Leadership, Character, and Mindset in Youth Sports
Carolyn Thornton has been a standout athlete in high school and college, an award-winning sportswriter, a youth sports parent, and a long-time coach. She now helps oversee high school sports in Rhode Island. In this conversation for athletes, youth coaches, and parents, Carolyn joins Chuck Wilson to share her perspective on leadership, character, and mindset traits that bring out the best in players and teams.
Chuck Wilson on Sports™ features professional and amateur coaches, athletes, officials, and others, sharing insight and perspective from the playing field while discussing issues that impact the game.
Chuck Wilson on Sports and Peer Into Character® podcasts for youth and adults are presentations of Even Field®, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization cultivating integrity, life skills, and leadership, through sports.
Even Field founder and series host Chuck Wilson has been recognized as one of the “100 Most Influential Sports Educators in America” by The Institute for International Sport.
A video version of this episode is available on Even Field’s YouTube Channel.
Episode Quotes, an Audio Timeline, and an Episode Transcript can be found below.
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This Chuck Wilson on Sports™ Episode
- Written and Produced by…Chuck Wilson
- Post-production Editing and graphics by Chris Gemma
- Music by Musicalman licensed through PremiumBeat.com
- Our theme music by Patrick Rundblad licensed through PremiumBeat.com
Our thanks to Professor Mike Davis and his Digital Production class at New England Institute of Technology for the live-to-tape recording of this interview. The recording took place at New England Tech’s East Greenwich, Rhode Island campus.
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on what Carolyn gained from her experiences playing sports
“…you learn about how to overcome adversity and just how to work through difficult times and you find out what you’re made of in pressure situations…And when you do come through with a key hit or a key play or key catch, whatever it is, it’s an affirmation of the power that you have and what you’re capable of, and what you’re capable of overcoming. And so, you take those into the workplace, into family life, into the unexpected.”
on what has happened to the “team-first” mentality
“I think some of us have lost focus on what that means and the importance of it…there’s that focus that you want to be seen and you want to get recruited and you want to get to the next level. And, you want college coaches perhaps to see you and to recognize your ability. So, if that’s in the back of your mind, you’re not necessarily focused so much on the team.”
on coaches looking to recruit players who have character and resilience
“And one of them said, ‘I’d almost rather see the player that I’m looking at go 0-for-4 rather than 4-for-4, only in the sense that they want to see how they react. Are they throwing the helmet? Are they throwing the bat? Are they pouting? Do they stop playing defensively because they’re so focused on the at-bat before where they didn’t get the hit? That kind of thing. And I think that is something that the kids have to realize is they want to see how you react in the bad times, in the adverse times. And, how do you overcome that? Do you lose focus?”
on how the recruiting process can impact the joy of playing a sport
And, there was one day during the season. And I said, you know, coach XYZ is here. You might want to go over and just introduce yourself. And she got in the car and she’s like, ‘You know I just want to play. Sometimes I just want to play. And, I don’t want to have to worry about that kind of stuff.’
on the challenge of peer leadership for team captains
“I think a lot of times, that “C” is put on an athlete’s uniform without really giving them any guidance on what that should mean. And, there’s a lot of responsibility in that. You’re sort of the liaison between the players and coaches. You’re setting a great example I think just with your actions…I don’t think that some kids understand how powerful they are just by how they conduct themselves.”
on the mindset that has guided her life and her role as a mentor
“You want to strive to be the best “you” that you can be and that “you” is different things for everyone. It’s for me, for you, and to not get caught up in what you think you should do, but what you’re destined to be. So, if I can help someone find their path, that’s pretty awesome.”
Episode Audio Timeline
- the role that sports played in Carolyn’s life growing up (1:20)
- how Carolyn developed a fierce desire to compete (2:23)
- on what influenced her as an athlete (2:45)
- asked about early challenges she had athletically (4:05)
- on her softball team winning the IVY League (4:57)
- on fundamentals being the key to her team’s success (5:23)
- asked to describe the team’s culture that season (6:11)
- the experiences from sports that help you in life (6:52)
- valuable advice from a sports leadership workshop (7:28)
- asked what she wanted to see in her teammates (8:20)
- on what has happened to the “team-first” mentality (8:52)
- desire to showcase abilities can affect team goals (9:00)
- character traits that coaches look for in players (10:50)
- how the recruiting process can affect a player (12:03)
- challenges of peer leadership for team captains (13:09)
- asked to describe a challenging leadership moment (15:09)
- times when “The Way You Win Matters” came to mind (16:30)
- thoughts on playing in lopsided games (17:22)
- on competing in your sport with integrity (18:25)
- views on sportsmanship as a strong competitor (19:44)
- on competing honestly, safely, and responsibly (22:54)
- keys to effectively communicate and relate to players (24:33)
- the importance of respect between coach and player (25:30)
- the big picture is too often overlooked (25:53)
- on fan behavior and its impact on high school sports (29:01)
- One change Carolyn would like to see in youth sports (23:22)
- on her role in the evolution of girl’s and women’s sports (32:50)
- on the value of positive role models (34:05)
- Carolyn shares her belief in self-determination (34:30)
Episode Audio Transcript
Leadership, Character, and Mindset in Youth Sports
Carolyn Thornton shares her perspective as a former standout athlete, sportswriter, youth sports parent, long-time youth coach, and from her work helping to oversee Rhode Island high school sports. This conversation for athletes, youth coaches, and parents provides insight into leadership, character, and mindset factors that maximize the abilities of players and teams.
Here is some background on Carolyn Thornton.
- Director of Multimedia Content for the Rhode Island Interscholastic League
- A sportswriter for the Providence (RI) Journal for 25 years (1989 – 2014)
- First full-time female sportswriter at the Providence Journal
- Voted Rhode Island Sportswriter of the Year (1998)
- Brown University; BA in Sociology (1990)
- Three-time All-Ivy League center fielder in softball
- Johnston (RI) H.S. (Class of 1986 )
- 3-sport athlete: softball (All-State); basketball (All-Division); cross-country
- Winner of numerous awards; member of more than a half dozen Halls of Fame, including:
- New Agenda Northeast Women’s HOF (for advancing the role of women in sports)
- Brown University Athletic HOF
- Johnston (RI) High School HOF
- Rhode Island Interscholastic League HOF
- R.I. Track & Field Coaches Association HOF
- Words Unlimited HOF
Carolyn Thornton: guest
Chuck Wilson: interviewer
Note: This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
As we began our conversation, Chuck asked Carolyn to describe the role that sports played in her life growing up.
Carolyn Thornton: I don’t know a role that it hasn’t played or an area of my life where it hasn’t played a role. I remember, I think I was maybe five. For Easter, my dad and mom gave me a softball glove or, I’m sorry, the Easter bunny gave me a softball glove and I started playing softball in instructional league and then it kind of took off from there.
My dad played for the Minnesota Twins organization. So I had a great teacher right in the backyard and I got to follow him to baseball camps and just listen and watch and learn.
And when I was in high school, I started working for the recreation department as a coach, as a referee, whatever they needed us to do. So, I mean, in terms of my work life, that’s how sports started to kind of play a role. And then I decided, you know, I loved writing and I loved sports. I put the two together and became a sports writer. So, that shaped my career at the Providence Journal. It’s just kind of continued ever since then.
Chuck Wilson: You developed a really fierce desire to compete. Where did that come from?
Carolyn Thornton: I’m not sure exactly. I mean, I know my dad was a competitor and I’m sure that he instilled that in me. I’m not sure. I think that’s just sort of an inner drive that you’re sort of born with.
Chuck Wilson: What were the experiences that you had early on that kind of fueled the athlete that you wanted to become?
Carolyn Thornton: You know, back then, we didn’t have the benefit of expensive travel teams and the ability to play out of the state. And we just played because we loved playing and I loved playing in the backyard. My brother and I would play catch just for hours and hours and hours. It’s just what we did. You just played because you loved it and we didn’t have huge crowds and all that stuff, but it didn’t matter.
I think that there’s a perfectionist in me in everything I do. So, you just always are striving to go 4-for-4 in the game and to make every catch and on the basketball court, go 25-for-25 from the free throw line, whatever it is. So, it’s just that inner drive for excellence I think, and combined with the love of the sport, that’s just kind of driven me all the way through.
Chuck Wilson: You were a really good athlete, but everybody has some challenges at some point. What were the early challenges that you had athletically? Do you remember one, in particular, that was difficult for you?
Carolyn Thornton: I guess I didn’t really think of it that way. I mean, it was just a process.
You know, I tell kids when I’m coaching or even as a sports writer, or in my job at the Interscholastic League, kind of to enjoy the journey and the process. And, I mean, I can’t say I loved every single practice I ever went to, but I understood that it was a means to an end. And, you just worked through those. You worked through slumps, you know. Everyone has them in life or in sports and you just work through them.
You know that old saying, “Don’t let the highs get too high or the lows get too low”. So I just sort of have that in the back of my mind with whatever I do, including sports.
Chuck Wilson: Brown University, (you were a) four-year starter. And you had a really good team that blended so well together. You’re a center fielder throughout it all. Take us back to 1990 — undefeated in Ivy League play. What was it about that team that allowed you to win so many close games? I mean, you won 13 of 18 one-run games, eight of 12, two-run games. That’s more than just a trend. How did that come about?
Carolyn Thornton: (laughing) You remember more than I do from that as far as the wins and losses go. You know, it’s just always your goal to win, whatever title is in front of you. And I remember playing at Harvard, that was where we clinched the Ivy title. And that was pretty exciting. You know, I don’t remember a whole lot about the game itself to be honest, other than just the feeling of clinching it and walking up the street, singing “We Are The Champions” and Phil Pincince was our coach.
And one thing that stands out to me is he drilled fundamentals. I mean, you know, bunting drills and defensive drills. It was over and over and over again. And I think that’s what made us, made me a good player and (us) a great team was just repetition.
And sometimes I think that’s lost with programs, even the so-called travel teams. Some of that focus on the process and on the sort of tedious mundane details. But, those things all pay off in the end. And, I think that’s what happened for us as a team. So, it was a really proud moment for us to say that we were Ivy league champions.
Chuck Wilson: What was the culture on that team? How would you describe it?
Carolyn Thornton: It was a fun, fun group of players to play with. I mean, I really enjoyed all our teammates and we were all just focused on playing as well as we could when the opportunity came up.
A lot of the names and things escape me, but the feeling that you have and that you take away from it is what stays with you. It was just a great, great experience. And I mean, it shaped who I was at Brown, you know. I don’t think my experience at Brown would have been what it was without softball and without that team and the experience I had and all the lessons I learned from being a part of that team.
Chuck Wilson: What did you take from that experience that helped you in life?
Carolyn Thornton: I mean, from all of those experiences, not just at Brown, but in high school and beyond, I mean, you learn about how to overcome adversity and just how to work through difficult times and you find out what you’re made of in pressure situations, you know.
And when you do come through with a key hit or a key play or key catch, whatever it is, it’s affirmation of the power that you have and what you’re capable of, and what you’re capable of overcoming. And so, you take those into the workplace, into family life, into the unexpected.
I’m reminded of our recent leadership workshop that we did with students at the Rhode Island National Guard’s Camp Fogarty.
Major General Chris Callahan talked to the students at the very beginning, and he said, “You know, it’s easy to run a race when the weather conditions are perfect and it’s not raining and the course is perfect and you’re in great shape. But, it’s what do you do when it’s 32 degrees or it’s raining, or the course is muddy or it’s rocky because the reality is that those are the conditions you’re probably going to encounter more times than the perfect conditions.”
And so, it’s learning how to navigate through that, that really I think, reveals your character and just shows you what you’re made of.
Chuck Wilson: Early on. What did you see as the ideal teammate? What did you want to see in your teammates?
Carolyn Thornton: What did I want to see in my teammates? Just someone who’s willing to work as hard as I am, that’s as focused as I am, and has the shared goal of the team’s success. Another thing that I think is unfortunately lost sometimes in today’s culture.
When you realize that you’re all pulling together for that same goal, it’s pretty amazing what you’re going to accomplish.
Chuck Wilson: The “Team-First Mentality”. What has happened?
Carolyn Thornton: I think some of us have lost focus on what that means and the importance of it. I think to go back to some of your earlier questions, my goal is always to play at as high a (level) as I possibly could and to challenge myself, on whatever platform that is.
And so, that’s a part of these travel programs. But, there’s also that focus that you want to get seen and you want to get recruited and you want to get to the next level. And, you want college coaches perhaps to see you and to recognize your ability. So, if that’s in the back of your mind, you’re not necessarily focused so much on the team.
You know, in the softball world now, there are time limits on the game. My daughter plays travel and it was shocking to her.
In the first game that she ever played in the college showcase world, I think it was like the sixth inning. There were runners on base, there was a batter up. And then the timer goes off and they’re like, “Okay, that’s it.” And, they all walk off the field and she’s like, what, what, what, (laughs) you know. And, that’s just sort of the structure of college showcases, you know, to keep everybody on schedule. And, that was a very bizarre concept.
So, when the focus stops being that you’re competing to win that game, it’s an interesting dynamic.
And one of them said, “I’d almost rather see the player that I’m looking at go 0-for-4, rather than 4-for-4”
Chuck Wilson: What’s missed is the fact that coaches are looking for the intangibles. They’re looking for character traits. They’re looking for the things that you can do to help a team and work within a team concept. Especially during those times when maybe you’re not playing your best or the team isn’t playing particularly well.
How do you react? Are you finger-pointing or are you finding a way to be able to lift up your teammates and so on? These are things that I think we need to instill in young athletes, but I’m not sure that we’re intentional enough about doing that. What are your thoughts on that?
Carolyn Thornton: It’s interesting that you say that because, at one of the college showcases, I’m considered the team liaison for her team. So, it’s communicating with the coaches that are in attendance. If they’re there to see a particular player or if they want to see that player in a particular position. That kind of stuff.
And one of them said, “I’d almost rather see the player that I’m looking at go 0-for-4, rather than 4-for-4”, only in the (sense) that they want to see how they react. Are they throwing the helmet? Are they throwing the bat? Are they pouting? Do they stop playing defensively because they’re so focused on the at-bat before where they didn’t get the hit? That kind of thing.
And I think that is something that the kids have to realize is they want to see how you react in the bad times, in the adverse times. And, how do you overcome that? Do you lose focus? You know, unfortunately, there are some kids that are fine with going 4-for-4, even if the team loses. And then there are others that they can go 4-for-4 and the team loses and it means nothing to them that they got the hits.
It’s a difficult time I think for kids to navigate, you know?
My daughter was playing and looking for college coaches to see her, recognize her, and be interested in her. And you know, there’s a whole process where we tell the kids to reach out to the coaches. You email them, you send recruiting videos and all this kind of stuff.
And, there was one day during the season. And I said, you know, coach XYZ is here. You might want to go over and just introduce yourself. And she got in the car and she’s like, ‘You know I just want to play. Sometimes I just want to play. And, I don’t want to have to worry about that kind of stuff.’
When I was playing, there was nobody there behind the backstop watching us, weren’t many fans there, and it didn’t matter to me. I was there to play. I was there to just have fun and enjoy the game.
And today’s athletes, there’s a different kind of pressure on them. And so, it’s understandable that it would be confusing, you know, as to what your priorities are supposed to be.
Chuck Wilson: Peer leadership is incredibly important. What are the traits that you’ve seen that are effective in being able to relate to teammates?
“I don’t think that some kids understand how powerful they are just by how they conduct themselves.”
Carolyn Thornton: You know, I think that to focus on your own game while also making sure that you uplift your teammates and help them feel confident that they can come through in the clutch situations and that they can work through those adverse situations, is a difficult balance. I think a lot of times, that “C” (for captain) is put on an athlete’s uniform without really giving them any guidance on what that should mean. And there’s a lot of responsibility in that. You’re sort of the liaison between the players and coaches. You’re setting a great example I think just with your actions.
You know, I don’t think that some kids understand how powerful they are just by how they conduct themselves. Getting to practice on time, helping to pick up the equipment. I’ve never been a fan of the teams where the freshmen are expected to put all the equipment away and then it falls on the team if a ball gets left out. I mean, you’re all using the equipment. You should all pitch in. And you know, the sort of hierarchy of your worth more or less, depending on what year you are on the team. It’s showing that you all do what needs to be done to achieve your goal, whether it’s in practice or in the games and whatnot.
And, a good leader, a good captain, understands that and conveys that to everyone. It makes everyone feel valuable regardless of whether they’re the star, whether they’re the leading scorer or whether they’re on the bench, but they’re an important role player in practices. You never know when that bench player is going to be needed in a key situation. I mean, there are so many unknowns in a season. And so, making everyone feel that they matter because they do.
Chuck Wilson: What would you say was your most challenging leadership moment? (I ask because), you were a leader on the teams you played on.
Carolyn Thornton: There are times I suppose that I maybe felt I was so invested in teams and almost felt like I cared too much or more than…You know, you have to understand sort of the culture of a team and what everyone’s goals are and sometimes you have to adjust those. I just remember going back to high school, just a moment after a game when, and I can’t even really remember the details of it, but I just remember being on the bus and I’m like, I just care so much about this team and playing well, and feeling frustrated because, maybe I was a little too serious at the time. I don’t know.
Chuck Wilson: You’re saying it in a nice way, but really you cared about winning more than some teammates because not every kid cares about their role on the team and “winning” as much as others. Very frustrating, especially if you’re not winning.
Carolyn Thornton: Well, the funny thing was, to be honest in that particular moment that I remember, we had won. We had actually won by a lot and as I think back, it was more, I don’t know if we were running up the score in that particular game. It was just something about how everyone was conducting themselves.
You know, it’s funny because I wanted to mention to you how many times now in my role at the Interscholastic League where I’m observing a lot of games, a lot of playoff games, and your words, “The Way You Win Matters”, come to mind in a lot of ways because at that moment, I felt like maybe we were disrespecting the game a little bit or disrespecting our opponent and that wasn’t okay. And, I recognized that and I remember getting frustrated. So when you talk about the challenge, that comes to mind often.
Chuck Wilson: What does that look like? Those situations in which maybe it gets a little out of hand. You’re really beaten up on an opponent and so on because look, you’re out there to play as hard as you can. It’s not about letting up on the opposition. So, what are your thoughts on that balancing act? because it’s not simple.
Carolyn Thornton: I just always remember that you’re going to be on both ends of a lopsided game at some point. You’re going to be the team beating somebody by 40 and you’re going to be the team losing by 40. It’s just the way it goes. And just to never forget that and not to forget how it feels on both sides. It’s about respecting the game and respecting yourself and respecting your opponent, that I just think is important.
Sometimes you get carried away, you know, when things are going great in the softball game and you’re winning by a ton and you know, it seems like you can’t miss. You get a hit every time up, you can hit it wherever you want. You know, you’re loose, you’re having fun, but then you kind of look over at the other bench and you realize like, it really stinks when you’re on that side too.
Chuck Wilson: Competitive integrity. I love to ask this question. What does that phrase mean to you, because sometimes competition and the integrity of a game are in conflict?
Carolyn Thornton: You know, as a coach, I’ve talked to the players, and I’ll say to them, “When you wear that uniform, you’re not just representing yourself. You’re not even just representing your team. You know, if you’re playing for a high school. You’re representing that school and you’re representing the community. And, for some people who may attend that particular game, that might be the only encounter they have with your particular community. And that’s the only impression that they’ll be left with.” And I mean, that’s a big responsibility and one that a teenage kid doesn’t really understand. But, I just feel that it’s really important to represent yourself in the best light because the ripple effect is pretty far and wide.
Chuck Wilson: When we talk about sportsmanship, sometimes I think it’s viewed as being in conflict with being a really, strong competitor. I think you can do both. I’ve never understood completely the idea that, well, I can’t shake hands after a game because I’m too competitive. I don’t really buy that. To me, that’s kind of a cop-out. But, I understand that there are different opinions on this. How do you view it?
Carolyn Thornton: I mean, it can really hard to shake hands after a game that’s been particularly competitive. And as you were asking that question, I am thinking back to the basketball championships just this year at the Ryan Center. And, you know, you’ve got, say Hendricken and La Salle. I mean, there aren’t many more fierce rivalries than that one. And during the game, I mean, it’s intense.
I actually posted a picture afterward because after the game, the two coaches, you know, shake hands and put their arm around each other and they recognize that you can go full bore for that entire game. But, then it’s done and you’ve got to respect that your opponent, the other coach, did everything they could, played as hard as they could.
And at the end of the day, you know, it’s a weird balance, right? When you say “It’s only a game” because, right, it is only a game. Totally. But yet, it means so much in a lot of ways and it’ll have a lasting impact on everyone who played it. I mean, there will be moments that they look back on decades later. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to an athlete or a coach and they can recount a game, like minute by minute by minute, and the score and everything about it.
Cindy Neal coached Smithfield High School in 1972. It was the first girl’s basketball state championship in Rhode Island. This is the 50th anniversary. So, I was asking her about it. You’d think it happened yesterday. So, in that respect, it’s lasted the test of time. But, at the end of the day, did the Warwick players somehow not move on afterward and have wonderful, successful careers and maybe play at another level and whatnot?
So, it’s a really tricky balance. It’s important, but it is just a game at the same time.
Chuck Wilson: We talk about “The Way You Win Matters”. The way you compete, the way you treat other people, and so on. Yet we have all of these aspects of competition. Gamesmanship, trash talking, the psychological tactics that can be used to try to frustrate somebody.
Maybe it’s the best soccer player on the other team. We’re going to try to rough up that person, try to get into their head. Manipulating the rules a little bit.
And some of it it’s age dependent. Some of it is just wrong, I think. But, where that line is depends on who you talk to. And you’ve seen it from so many different angles as a competitor, as a writer, as an observer of so many games, hundreds and thousands of games now with the Rhode Island Interscholastic League.
So, I’m wondering where you are on this whole issue of what’s within bounds. What’s okay when it comes to competition and trying to play the game honestly, respectfully, and safely?
Carolyn Thornton: You know, there’s like this fine line between being a tough, aggressive competitor and then crossing the line. I’m not a fan of people who use unfair advantages to succeed. I mean, I feel like you put your talents up against somebody else, and may the best man or woman win at that point.
Chuck Wilson: The challenge is, what’s unfair?
Carolyn Thornton: Yeah. I mean, taunting and the trash talking, you know, I’ve never subscribed to that personally. I know there are certain sports where that’s the culture and it’s accepted. But, you know, when you kind of come up to the line and then you step over it a little bit, and then now the line’s moved a little bit. And then over time that line gets moved and moved and moved.
“I think as a society, we overlook some of the things that aren’t acceptable when the result is a win.”
You know, the Interscholastic League’s sort of tagline is “We’re the Purest Form of Sport”. And, that’s not always the case in other sports arenas. I mean, I think that we get tested and challenged all the time in that respect. But it’s a much bigger issue beyond the world of sports, I think, unfortunately.
I think as a society, we overlook some of the things that aren’t acceptable when the result is a win.
Chuck Wilson: Coaches. What have you seen that makes the huge difference when it comes to coaches being able to communicate, relate to players, be able to get the best out of them, and also have them focused on playing so-called the right way?
Carolyn Thornton: There are a lot of responsibilities to being a coach. And, I don’t think everyone realizes that. And, I think it’s even more complicated today in some respects. I think you need to be fair and consistent, but I think you need to communicate that, as well. You need to communicate what your expectations are for the team, for the players, for the parents. You need to communicate that upfront so that everyone understands what those expectations are.
But, the communication doesn’t stop there. I think it’s a constant exercise in giving feedback. I think more than anything, it’s understanding that it’s not just a player, it’s a person. And, making them feel like they matter regardless of what their role is on the team kind of goes back to the captain’s role and just being fair and consistent.
And, no one wants to be yelled at. I mean, we can look at coaches over the years that have been very successful. Sometimes I wonder what the price was paid on those athletes after the fact.
Respect is a big part of it and fundamentals. And, you know, I talk right about Phil Pincinse at Brown and the repetition and understanding the process, the importance of the process.
To go back to my daughter, you know, she’s playing basketball and her team ended up co-oping with another community, out of necessity. There just weren’t enough players on either team to field the team on their own and, even so, we just kind of knew they were going to have a tough time, a lot of new players to the game.
And in talking to one of the coaches before the season started, I said, you’re going to have to understand that success this year probably won’t be measured by whether you win the championship.
And I said, ‘It’s going to be measured in a lot of other ways.’ I said, ‘You might not realize it now, but they’re going to be more meaningful down the road. And it’s going to be that player who starts out maybe not having ever played basketball before. And by the end of the season, she’s going to be a better player and they’re going to learn to play together better, by the end. They’re going to mesh and they’re going to learn, you know. They’ve never played together before and there’s so much you’ve got to get used to, the new coaches and everything else.’
And, they won some games and they lost some games by quite a bit.
And my daughter was the only senior from her school. There was only one senior from the other school. And, you know, she said to me, and it was after a pretty lopsided loss. And she said, “I wasn’t sure how this was going to work.” She said, “But, this was one of my favorite seasons.”
She made lifelong friends. She still communicates with that other senior and they’ll probably be friends forever. And, you know, if you’d said, well, we didn’t have a winning record and we didn’t go to the playoffs. We didn’t make win a championship. So it was a failure. I think that that would be a real disservice to how much they learned and how much they grew as players, as people. And so that’s what sports should be all about.
And unfortunately, lots of people out there would have that season as a failure. And it would be too bad if they couldn’t understand that the process and the growth that they experienced was so, so valuable.
Chuck Wilson: You’ve been able to chart over a period of time, fan behavior at games. It’s a huge problem. The Rhode Island Interscholastic League has worked on this really hard. Some progress is made, but it’s in an environment in which it’s become increasingly more difficult. What have you seen? What’s that 25, 30-year (period)? What does it look like?
Carolyn Thornton: It’s interesting because, in my role as a sports writer, you’re supposed to be objective, you know. You’re observing and reporting. And then, at the Interscholastic League, it’s a similar role. I mean, we are there to administer championships. Doesn’t matter to us who’s playing in those final games. And so, you know, in my role as Director of Multimedia Content, I’m taking video, I’m taking photos, helping to administer the championships.
I want to say to them, you know, they’re 15, 16, 17 years old. And, if anyone ever attacked your own child that way, what would you do? How would you react?
So a lot of times, I mean, I can just picture one particular soccer championship. So I’m kind of on the track. So the game is in front of me and the fans are behind me. And I can’t even tell the things that are said and the way adults speak and treat young people. And, it’s so easy to get caught up in the moment and the craziness, but it’s not acceptable.
And, they’re torturing the officials and they’re torturing the other teams and it becomes personal attacks. And I want to say to them, you know, they’re 15, 16, 17 years old. And if anyone ever attacked your own child that way, what would you do? How would you react?
And it’s interesting when you’re distanced because I’m a parent too. So I’ve been up in the stands watching my kids play, and it’s easy to get emotional and get worked up and become so invested.
But, it’s important that we kind of keep ourselves in check because the result is officials don’t want to officiate anymore. Frankly, coaches don’t want to coach anymore, partly because of that. And there are probably some kids who may come away from certain experiences and not want to play anymore as well, and that just all runs contrary to why we’re doing this.
Chuck Wilson: What’s the one change you’d like to see in youth sports that you really hope will happen?
Carolyn Thornton: You know, and I think this is going back with both my son and my daughter have played, travel everything, in whatever it is that they’ve done. And we’re at a point right now where we’re all so overscheduled and every sport is now becoming a year-round endeavor. And so you’ve got overlap.
And I think about the times when say we’re playing travel basketball and travel softball, and you drive up to Boston for a basketball game in this tournament, and then you’re rushing down, you know, going the speed limit, of course, rushing down to the next softball game, changing in the car. And, there’s some fun to sort of the craziness of it. But, I think that it’s all being jammed into this small timeframe. And I don’t think you’re able to be fully present in each moment and really be able to appreciate what each of them has to offer.
And it’s easy to get caught up in sort of that whirlwind. And I think there are parents that don’t think they have the option to say, this is too much, this is too much for my child. This is too much for us as a family.
There are a lot of sacrifices. And, what’s the end goal? I think sometimes you sign up and maybe you don’t understand initially what you’ve signed on for, and then you’re in the middle of it. And you’re like, ah, now what, and you feel like your child’s going to get left behind.
It’s all going to work itself out. It will work itself out and it’ll be fine. And you need to take a step back and breathe, and allow yourselves all to be present and to really appreciate why you’re there and what the experience is.
Chuck Wilson: Finally, I hope you really feel good about the role that you’ve had in advancing girls’ sports, because you think from a competitor’s standpoint from being the first, full-time female sports writer at the Providence Journal in Rhode Island, to the work you’ve done as a coach, and then with the Rhode Island Interscholastic League.
50th anniversary of Title IX, and girls’ sports have just blossomed giving so many kids opportunities that they didn’t have at one time.
Just leave us with your thoughts on what that evolution has been like, and to be part of it.
Carolyn Thornton: Well, I was asked, especially back at the newspaper, how it felt to be the first female sportswriter and what obstacles I overcame. And, I never set out to say, I’m going to be the first female sportswriter. I was following my passions and, and what I enjoyed. And, I love the phrase “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity”. I think I was fortunate in a lot of respects. The opportunities, the doors that were opened, and I was, fortunately, ready to accept those.
I just wanted to do the best job that I could and whatever job that was.
In terms of Title IX and, and that kind of thing, there are girls today who don’t know who Alice Sullivan was, and they don’t understand that if it weren’t for Alice Sullivan, they may not have the opportunities they now have 50 years later.
But it’s also a good thing because it means that all those opportunities are there for them. And, there were a lot of other pioneers along with Alice, physical education teachers who formed that group that did “play days”, you know, and a far cry from what the girls get to do now. And so they were doing that.
I mean, Alice was selling chocolate bars and t-shirts to have enough money to host these championships for the first girls that played.
So, we’ve come a really long way and it’s great. And now what we need is for this generation of females to understand, you know, you love this sport, give back to the sport by being great role models, teaching what you’ve learned to the next generation so that we can keep moving forward.
I’m very fortunate to have been able to explore my interest, my passions, you know? The way I say it is you want to strive to be the best “you” that you can be and that “you” is different things for everyone. It’s for me, for you, and to not get caught up in what you think you should do, but what you’re destined to be. So, if I can help someone find their path, that’s pretty awesome.
Chuck Wilson: Great stuff. Carolyn, thanks so much. I appreciate your time.
Carolyn Thornton: Thank you for having me.
Our thanks to Carolyn Thornton, multimedia director for the Rhode Island Interscholastic League.
A video version of this conversation is available on Even Field’s YouTube Channel.
Chuck Wilson on Sports” and our Peer Into Character® conversations are a presentation of Even Field. If you enjoyed this program, please like us on Facebook and let us know who you would like to see interviewed in future shows.
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Founder & Executive Director
Chuck Wilson is an award-winning host, interviewer, and commentator. He was an original host on ESPN Radio and was with the network for close to 17-years. In 2007, Wilson was named one of the 100 Most Influential Sports Educators in America by the Institute for International Sport. He is the founder of Even Field.