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Youth Sports: A Game Plan For Life

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The tension level steadily escalated both on the playing field and in the stands. Only minutes remained in the fourth quarter. The score was tied and either side could have easily secured the victory. However, desperate times called for desperate measures.

Two coaches from one of the teams paced back and forth along the sidelines, conferred with each other via walkie-talkies and discussed the next plan of action. Time out was called. The squad quickly huddled together and received their latest instructions. As an added incentive, cash was offered to the athletes who would help ensure the win. The strongest players then stormed back into playing position while the weaker ones quickly exited the field and cheered their teammates on to their ultimate triumph.

While you might assume that this incident occurred at a professional sporting event, surprisingly enough it actually happened during one of my son Ryan's soccer games when he played on a first-grade league several years ago. That day I sat dumbfounded in my seat the entire time. What were these coaches thinking? Communicating with each other through electronic devices seemed a bit extreme to me. After all, they were overseeing six-year-old boys playing in a neighborhood park — not elite athletes competing in the World Cup! And when the rivalry was coming to a finish and the score was too close for comfort, they promised the defenders a dollar for each ball they blocked from scoring. While the kids absolutely loved this (especially my son!), I was disappointed in what was being encouraged.

As far as which kids actually spent the most time on the field during the games, the ones with the strongest skills secured the greatest amount of playing time. They were the boys whose parents were the coaches, or the ones who had older siblings on other leagues that they practiced and played with and/or those who got additional training on the side. The unfortunate little ones who merely played on the co-ed kindergarten league the year before didn't have a chance.

Needless to say, that season our team easily won most of the games and was in top place in the standings. To be perfectly honest – based on how this achievement was attained – I wasn't impressed or thrilled with the distinction. Without a doubt, I was definitely in the minority. Most of the other parents were overjoyed with the outcome. They loved having their kids on a winning team (even if their offspring sat out most of the season). It didn't matter that their children weren't learning the particulars of the game nor were they developing and practicing the skills necessary to play it. In the end, they were able to say their youngsters were champions. To them, that was all that really mattered. The win-at-all-cost philosophy was the team's game plan and it was stressed and encouraged over all other values and skills.

I wondered why these adults were taking their youngsters' recreational activities so seriously and when spontaneity and fun stopped being the main reasons why children got together to play sports.

I can't say that I've come up with definitive answers; yet, I do know that the high value we place on professional sports sure plays a key role in how we developed the mindset we have today. Let's face it, the careers and personal lives of elite champions are scrutinized and followed with such passionate interest that even when the season ends and oftentimes long after their careers are over, the hype and publicity focused on them continues. The celebrity status given to these superstars, along with their mega-buck salaries and product endorsements make them well-respected, admired and frequently imitated by countless children. Even today, kids still want to grow up to be "like Mike." Lots of youngsters imitate and practice the moves their idols made famous, hoping that one day they too will follow in their hero's footsteps and achieve greatness.

All too often, parents get caught up in the excitement as well, dreaming of future college scholarships and ultimately seeing their offspring making it big. Many go to great lengths attempting to achieve this goal. Driven by their determination to ensure their young ones' success, a number of moms and dads make this aspiration their personal mission. They over-analyze their kid's talent and skill level; compare it to teammates as well as to the opposition and place undue significance on each play and especially the final score of every game. In trying to help their budding athletes' future careers along, quite a few parents invest enormous amounts of money and time into this undertaking by hiring private coaches and securing positions for their children on exclusive travel clubs.

Many times I question if we're pursuing appropriate goals for our youngsters and ourselves or have we crossed the line and taken things way too far. Don't get me wrong — I'm a firm believer in dreaming big and working hard to turn personal aspirations into reality — but when it comes to climbing up the sports career ladder, we all need to be aware of the cold, hard facts.

The National College Athletic Association (NCAA) calculated the estimated probability of how many youngsters who play high school interscholastic sports eventually make it to the pro teams. The numbers are sobering. Here are a few examples:

Of all the high school senior boys playing interscholastic basketball, less than one in 35 will play NCAA college basketball. Of those, fewer than one in 75 senior male players will get drafted by a National Basketball Association (NBA) team. The percentage of high school senior boys playing interscholastic basketball who will eventually be drafted by an NBA team is roughly three in 10,000.

The number of high school senior girls playing interscholastic basketball going on to play women's basketball at an NCAA school is around three in 100. Those making it to a Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) team are approximately one in 100. Generally speaking, one in 5000 high school senior girls playing interscholastic basketball will turn pro.

Out of every 50 high school senior boys playing interscholastic baseball, only about three will continue to play baseball at an NCAA institution. Of all the NCAA senior male baseball players, not even ten in 100 will get drafted by a Major League Baseball (MBL) team. Around one in 200 high school senior boys playing baseball interscholastically will be selected by a MLB team.

For all the youngsters aspiring to play college and pro soccer, fewer than three in 50 high school senior boys interscholastic soccer players will play for an NCAA school. The Major League Soccer (MLS) teams will draft less than one in 50 college senior players. Of all those playing on their high school soccer teams, roughly one in 1,250 will eventually be drafted by a MLS team.

The reality is only a small number of young athletes will ultimately make it to the pros. So isn't it time that all youth sports programs (instead of just a portion of them) direct their focus and energy on instructing, developing and practicing the many life-enhancing skills, habits, and values the experience is supposed to be providing? This can only happen if the adults running the groups and the parents signing their youngsters up get their priorities straight and promote, teach, and apply what team sport involvement is really about. If presented correctly, being part of an athletic team is one of the greatest opportunities kids could ever have.

In addition to learning about the game, acquiring a love for playing it, understanding the rules, and practicing the necessary skills, kids get to improve their health through all the exercise they perform and release pent-up stress and tension. They discover the value of hard work by repeatedly practicing the same technique over and over till they develop proficiency. Being part of a team encourages cooperation, loyalty, friendship, and responsibility. Children develop perseverance, patience, and determination. While experiencing the thrill of winning, they also gain the ability to deal with loss, learn from their mistakes, and pick themselves up and try again. The young athletes push themselves to take risks and go after what they want. In the process they'll also have fun. These are all skills that will benefit all aspects of their lives — currently and in all future relationships, careers, and endeavors.

What parent wouldn't want to give their children these opportunities to grow, challenge, and better themselves? And by the same token, why should kids be denied any of the great rewards that playing on sports teams can provide? So instead of a small percentage of youngsters making it to the top, when all youth sports leagues decide to promote, practice, and enforce these values, skills, and beliefs, all children will leave the playing fields as winners and each season will be a championship one.

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  • Evan

    i dont like sports like soccer tennis baseball football hockey golf basketball volleyball softball or ping pong i only like sports like pinball and bowling

  • Debbie Friend

    Evan,
    As long as you participate in activities that you enjoy , you’re more likely to keep doing them.
    I’m curious to find out why you don’t like playing the other sports you mentioned.