‘I Would Like to Set Our Defense’?

It was Bill’s first experience coaching youth basketball. “Eye-opening” is the way he described it.

Bill is my neighbor and friend. He is the father of two young daughters who like to play basketball. So, when the rec team one of his daughters played on needed an assistant coach, Bill agreed to help out. And, when a scheduling conflict prevented the head coach from fulfilling his duties with the team, Bill became the head coach. Quite unexpectedly, he was now in charge of a team of eight-year-olds. (You notice I used the term “in charge of”. I didn’t write “in control of” because, after all, we are talking about eight year-olds.)

Though he hadn’t coached previously, Bill had been a standout player in college, so he knew the game well. A one hour practice and one game a week didn’t seem too daunting. Most kids at this age are just learning about the game. It’s not about coaching strategies and tactics at this age. It’s about teaching the kids the fundamentals of the game, making sure they play fairly and respectfully, and above all, providing a safe, positive learning experience in which having fun is the goal. That’s what he thought, anyway.

Two days before the first scheduled game, the coach of the opposing team called Bill. New to the league, Bill appreciated the coach reaching out to welcome him. It’s the question that followed the ‘welcome to the league’ greeting that caught Bill by surprise.

“Can you tell me your starting line-up? I would like to set our defense”.

The coach wasn’t joking.

At that moment, Bill realized that coaching his daughter’s basketball team was not going to be what he had expected. I would like to set our defense?

Bill said that was just the first of many times he would be reminded that parents can view youth sports from very different perspectives. Over the course of the season, he said parents of these 8-year-olds often would offer “tips” for winning more games by “maximizing the talent” on the team.

Bill’s youth coaching days ended after the season. He looks back on that recent memory and wonders about the priorities and expectations of the parents of young athletes.

Parents Want a Better Youth Sports Environment

In September, 2014 an ESPN Sports Poll was conducted, aimed at capturing the thoughts of a nationally representative group of parents and guardians of children age 18 and under on the state of youth sports. Risk of injury, especially from concussions, was identified by parents as a major area of concern. The commitment of time and the costs of participation also were identified by parents as issues needing to be addressed.

However, no topic drew more overall concern in the survey than did the coaching of young athletes.

  • 81% of parents expressed concern about the quality or behavior of youth coaches.
  • 61% of the parents identified it as a big concern.
  • 85% of the fathers responding to the poll expressed some level of dissatisfaction with youth coaching.

Parents as Coaches

The poll questions were presented to the ESPN Sports Poll’s monthly panel of parents at the request of espnW and the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program. The Institute’s Project Play has reported that “Only 1 in 5 youth coaches is trained in effective motivational technique with children, and just 1 in 3 are trained in skills and tactics”.

Those numbers shouldn’t be a surprise. They’re quite understandable considering that most youth coaching in the U.S. is not performed by professionally-trained coaches, but instead by parent volunteers. And, if you talk with those volunteer coaches, you will find most of them share the parents frustration with the youth sports culture. But, while many parents are concerned about the kind of coaching their kids are getting, many of those those volunteer coaches are frustrated with the kind of sports parenting they encounter. Many coaches point to the parents who complain about a son or daughter’s playing time, tell the coaches how to do their job, and yell negative and disparaging comments from the stands during games.

What message do you suppose that sends to young athletes?

What are the Priorities?

Two-thirds of parents responding to the September ESPN Sports Poll on youth sports said there is “too much emphasis on winning over having fun”. That mindset isn’t just a coaching issue. As Bill’s story illustrates, the “winners and losers” mentality in youth sports that puts winning ahead of everything else, often is coming from the parents watching the games, not just the ones coaching in them.

Whether you are a parent or a coach, you have to ask yourself: What is the priority in youth sports? What is it that you want your children to take away from their team sports experience?

Photo Credit: Eli Christman via Flickr

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