Recreational vs. Competitive Youth Sports

January 7th, 2010

I have had the opportunity to observe youth games in every sport throughout Clark County. From city parks and recreation leagues to travel baseball clubs, I have noticed more commonalities than differences when it comes to youth sports. First, let me tell you some of the comments I hear from league directors, coaches and parents involved in so-called competitive leagues. Basically, they have expectations of winning, and committed performances from their children. There is seldom mention of kids having fun. How then does this compare with recreational play? League directors, and parents describe it as children playing to have fun and to work on skill development. This really is the idea of youth sports. However, all surveys asking children why they play sports find that children play to have fun. It is disappointing to find that a very high percentage of children and youth involved in competitive sports quit playing.

Recreational play and competitive play are simply opposite points on a continuum. Both are essentially the same concept. When a child first enters youth sports they are developing fundamental sport skills and learning to work in a team environment. Expectations by parents should be based on their child having fun, developing skills and wanting to continue playing. With increased skills comes success, which leads to an increased desire to continue playing and greater self-satisfaction on effort. When skills have been improved to a point where the child demonstrates consistency in play, and has the desire to move towards competitive they are ready. Being ready to raise their level of involvement suggests that they have acquired the necessary skill prerequisites, social confidence and cognitive understanding of what is involved with moving towards competition. Competition is not a bad thing. Competition provides an opportunity for children to learn about strategies, teamwork, effort, sportsmanship and commitment. Concepts that are developed in recreational play as well. Hence another similarity. However, on competitive teams players often relate their skill performance with their self-identity. Those players who perform better play more while others sit the bench. Players on competitive teams in response to surveys respond that they would rather play on a losing team then sit on the bench on a winning team. Perhaps a difference between recreational and competitive play is determined by playing time.

Perhaps the perceived differences between recreational and competitive play rest with the expectations of league directors, coaches and parents, which conflict with the playing interests of the youth. The structure of youth sports has changed very little over the past decades but the results and behavior at games has changed tremendously. Recreational play and competitive play offer opportunities for youth to find success, improve their skills, be around friends and most importantly to have fun. Allowing youth an opportunity to increase their skills, enhance their self-confidence and desire to play they will let you know when they are ready for competitive play. A quick check on whether your child is ready to play is to observe whether they are having fun and enjoy participating. If they are not having fun, take a step back and find a way to bring the fun back. In either case whether youth are involved in recreational or competitive play they should be having FUN.

Sportsmanship 101

January 7th, 2010

Recently I went out to watch a Las Vegas Wranglers Ice Hockey game. Several fans seated nearby found a venue for their obnoxious commentary. Throughout the game fans were heard shouting out negative comments and obscenities to the visiting team. When fights on the ice broke out fans cheered in delight as the players pounded on each other. Noticeably present were children of all ages seated next to these unruly fans. Unfortunately, many of these children watched as their parents behaved in this manner. Is it any wonder that parents act the same way at youth sporting events?

Lets take a look at a different sport. Rodeo. While watching the National Finals Rodeo in December it occurred to me how great the sport truly is. With a sold-out crowd the energy remains positive and quite supportive. Fans cheer for every cowboy (and cowgirl) during all events. All those in attendance appreciate the efforts. Never does one hear the cheering for the horse to buck the cowboy or for the bull to gore the rider. The efforts and performance of all cowboys is valued and celebrated by cheers and claps.

Every four years the world takes a pause to celebrate athletic performance by way of the Olympics. While support is given to individuals from their own country fans still cheer on performances from all. We rise collectively and clap as the last runner in the marathon finishes the race. It is about the competition and the performance in its truest sense. Yet at our own child’s youth sporting event we somehow lose sight of what is important.

Sportsmanship is the appreciation of athletic performance. Spectators should applaud all action, root for both teams and the performance and success of both teams regardless of affiliation. Rather than cheer only for their “own” team, spectators (parents, friends and siblings) should applaud even the efforts of the opposing team. Players themselves should recognize the good play of opposing players. In tennis, players raise a hand to their racket when they earn a point that is perhaps less than deserving. Other sports have similar protocols.

Why is it that parents and coaches teach their young children to talk trash and berate opposing players? Attend any youth baseball game to see this reality. Parents seated in their lounge chairs next to the dugouts and those seated in the bleachers yell out negative comments about the opposing players. Parents and coaches celebrate when a player strikes out. Players yell at their opposing counterparts and cheer when errors are made. Is this a behavior seen only in baseball? No. It is common in all sports. This disappointing trend continues and is invariably a cultural problem.

Now let us try to change this situation. Is it easy to change? Will change make a dramatic improvement in youth sports? Definitely. Parents can make a huge difference by modeling appropriate behavior to their children. Start by cheering for both teams and the play of all team members. When your child asks why are you cheering for the other team, explain that sportsmanship is about applauding effort and performance not just for one team. Teach your child to appreciate the play of opposing players and their own teammates. Reinforce their recognition of the other team and show them how to tell opposing players and coaches after the game that they played well and it was a good game.

Coaches can model appropriate behavior by talking about sportsmanship and what it truly means. Obviously this presumes that coaches themselves know what sportsmanship is all about. How can a coach (or an observer) know if they truly understand sportsmanship? It only takes a moment to watch a coach in action. How does the coach interact with his/her players? Are they concerned with teaching skills, helping young players grow as individuals or are they more concerned with winning? Winning has its place, however youth sports is about so much more. Coaches can teach players how to cheer appropriately and not to say negative things to opposing players. Coaches can talk friendly to the opposing players and opposing coaches. The real key is to create an atmosphere where young players thrive amidst a culture of positive good feelings and interactions.

Sportsmanship is a celebration of athletic performance. Make it contagious. Help your child to become part of this celebration.

Soccer Mayhem

August 16th, 2009

A few days ago all across the country on the evening news was shown a video clip of a women’s soccer match between New Mexico and BYU where a player was shown pulling an opponent down by her pony tail. Earlier video clips were shown of this soccer player’s continued use of elbows and fists against other players during the game. as we watched this scene unfold mostly we were shocked at the behavior. How could this young women commit such flagrant and cruel acts during a game? It should not come as a surprise to any of us. Not that this particular young women did such an act but that is occurs countless times daily with all ages of children and young adults committing such behavior during sport events. For nearly a decade I have been studying youth sport events across the country and especially in Clark County Nevada (Las Vegas, Henderson, North Las Vegas) and this type of behavior occurs everyday. The trouble is that local league officials and park administrator turn a blind eye to these acts and claim that it does not exist in their communities. I’m sure that every park administrator will say just that after an incident is videotaped in one of their events and then they can claim that it must be unique because they have never had that trouble before. Denial will never improve their league. If you have witnessed bad behavior during one of your child’s youth sport events please join in this discussion and describe what occurred and any impact on your child or other children. Let’s bring a real face to this problem by alerting everyone to what really goes on out at our parks.