Changing the Focus in Youth Sports

It was a typical cold, winter day in the northeast. Every available gym in the area featured youth basketball games, one game after another, from early morning into night.

I watched as two 5th-grade boys rec league teams, one team in blue, the other in green, took to the court. Each team had 10-players. As the game began, it quickly was evident that the Green team had a considerable advantage. Two of its starters were more skilled than any of the players on the Blue team. One player, in particular, stood out. He was a lot bigger and stronger than any of his peers.

This league requires that all players get into the game for at least 3-minutes during the 12-minute first half. The intent of the rules is to give equal playing time in the first half. There are no rules governing playing time in the 2nd half.

The team in green pressed full-court to start the game and led 8-0 after 3-minutes. The team in blue subbed out its starting five so that all 10-players played in the first 6-minutes. The Green team subbed out a couple of players, but kept its two top most skilled players on the floor. The Blue team players appeared to follow their coaches’ instructions well. They played unselfishly, and worked hard to rebound and defend. After trailing 11-0, they rallied to within a point.

At the half, the Green team led by only a few points.

In the 2nd half, the Blue team continued to substitute. The “better” players received somewhat more playing time, but all of the team’s players were on the floor during the 2nd half.

The Green team coach had a different philosophy. He made few substitutions in the 2nd half. With less than 2-minutes left and victory assured, the Green team coach cleared his bench, subbing out all five players. At that point, his “best” player had played the entire game and his 2nd most skilled player had played all by 2.5 minutes of the game. 80% of the points scored by the Green team had come from those two players. Four of the 10-players on the team hadn’t played in the 2nd half.

After the game, I spoke with the Blue team coach. I asked him about his approach to coaching 10- and 11-year olds and giving his less skilled players a chance to play in both halves, a decision that made it more difficult for his team to win.

He said he wants to see his players have fun and learn to play the right way. His goal is to help each player learn the fundamentals of the game and to improve their basketball skills. The coach said that those goals won’t be accomplished if his primary focus is on doing everything possible to win every game.

I asked him about the decision by the opposing coach to play his best players for almost the entire game.

He smiled.

‘That’s his decision to make. I’m comfortable with the decisions we made.’

I pressed a little.

“What were you feeling as you watched the other coach leave his best players out there until the final two minutes of the game”?

He paused, and then said ‘Truthfully, it’s hard. I’m competitive. I want to win. Our kids played so hard today. I wanted to see them rewarded.’

He admitted it’s a challenge when the opposing team is coached with a win-first mindset.

‘As I said, it’s tough. You just try to keep your own ego out of it and do what you think is right.’

The Focus in Youth Sports

I came way impressed with the integrity of the Blue team coach. I could see how competitive he is. So, continuing to sub all of his players in the 2nd half, when the other coach wasn’t, had tested his resolve.

It takes courage to remain true to your principles when it costs you something you want.

I’m sure the the winning coach doesn’t lose any sleep over his youth coaching philosophy. And, no doubt, there are many parents and youth coaches who agree with his approach. They likely would argue that “Kids better learn early that life’s competitive, and if you really want something, you have to compete for it”.

Life is competitive. But, is our current youth sports system, that emphasizes winning over skill development, the best model for young athletes?

The answer is no.

Won-Loss Records and Skill Development

Winning is a poor barometer to assess performance.

That’s not just my opinion. It’s the view of the late John Wooden, the former UCLA basketball coach many regard as the best coach in sports history. I had the privilege of interviewing Coach Wooden at length several times over the years. He never spoke to his teams about winning. He focused on the process, rather than the result. He believed that success is a by-product of preparation, so if you did all the right things to prepare, winning would take care of itself.

Coach Wooden focused his players on being the best they could be every time they went out onto the court. He didn’t want his players to compare themselves to others, he wanted them to learn from others. He challenged each of them to be a better player and a better person each day.

Winning vs. Playing

An adult-driven focus on winning at the pre-teen youth level usually is counter-productive because it’s not what motivates young athletes. Winning is a lower priority for kids than it is for adults. Putting additional pressure on them to perform at their age isn’t effective. It just takes the fun out of the game for the vast majority of them.

It’s not that kids don’t care at all about winning. Of course, they would rather win a game than lose it. But, given a choice between playing and losing, or sitting on the bench and winning, younger athletes will choose to play. There is nothing wrong with that. They are kids.

What motivates children to work harder is having fun and seeing themselves improve. That is how they develop a passion to achieve and compete. It must be their drive and their passion that motivates them. A parent can’t take his or her own work ethic and give it to their child. Where adults can help is by encouraging young athletes, not through false praise, but by building on incremental improvements. By showing their child that someone believes in them. As for winning, it will become more important to kids as they continue to play. Just give them time.

It’s about the Skills, Not the Numbers

What also helps is to remind yourself that a young athlete’s stats in team sports mean little. A player’s stats aren’t transferable from one season to the next. And the numbers don’t necessarily mean that a player has the skills needed to compete successfully at the next level. Wins don’t carry over, either.

What a player takes with them from this season into the next, are the skills they’ve mastered, the knowledge they’ve gained, and the performance and character traits they’ve developed. These are the keys that will determine which young athletes will do well next season. It’s about the process and the habits being formed.

So, instead of narrowly focusing on game scores and stats when athletes are young, studies show the better model is to create a positive learning environment in which children have fun, develop skills, and learn to compete respectfully.

Focusing on these areas encourages more young athletes to continue playing team sports, and it provides them valuable tools to help them achieve, on and off the field.

Photo Credit: Andrew West via Flickr

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