Before I get into this, I want to re-assert that you could only describe me as being avidly involved with youth sports. This is my eighth year as head coach of Palmyra Jr. Wrestling, and I have been coaching Pal-Riv soccer for 12 years. Each year, I spend hundreds of hours planning practices, attending meetings, conducting practices/training, coaching matches and games, and communicating with parents.
I’m invested. I think it’s been worth it. I love the kids I work with, and I also love the community of parents and supporters who have assembled around our teams, cheered for and helped each others’ children, and become, by my estimation, great friends.
I do think youth sports are mostly good. But I have moments of big-picture doubt, dark nights of the soul, if you will. Two things I came across lately, one from each of my sports worlds, re-kindled some of those doubts.
First, a friend emailed me the article “Youth Wrestling – How Stupid,” by wrestling legend Wade Schalles. Schalles, one of the sport’s best pinners ever, comes down hard on youth wrestling. He said parents getting involved with the sport are “being sold a bill of goods”:
They bought into the vision of their young children developing self-esteem and learning how to fine tune their kinesthetic senses in an environment of support, friendship and pleasurable experiences. Little did they know that the devouring nature of competition has driven many of our coaches to replace the word Fun with Drudgery, Friendship with Adversary and Fundamentals with Funding.
Most young wrestlers simply end up quitting, he says. Indeed, I looked at the photo on my desk from my first year as head coach of Palmyra. Of the 21 kids in that picture, only nine stayed with the sport.
The youth wrestling culture breeds this attrition, Schalles says. He mentions the “ugly” blowups between young wrestlers and their overly involved (and usually overly vocal) parents and asks, “Why would a sport, any sport, develop and then accept an environment that erodes self-esteem and assures a steady stream of tears from those we hold most dear?”
Schalles concludes with a “legislation” solution: “No child is allowed to enter competition for one calendar year from the date they begin wrestling.” Instead, children would initially learn wrestling-related games and “forms” or “Katas” of the sport, similar to karate. It’s a fascinating idea.
On to soccer. A few weeks ago, I received an email of an article that U.S. Soccer announced a concussion plan. The lead of the article read:
The United States Soccer Federation has taken a serious step toward dealing with the dangerous issue of head injuries in soccer, particularly in younger players by announcing a ban on heading the ball for players 10 and under and limiting heading in practice for children between the ages of 11 and 13.
The article’s FAQ was interesting, but even more interesting were the comments. One person wrote, “this decision is going to SEVERELY hinder the progress of our soccer players on the national stage.”
National stage? That made me think of Schalles’ “devouring nature of competition.” A tiny little group of people will compete for a national title in either sport. A number that’s probably about a statistical zero will ever compete for a world title. The opportunities for fitness, camaraderie, discipline are vast in sports, so how much parent-driven child wreckage has to lie discarded behind a few dozen elite athletes?
In a way, the national soccer federation said “enough!” The plan is about concussions, but it is a way of addressing the broader issue of how parents and coaches drive kids into competitive situations.
Even high-level organizations and athletes are looking at their youth sports cultures and asking a fundamental question: What are we doing? We lose sight of what’s right in front of us: Competitive leagues, standings, and tournaments are organized by adults. Who is checking kids’ “power rankings” and standings online? The kids?
Of course, many of my young athletes love to compete, and they love being Panthers or Dragons or even, at one time, Red Hot Lava Rocks. But I remember playing neighborhood sports as a child, and I don’t think those activities were any less inherently competitive for me and my friends. We all wanted to win and play so badly. In our own minds, our clashes were legendary — without a sideline of fanatical adults urging us on, without schedules, without uniforms.
(I wonder what the results would be if someone ran a controlled experiment of kids’ neighborhood play vs. kids in hyperorganized structures? How different would they be in skills, competitiveness, enjoyment of their sport, injuries, longevity, etc.?)
I enjoy the competitive, open holiday tournament my wrestling club runs each December. I felt good when my soccer team won its flight this fall. I beamed when one of my players scored a header goal. I’m proud when one of my wrestlers nails a “shark” takedown. Oh, I too have spent many hours getting us there.
But I had three children I coach suffer concussions last year. Sometimes this coach has to step back and reflect on a simple question: Why are we doing this again?
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