THE BEST KIND OF OWNERSHIP
“I play to be happy, not to win titles”
Andrés Iniesta, FC Barcelona
For many of us youth sports before junior high or high school consisted of neighborhood games of hide-and-seek, sardines, capture the flag and seasonal variations on the major sports – touch football, h-o-r-s-e, stickball, runners-up. Every aspect of those endeavors was ours to control – each of us commissioner, owner, coach, player, umpire and fan.
Along the way we usually learned something about whatever game we were playing. But mostly we were learning about life: choosing how much physical, social and emotional investment we would make to be first to kick-the-can, working through issues of fair play and sportsmanship on a close play in a kickball game, deciding whether or not to cheat at Marco Polo. In the end those games, whether we knew it or not, had quite an impact in terms of shaping who we would be as adults.
Is that impact disappearing as sports for kids become increasingly organized and adult-directed? It doesn’t have to. That wonderful phrase from Positive Coaching Alliance founder Jim Thompson about developing “stronger, more responsible and confident individuals who will be successful in life” describes what should be a fundamental and intentional purpose of organized youth sports. Just as it happened in the neighborhood’s less structured games.
The critical issues here involve matters of ownership and control. What follow are insights both about how to sort them out to the athletes’ greatest and most permanent benefit, and how coaches and parents can effectively help their children grow from the youth sports experience.
For many years Dr. Bruce Brown directed the NAIA’s “Champions of Character Program”. He recommends that each season parents consider the following questions: Why do I want my child playing? What will be a successful season for me as a parent? What are my goals for him? What do I hope she gains from the experience? What do I think his role will be on the team?
Once parents have done that they will need to find a quiet time to discuss the same questions with their young athlete. Ideally the child’s answers will be in sync with the parents’. If they are not, it’s time to decide whose expectations the athlete will be asked to pursue.
Not all athletes on a team are likely to have the same goals. Some players may be dreaming of playing on a top college team. Others are there just to be with their friends. Each is OK. What matters is that a player’s commitment to a team contains a complementary obligation to helping teammates attain their dreams.
With a little help, athletes figure this out early on. They then freely choose to make efforts that honor the goals and aspirations of their teammates – even where those goals are different from their own. It’s important that parents honor and support this commitment as well, whether or not their son or daughter is one of those hoping to play at a Division I school or on the National Team.
IT’S HIS THING
Recognizing the athlete’s commitment is the first step toward “releasing” the athlete to the game and the team. It’s not always an easy thing to do. Dr. Brown:
One of the best “gifts” parents can give their children is to release them to their sport. As such, during the season, parents must share their child with the coach and the team. The earlier in their child’s career they are able to do this, the better it is for their children’s development and growth.
By releasing their young athlete, parents are telling their children that all successes are theirs, all failures are theirs, and all problems are theirs. There are not many places in a young person’s life where parents can say, “This is your thing.” This can’t be done with friends, academics, decisions on weekends, or even movies; it can be done in athletics.
University of North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance, citing the parents of future World Champions Julie Foudy, Michelle Akers, Mia Hamm, Tisha Venturini and others, put it a little differently:
In my experience, the best soccer parents more or less let their children do their own thing. These parents are not directly involved in their children’s soccer, especially not as part of a “management team”… They are completely supportive of their players – win, lose or draw. The bottom line – they fulfill the parent’s role and job, which is basically to love their children… Parents who learn to have faith in their children learn to let go of their desire to control and protect… I know it can be hard, but a player has to fight her own battles. If sports can have any value off the field, it is in the athletes dealing with these difficult, but ultimately empowering challenges on their own.
He goes on to advise the athlete:
The first step in a healthy soccer career is to become your own manager… The more you can do about your game on your own, the more you are playing for yourself. And the more you play for yourself, the less you will require of your parents and the more freedom you will have to pursue something you enjoy for its own sake. You want (your parents) to enjoy watching you be challenged and enjoying that world, but it is your world to manage.
When An Athlete feels in control of his sports experience, interesting things happen. The athlete takes ever-increasing responsibility for his own effort, learning and improvement, will work harder and stick to the task longer. Who wouldn’t want that?
On Teams Where expectations are clear and athletes control their performance, ownership is vested where it belongs – with athletes making their personal investments in their team. They develop a “we play for each other” mentality that continually reinforces itself, and that may be the most important quality a team can enjoy.
Athletes who get ahold of their sport in this way enjoy “the best kind of ownership, and the most permanent.”