I recently had the opportunity to attend the Aspen Institute’s Project Play Summit in Washington, D.C.
The Aspen Institute gathers some of the best and most current information on youth and high school sports, health and development. One of the most impactful events of the summit was a session entitled “Ask Kids What They Want: What if Youth Designed Youth Sports?” Over 400 industry leaders huddled to hear Kobe Bryant moderate a panel of four youth athletes as they offered their perceptions of the adults who surround their ballfields.
One of the first questions Bryant asked the kids was, “Whose expectations are you playing for?” I thought this to be a great question that all sports parents and coaches can weave into conversations to gain a better understanding of their athletes. The kids were a bit perplexed at first, but mostly stated it was their parent’s expectations that stood out most.
I believe it’s important we work with athletes to create their own expectations as they mature through the years of practices, games and physical growth. Helping teenagers begin to create their own realistic expectations that align with their goals is a foundation of success that extends well beyond the playing fields.
The kids also agreed that more positivity around youth and high school sports participations would be beneficial. Many kids become scared to try new sports as they enter their teenage years, fearing that they’re “too far behind” by that point. Parents and coaches need to encourage teens to try new sports if they have an interest, and remind them that many world champions first tried their specific sport as teenagers.
So two themes we were able to walk away with was that young athletes often feel the weight of their parents’ expectations and that they may be afraid to try new activities even if they’re interested in them. What can we do to help address these issues?
I interviewed a number of guests and event participants by asking them a simple question. “If they could change something about high school sports with the wave of a magic wand, what would it be?” Here’s what I found out.
Co-Curricular, Not Extra Curricular
The research is overwhelming that athletes perform better in the classroom compared to overall student populations. Research connecting a correlation between increased physical activity and better grades is also significant. Knowing this, you’d think school systems would be encouraging more fitness and team sports, not less. Yet many schools are eliminating certain sports and minimizing the role of physical education classes. Schools need to find innovative ways to increase participation in physical activity among their students, yet many are currently going backwards in this realm.
“Sports are essential, sport is a social and emotional arena. It pulls it out of you and teaches you how to regulate it,” Tom Farrey, Executive Director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society programs, shared with me.
“Every child needs access to sport, either through schools or supplemental means,” Kevin Carroll, the acclaimed author of Rules of the Red Rubber Ball, What’s Your Red Rubber Ball?! and The Red Rubber Ball at Work, said. He travels the globe speaking to businesses and to young people about the importance of sport and play in life. Check out Kevin’s work, he was an inspiring guy to meet!
By making sports more co-corricular rather than extra curricular, we not only increase physical activity, but we may also help introduce a young person to a sport they eventually fall in love with.
More Coaching Education
Chris Snyder, Director of Coaching Education with the United State Olympic Committee, joined a panel entitled “Train All Coaches.” Afterwards, I caught up with him to discuss the state of high school athletics.
Snyder doubled-down on the importance of providing training and education for all high school coaches. Too often, they are hired and left to learn and adapt on the fly. High schools that invest in their coaching staffs reap the benefits in the form of reduced turnover, a stronger culture and higher consistency. “The further we move away from a ‘check the box’ mentality around the hiring of high school coaches, the better we will be,” Snyder stated.
Chris’ thoughts reminded me of an old dilemma common in the business world. “What if you spend money training people and they leave?” one businessman asks another. “What if you don’t train them and they stay?” replies the other. Great schools invest in their coaches just like great businesses invest in their employees.
Better coaches can help athletes set the right expectations and goals for themselves and also learn how to hold themselves accountable.
Reduce Transfers, Encourage Community Sports
High schools “recruiting” athletes, and athletes frequently transferring between schools is now common practice. But what effect does that have on the scholastic sports experience?
Jason Sacks, Vice-President of Business Development & Philanthropy for Positive Coaching Alliance, shared that, “the frequent recruiting focus of high school athletics takes away from the wholesome experience scholastic sports looks to fulfill.”
While this is more often a problem in urban centers, where greater options exist for the athlete, the practice of adults being overly involved in the student-athlete’s choices can greatly hinder their kid’s personal and athletic development. Empower them to evaluate their own expectations with their needs in mind and come to an educated decision.
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