Thursday, May 30, 2013

Taking Youth Sports Seriously

Jonathan Mahler has a fascinating, somewhat counter-intuitive argument about how to cure American youth sports over at Deadspin:
America’s youth sports culture is sick. But the conventional diagnosis of the illness has it backward: The problem isn’t that we take youth sports too seriously. It’s that we don’t take them seriously enough. As a result, we’re producing bad citizens and bad athletes.
From my limited experience as a middle school basketball and JV soccer coach--and my much larger though less mature experience in playing sports*--this rings true. The kids who tend to cause the most problems and create the most tension are actually the kids who take it the least seriously. The ones who are serious tend not to mess around with trash talk and shoving. Those who are not serious, on the other hand, do not mind disrupting the game. 

*My tentative count has me playing thirty-seven seasons of organized sports between age 4 and high school graduation (twelve seasons of soccer, nine seasons of basketball, eight seasons of baseball, six seasons of swimming, and two seasons of flag-football).

Mahler notes that "Europe’s soccer academies... are serious and demanding, but the kids are still having fun. There is pleasure in playing the game right, in learning to look for a pass or move into open space." Again, drawing on my experience as a player and coach, I believe that kid have more fun playing well the game well rather than messing around. The problem is that at the age I coach--twelve-to-sixteen years old--most kids would rather mess around, because playing well requires hard work.

And I think, to make a vastly generalizing and get-off-my-lawn statement, America as a whole has given over to the idea that kids should almost always be able to do what they want rather than what's good for them--perhaps because most Americans no longer buy into the idea that anyone should have the authority to tell another human being what's good for them.