Too many of our kids are becoming statistics. Though nine out of ten of all youth sports accidents and deaths are preventable, the number of our children suffering unnecessary injuries and even death playing youth sports continues to rise. In ever-greater numbers young athletes are suffering physically, psychologically and sexually at the hands of parents, coaches and other players. Assaults on sports officials, hazing rituals, the use of performance-enhancing drugs and poor sportsmanship are steadily increasing.
Youth sports are creating some serious social problems: rape by athletes, violence toward other players and non-athletes, coaches bending eligibility rules, adults setting terrible examples by physically and verbally abusing kids, coaches, officials and other adults. PED use among high school athletes has grown by 67 percent since 1971, leaving users with severe and lasting physical and psychological problems. Childhood obesity and Type II diabetes have reached epidemic levels as more and more children abandon the playground or sports field for the comfort of their couches and virtual games.
In the face of such grim statistics, why, then, do I continue, as I have for the past 20 years, working so hard to make sports safer for our children and young adult athletes? Why did the organization I founded, MomsTEAM Institute, recently agree to become the U.S. Pioneer Coalition Organization to implement in UNICEF's International Safeguards for Children in Sport as part of our soon to launch SmartTeam™ program?
Simply put, because I take a glass half-full, not glass half-empty view of sports for children, because I see in sports participation rewards and benefits that far outweigh the risks, and because I know from my own experience, both as a mother of sports-active triplet sons and as a past coach, just how important sports are for kids.
Perhaps it was a team of 14-year-old boys I coached that taught me the value of sports more than any other. I still vividly recall the Saturday afternoon in early spring when a rag-tag group of 18 sixth- and seventh-grade boys entered the gym for our first soccer practice. They were barely able to make eye contact with me, much less each other. Not only did they feel like rejects, but they knew that the only reason they were going to be playing travel soccer was that a mom (me) had agreed to become their coach.
Some of the other coaches and the age director of the soccer club had tried their best to dissuade me from coaching. Don't expect to win any games, they said. Some of the boys have attention issues, they said; several chronically misbehave. Some lack "talent" or are slow footed. And we think so and so is selling weed, and, oh, by the way, we don't think a woman should be coaching a boys' team in the first place.
I had a different perspective. Maybe it was the challenge or just a hunch that I had that they knew they still had the potential to be good players, if they were only given the chance to keep playing.
Instead of scaring me off, all the negativity simply strengthened my resolve to turn what everyone expected to be a disastrous season into something special; to give this group of outcasts and misfits a season to remember; to give them a reason to keep playing soccer by making it fun again; to show them the very best that sport had to offer; to teach them lessons through sports that would enrich the rest of their lives.
Before the first practice began I explained my coaching philosophy, expectations and goals for the upcoming season. I went on to tell them that during the upcoming season they would learn a lot about soccer and teamwork; that, above all else, they would not only have fun but, by the end of the season, they would be holding their heads up high.
Fast forward to the end of the season: a group of boys with attention, aggression, communication and self-esteem issues became teammates who respected themselves, each other, and me; a team that won a trophy for sportsmanship at a major Memorial Day tournament; a team that went undefeated until the semi-final of the league's post-season tournament; a team that learned to communicate, collaborate and cooperate. And, ultimately, a team I was invited to take to an international soccer tournament in St. Andrews, Scotland, where we competed with elite teams from the U.S., Brazil, Scotland and England. Little did those teams know about our team other than that they were soccer-loving lads from the states.
It was truly my "Dream Team." I took my wish list of what I felt made a good coach, and what I felt was important to teach boys on the cusp of puberty, and made them come true. I gave them a safe, nurturing environment in which to do what boys their age want to do most: play, burn off steam, feel safe (at every practice or game I told them I only had one rule: There will be absolutely no teasing or bullying) and have fun.
By the end of the season, I came to realize that essential to the team's successful season -- success I measured not so much in the wins and lone loss but in the physical and emotional growth of the players -- were my instincts to nurture, encourage emotional openness, value fair play, cooperation and connectedness, and doing one's best over winning, and to provide boys a healthy outlet for their aggression and competitiveness. It was simply a joy to see the power that sport has to bring people together and teach them valuable lessons about life. Each boy, now a grown young man, has embarked on a career. One, a Harvard graduate, wrote his admissions essay on what it was like to play on a team that valued him and how his trip to Scotland playing against teams from powerhouse European clubs like Juventus helped him decide on a career in international policy.
The connections, memories, friendships, life lessons and values kids learn in sports, including a love of physical exercise, can last a lifetime, but only if we continue to make sports about playing and having fun, healthy competition, and skill- and team-building, not to be sacrificed at the altar of individual and team success. Sports can and do provide those benefits to millions of kids, but only we if we are able to keep kids in the game, not burning out from physical, emotional and psychological stress that youth sports, all too often, place on our young people today. As long as the adults running youth sports remember to serve the needs of kids, not their own, the kids of today and of future generations can enjoy the incredible benefits of sports participation. It is up to every stakeholder in all nations.
For updates on SmartTeams and keeping sports active and student athletes safe, follow Brooke and MomsTEAM Institute on twitter: @BrookedeLench @MomsTeam.
Join the conversation on Twitter and tell us why you feel sports are important for youth with #TheTackle.