The Benefits of Playing Youth Sports: Did We Get it Wrong?

The Benefits of Playing Youth Sports: Did We Get it Wrong?

We all know the benefits of playing youth sports. Or do we? Somewhere in the past 15 years the lines have been distorted regarding what these “benefits” exactly are.

I once had a player tell me that they did not want to participate in our off-season activities any longer. 

So why did they want to quit? Burned out? Hurt? Just needs a break?

Nope. The reason was because the off-season games gave more opportunities to other players to get game-time. In other words, they did not want to share the field with other players.

My initial response was “what the heck?”

And then I began to think about how this is not all that uncommon. I have experienced this mind-set with some other players in the past as well. Both male and female athletes.

Notice I did not say ALL players.  Just some. Many parents and players have great attitudes about the reasons for playing.

But there does seem to be a different mentality about sports than in years past.

Some of this is parenting. But some of it is a result of the system in youth sports that has evolved over the past 15 years. We now have an increased emphasis on playing for college scholarships (and personal rewards, stats, etc).

And a de-emphasis on the benefits of playing for the social and character-building benefits. This applies whether it's baseball or softball.

I once had a leader of one of the elite travel softball programs in the country explain to me how they don’t focus on trophies for winning tournaments.

“Ok, that’s good” I thought to myself.

But then he went on to say very proudly that the only “trophy” they care about is getting their players a college scholarship.

I understand that the goal for his players is playing in college, and it should be a byproduct of their efforts. But I think making this temporary gain (college scholarships) the #1 focal point takes away from the lifelong lessons that players can learn from playing a sport.

So what can we do as coaches (and parents) to help combat this mindset and increase the possibility of positive benefits of playing sports?

Here are a few suggestions for helping our players understand that its not “all about them”:

1. Make Helping Others and Character Building a Priority

Let’s face it, the system in place today creates a natural inclination for players to focus on “getting things” for playing. Whether it’s an award, a tournament trophy, or a college scholarship…so much focus is on getting external things.

And this leads to the increased potential of a “me-first” mindset.  The guys and gals over at 3Dimensional Coaching argue that sports only reveal character.  It doesn’t actually teach character in and of itself.

But its the coaches that actually teach character.

Their point is that it won’t happen naturally unless as coaches we make it an emphasis on our teams. If we don’t teach it, our players won’t learn it naturally by playing the sport. 

According to the 3D Course Curriculum (which I love), some studies actually indicate that sports in and of themselves lead to poorer character traits.

But the good news is that coaches CAN make a difference. By making serving others and positive character a priority, we can help players develop positive character through softball & baseball!

2. Team Building that Focuses on Non-Athletic Characteristics

Team building is an oftentimes under-emphasized part of coaching. But it can play a huge role in a teams success on the field, and in their ability to play for each other.

As much as possible try and focus on team building activities that do not focus on the sport itself. For example, if you do any type of activity where players are asked to encourage each other…have the players focus on things about their teammates that are character related (rather than sports related).

The more you focus on these things as a coach, the more your players will begin to understand its importance. Not to mention they will begin to enjoy this part of being on your team.

3. Encourage Your Elite Travel & Club Players to Play for Their High School

There is a disturbing “trend” of players not playing for their high school teams, oftentimes because it isn’t “competitive enough.” Or because it doesn’t help them get recruited. This all goes back to the “what’s in it for me” mind-set.

There are always exceptions, but as a rule I think this is a bad trend. If the coach is a total jerk (rare cases) or you play another sport that overlaps then perhaps you have a valid reason.

But rather than seeing this as a “step-down,” why not encourage elite players to take a role as a leader on a less competitive high school team? This can be an incredible opportunity for great players to set an example, develop leadership skills, and be of service by helping others get better.

And these are the kind of benefits of playing that a player will use for their life. Not just for a season or a temporary good feeling.

At one of the high school softball programs that I took over, I had two future college scholarship players (Division I and Division II). But in my first year we were very bad. To their credit (and their parents), they stuck it out to the end. And they had a huge role in turning around a historically poor program.

And more importantly they made an incredibly positive impact on their teammates during that time.

Every circumstance is different. Every team is different. And every player is different. But as coaches, we CAN make a difference in setting a tone for our players to focus on serving others. And combating the “me-first” attitude.

It isn’t always easy, and it takes intentionality. But with the right focus we can bring about positive benefits of playing youth sports that go way beyond a trophy.

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