As the parent of two teenagers who have played multiple sports over the years, I've seen the good, the bad, the ugly and the absolutely brutal. The negative buzz around youth sports -- concussions, overuse injuries, out of control parents, costly travel teams, bullying coaches and more -- have parents wondering if it's worth it to let their kids continue playing. Have we reached a point where the negatives outweigh the positives in youth sports? I certainly hear this question often from my podcast guests and listeners.
For me, the answer is a resounding 'NO.' When I think about the value of sports and why my kids continue to play, it's because sports teach kids lessons critical to becoming successful adults. Through sports, kids learn how to work in teams, how to be coachable, how to take risks, how to challenge themselves to be better, and how to behave when they lose -- and when they win.
Whether kids play soccer, baseball, lacrosse, football, or cheer, they learn they are part of a team where one person depends on another. When my son pitches in baseball, he's not the only one who needs to play well; he depends on his defense to make the plays in the field. When my daughter plays tennis, she depends on her partner to cut off the ball at the net and win the point, and the tennis team depends on each person in order to win the overall match. Similarly, whether we work in a global corporation or as an individual contributor with a roster of clients, we all have to work together in some sort of team. There's simply no substitute to teach kids how to be a team player.
Sports also teach children to trust and respect the decisions of someone who understands how the entire team -- not just a single individual -- needs to work in order to succeed, whether the big picture is obvious or not. Five more wind sprints? Sacrifice bunt instead of swinging for the fences? Hit to the opponent's backhand? Sit this game out? It's all about a player's trust in and respect for the coach. Tone down that recommendation for the new corporate reorganization? Work with a difficult colleague? Take on that boring new client? It's all about respecting the decisions of your manager.
Sadly, though, youth sports have suffered from the "winning isn't everything; it's the only thing" attitude. They have become too much of a reflection of professional sports. The recent situation with Jackie Robinson West Little League is only the latest example of this phenomenon. Winning is a happy result, but the lessons from losing are even more important. Of course players should care about winning and train to be winners, but even the best hitter in baseball is only going to get on base less than half the time, and the best venture capitalist will pick one winner out of a pack of contenders.
When my daughter loses a tennis match, her coach inevitably reminds her that "you learn more from losing than from winning." That can be hard to stomach when you've lost a match you could -- and should -- have won, but he's right. Losing makes you focus on improving your skills and your strategy, and sometimes it means taking more risks. I think the parallels with adulthood are straightforward. Maybe we didn't get that sweet new job. Perhaps we miscalculated how much to bid for our dream house. We're going to learn from our mistakes and not repeat them.
Even more important than learning from mistakes is learning how to lose with grace. It's the cardinal rule of sportsmanship. Youth sports are a training ground for kids to learn to be accountable for their actions and 'own' the loss. Don't blame your partner. Don't blame the ref, ump, or line judge. Don't blame the keeper for letting in the winning goal or the center fielder for misplaying the ball. Applaud the opponent, shake hands and vow to do better next time. Nothing makes me happier than watching a post game handshake and hearing a heartfelt "Good game!" or "Nice play!"
As adults, we need to accept defeat gracefully as well. Maybe you made a good sales pitch for your product but your competitor made a better one. Or your colleague got the promotion over you. Whether we think these are right or fair or not, we need to accept them with grace. And by the way, winning with grace is just as important. The only thing worse than a sore loser is a gloating winner.
I believe that participating in youth sports is much more than building a sound body or winning a scholarship to college. Sports are the best way to shape and build more resilient, self motivated and happier children -- and help them become more resilient, self motivated and happy adults. Want to raise a winner? Raise an athlete.
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