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We need to make a decision people. Yes, all of us grown-up-making-decisions-paying-registration-for-youth-sports people…we need to decide about something I believe may be the most critical decision for the future of youth sports.

What do we want for our investment?

Do we want youth sports to work as an engine for education or do we want our hard-earned dollars, volunteer hours and time commitment to result in a fun, entertaining experience for families and kids?

At the very least we have to decide what is more important.

Professional and college athletics are expected to provide high levels of entertainment in this country. Should youth sports provide the same?

It’s not that education can’t be fun and it’s not impossible for kids to learn something from an entertaining experience, but the lack of decision about what youth sports is supposed to accomplish is creating an environment that doesn’t effectively do either.

So here is a completely unscientific description of the differences between the educational and the entertainment model of youth sports.

In an educational model:

  • It is enough to notice small improvements.
  • There is a longterm goal in mind.
  • EVERY moment a child is involved with a youth sports experience, is a learning moment.
  • Wins are great, but learning is better.
  • The experience, improvement and education of EVERY child involved matters.
  • Attention is paid to the lessons being taught on and off the field/court/ice and the end goal is education of the entire child and not just the physical aspects of competition.
  • Parents and coaches parent and coach the children.

In the entertainment model:

  • Scoreboard, record and overall season achievements are how success is measured.
  • It is better to win NOW because there is no guarantee there will be a chance to play later.
  • Pre-game drinking and mid-tournament partying is all part of the entertaining sports experience, it is just how the family enjoys the season.
  • It is not worthwhile or fun unless the team wins and the athletes playing have great performances.
  • The best players should play because the best players improve the chances of winning.
  • The sport exists to produce the highest level of physical achievement possible.
  • People attending are fans and can behave as such (including the entertaining berating of refs)

So, where do you fall on the spectrum of Educational or Entertainment in youth sports? Should there be a difference between youth and college/pro? Should there be two sorts of youth sports programming to satisfy the desires of families: an educational league and an entertainment league? In which league would you sign your kid up to play?

I’m not sure we can have our cake and eat it too.

Meagan Frank is the author of the Choosing to Grow series, a national speaker, athlete, coach, and mother of three. A 1997 graduate of Colorado College, Meagan was a four-year starter and senior captain on the Division I women’s soccer team and lettered in Division III women’s basketball. She has coached recreational, high school, elite, and college-level teams for both boys and girls.

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Copyright 2015       Meagan Frank   Choosing to Grow         http://www.meaganfrank.com

basketball player at a fence

Before taking the ice, the locker room was filled with tension. There were silent tears, migraines, upset stomachs, throwing up, pale faces, wringing hands, and chest palpitations.

You would think this was the scene I observed prior to the Olympic gold-medal game, right?

No. This was the state of the locker room just before a U10 girls’ hockey tryout. U10, meaning the girls were UNDER the age of ten. Eight and nine-year-old children (and some of their parents) were as stressed out as any military recruit arriving for the first day of boot camp.

It’s hard to believe this is something caring adults create for children… on purpose. It is disheartening to acknowledge that adults have devised this system. The only hope is that enough adults will get together to stop scenes like this from happening every tryout season in every sport where elementary-aged teams are decided.

No matter the sport, conducting tryouts and creating A, B and C-leveled teams for elementary-aged children is a practice that needs to be changed.

If we, as the collective adults who run youth sports, decide that sports for kids are educational (a forth-coming blogpost), then Developmental Psychology defends the idea to cut tryouts for kids under the age of 12.

I’ll refer to the philosophy of psychologist Erik Erikson. In an article describing his philosophies, Kendra Cherry describes his theory of psychosocial development, and the fourth stage refers to children from ages six through eleven.

Cherry writes, “they strive to master new skills. Children who are encouraged and commended by parents and teachers develop a feeling of competence and belief in their skills. Those who receive little or no encouragement from parents, teachers, or peers will doubt their ability to be successful.

According to Erikson, this stage is vital in the development of self-confidence. Success leads to a sense of competence, while failure results in feelings of inferiority.”

Telling children they are “less than”  or “more than” their peers because of an A, B, or C-leveled designation can be incredibly damaging to kids.

Reinforced in the book Your Family Compass: A Parenting Guide for the Journey, author Jenny Hanlon, M. Ed., says, “It’s imperative for teachers, parents, and coaches to eliminate comparisons of children based on their abilities. There is no need to point these things out, as many children are already aware of their abilities in comparison to others. Having an adult point them out creates feelings of inferiority.”

Through tryouts, adults evaluate and decide the placement of children based on ability. The adults may understand that the kids could grow out of this placement, but the kids often do not fully understand that. Too often they start aligning themselves in other social settings based on the designation. “I’m a C kid.” or “I’m awesome, I’m an A kid. You suck…you just made the C team.”

Children who believe they are inferior during this critical stage of development struggle to gain the confidence necessary to push through to a place of competence in the skills they are attempting to achieve. I have a hunch this feeling of inferiority plays heavily into the decision for some twelve and thirteen year olds who decide they will NEVER be good enough to compete and then quit sports altogether.

Once children reach middle school ages of eleven, twelve and thirteen, they are formulating their identity outside of just competence, and they can better process where they rank along a physical skill scale.

When Left to Their Own Devices What Do Kids Do Naturally?soccer player

Have you ever observed a group of kids organizing a pick-up game? I know those games are more and more infrequent, but the pick-up games I’ve observed come together about the same way each time. Kids naturally level teams to be even. They don’t stack one team when they play. Instead they do quick analysis of the participants and make the teams as fair as possible. Kids want to compete, but they instinctively recognize that it is simply NO FUN if the teams are uneven.

More often than not, the argument I hear for defending “leveling” teams is that the better players are held back by less talented players so it is better if all the “good” athletes are on the same team and competing with other associations who have leveled their teams too. They ask, “What does it teach talented kids who are thrust together with less talented athletes?”  Well, all indications are that it teaches them all good things.

Looking at successful educational situations, most American schools have moved away from a fixed-leveling model and more toward a sliding rule method designed along growth potential instead. The Finnish educational system has achieved great success with this and one of the things they have adopted is a mixed classroom full of all talent levels.

Putting different levels of talent on the same team is NOT detrimental to the development of a child, and I would argue it could actually be more beneficial for the overall development of both the talented and the untalented players.

For the more talented players, I would hope it could be used as a teaching ground for humility and sportsmanship, an opportunity for positive leadership and teamwork, and a place to have fun playing a game that all the kids are LEARNING. In an ideal world, the coaches would recognize what each athlete brings to the team and help the kids recognize those strengths in each other.

We have had the unique opportunity in our house to be a part of intense tryouts for teams in a couple of the biggest sports associations in Minnesota as well as to be part of a pair of associations in Wisconsin that are small enough that tryouts are rarely necessary. Last fall, at the start of their first season in the small town, all three of my kids were literally jumping for joy that tryouts would not be happening for them. At the end of the season I asked my oldest, who is almost 14, whether he wished he had been on a team of similarly-leveled talent after tryouts or on a team with varied talent that didn’t require a tryout. He said he would choose the team that didn’t require a tryout even if the talent of the players was not all at the same “level”.

Educators have learned a lot about educating the elementary-aged child and it needs to translate onto our fields, courts and ice rinks.

Imagine for a second that your third grader had to try out for math class. Depending on the results of two tests he would either be in the class or not in the class. That’s absurd, you might say. Every child has the right to learn math. My contention is that every child who signs up for a sport has the right to learn that sport too, and it shouldn’t come at the cost of positive psychosocial development. Not to mention the resource gap between the A teams and the C teams. (I’ll save that for a future post too)

The System Would Need to Change: So How Can We Do This? ID-100234295

I’ll start first with some of the counter-arguments I heard while doing my research.

Argument 1: “This would be too hard to implement. It’s just easier to keep doing what we’re doing.”

True, status quo is easier. Just because this is the way we’ve always done it doesn’t mean it is the best thing for kids or for the development of athletes overall. Honestly, if you have ever been a part of the headache of tryouts, you know that it is tough enough exactly the way it is. It is just a different kind of hard to navigate making evenly competitive teams from all the talent in the association.

Of course, every association has to abide by this huge philosophical change in order for it to work. If there is a group that wants to tip the playing hand in their favor, it dismantles everything. So let’s say in an idyllic world every association does the same thing. All players under the age of 12 are placed in levels by age and then within the association the teams are put together as evenly as possible.

How would teams be chosen?

There are a couple ways to choose even teams. One way would be to pool the kids together for a number of practices at the start of the season. A committee of coaches would then work together to create even teams from the talent in each age group.

Another way to do it would be to get an idea of talent-level and then ask the kids/families to indicate friends (or carpools) with whom they would like to play. The team-deciding committee would do what they could to put two or three of the friends together, according to this request, while still making the teams even (kids perform better when they play with their friends anyway…and the families will likely have a better experience).

Choosing by coaching lottery (like a draft) would also make the teams pretty even once they are set.

An added bonus: making the teams leveled within the association helps with the overall team identity of the association at the same time. This is especially true if teams are mixed up year to year as the kids grow.

Argument 2: “High school is cut-throat and kids need to be prepared for tryouts.”

I agree. You wouldn’t want to send a kid to high school without having some experience with the stress that goes with a tryout. With this approach, there will be tryouts… when the athletes are 12 and older, and for two years before they start high school. Plenty of time to prepare for the impending stress of high school evaluation.

Argument 3: “What about commitment level? There are the REALLY competitive families who want an intense youth sports experience.”

Offer heavy schedule, medium schedule, and light schedule teams. You can still put teams together according to the numbers who sign up for that “level” of commitment. The more kids who sign up for a heavy schedule, the more teams you make for that group.

A recent article in the Star Tribune highlights the frustration of folks who want to give their kids a chance just to try hockey but who feel it is an ALL or NOTHING endeavor. This is not unique to competitive hockey, and it really shouldn’t be this way. With different scheduling opportunities families could give their kids a chance to try a team sport.

I think more than anything, cutting tryouts will enhance a spirit of teamwork that is currently lacking in youth team sports. The current system rewards players for acquiring individual skill in the off-season so they can make a higher level team. It pits families against one another when teams are named and players have either found a way to be on the right list or have done the right things to be noticed. Working hard at being a team player, no matter the level of the teammates, is not something we are teaching kids to do.

There will be a time when the cream rises to the top and the best of the best can compete for the entertaining pleasure of the parent-fans. Twelve-year-olds are a good age to introduce this sort of competition. For the kids who are younger than that, we need to start thinking like educators and use a holistic approach to service ALL athletes better than we currently do.

 

Meagan Frank is the author of the Choosing to Grow series, a national speaker, athlete, coach, and mother of three. A 1997 graduate of Colorado College, Meagan was a four-year starter and senior captain on the Division I women’s soccer team and lettered in Division III women’s basketball. She has coached all levels of teams for both boys and girls ranging in age from 4-22. 

You can find Meagan:               fb           twitter-logo-1       www.meaganfrank.com

Copyright 2014 Choosing to Grow

The above information is part of an ongoing book project:

Choosing to Grow For the Sport of It:  Because All Kids Matter

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I was surprised to learn that the going rate for a header goal for a youth soccer player in Colorado is $100. Here in the Midwest, parents who admitted to me that they pay their children only pay $20 for header goals.

Not all of the parents I interviewed pay their kids for performance, or at least they didn’t admit it to me when I lost my objectivity as a researcher and gasped at the mention of a $100 sports bribe.

It seems as though the paying parents are greatly outnumbered by the non-paying parents, however, the use of a reward system for performance is widely accepted.  I was a little surprised to learn how often bribery and payment does happen in youth sports and how unaware of the consequences the “paying” parents (or grandparents) seem to be.

Paying players for goals and assists in a team game is one of the worst decisions you can make for the development of your athlete.

“It motivates him to play harder,” one woman told me when I asked her why she offers her son a trip to get ice cream if he scores a goal. “He really wants to get ice cream so he’ll play harder in the game if he knows there is ice cream waiting for him.”

Hmm. Okay. I can see why the child is motivated. He wants to achieve immediate gratification with his favorite ice cream cone. What I am not sure about is the motivation of the parent.

Let’s say this mom, we’ll call her Sadie, enrolled little Jimmy in soccer because she hopes he’ll get really good at it. The only thing I can think is that she really wants him to be good at it now without taking into consideration what this approach does for him later. Otherwise she might make a different decision about the ice cream. For her, it makes sense to get little Jimmy’s legs churning faster during today’s game because logically he will do better in the game. She must assume that his good performance today will translate into his performance next time on the field. What she has forgotten is that Jimmy is not moving his legs to get faster or better at soccer, he is moving his legs because she has promised him ice cream.  It is a difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and the best athletes in the world are rarely extrinsically motivated.

Extrinsic Motivation Puts Athletes on a Slippery Slope

He could quit working

Let’s assume that Sadie continues her bribery as Jimmy plays. He starts to get frustrated the days he is playing a stronger opponent and because he struggles to score any goals, he could simply stop working. The only thing that he was playing for was the reward and working hard was not something that he learned to do.

He could miss out on other learning experiences

Sadie’s first mistake was to make goals the deciding factor of Jimmy’s performance. Scoring goals are as much out of an athlete’s control as the weather. The coach could be asking Jimmy to play and learn defense. What then? If scoring is the only way he is going to get ice cream, what do you think he’ll do when he gets the ball in the defensive end of the field. You guessed it, he’ll dribble where he shouldn’t be dribbling, he’ll forgo passing to a teammate all because he really wants that ice cream. It is certain to break down the efforts of the coach and the other members of the team.

It could seem like it’s working when it’s not

There are occasions where the bribery seems to work. Let’s say Jimmy works hard when he’s little because he wants ice cream and thus score goals. The goals get him the ice cream and so he works hard again. He will end up gaining some skill this way, and sometimes the goals start to matter more than the ice cream so Sadie would be able to stop the bribe. The problem is, the goals themselves have become the motivator and they are still extrinsic. Athletes like this could end up playing at a pretty high level, but they will not be good teammates.

I have played with and coached athletes like this, and they can be destructive to teams. If an athlete is extrinsically motivated he will have a hard time being happy if other teammates score goals, get playing time or are awarded and he is not the one recognized. He will choose shooting over the better decision to pass and he has the potential to pull a team apart from the inside. He will count stats and measure himself by the achievements that can be recorded rather than the intangible work ethic of an intrinsically motivated athlete.

Sadie likely never even considered the ramifications of bribing for goals with ice cream.

It’s a parenting decision, right? People have the right to raise their kids the way they see fit, right?

Promote Intrinsic Motivation to Build Teams

The thing is, bribery systems should not be a part of youth teams where the goal is longterm development of athletes and team players.

  • Fun should be the reward.
  • Recognition for hard work is enough and it should be consistent. (and you should be really enthusiastic about it)
    • Point out the subtle ways hard work can be measured, “Hey Jimmy, do you remember that play when you lost the ball and you ran the whole way back to stop them from scoring? That was such hard work! I loved watching that.”
    • Jimmy says, “I scored a goal.” “Yes, I saw that. You worked so hard to get the ball and you were moving your feet so quickly. I am so proud of how hard you were working. Sometimes that turns into a goal like it did today. Keep up the hard work!”

Start early promoting the recognition of other players on their team. Kids need to be taught to notice.

  • “Shane scored all of our goals today,” player says.
  • You respond, “Isn’t that great. Did you tell him he did great work? You should tell him how much that helps your team.”

Cheesy, I know. But you get the point.

If you have signed your child up to learn a team sport then there should be intention to be part of how they learn what it is to be a hard worker and to be part of a team. Encourage them to be intrinsically motivated and teach them how to be a good teammate. Otherwise they will develop into someone you might not have intended for him to become.

Do you bribe your kids for performance? Does it work better for you than the scenarios I described?

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Copyright 2014 Meagan Frank                                        Choosing to Grow

© Billyfoto | Dreamstime Stock Photos

© Billyfoto | Dreamstime Stock Photos

 

When I asked Dr. Nicole Lavoi , Associate Director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sports, what aspect of youth sports she would immediately address, she told me, “Mandate equal playing time up to age 14 for all levels of sports. Both at the recreational and competitive levels.”

I thought that was a curious response until I realized that too few youth sports teams implement this policy.

I am continually amazed that the directive to allow equal playing time for EVERY athlete up until age 14 is such a hotly contested idea. Abiding by this policy, and I mean REALLY ABIDING by this policy would solve a number of problems that plague youth sports teams.

“But everyone knows a coach can keep a team from winning by putting in a lesser athlete. Everyone wants to win. Why can’t a coach try to win an important game? The kids all want to win too.” This quote is from a woman who attended a sports class I taught, and at first blush, I agree with her. Coaches should have the right to try to win tough, important games. It is part of the aligning expectations that makes this conversation so difficult for some people.

Parents have expectations, athletes have expectations and coaches have expectations. Until we align the varied perspectives we will continue to see frustration, bitterness and anger associated with youth sports.Because the one common denominator for the three groups is winning, decisions to keep lesser athletes on the bench seems justified. After all, everyone who has gathered has come with the hope of winning the game.

Coaches deserve a chance to coach a team to a big victory, and that should be one of the things they want. It’s part of what the parents want too. They want their children to experience the high of winning, they want their children to have success, and they want their children to be treated fairly. Athletes want to win too. More than that though, and echoed over and over in conversations I had in living rooms across this country, kids want to play.

We need to seek wins, but we need to seek wins without sacrificing kids along the way.

During one of my research huddles, Tony said something that has stuck with me. “The best coaches get the most out of their worst players. Anyone can coach the best kids–only a good coach can improve the worst kid too.”

Why do we need to care about the lesser athletes? What do they have to offer the team in the final minutes of a game? They have their own lessons to learn right?: “Tough love is better.” “Life is tough.””Not everyone is a winner. They will learn the harsh realities of the world eventually, why not now?”

The harsh lessons learned are inevitable, but let the game be the teacher. Let them learn lessons because they made the bad play and lost the game. Let them learn the lesson that they need to pick up a teammate who has made a mistake and learn to encourage someone who is down. Those are the lessons we need to be teaching children. The last lesson we need to teach them is that they are not worthy.

The damage that is done to children under the age of 14 who find themselves sitting on the bench is not worth one more win on the stat sheet.

The cognitive development of children needs to be a part of coaching decisions. Period.

Before adolescence, children are primarily concrete thinkers. For children, the world is more black and white than grey and fuscia. They cannot conceptualize the world in abstract thinking, and they are working to develop a sense of self at the same time.

Without telling a child on the bench they are a less-than, they immediately know they are a less-than. They know it to their core, and it becomes a part of who they are. They don’t understand the abstract concepts of “sacrificing for the team” or “it’s the role you have to play right now.” Too many kids internalize this message and make a decision right then and there about who they are going to be. Or even more tragically, who they will never be. “I am not good enough.” “I am a bad athlete.” “I don’t measure up.”

This fixed mindset is more detrimental than a win is beneficial.    ****read that last sentence again**** A fixed mindset is more detrimental than a win is beneficial.

One could argue, “The non-athletes need to figure out early enough that they are non-athletes and move on to something that better suits them.”

WHAT?!? No one is a fixed athlete, and to do anything that might convince a child, ANY child, that he/she is a non-athlete before their bodies have even grown any real muscle is deplorable.

We need to decide that  youth sports is about teaching. Coaches can take control of how lessons are taught, but the best teachers are the ones who worry about whether every kid in their class learned something worth carrying with them.

What do you think? Should youth teams have bench players?

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Copyright 2013  Meagan Frank                                      Choosing to Grow

n8 jumping

Physical literacy is the language of movement.

If there was any language I learned most proficiently, it was movement. I was athletic. I could swim, jump, run, tumble, catch, kick, throw, shoot, ride my bike, ski- on both water and snow, and swing a bat. I was better at some elements than others, but there were very few physical games in which I couldn’t participate. I was not born an athlete, however. Despite popular belief, there is no such thing as an athletic gene…or at least researchers haven’t found one yet. It is a common assumption that when there are seemingly generations of athletes it is because athletic parents have athletic children. The truth is…athletic children become athletic because their parents do athletic things with them. What matters more is the timing of exposure to certain physical activities, and an intention toward that exposure. We all have the capacity to learn athletic movements.

My childhood had been the perfect, and inadvertent, breeding ground for growing physical literacy. My dad had been a solid athlete throughout his life and he loved to do athletic things with us. My mom became a passionate trailblazer in a time when a door was opening to create never-before-seen opportunities for young female athletes. And then there were the constant teammates and opponents I had in my siblings. Through all of my play, I was unknowingly building physical literacy. The more I moved the more proficient I got.

Instead of accidentally creating athletes, the Canadian Sport For Life  has long supported a more purposeful approach called the Long-Term Athlete Development program (LTAD). Developed in the 1990’s by sport scientist Istvan Balyi, it was created over an eight-year period during his work with Canadian alpine skiers. Since its inception, it has become internationally accepted as the model by which athletes should be developed. Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and more recently organizations in the United States like USA hockey and US Soccer have all adapted youth athlete programming that reflects the LTAD model.

Based on findings of physical development, the LTAD model has evolved into basically seven phases: an active start, FUNdamental movements, Learning to train, Training to train, Training to compete, Training to win, and Retirement and retainment. Instead of chronological age as an indicator for athletic development, the LTAD model uses Peak Height Velocity (PHV) as the gauge by which programming should be implemented. PHV is the point in pubescence when the tempo of growth is the greatest.

****Ideas to promote physical literacy…good for families…easy on checkbooks******

If we want better athletes, it is not hard. Starting from when they are really little, and up to about the ages of 8 to 10, make it a goal to teach them to do the following things:

Ride a bike, swim, kick and dribble a soccer ball, throw and catch a baseball, throw and catch a football, run, ice skate, ski, jumprope, swing a tennis racket, skateboard. There is no prescribed order, just an intention to teach your children these skills before they are 10 years old. The best part about seeing athletic development as physical skill acquisition is that it does not have to cost a single dime. You CAN do all of these things at home.  Granted, there are plenty of awesome programs developed to expose your child to these different athletic skills, and it is fun to sign up with friends as they learn, but it is not necessary.

Now granted, there are some elements that are harder depending on where you are geographically, but there are ways to simulate skiing and skating. It takes creativity. You don’t need to pay for swim lessons, just get in the pool as much as possible and swim. (unless you’re not comfortable in the pool, then it’s better to hire someone who will not exhibit fear in the water). Visit playgrounds and skate parks, buy roller blades (and make sure to buy lots of padding), look up park workouts that you can do in snow and sun. Make up exercises for every card in a deck of cards and when you draw that card, do that exercise. Play family games of kickball, hockey, soccer, or basketball. Play tennis on an open court, shoot baskets outside, take bike rides, go hiking, encourage kids to do cartwheels. I tell my girls cartwheels are pushups in disguise.  Do handstands too. Let you kids have dance parties (aerobics) and dance with them.  If you don’t know these skills then look up how to do them.  Living in the information age provides access to information that is unparalleled to any other time in history.  Take a chance and try it…teach yourself so you can teach your kids.  It is valuable bonding time and you don’t have to pay gas, uniforms, registration, etc. If you work really hard on the first kid, you won’t have to worry about that same energy for your younger kids. They’ll have a model of movement in their sibling (s).

There is no real need to expose kids to team competition until they are about eight years old. They don’t get what it means to be part of a team before then, and the games we adults set up for them provide some skill development, but it seems to be more about being entertained. It is not as much fun to watch children gain physical literacy as it is to see them score a goal, but if we want better athletes, we’d be better off delaying the investment in team activities and exposing kids to all sorts of physical movement.

We need to change our mentality about teams for young kids if we want ALL children to become better athletes.

 

Meagan’s book   Choosing to Grow For the Sport of It: Because All Kids Matter is her current WIP. You can learn more about the project at her website: www.meaganfrank.com

 

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Copyright 2013     Meagan Frank               Choosing to Grow

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I cannot bring myself to watch the video of Kevin Ware’s injury. I too broke myself on a basketball court, and it would hit way too close to home to watch it from an audience viewpoint. My injury exposed more than weakened bones. Being physically broken showed me the weak spots in my emotional and mental game too.

It makes me concerned that we, as coaches and parents, are not doing enough to prepare athletes for the inevitability of injury.

The following is an excerpt from my book: Choosing to Grow for the Sport of It Because All Kids Matter and I offer it up as food for thought.

It could be the noises in the darkened hospital, or maybe it’s the overwhelming sense of helplessness, but either way, the throbbing pain partnered with my over-active brain renders me sleepless. The painkillers have numbed the dull aches in my leg and my arm, but there is no way to make my discomfort go away completely. Without an option of rolling onto my side, I stare out over the edge of the bed and past my elevated full-leg cast, while the full-arm cast rests awkwardly on the pile of pillows on my stomach.

I can see the glow of the nurse’s desk and I can hear the murmurings of patients and machines. It wouldn’t have mattered if it had been dead silent… the motion in my head is distracting enough.

“Why did this have to happen?” my sixteen-year-old brain wonders, “I have never been hurt like this. Who’s going to believe I broke my arm and my leg…playing basketball…at a practice? The orderly’s right…I need to make up a better story than that. I’ll tell people I was saving a small child from an approaching semi…my leg and arm just couldn’t get out of the way in time…that’s a better story for sure. It sounds like a reasonable explanation for why I’ll be doomed to these casts for the next six weeks.”

It is night two of my hospital stay, and I’m finally alone. My dad has come and gone on the breeze of his alcohol-filled breath. My sister has called crying to tell me our basketball team lost the playoff game, and my stupid boyfriend had even less to say on the phone than usual.  It is the first time since arriving I am lucid enough to recognize the fear, pain, and sadness have arrived. I wasn’t afraid when they talked about resetting my badly broken arm…I wasn’t afraid when the doctor explained I had fractured my tibia just below my knee cap… I wasn’t afraid as they wheeled me out of surgery and past the waiting room where my mom and soccer coach were visiting. I wasn’t afraid as the day-time conversations swirled around my mobility. “She’s going to need a specially-constructed pair of crutches. Oh, and to get around school? I guess you’re right, she’s probably going to need an electric wheelchair.”

Now, in the solitude of a crowded hospital… with only muted hallway light to cut through the darkness… the fear grows. I am afraid of the unknown.  I can’t picture what this new kind of movement will look like. I didn’t know quite what to make of this new version of myself.

Tears fill my eyes and as they start to pour down my cheeks, I have to let them fall.  I can’t move the casted arm, and the other one is painfully connected to my I.V.

“So this is what it’s going to be,” I think. Tear after tear lands on my hospital gown.

I try to compose myself, as the weight of the casts seeps past my bones and into the very center of my awareness.

“I can’t do this,” I sob to no one in particular.

 

This scene, in my sports story, is more important than any other I experienced. It was a stark wake-up call to how dysfunctional my relationship with sports had become. The moment I hit that basketball floor, the world I had built, and the only world I felt I understood, shattered. I had been functioning as a barely one-dimensional athlete, and I hadn’t realized it.

Successful athletes need to be physically coordinated and conditioned, but they also need to be mentally tough and emotionally stable. Who was I without the physical capacity to compete in sports? I hadn’t had a reason to contemplate that question, and I likely would never have asked it without being forced. So in the six weeks that followed my “accident” I took inventory of my worth. I had to look at my world without the physical language on which I had become so completely dependent. I was forced to gauge whether I had the internal toughness to fight through pain, ridicule, and recovery, and I had to address the gaping holes in my emotional armor.  When I emerged on the other side of that time of reflection, I was not the same person, and I dare argue, the “recovering” version was why I ever came close to attaining my full potential as an athlete.

Breaking myself was the best thing that could have happened to me. Only during the course of research for this book, did I begin to fully understand, and appreciate, why battling through that injury made me a better athlete…and a better person. Of course, I knew that the entire experience had been, as my mom put it, “character-building”, but I hadn’t taken the time to fully analyze why those weeks of immobility were so necessary. Before I got hurt, I truly believed physical work and achievement were all that mattered. Period. I had used both academic and athletic achievement as a way to distract me from the painful parts of my childhood. I hadn’t spent time thinking about the emotional fuel I had been using, nor had I considered whether my internal script was building a solid foundation for my beliefs about myself.  The only piece I had succeeded in achieving in athletics, up to that point, was my physical literacy.

 

The next blogpost will be about physical literacy and the ways parents and coaches can utilize the developmental tool to build physically stronger athletes.

 

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Copyright 2013     Meagan Frank                               Choosing to Grow

 

dreamstimefree_128508One conditioning drill used by hockey coaches includes line sprints up and down the rink. This sort of sprinting drill is called “suicides” in basketball, soccer, and football. In hockey they are called Herbies, named after legendary national team coach Herb Brooks. Brooks used the sprints to “break” his players. In the movie Miracle, the sprinting scene demonstrates the use of physical, emotional, and mental punishment as a way of breaking the players of individual tendencies so that they will adopt their role as a part of the team. It works. The players bond with each other because they endure the torture together. In the movie they align more with each other partly because they hate Herb Brooks.

What Brooks did with the 1980 Olympic team is storied as one of the most brilliant displays of coaching in all of team sports. It is nearly impossible to replicate the achievements of that team, yet there are still factions of hockey coaches (and coaches of other sports too) who attempt to employ a punishment strategy to coach kids.

This past weekend I had the opportunity to present for youth hockey coaches about some of the best ways to build teams for teenaged girls. I asked the audience what they thought were good bonding exercises. A hand shot up in the back and the one-word response was, “Discipline.” I asked him to explain what he meant and he told me that if one kid broke a rule, the team would bond when they were punished as a group.

Hair on the back of my neck stood up.

Instead of attacking him for his idea, I turned it back to the women in the room to debate the merits of this approach.

“Ladies, how does that make you feel?”

One woman expressed she did not like it. She didn’t see how it would work to punish an entire group for the missteps of one player. Another woman agreed with her and pointed out that the strategy could certainly backfire if a group of girls decided to ostracize the player who had precipitated the punishment.

If I had been thinking quickly enough, I would have pointed out that the example he gave was not one of discipline, but of punshment, and in my book they are two different things. Teams must be disciplined to be effective. Coaches who implement discipline correctly can find a lot of success in that strategy. Punishment of the whole group for the behavior of one, is not discipline, it is a slippery slope that can lead to the breaking apart of a team.

Case in point, last year my son’s peewee team was instructed to sprint Herbie’s until the last player out of the locker room was on the ice. When the latest one finally got on the ice, the skating stopped. I asked my son this morning about whether any team bonding happened as a result of that exercise.  He told me, “Sure, we were bonded together to hate the coach, and we were bonded together to hate the kid who was the reason we skated.”

Herb Brooks coached men who had already developed a sense of identity. He didn’t mind being the reason they bonded because they hated him.

Youth sports athletes are developing their sense of self, self-esteem, and an appreciation for the way the world works. They need to be taught discipline, and they will bond when they are asked to endure difficult physical exercise together, but it must be done in a way that teaches all the right lessons too.

What do you think? Are there ways you have effectively used punishment to build a youth team?

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Copyright 2013    Meagan Frank                             Choosing to Grow

Picture%20for%20blog%20parentA friend of mine sent me an email last week with the subject header: “I Never Thought I’d Be That Crazy Hockey Parent”. I took a second glance at who wrote it, because I know a lot of hockey parents, and the running list I keep of people I consider “crazy” does not include her. In fact, the woman who wrote this message to me is one of the last people I would have expected to lose it at a hockey rink.

I won’t go into all the gory details, although that may be the reason you are reading this blogpost in the first place, but basically she got into a verbal altercation with another parent after she felt her son’s team had been put at safety risk during a poorly reffed game. It got very ugly in the lobby after the game and she said things she could hardly believe came out of her mouth.

This woman is relatively new to hockey, and a novice around team sports too. After reading her account of the entire incident, and talking with her at length, I am convinced of one thing. She is not any crazier than any other hockey parent, she just gave in to a crazy moment. She has not had nearly enough practice with the emotions that accompany youth sports, but there is hope.

I have been around youth sports for over 30 years. I hope I look completely calm, cool, collected, and unphased when I watch kids play.  I better…I’ve had a ridiculous amount of practice. Sports have definitely taught me to put my emotions in check. I could never compete well if my emotions got the best of me, and learning to be disciplined in the most charged situations was the only way I competed at the levels I did. That being said, although I handle most emotions around sports well, I too am still learning how to deal with the heightened emotions a parent can feel while watching their own kids play.

Not too long ago, one of my son’s teammates was viciously elbowed to the head during a blind-sided, illegal check. I was immediately pissed. This boy has played with my son for three years, and he is a good friend of ours. He is as important to me as one of my own kids. A protective mamma-bear instinct took over in the seconds following the hit and it took me by surprise. I think I perceived it as a threat, and my heart started racing.  I was entering into the phase of “fight” or “flight” and unsure about what to do with what I was feeling, I turned to our friend’s father expressing how awful the hit was. I wanted someone to feel what I was feeling with me…I was looking for an ally. Unfortunately, I didn’t find what I was looking for, and the dad shook it off as if it wasn’t anything to worry about. WHAT?!?I was unsure what to do with the “fight” feelings I had.  So now I was doubly mad and I started fumbling with my words. Gone was that calm, cool, collected lady I try to be, and only after I walked it off and did some deep breathing exercises did I get my heart rate to come back to normal.

Nothing came of this “fight” response, but I have to acknowledge the potential. I know it most certainly could have turned into something ugly. If the mother of the boy who delivered the hit had been within earshot and said anything in his defense…I just might have lost it. I don’t know!! And this WASN’T EVEN MY KID!!

My point is this: WE ARE ALL CRAZY SPORTS PARENTS!!  We are all one incident or one emotional response away from a crazy parent moment.

So maybe instead of denying this innate part of humanity we should all enter into a 12-step rehabilitation program so we can work through the steps to the calmest sports parenting possible.

Step 1: Hello, my name is Meagan, and I am a crazy sports parent.  (phew, denial has been so exhausting)

Step 2: It is true. I know that I am human and flawed and only through God do I have strength to combat my weaknesses.

Duh…it’s what worked for me when I was an emotional athlete, and I am confident it will work for me as an emotional sports parent.

How about you? Are you ready to come out of denial? What steps do you use to keep your emotions in check?

You can learn more about Meagan at her website:  http://www.meaganfrank.com

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Copyright  Meagan Frank     2013                    Choosing to Grow

2013-01-14 05.41.03

My daughter and I leave tomorrow morning for a hockey trip to Duluth. The girls will be building friendships, learning about themselves as athletes and as teammates, and playing some good hockey. The parents will be partying.

I am willing to roll our kids from rink to rink, from town to town because I want them to experience the ups, the downs, the heartbreak, and the joy of competing in sports. I know it will build them.

I worry it is crushing me.

As a sports parent, I am continually tested at a greater degree than I ever was as an athlete. Every outing, every out-of-town trip, and with every athlete in our house, I feel it is my role to process and help kids process the drama that unfolds on the way to the rink, at the rink (where I am too aware of the secondary drama unfolding in the space around me in the stands), and then on the way home from the rink where I need to be a safe sounding board for our kids.
It is much more emotionally draining for me as the parent.

As an athlete, when I stepped onto a soccer field or a basketball court it was my refuge from the stifling drama of my life. Sometimes I think my mom wanted to protect us from said drama, and the safest place she could think to put us was on a team. I suppose it worked generally. It was only occasionally I noticed the frustrated body language of people on the periphery. Or sometimes, at a stoppage of play, I could hear yelling that never really seemed to concern me. That is, of course, unless the yelling was the frustrated and raging voice of my father. He was never raging at me, but that damned offsides rule in soccer, or every ridiculous foul called by a basketball ref, were enough to awake his inner demons. I heard him then.

It was always with my dad that the drama of my life collided with my sports’ world. I suppose I am more sensitive to my role as sports parent because of that. My dad and sports were an interesting combination. My dad and sports…and alcohol… were a catastrophic mix.

As a kid I needed to ignore the scary moments. I needed to pretend I didn’t see my dad’s hands shaking from withdrawal as he sketched out a basketball play for my team. I needed to brush off the way I felt when at a lunch stop on the way home from an out-of-town game he “disappeared” for twenty minutes and then when my teammates and I went to get in the car for the long trip home we found the remaining two bottles from the newly purchased six-pack. We held hands praying the entire way home. I had to continually remind myself it wasn’t my problem when my dad would be thrown out of games for yelling at refs. I had to quietly internalize the pain of his visit to my hospital bed after I was injured. That was the night I was literally pinned to the bed and forced to endure what felt like an hour of his alcohol-drenched breath.

As an adult, I want to be infinitely better than he was as an athlete-turned-sports’ parent, and I sometimes battle with all it is taking from me to do that.

I can’t enjoy the hotel drinking games. Unless I intimately know and trust the other parents with whom I travel, the entire weekend is an exercise in exhaustion. There are times I’ll drink with the team parents, but there have been other times I have holed myself up in my room, thankful I had a little one in tow for an excuse. I don’t have an excuse this weekend, and I fear I’m nearing a point where I don’t have the energy to drink socially either. Some teams are rostered with parents who have literally made drinking their new sport, and when it is a group I don’t know well, it is tiresome to find a comfortable place to hang.

Sometimes I wish there were a rule about the number of drinks a sports’ parent were allowed to consume.

In two weeks I am going on a three-day school trip with our middle daughter. At the chaperone meeting last night we were asked to sign a waiver promising we would not bring alcohol or drugs to the sleepover camp. “It is an educational trip with children present. It is, of course, our expectation there will be no alcohol consumed.”

Why are sports trips different? Are they not “educational trips with children present”?

Beer-filled coolers are as commonplace as player bags and sticks when traveling for an out-of-town trip. Drinking is as much a part of youth hockey as inconsistent reffing. I’m just not sure what all of that means for me, and what the best parenting decisions might be.

What do you think? Is it totally cool alcohol is as much a part of youth sports as it is? Should anything change about the culture of youth sports and drinking?

 

Learn more about Meagan and her current project, Choosing to Grow For the Sport of It:  Because All Kids Matter, at her website http://www.meaganfrank.com

 

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Copyright 2013           Meagan Frank                         Choosing to Grow

 

 

boxers

For many years I joked I was going to homeschool our kids through junior high. My plan was to keep them home during the maturation years and then put them back with their peers when they were high schoolers.  I remember my own time in middle school as moderately uncomfortable, but most definitely annoying.  I also remember being annoyed  with the middle-schoolers I taught when I dutifully fulfilled my requirement to show up for a stint as a seventh-grade student teacher. It took about two days for me to decide that middle school teachers are among the best people on earth, and I was happy to remain in awe of how they navigate that hormonal, cantankerous, goofy group, but I did not need to martyr myself following their career path. (somehow I thought high schoolers were easier to teach…LOL)

At any rate, I never did pull the trigger on homeschooling my seventh-grader because I do recognize one of the biggest lessons they are learning at this age is how to navigate the social landscape. (that and let’s face it, homeschooling would mean I would have to be teaching a seventh grader…every day…all day…like, really?!)

It’s a strange age. They are moving through so many developmental stages at once, and everyone goes a little nuts for a bit. We adults know that it is a phase, and that they will (hopefully) outgrow it. Growth is painful, however, and it is at this stage where some of the biggest growth spurts are happening…literally.

So what in the world do you do with a team full of junior high kids?

Run them into the ground. If they are tired enough they don’t have the energy to be quite as annoying. (JK, although there is something to be said for solid exercise)

It’s not an easy age to coach, especially if you are a parent of one of the kids on the team.  Tom Swyers, a baseball enthusiast and youth sports advocate argues parents should completely step out of coaching roles by the time their kids are thirteen. He has a solid argument.

No matter who is coaching this agegroup it takes continual effort to offer guidance, direction, discipline, consistency, and a patient sense of humor. (you may want to record a few key phrases so there can be a continual loop playing…it’s simply a time-saver because you WILL BE A BROKEN RECORD!)

  • “Respect your teammates”
  • “Respect your things”
  • “Respect your opponents”
  • “Respect the refs”
  • And “are you kidding? Put your buddy down.  I am fairly certain he DOES NOT want to go in that trash can.”

The truth is, these kids are all feeling badly about themselves, and only God knows why EVERY kid has to go through a phase of thinking they suck, but it is a scientific fact: the seventhsad boy grade brain loops the negative at a much more intense pace than the positive. (okay, so it’s not totally scientific, just something I’ve observed) It is our job as parents and coaches to give them every reason possible to entertain a positive thought. The kids will provide the negative critical track, and the adults HAVE to be the balance. That includes when a doink kid on the team says a doinky thing or makes a doinky decision and your kid wants to know “How do I play with him/her? He/she is so mean to me?”

You ask your kid how they feel about it, assure them it is totally okay to feel that way, and then brainstorm in a positive direction.

“What do you like about doink kid?” you may ask.

“Nothing,” would be a standard reply.

“Every kid, even the doinky ones have something that is great about them…if you were to text doinky kid and you HAD to say, ‘I really like ___ about you’ what would you write?”

Keep working on them to see the positive as long as they’ll let you.

If it is a stretch to find something good, explain that there are sometimes personality differences that make it hard for some personality types to get along, and that they don’t HAVE to be friends with everyone, but they are expected to respect everyone.

Then remember to keep pumping the positive. Jim Thompson, founder of Positive Coaching Alliance , talks poignantly about the athlete’s emotional tank. Calculating on a 5:1 ratio that people need five positives for every one negative, he offers a script for coaches to talk about filling tanks with their athletes.

It is no wonder everyone hates seventh grade. The negative is SO pervasive, it is exhausting to try to maintain the 5:1 ratio. If you decide to coach this age, or if because of your legal obligation as a parent you have to keep one this age in your house, there HAS to be an effort to put positive back into the equation. It’s honestly your best survival tactic.

Team chemistry is an incredibly elusive thing at this age, and it is because the brains of this aged kid is growing toward how they want to define themselves individually. It comes in fits and starts, and expresses itself in their experimentation as a teammate. They are not sure what kind of person they want to be, and they will be up and down about what kind of teammate they want to be too. The best approach is to keep working on their vision.

  • Point out when kids make a good decision…even if it is not your kid.  If it is not your kid, try to make a point to tell that kid’s parents, or the kid himself.
  • Make an effort to see for yourself what makes each of the kids on the team a great asset, and then point out to them why you think that.
  • Make a list of the best traits of a great teammate and then praise them when they show said traits.

Junior high may seem like a vortex of drama and frustration. That’s because it IS a vortex of drama and frustration. The kicker is that if we want contributing members of society, this phase of life is necessary, and it offers all of us an opportunity to help guide how they step out of this darkness into what they will eventually become. That’s a pretty awesome responsibility.

OK, with that said, I am going to log off now and go tell my kids five affirming things.

 

Learn more about Meagan’s current book project at her website:  http://www.meaganfrank.com

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Copyright 2013   Meagan Frank     Choosing to Grow