by Scott Rosberg
Today I want to talk about what the most important elements are that we should stress in youth and school athletics. I see it much the same way that I see a financial advisor advising on what kind of financial portfolio one should have. A key word in financial planning is “diversification.” Financial planners tell us that we need to diversify between different types of stocks, bonds, cash, and other types of funds.
In a young athlete's portfolio, there also needs to be diversification. We need a combination that emphasizes fun, winning, and the development of young people. Much like the financial portfolio, there are various factors one must consider when trying to figure out how to split up the athlete's portfolio in the best way possible for kids to have a positive experience.
The first element of the athletic portfolio is Fun. Athletics are supposed to be fun. Remember when you were a kid. It was fun to go out and play a game. You played because you enjoyed it, and you enjoyed playing with your friends. That must still be a part of youth athletics.
However, we (the adults) need to help determine what fun is and how to achieve it. Fun is not the same at all levels of play, nor does it carry the same weight at all levels of play. For the youngest levels of youth athletics, the fun part of the portfolio should be the largest. For kids through grades 4 & 5, the adults leading them should spend about 80% of their time making sure they are creating an enjoyable experience.
While we want to teach them the fundamentals of the game, look at the first syllable of the word “fundamentals.” It’s FUN. Let's put the fun in fundamentals!
Michael Jordan once said that when parents ask him what they should be doing for their kids to make them be the best they can be, he tells them to make sure that the kids are having fun playing. Too many parents want to make their young kids into the next Jordan, instead of letting them build a love of the game first. There is no way that your eight-year-old is going to put in all of the time necessary to be the next Michael Jordan, Alex Morgan, or Patrick Mahomes if he or she doesn’t have a love and passion for the game first.
You don't instill that passion in them by forcing them to take a hundred swings, jumpers, or slap shots every day. It’s to provide them a chance to play a lot and to have fun doing it. Then as they get older, if they truly love the game, they will have the desire to go out and shoot or swing or throw for hours because they want to, not because you want them to. So let’s instill the element of having fun at their games first.
But what is fun? Is it winning? Is it working hard to achieve and be your best? Is it being part of a team? YES! It’s each of those and more. Everyone has a little different idea of what fun is when it comes to athletics. It's important for us adults to help our children learn what fun is when it comes to athletics. Ultimately, fun is being good. When you become a good player and a good teammate, you have a lot more fun.
When discussing fun in sports, it’s also important to teach kids what fun is not. Fun is not making fun of other people who are playing and trying their best. Fun is not goofing around and not paying attention while the coach is talking. Fun is not just going through the motions and not trying hard. Fun is not being indifferent because you're too cool to care.
Coaches and parents alike can help instill these ideas in our kids so that they come to a better understanding of what it means to be a part of athletics. Then as they get older, kids will realize that, while winning is a lot of fun, so is working hard with teammates and trying to be your best, even when you don’t win the game.
That leads to the next part of our athletic portfolio: Winning. Is winning important? You bet it is. We need to instill a desire to win in our athletes. After all, that’s why they have a scoreboard. But to focus only on winning or to focus on it too early in a young athlete's life is a problem.
So how do we delineate when to focus on winning and when not to? First of all, we should never focus on winning in the early grades, especially up to about third grade. We probably don't even need a scoreboard involved at these ages. Let’s help them see that the fun they have practicing, playing, developing, and being with teammates is what's most important.
This is not to diminish the importance of winning. I love to win and hate to lose as much as anyone else. So do most of the great athletes who ever played sports. They all seem to share one common trait: a burning desire to win and a hatred of losing. So it is important to have winning be a part of athletics. But should it be as important as many of us make it. I don’t believe so.
For instance, the high school and college football seasons are starting to wind down over the next few weeks. Ultimately, when they are all done, there were only be one national champion and one state champion for each classification in the different states around the country. Does that mean all the other teams are losers? I don’t think so.
There will be many teams who rose above their circumstances and situations who will have achieved more than they believed they would. Should they deem themselves losers just because they didn't win the big one? Of course not. There are so many factors to determine one's success, and winning championships is only one of them. Unfortunately, our society’s emphasis on winning it all has made people believe that unless you win a national championship or a state championship, you are considered a loser. What a crock! The win-it-all mentality is a sickness for which we need to find a cure, or it will ruin our kids' athletic experiences.
The final element of a young athlete's athletic portfolio is Developing Young People. Along with creating a fun, enjoyable experience, this should be the top priority of the adults involved in kids' athletic experiences. This is especially true for kids from around third or fourth grade on up. We should be focusing on developing these kids as athletes and as people. Less than one percent of athletes in most sports will make it to the professional level. The percentage of college scholarship athletes isn’t much larger than that. But every one of the young people who play a sport will have to grow up and be productive members of society, family, school, work, and other kinds of groups.
It is up to us as coaches, parents, and athletic administrators to do our part to teach these young people what it means to be a good athlete and a good person. Improvement at the game, working hard, taking directions, persevering through adversity, being a selfless teammate, and learning how to win and lose are just a few of the many skills and concepts we can help develop in these young people through athletics. Each of us should play a role in this development. But before we help them achieve these things, we adults must make sure that our mindsets are correct as well.
Coaches, are you so caught up in winning that you are forgetting what the most important elements of your kids' athletic portfolios are? Are you going to let kids misbehave and still play them just because you need them to win the game?
Parents, are you so concerned with your kid playing more minutes and scoring more points than everyone else that you don’t care that he or she broke a school or team policy? Are you going to go after every coach or league official every time the team doesn’t win or your kid gets reprimanded for some inappropriate behavior?
Administrators, are you going to cut athletic budgets and programs because in your minds athletics are not as important as academics, even though they are often the biggest reason many kids come to school? Are you going to fire coaches who don’t win a lot of games but who are great for kids, while at the same time keep coaches who win a lot of games but do so at the expense of the fun and development of all of their kids?
Lets’ balance our focus so that we work to instill all three elements— fun, winning, and the development of young people—into our kids' athletic portfolios. Then we will create young people who have fun, enjoy some scoreboard success, and become great teammates and people who are prepared for what life will throw at them. Just as our financial portfolios should prepare us to weather the economic storms that we will face, our young people will be better prepared to weather the storms of athletics and of life. When we help build our young people’s athletic portfolios in this way, our kids and our communities will all be wealthy beyond our wildest dreams.