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One of the captains for a team of mine peed on every soccer field before every game. Yes, peed. She would gather the team around her so she could inspire us (and hide what she was doing) by performing the feat of pulling her shorts to the side while she squatted low enough her stream would not spray her socks.

I was never impressed… nor inspired.

She wasn’t a good leader and I was not a good follower. I wasn’t the only one who struggled to follow her lead, but if our coach had asked, we could have told her.

The one peeing was the coach’s pick for our captain. The team had chosen another player who had been injured in the offseason and, when a coaching change happened that summer, the new coach assigned a replacement captain without bringing a choice to the team.

It didn’t go well.

There is solid argument for trusting the captain choice to the most experienced and wise person on the field. (I sincerely hope that is the coach) Young players on teams have a tendency to vote along popularity lines and that is a struggle for coaches who truly believe that leadership matters for the chemistry and efficacy of a team. (and it does!) Coaches generally have a good idea of who would be good leaders for the group, but making a unilateral decision about a team’s captain can backfire.

Choosing a captain should be a group effort, and the team will more likely follow the lead of the players they choose.

I tried a different approach this year and I really liked it.

As a coach, I guided the selection of the captains, but the team ultimately decided.

I introduced a rather lengthy selection process for assigning our in-season captains. I contend that this approach is likely most appropriate for high school-aged teams and older. (I have ideas for how to grow captains in younger teams, and I’ll cover that briefly later)

Captain Selection Process

Step One: Captain Application

Players interested in being chosen as a captain must submit an application that consists of the following questions:

  1. What is the role of a captain?
  2. Why do you want to be a captain?
  3. What are your leadership qualifications for this position?
  4. What leadership activities have you participated both in school and outside of school?
  5. Explain how you would be proactive in confronting peers who violate team rules, school policies or league regulations?
  6. What impact would you make on our team as a captain?

My coaching staff reviewed the applications and because of the number that submitted we let them all take part in the next step. My plan, if there are many more applications in the future would be to select five candidates to present to the team.

The application process is an important one. The thought that goes into crafting their responses raises their level of awareness that we as a coaching staff value leadership. It also gives us a chance to see what their leadership values are.

Step Two: Speech

Once the captain candidates were selected they were each given one minute to explain to their teammates why they wanted to be the team’s captain and what value they could offer.

Step Three:  Team Vote

After the speeches, the team selected their top three choices. I like having three captains because there is better balance with three voices.

Step Four: Captain’s Pledge

To really emphasize my expectations of those selected as captains for our team, the players chosen and their parents have to sign a Captain’s Pledge.  It looks like this:

Captain’s Pledge

I, ___________________________, realize the honor that goes with the many responsibilities involved in serving as a Captain for MHS Boys Soccer. I need to be a leader both in and out of the competitive setting (on and off the field), before the season starts, during the season and even after the season has been completed. Unless I am dismissed from this role, I will always be known as a Captain for the MHS Soccer team.

I am very proud that I have been selected to serve in this capacity. I realize that I must be mature, take initiative, and at times I may need to make unpopular decisions. I will keep the interests of the team first and I will always demonstrate good sportsmanship.

I must remain drug and alcohol free and I will do my best to ensure that all of my teammates are doing the same.

I realize that I need to work closely with the coaching staff to make our season successful. I will treat my teammates with respect and give them extra help when they need it. My integrity will never be questioned, since I realize that people will remember me more as the type of person I was, as well as the reputation of my team, much longer than any of my personal accolades.

I, _____________________________, agree to all of the above and pledge to uphold the philosophy and live by these guidelines. I know that I must resign as Captain if I fail to live up to these expectations.

Captain’s Signature___________________________________  Date____________

Parent(s) Signature__________________________________  Date__________

Soccer teams are among the few sports teams where captains are more than just an honorary title. They have work to do on behalf of the team. They represent their teams in the coin toss, they are the identified player rep for conversations with the referees and I utilize them in decision-making as player representatives. (voices from the trenches) They have an important role in the chemistry of a team and in the identity of a program. It’s a big deal and worth the extra effort to put the right players in place.

****Captains for Teams Younger than 14

For younger kids, I think captain of the week works well. Assign a pair of players the job of leading warm-ups or end-of-practice cheers the week they will be assigned captains for the game. Leadership takes practice too. Talk to the players about leading well and following well, pointing out the behaviors you most value in your leaders. (and your followers)

 

Copyright Choosing to Grow 2017                                     www.meaganfrank.com                                                                             @choosingtogrow

 

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If you stand on a youth soccer sideline long enough, you are bound to hear a coach yell, “Take a knee!” Most often the directive is meant for a recently-injured-player who is trying to be brave and make one last heroic play, but whose limping attempt is not productive. Kneeling is necessary to protect the player and stop the game.

For young kids, when an injured player goes down, players on both teams also take a knee. The full-field gesture is not because any other player is hurt, but because they are respecting the player for whom the game has halted.

I was the sort of athlete who really didn’t like to have to kneel, either as the injured or as a mandate when another player was hurt. I did it when I was asked because I respected the game and those who played it. It was part of the arrangement for being part of a team. As I got older and players no longer knelt, I made it a point to touch the shoulder of the injured before gathering my teammates on the field.

Before anyone slams me for likening the current on-field kneeling to that of kneeling for an injury during a soccer game, hear me out.

My perspective, like every other American watching what’s happening on NFL sidelines with regard to kneeling, comes from a unique place. My perspective isn’t right, it’s personal. (I would argue that is the case with every single person who has an emotional opinion about what’s transpiring)

It’s been a tough few days: as a coach, as a once-upon-a-time-elite-athlete, as an American, as the daughter of a West Point grad and veteran, and granddaughter of two World War II vets. It’s been hard too as a middle-aged white woman who, as part of the pre-game protocol for the diverse boys’ high school soccer team I coach, to stand facing a flag for an anthem two to three times each week without thinking about those kneeling.

I’m left wondering what the right response to all of this should be and I’ve decided it’s too personal to dictate.

The kneeling posture is a physical statement while others are standing for the playing of our national anthem. Until this weekend, it had already been happening in small pockets in America and for personal reasons I have no business analyzing.

Kneeling during the anthem looks like injury to me.

There are plenty of hurting people in this country and the professional athletes who have taken a knee to draw attention to some of those hurts are taking the posture of an injured soul. Look at the recent team photos of anthems: some are kneeling, others stand with heads bowed and still others stand at attention with their eyes raised to the flag. The controversy exists because any expression that might be different than the way we each want to approach that flag could be seen as an affront to our personal feelings. The kneeling expression hurts those for whom standing with great reverence is their own personal attention to the hurts they carry too.

Every person has a right to their opinions and freedom exists in the expression of those opinions because we are Americans. Unfortunately, more and more these days we want everyone to think and express like we do. We want to express our own hurts without acknowledging the hurts of others. There seems to be little interest in even trying to understand the personal decisions other people make much less unpack what might be causing our reaction in the first place.

Every opinion is framed in personal experiences, the pasts we carry with us and the emotional realities that exist within us. Have you thought about why you feel the way you do about this?

Compounded in the controversy is the fact that teams had no choice but to respond to Trump’s statements because he inflicted new injury on the players and owners of the sports teams he chose to attack.

There are two responses I have seen, so far, that capture the essence of what might possibly be a way to engage in a productive and necessary dialogue.

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The teams where one player knelt or sat and the other stood directly behind with a hand on his shoulder best illuminates acknowledgement of both postures being necessary. The standing player stands because he must and the kneeling player kneels because he must. They connect with each other, because they are teammates who respect what the other must do.

The Dallas Cowboys did it right too. They knelt as an entire organization in linked-arm solidarity, just prior to the start of the anthem. Then together they stood,  interlocked, and remained standing as a group for the duration of the anthem. I am sure it took quite a bit of conversation to determine the group response. As a team they expressed acceptance of any hurts the members of their organization might be carrying while approaching the flag with respect and reverence.

They were booed by the Arizona Cardinal fans for this expression.

We are used to booing in a football stadium. For God’s sake, a majority of the fans show up each week to do just that. The thing is, this booing initially frustrated me. The more I think about it though the more I must acknowledge that booing is necessary for some people too. I would argue the angry response of booing to the sad posture of kneeling is simply another expression of hurt.

The hardest part of all of this is that America seems to have forgotten we are supposed to be on the same team. We’ve chosen which color on the flag defines us and which posture is right when we stand before it. We need to be better than this. We need to embrace the emotionally complex nature of this great country and every citizen who calls it home.

I continue to stand for the anthem, and I reverently look at the red stripes and the blue backdrop of the stars and, as I did as an athlete, I remember that I’m privileged to be in that moment. It doesn’t mean for one second I am not willing to walk beside someone kneeling in my vicinity to put my hand on a shoulder because I want the injured among us to know I see their pain and I am willing to stand up for them until they no longer feel too pained to stand themselves.

I recently read Waking up White by Debby Irving and I highly recommend it for those of you interested in deepening your understanding of race relations in this country. It challenged me to look harder at the individual responsibility I have to understanding the role I play in contributing to or combatting racism. I have a long way to go.

Copyright Choosing to Grow 2017                                     www.meaganfrank.com                                                                             @choosingtogrow

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our small town in Wisconsin creates sports posters for the various varsity teams. The themes for the posters change each year and they are fascinating snapshots of the team for that season while showcasing threads of the overall team culture.

The phrase chosen by the soccer boys for their high school poster this year was “Our work is the world’s game”.

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They wanted the phrase iterated in three languages to represent the cultures of boys who play in our program. This year we have a foreign exchange student from Brazil, an exchange student from Turkey and several boys from the local Hmong community. Because of the diversity within our team, the phrase was translated into Portugese, Turkish and Hmong. It is certainly a unique poster among those posted around town.

In all fairness though, we are a unique program. That uniqueness has challenged me in ways I hadn’t anticipated as a coach and, in the current climate of our country, learning to navigate that uniqueness well may be one of the most important things I’ll ever do in my life.

In a town traditionally known for farming and championship football teams, the soccer micro-culture has been marginalized. I am challenged by that reality. I coach a high school boys’ soccer team that plays the same season as football and, in all honesty, the field is slanted in favor of the dominant football culture. It’s not a ground-breaking observation, I know, but I am starting to sense I need to pursue a better way to co-exist.

There is a well-established football machine in this town. (dare I say in this country) It’s a powerful vehicle of discipline for the athletes and entertainment for the spectators. There is good in that. I did not grow up in a town where Friday-night football was an entire-town event or so big that literally everyone’s schedules revolve around what the football boys are doing. For some time, I admit, I have postured for battle against the machine, hoping to woo some of the better multi-sport athletes to choose soccer instead of football. It’s not a battle I have won.

Soccer encourages regular creativity and it is time I employ skills I have spent my lifetime honing.

I grew up thinking soccer was what everyone did: boys or girls, tall or short, and the coaches on the sideline added to my understanding that this world is a pretty big place. My youth coaches were from Iran, France and England and I appreciated the varying perspectives they added to my appreciation of the game. (and of the world at large) I want to create a space where that thinking exists for the players and families who explore soccer in this town.

I am not intent on tearing down anything the football culture has created. I enjoy watching football and I appreciate the efforts of the athletes who pad up on Friday nights. They bring the entire town together and I like that. My focus needs to shift to a mode of appreciating football for football and establishing soccer for what it can be in this community. I am sensing that we need to work at expanding soccer without diminishing anything already happening on the football field.

Maybe our poster phrase is more important than I think. The woman helping me to translate our slogan into Hmong was challenged by the word “game”. There are two Hmong words for game with different connotations. One has to do with childlike playing and the other has to do with game competition. She chose the word that meant competition. It’s the right word for this year’s poster.

The world is playing an incredibly competitive game right now, deciding whether dominant culture or inclusion is the way to go. It is an age-old battle that seems to have been a part of the human experience since the beginning of time. What is emerging in my little Western Wisconsin corner of the world is an effort of advocating for the marginalized while appreciating the dominant. Only time will tell how this will go, but I am a part of this team’s culture and I too want to make the world’s game my work.

Meagan is currently the head boys soccer coach at Menomonie High School in Menomonie, Wisconsin. She played collegiate soccer for Division I Colorado College and has been the coach of U5 through college teams for nearly twenty years.

Copyright Choosing to Grow 2017                                     www.meaganfrank.com                                                                             @choosingtogrow

canva team building for girlsI swore I would never coach a middle-school-aged girls team. I’m still not sure I have it in me, but I have committed to this parenting thing, and, in our house, that seems to include coaching soccer where I’m needed. This spring I will be firmly positioned on the coach’s bench for our daughter’s U12 girls team. (a slight deviation from the high school boys varsity sideline I occupied last fall)

For different reasons, both coaching gigs present challenges and an opportunity for intense personal transformation. Because I’ve adopted the Choosing to Grow mentality, I’m going to seek out ways to grow as well as I can in these roles.

Step One: Accept Tween Girls for Who They Are

I can’t say I ever really understood the stereotypical middle-school-girl mentality…even when I was one. I was the aloof tomboy who preferred the predictability of my sporting guy friends and was found more often shooting baskets at lunchtime than gossiping at a table. I wasn’t really all that great of a teammate on the girls’ teams for which I competed, either, because I didn’t understand anything other than intense, claw-your-way-to-the-top competition. (certainly behaviors I have spent years unpacking)

Aside from needing to send my high school and college teammates a series of apology letters, I like to think I have arrived at a vastly different place in my mindset as a competitor and, ultimately, as a coach. At least I thought I had arrived at an enlightened place…and then our practices started.

The first few practices were fine and I was bringing my challenging conditioning games and an energy of intensity that seemed to be well-received. What I began to notice, however, was that some of the girls are wired for the competition part of being on a team while others are more interested in the cooperation part.

That’s part of the complexity of girls’ teams. Very often girls join a team because they want to be part of a positive group and they enjoy the friendships they find there. Other girls are drawn more to the fire of competition.

Tweens are at the cusp of discovering which approach matters most to them. They want to align with a group and as they sort out the nature of competition, they often align with a group and they find themselves pitted against another group. This can prove VERY problematic for girls’ teams. Hence the dreaded issues that come with “cliques”!

Not to mention the fact that hormones are beginning to rear their ugly heads. The pre-pubescent tween body has yet to experience the influx of hormones and is understandably overwhelmed by their arrival. Hormones flood their brains and make the world look incredibly different than they have ever imagined it could look. It makes them moody.

Concrete thinking is still a habit of the younger tween mind, and as they progress (of course at unpredictable and varying rates) they are becoming more capable of abstract and complex thinking. This development is not a small one and if embraced by encouraging a growth mindset, can be incredibly fertile ground.

The tween transition means that every one of the fourteen girls on my team are at vastly different places in brain development, hormonal infusion and self-awareness of her place in the world. UGH! No wonder I feel like a crazy person.

TASK ONE: Creative Team-Building

So, here is what I tried yesterday at practice: Team-Building-Conditioning-Clue-Hunt

I asked the girls at the start of practice why they like being a part of a team. Their answers varied slightly, but the overwhelming response was because they like being part of a group and they like being with their friends. The most interesting thing about their responses, however, was when they expanded to why they enjoy their friends on a team. The more obvious competitors saw their friends as necessary to the team doing well and others saw their friends as necessary to helping them feel better about themselves. This insight will help me to frame how they each approach the team dynamic.

Then we went for a 2-mile run. I had hidden 10 clues along the route that included instructions for tasks to complete and directions about where to go to find the next clue. At the halfway-point, which happened to be our detached garage, they did the Flip the Tarp game.

Built into this activity were strategies to allow each of the girls to have roles as leaders and to practice roles as followers. I mixed up the pairings and encouraged a variety of partnering along the way. The leader for each station had to initiate and facilitate the tasks assigned.

Here are some of the tasks they had to perform:

  • Take turns dancing in the middle of the team circle.
  • Do the team cheer.
  • High-five every player on the team.
  • Count together for 15 jumping jacks.
  • Link arms and run together the length of a cul-de-sac.
  • Shuffle, back-pedal, etc. on the leader’s call.
  • Weave lines on the command of the leaders.
  • Chant while jogging:  Leaders: We are the Mustangs…Followers: We are the Mustangs…Leaders: The mighty, mighty Mustangs etc.
  • Lead the team in a celebration routine.

There is no telling exactly how effective this approach will be. I may never know whether they’ll fully achieve the goal of team cohesiveness, or whether they’ll be any better at playing soccer together, but there were plenty of smiles, invested and continual effort from all of the girls, and I venture to guess at least a small shift in their perspectives of one another.

Meagan Frank has survived tweenhood for her two oldest children (boy and girl) who are now developmentally appropriate teenagers and she is in the throes of walking through the tweenhood fire again with her youngest daughter.

Copyright Choosing to Grow 2017                                     www.meaganfrank.com                                                                             @choosingtogrow

b-w-team-huddledI’ve been a part of teams for over 35 years and I know that one of the most important parts of being on a team is showing up. Showing up for off-season lifting and pick-up games, showing up for practices, for film sessions, for team meals, and then for games. The thing is, there is more to it than just showing up… how you show up matters most.

I’ve had the privilege of showing up as a player on elite, winning teams, and I’ve had the challenge of showing up on teams that go winless for an entire season. There is a very real shift in psychology when the excitement and hope of a season fades into the frustrated reality that opponents are going to be tough and the work that lay ahead may not provide the results the team truly desires.

Players want to play and teams play games to win. Period. Putting forth exhausting effort to come up short time and again, starts to weigh on players and ultimately on teams. The psychology of an athlete and a team is challenged at the extremes. The players who experience consistent playing time and winning are challenged to stay focused and humble. The players on teams experiencing losses are challenged to see a point in working hard, they have to navigate personal, ugly emotions that come with sitting on the sideline or losing. They either give up trying or they use a lot of energy to determine ways to keep fighting and to help their teammates do the same. It is much harder to be a part of a team that is in defensive battle mode.

The hardest thing to keep in mind is that true winning (competing well each and every outing) is always possible. It’s a decision to show up well.

This is not an easy decision, however.

The team I am currently coaching is 2 and 9 and facing the back half of a season with the same opponents who have already beat up on us once. We are experiencing the hardest part of being in battle mode.

This is where the true character of these players and the heart of this team will be tested most.

There are countless ways the guys can decide to respond. Countless ways to show up….or not. I’m challenged to help them to dig in and to find value in competing well no matter their record. It’s for pride. It’s for building upon the groundwork we are laying. It’s for sharpening the character tools in their toolboxes as they prepare to go on to college, or jobs where what they’ve learned about competing well will matter.

We need to continue to show up well:

  • Show up early (or at the very least on time)
  • Show up ready (bring all gear necessary)
  • Show up positively (find the good in other players and the fun in the game)
  • Show up focused (leave other thoughts off the field and bring mental focus into the task at hand)
  • Show up ready to work hard (no matter what you are able to do in a day, do your best)
  • Show up ready to learn (see each day as an opportunity to grow as a person and as a team)

Showing up happens on an individual level, but it is layered with an awareness of what showing up means to the team as a whole.

I’d like to say, after all this time on teams, that I’ve perfected the showing up thing. I haven’t. I am equally challenged to show up well and I need reminders to stay the course too. It is a daily decision and I need to come back to the decision each morning because, for me, any time I have the opportunity to be part of  a team I have made the implicit agreement to show up well.

 

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 2016       Meagan Frank   Choosing to Grow         http://www.meaganfrank.com

 

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The price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand.  -Vince Lombardi

I think Lombardi has it right. You pay for success with hard work, dedication, and a decision to offer the best of yourself each and every day.

The real challenge is knowing how to measure whether you succeed.

In a competitive world, it is the simple thing to measure in wins and losses…in points on a scoreboard…in stats we can count. We’re told repeatedly that only winners are successful.

I disagree. It is much more complex than that and I am challenged to stay mindful of what true success means.

Last night, on the way home from my first conference game (a lopsided loss) as the head coach for a boys’ high school soccer team, I had an interesting conversation with a couple of my assistant coaches. One coach commented about how there is a successful 17-year-old phenom who is playing professional soccer as a goalie. He lamented the fact that he is just a college kid, who isn’t playing goalie anymore, and who now has the goalie coaching job for fledgling goalies in a re-building program. Not newsworthy, in his opinion.

Another assistant coach, who is an incredible chorus teacher at the high school, also commented about colleagues who have “made it” and are big-time conductors with doctorates and incredible opportunities.

If success is only possible for the elite few who “make it”, or for the winning programs  and star athletes among us, then what is the point for the rest of us?

The point for the rest of us is the last part of Lombardi’s quote. “We (need to) have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand.” How we apply ourselves is to compete well. The definition of “compete” is to strive to win.

The point for the rest of us is that we learn how to compete well…always and in all circumstances. Competing well is how we succeed.

For that 17-year-old phenom, the best of himself is obviously incredible athleticism and goalie expertise. It’s going to matter how his stats add up. The task he has been handed is to compete with the world’s best.

We’re not all asked to succeed at that task.

For me, and my coaching staff, the task ahead of us is to build soccer skill, to build teamwork, and to build a program that can compete better in an incredibly tough conference. We need to show up every day with those tasks in mind.

For the players who play on our team, their task is to show up with the best of themselves each day with an attitude prepared to learn and grow as soccer players and as people. They can count themselves successful if daily they strive to compete well as individuals and as a team.

The world may not do a great job of measuring our successes, but if I’m stepping up to the task  I’ve been handed, I sure will.

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 2016       Meagan Frank   Choosing to Grow         http://www.meaganfrank.com

 

 

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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

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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