Our Approach to Youth Sports

Studies show that values influence most, if not all, motivated behavior.

Playing team sports gives children and young adults opportunities to develop values. It exposes them to a group dynamic in which social, emotional, and physical skills can develop. Kids learn about peer relationships, teamwork, responsibility, achievement, leadership, respect, initiative and perseverance. Many of the ethical dilemmas and challenges they will face later in life are ones they contend with while playing sports.

The character development aspect is why Even Field views sports as an effective medium to help children learn and practice ethical reasoning and positive core behaviors.

However, while playing team sports often leads to positive social and moral development, the benefits aren’t derived simply from participation. As we discussed here, The “do whatever it takes to win” mentality has taken its toll on sportsmanship and fair play.

We need to swing the pendulum back so that competing fairly and honorably is the expectation, and respect for the game, the players, fans, and officials is the norm.

While sports leagues and organizations have worked to curb negative fan behavior in youth sports, the emphasis on winning games still impacts a significant number of young athletes.

Parents who push their kids to excel on the field usually want winning to be a key motivator for young athletes. They reason that life is competitive and they want their kids to learn what it takes to win. However, research indicates that this approach has a limited upside and considerable drawbacks.

Give Kids Time to Develop Their Passion

Surveys consistently have shown that most adults place a much higher importance on winning in youth sports than do the kids who are playing. In fact, surveys show young athletes list “winning” well down the list of the goals most important to them in playing team sports.

Kids want to play. That’s #1. Research shows that children would rather play in a game than sit on the bench for a winning team.

There is nothing wrong with that. It makes perfect sense. These are kids. The fact that they aren’t as concerned about winning as we are, is not a problem. We just have to give them time, and understand that a child’s view of competition is different than the view we have as adults.

The Current Youth Sports Model

Despite improvements in many youth sports programs, we continue to see young athletes dropping out of team sports, many before they’ve had a chance to develop as players.

Studies indicate that over 70% of children who play team sports quit before the age of 14. In surveys, young athletes have identified three major reasons for losing interest and deciding to quit.

  • They aren’t having fun.
  • They aren’t getting better at their sport.
  • They feel too much pressure to perform/win.

While there are many other factors that influence young athletes to quit playing team sports, we should pay attention to what they are telling us.

Most of the reasons kids give for quitting team sports are directly related to the actions and behaviors of adults.

How many “late bloomers” do we lose from youth sports because they were slower to develop physically, than some of their peers?

The Even Field Approach

Even Field sees a win-win solution that will keep kids engaged and lead to more sustainable success.

We believe that for U-12 athletes especially (those under the age of 12), individual and team improvement is best achieved through coaching focused on developing skills and values, rather than coaching tactics and outcomes. We advocate this approach because we see that cultivating respect, responsibility, collaboration, fair play, and a team-first/teammate-supportive mentality, leads to more involved and invested players, who are better prepared and more open to learning.

This skills and values-based teaching model alleviates the major reasons kids quit team sports. It encourages them to continue playing. They look forward to coming to practice. Their skill development improves. They build positive peer relationships. And, importantly, this environment helps young athletes build trust in one another, while developing a strong work ethic, and a desire to play honorably.

When kids are having fun, seeing themselves improve, and playing their sport with integrity, they are more likely to stay involved. They play with effort, enthusiasm and confidence. This helps develop a desire to compete and excel. The result is greater individual and team success.

A recent study supports our belief that these teams outperform those operating with an “outcome-based” approach.

We hear a lot about someone having a “will to win”. But, it’s more about a passion to compete. Most former athletes will tell you that what they miss most in retirement is competing in sports, not just the winning of games.

The Path to Winning With Integrity

We will use the connections kids and adults have to team sports to encourage young athletes to develop values-based, rather than just outcome-based, thinking. We want to encourage children and young adults to respect others, to take responsibility for their actions, to learn leadership and team-building skills, and to become trustworthy.

Even Field’s Peer into Character™ multimedia programs will create “teachable moments” in youth sports. This will help young athletes learn, practice and reinforce ethical reasoning skills and positive core behaviors through peer interactions in a competitive environment.

We will work with sports leagues, organizations, and individuals as part of our integrated approach to developing integrity and ethical behavior.

As young people work through conflicts and dilemmas they encounter in school, sports, and other activities, they see how reasoning skills and positive behaviors work in different social settings. It helps them internalize a desire to do “what is right”, and the courage and integrity to align their behaviors and actions with that desire. This continual awareness, evaluation, practice and reinforcement of ethical thinking and positive behaviors is the key to developing integrity.

The role of adults in this process cannot be understated. Research shows that development of values in children largely is dependent on the parents, coaches, teachers and other mentors involved. They are centrally important in both modeling positive behaviors and in creating learning environments in which good character will thrive.

Replacing the “win at all costs” culture in sports and life with a model promoting positive core behaviors and personal integrity will not happen overnight.

But everyone can help.

Coaches who view their role more as teachers than as tacticians, convey the importance of skills and values over tactics and outcomes. Parents and other mentors of young athletes reinforce this concept when they see that developing skills, teamwork, and a desire to improve and compete, are of greater importance than just the outcomes of games.

In the long run, creating and maintaining cultures of integrity in sports, business, and life will depend on young people. It will happen when they decide that behaving ethically and responsibly matters; when they believe that competing fairly, winning with integrity, and treating others with respect and compassion, are core behaviors important to them.

Originally Released: 2013-12-19 | Photo Credit: Simon_sees via Flickr

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