Tackling The Tough Issues Of Coaching Kids: The Let 'Em Play vs. 'Wussification' Debate

Tackling The Tough Issues Of Coaching Kids: The Let ‘Em Play vs. ‘Wussification' Debate
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My favorite moment in televised youth sports fiction comes from the CBC series, "The Tournament."

The TV series, imported from Canada to the United States -- as both nations tried to kill air time during the 2004-05 NHL lockout -- centers (being Canadian, maybe that should be 'centres') around a family in which the father is intensely pushing his 10-year-old son's hockey career, while the mother is...not.

This moment (start at 2:45), as the son's team gears up to play in its championship game, succinctly encapsulates what you might call the let-'em-play vs. "wussification" debate: Should kids play for the love of the game, or should they be playing to win?

MOM: "Have a great game, OK! Just relax and have fun. I love you, baby!"

DAD (Rolls his eyes at his wife, grabs son and looks him straight in the eye): "Listen to me! You want to spend the rest of your life stacking air filters and alternators? There are people in this crowd that can change your life! Do NOT let them DOWN by having FUN!"

Yeah -- two very different perspectives.

My first youth sports coaching experience was a second-grade basketball league in which score was not officially kept, everyone had equal playing time, and all participants got a trophy at season's end.

It was glorious.

Those rules allowed me to concentrate on teaching and development without the pressure of worrying about whether parents were questioning my ability (or were like the hockey dad from "The Tournament") because we weren't "winning." My goal was to start these second-graders (including my own son) down the road of a lifelong enjoyment of basketball, whether or not they even ended up playing on a high school team. The trophies were a nice touch to remind them of the fun they had.

From what I've subsequently learned, this attitude makes me, and I'm a paraphrasing, a Communist. I DID let my town DOWN by having FUN.

As the insatiable American market for bigger and better facilities serving more and younger travel teams shows, there are plenty of parents (and coaches) whose idea of youth sports development is playing to win, as often as possible, as early as possible. That's because this is America, gosh darn it, and we're all about competition and squeezing out those who can't cut it.

Critics say that no-score, everybody-gets-a-trophy leagues can only lead to spoiled children never learning to handle losing and adversity, which is why people shoot up schools and offices. (I'm not paraphrasing -- in 2009 I interviewed a college professor in Alabama who claimed just that.)

Never mind that this attitude is resulting not in better athletes, but in more physically and mentally burned-out sports kids. Additionally, this attitude is squeezing out not just casual and late-developing athletes, but also families who can't afford the thousands of dollars of equipment, fees and hotel bills (with or without continental breakfasts) that is the price of admission, leaving the sports equipment industry itself fretting that, like the gun business, its model is based on a declining number of hardcore participants buying a lot of stuff. All this for the stated goal of a college athletic scholarship, which is hard to attain and often doesn't even cover the full cost of school.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not completely opposed to keeping score. Most of the leagues I've coached in the last 10 years have done exactly that. I also understand that as kids get older, playing time is not doled out equally. My son, who got equal time on the court as a second grade basketball player, was mostly nailed to the bench as a high school football player -- and he understood that's how things go at that level.

I understand some of enmity at everybody-gets-a-trophy-leagues. Though in my case, with four kids, that's based on where the heck I'm supposed to put all those awards! I can even understand putting a child in a travel league. If the child enjoys the sport, and the parents can swing the time and money to do it, then have a great time. Parents put their children in winner-take-all leagues for the same reason they choose one that's less pressurized -- because they love their children and want the best for them.

However, some parents could stand to love their kids a little less.

In my experience, though, regardless of whether or not you're keeping score or playing a game just for fun, parents don't need to worry about teaching their kids how to be competitive. In the second-grade league I coached, there was one group of people who always kept score -- the kids themselves.

And they did that knowing despite who actually won the game, everyone would be taking home a trophy.

Friday Night Tykes is the latest reality hit that follows the passion and competitive spirit of teams in the Rookie division of the Texas Youth Football Association. Tune in to the Esquire Network to watch the premiere of season two on Jan. 20 at 10|9c. You can watch the full first episode of Season Two here.

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