acceptance within that sport’s community of players. Even with limited physical talent, these children can enjoy the benefits of playing sports-and do so well into their adult years.

Finally, framing an experience does not necessarily mean sugar-coating events, setting low standards, or making excuses for poor behavior. You choose the extent to which you want to hold your child accountable. There may be instances where you believe your child should perform at a higher level. In these cases, you can frame your child’s performance against some higher standard. For example, a talented, confident child may score many goals (possibly against a weak opponent) and believe that he or she has played well. But the flip side is that he or she may also have played poor defense, giving up a number of goals. You may choose to remind your child of this fact to adjust his or her view to one that you
believe is more appropriate.

Whenever you believe your child’s perspective is limited or distorted, you can help your child by framing the underlying issues in a more appropriate, balanced way.

Jeffrey Rhoads has coached youth sports for over 25 years and worked with all levels of young players. He is the author of The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the Best Youth Sports Experience for Your Child. His blog, Inside Youth Sports, can be found at: http://www.insideyouthsports.org. (c) Copyright 2010 – Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.

How a Coach Builds a Team (What Every Sports Parent Should Understand)

By Jeffrey Rhoads

A good coach knows that a team’s success always begins with the players. Their abilities, both realized and potential, are the raw material from which the coach molds a successful team.

Every coach would love to have a team comprised of equally talented superstars-players able and willing to do it all. But that’s not how it works. At all levels of play, the reality is that each coach must put together a team from individuals who have different strengths and weaknesses.

So how does a coach go about this task?

Match Players with Team Roles
A coach needs to find players who can play the team roles necessary for the team to succeed. These roles can be viewed from the perspective of playing a certain position (point guard, quarterback, pitcher, etc.) or meeting a team’s functional need (scorer, defender, ball-handler, etc.).

With the right mix of players (ones who can play the required team roles well), a team can successfully compete-even against teams having superior individual athletes. In more competitive play, a team’s “chemistry” often makes the difference between winning and losing.

Roles are also important in equal-participation youth programs. At this level of play, team roles help provide beginners with an opportunity to find meaningful success. For instance, a young basketball player may initially have a limited role-setting screens, making good passes, and playing solid defense. But when a screen is set that leads to a teammate’s layup, this player knows that he or she has made an authentic contribution to the team’s success.

Identify Athleticism, Skills, Potential, and Intangibles
In evaluating prospective players, and the possible team roles they can play, a coach considers a variety of player attributes. Each player presents an observable body type, athletic quality, and set of sports skills. Athleticism and body type are often invaluable qualities necessary to a team’s success (and ones that can’t be taught). Similarly, excellent sports skills are important. Less obvious is a young athlete’s development potential and other more intangible attributes.

Although coaches need to have players who can immediately perform well, coaches are also interested in young athletes who may develop into exceptional players. For example, having just gone through a growth spurt, a young boy or girl may play a sport in an awkward, less-coordinated manner. But to a perceptive eye, the player’s movements and skills also demonstrate a certain grace that suggests the player will soon “grow” into his or her body.

A coach is also interested in players who demonstrate leadership, perseverance, a competitive nature, and other less tangible traits. These coupled with other valuable attributes such as a player’s attitude, willingness to prepare, and attention to detail all factor into a coach’s player evaluation.

Develop Individual and Team Skills (Improve the Parts)
Once a coach has selected the team’s players, he continues to build the team by helping players develop both their individual and team skills. The coach should focus on laying a solid foundation, one that is beneficial to the team and players in the long run. The coach’s instruction should help players understand how the simple fundamentals connect to more advanced skills and how this, in turn, leads to both individual and team success. The coach should build connections. Start slow,and finish strong.

As the players’ abilities improve, the coach should consider whether their roles are still appropriate. A player’s team role can evolve-even within the current season.

Matching Systems and Players (Improve the Whole)
Finally, a coach implements his or her team strategies and tactics-plugging in players that best fit his or her system while also modifying the system to better fit the players’ unique set of abilities.

Keep an Open Mind
As a youth coach evaluating players (or a sports parent evaluating a coach), try to see beyond the obvious. Don’t be too quick to judge. In your evaluation, keep the above points in mind. Ask yourself questions such as:

  • Which players can fill the essential team roles (e.g., “scorer”) and who are best suited to play the secondary, more supportive roles?
  • Do individual players, though lacking certain skills, somehow contribute an important quality to the team’s overall play?
  • Though raw, does a young player demonstrate potential that will benefit the team down the road?
  • Are certain player’s skills, and the team roles they play, essential to providing opportunities for teammates to succeed? (For example, a team unable to advance the ball against pressure will not be able to take advantage of its outstanding forwards.)

From these questions and others, try to understand how unique player qualities, individual development, player combinations, and well-matched tactics all represent unique pieces in the puzzle that is team success.

Jeffrey Rhoads has coached youth sports for over 25 years and worked with all levels of young players. He is the author of The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the Best Youth Sports Experience for Your Child. His blog, Inside Youth Sports, can be found at: http://www.insideyouthsports.org. (c) Copyright 2009-2012 Jeffrey S. Rhoads; All Rights Reserved Worldwide.