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When Too Much Emphasis is on Winning

Thursday, September 30, 2004
Living Well: When coaches and parents
put too much emphasis on winning,
kids may drop out
E-mail is a regular part of Dave Schu
macher's workdays, same as many of
us. But the similarities tend to stop
Schumacher is the coaching director
for the Washington State Youth So
ccer Association, which trains and
educates some 12,000 coaches each year. He gets a lot of
e-mail notes from those coaches. Some of the e-mails
are outright nasty.
"I got an e-mail from a U9 (under 9
years old) coach who was very upset
with me saying kids should not be
overbooked or even play in summer tournaments, esp
ecially younger players," explained Schumacher. "The
coach said he had discovered seven open tournaments his
U9 team could play in July and August. He signed up
the team for six. That means those kids and parents
were tied up for six of ei
ght possible weekends."
The coach was proud of his aggressive scheduling. He warn
ed Schumacher, without any
decorum, if U9 players
in Washington didn't all follow suit, they
would fall behind kids in California .
For Schumacher, it equates to too much soccer -- a s
port he loves -- and too little
summer. You know, family
vacations, barbecues, impromptu swims, the lazy hazy
days nobody seems to have time to enjoy anymore.
"It's only natural when kids go to tournaments that they
want to win medals and
trophies," said Schumacher.
"Parents want the same thing. So tournaments can be fun. But they can also bring
out the worst in people."
More than 46 million American kids will participate in
an organized sport between now and the beginning of
next fall's school year. But 50 percent of kids drop out
of those organized team and
individual sports by age 12,
and the number rises to 75 percent by
sophomore year in high school. On av
erage, three of every 10 youth sport
participants don't return
for a next season.
For these athletic dropouts, the
thrill and particularly the fun is gone faster
than Ichiro Suzuki runs to first base.
Do the math. It equals up to 34.5 million disconnected teenagers. Not good whether you are a sports fan or
decidedly unfanatic.
"In the past, youth sports represented
a nice way to keep kids out of troubl
e," said Lenny Wier
sma, co-director
of the Center for Advancement of Responsible Youth S
ports at the University of
California-Fullerton. "Now
you can argue that youth sports are critical to preven
ting childhood obesity, which is
an epidemic. We are losing
kids earlier and earlier to TV, alcohol
and, at least down here, gangs."
Wiersma made the point that there ar
e few physical activity alternatives fo
r students, since phys. ed. class is
routinely downsized or eliminated altoge
ther when school budgets are tightened.
It is common among parents, even the ones who dream of
their children getting college scholarships or making
millions as sports stars, to say they want their childr
en to have fun in athletics. Yet someone like Dr. John
O'Kane, who is team physician for th
e University of Washington and a spor
ts-medicine specialist with a Seattle
practice, said he sees a distinct subset of teenage athl
etes whose sports participati
on "is not their goal but the
parents' goal."
"I have been at lots of select t
eam basketball games," said Richard
Bouche, a podiatrist with The Sports
Medicine Clinic at Northwest Hospital and Medical Clin
ic. "Some of these kids never smile -- the whole game
or the whole season."
Wiersma said he has a quick barometer for a no-fun fact
or among youth sports particip
ants: "If the parent talks
longer about the game than the kid on the car ride home
or if the parent dwells on winning and losing more, it
fits into a situation of potentia
l burnout for the young athlete."
Ronald Smith, a professor of psychology at the Univers
ity of Washington and a noted
expert on coach-player
relationships, holds that most
kids don't pay much attention to win-lo
ss records -- or woul
dn't naturally -- until
about age 13. Putting them into highly competitive situatio
ns -- say, six U9 tournaments in two months -- is
counterproductive to both fun
and wider participation.
"Before kids hit puberty," said Wiersma, "they don't
really understand competition and that it involves a
mixture of performance and luck and circumstances, ev
en weather conditions. All
they see is they're not good
Smith has done seminal work about why kids
drop out of sports. The No. 1 reason?
"It's not fun," said Smith. "The next five all ha
ve to do with parents' or coaches' behaviors."
Smith and UW colleague Frank Smoll have chosen to
concentrate on improving the coaching approaches in
youth sports.
"We look at supportiveness," said Smith during a recent
speech at a psychology conference. "Highly supportive
coaches respond to positive behaviors such as effort
, good conduct and following
the rules with positive
reinforcement. Those same coaches respond to mistakes
with encouragement and tec
hnical instruction rather
than criticism."
A supportive coach no doubt will look for clues
that his or her players are having fun.
"I look for it in body language," said Tony Miranda, w
ho runs the Northwest Junior
s Volleyball Club based in
Bellevue and acts as junior program di
rector for the Puget Sound region of
USA Volleyball. "It can be hard to
tell if your players are having fun.
But I look at body language, whether th
e players are energetic and whether
they enjoy each other's company."
Wiersma and Cal-Fullerton's youth s
ports center has been
conducting a sweeping thr
ee-year study of youth
sports in Orange County . The concept of wh
at's fun has surprised the researchers.
"Parents and coaches equate fun with fooling around
during practice or a simila
r fleeting concept," said
Wiersma. "The kids themselves have been clear and cons
istent. The No. 1 thing that
makes sports fun for them
is being challenged in a manner consistent
with their abilities. They report that
they like to work hard in practice
and know they accomplished a difficult task. Fun is much mo
re intrinsic than being with friends. It goes beyond
playing games."
Smith has discovered similar trends in his work. He sa
id youth athletes "like stru
cture and organization" but
coaches should save the
drill-sergeant approach.
What's more, studies show wins a
nd losses have little to do with whet
her young athletes like playing for a
coach. That's especially true for that
relative sliver of kids w
ho keep playing sports into their high school years,
overcoming emotional burnout and stiff competition that
ultimately results in a minuscule few making it to
university teams or pro stardom.
"Teens like to play for coaches who instruct them in su
ch a way that they are more
successful," said Smith.
Interestingly, Smith said some of the all-time most succes
sful coaches have emphasized this "mastery" of skills
approach over the "ego orientation"
that is all about winning and losi
ng. Legendary UCLA basketball coach
John Wooden is the model for the mastery approach (one
example is his famous quote, "It's what you know
after you know it all that c
ounts"). Another is North Carolina basket
ball icon Dean Smith,
who said equating
winning and losing to life and death
means "you will be dead a lot."
For Schumacher, the state soccer coaching supervisor, the de
finition of fun is apparent
in driveways, back yards
and basements throughout
the Puget Sound area.
"When kids play a sport on their own every day,"
said Schumacher, "that's when we know it's fun."
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