Winning at What Cost?

Two rows in from the left and seated in the very front of the room was my freshman self in one of my afternoon high school classes back in the mid 90’s.  It’s a 50 minute time period that I will never forget.  I’m not sure how the instructor turned the conversation towards me, but indeed for the bulk of the period the focal point of the conversation was my “chicken legs.”   For fifty minutes the instructor and some of my classmates got a great laugh at the expense of my looks.  Even though tears streamed down my face, it didn’t stop my instructor from continuing to make fun of my looks.

Unfortunately, this is not the only bad day I remember from my childhood school days.  And certainly, bad days are common and had by all.  But bad days at the expense of mistreatment are days that no child should ever endure, and quite honestly never have lasting memories of.

There exists a blurred line within every child (adult too) that lies somewhere between mental toughness and mental illness.  For myself as a child, I was fueled by mistreatment.  It made me want to be better.  It made me want to prove folks wrong.  As Bryan Adams played guitar until his “fingers bled” during the “Summer of 69,”, I played basketball until my fingers bled during my entire childhood (literally).  I played basketball because it was my escape and when I had a basketball in my hands, nobody could touch my soul or tear me down.

But this is not the case for all and it’s why I’m a strong advocate for change when it comes to youth sports and how we handle youth in general.  The win at all costs mentality has infiltrated fields and courts around the nation.  The emphasis on winning has trumped an emphasis on learning and growing.  And before I go further, I want to point out that I think some youth organizations are outstanding.  My nephew belongs to a great organization that focuses strictly on skill development.  Yes, he travels with a team to all parts of the nation to play, but it’s not about winning.  It’s about growing, not only as a player, but also as a person.  My own children have also benefited from coaches with a “learn first, win second” mentality. 

This type of environment doesn’t exist in the masses across youth sports today.  Whether it’s independent AAU teams or local parks and rec teams, the emphasis on winning at all costs is placing hardships on many young kids around the nation.   I’ve seen it on multiple levels as I’ve traveled around to watch my own kids participate.  Spectators hollering at kids from the stands, or coaches demeaning athletes from the bench – kids are hearing a message that winning trumps all (even the enjoyment of participating).  And some kids at the youth level are simply not even seeing the field or court, because the win at all cost mentality has placed a priority over the “everyone gets to participate,’ philosophy.  I get that a fine line exists there as well, but at the youth level (apart from the try-out travel teams) participation and opportunity for all should be a priority.

I’m certainly not suggesting that all kids deserve a medal.  Totally not my narrative here.  Opportunity yes, medal no.  And when it comes to coaching and teaching kids, expectations and demands can be necessary components, but ridiculing and demeaning not so much.

So what can we do today to combat this crisis?  How can we transition from an “elitism” culture to one that embraces opportunity and a growth mindset for all at the youth level?  And then, as our youth enter the high school sector with some having greater abilities than others shift that narrative in our athletes and their parents to understanding that being part of a team and contributing to that team comes in many different forms.  Things certainly look different at the high school level, as they should, but creating an understanding in our athletes and their parents that contributing to team’s success doesn’t necessarily have to equate to field or court time in competition is important.

If the answers to these questions were easy, we certainly wouldn’t have the crisis we have now.  I think it’s important for coaches and parents to know that likely they are not working with or living with the next G.O.A.T.  Much less than one-percent of our youth today will turn professional in any one particular sport, but 100% of them will turn adult and will be a mother, father, and/or contributor to society.  More of an emphasis on learning and less on winning from the onset of child activity should be stressed.

Also, I think we’ve learned especially over the course of the last few days that even the folks that we think have it all together, struggle mentally as well.  We just never know what people are going through and assuming someone is ok because of accolades, riches, and/or recognition is a great travesty we all make.  We must approach all youth with a mentality that doesn’t include breaking them down, but rather building them up from wherever they are at. This doesn’t mean constructive criticism can’t be given and hard lessons can’t be learned, but we need to be careful that our interactions with youth are not pushing them closer to the line of mental illness.

As adults we must model the behavior we want to see in our youth.  A by-product of “winning at all costs” and “elitism” culture has been a sharp decline in available folks willing to officiate sporting events.   I’ve seen some very unfortunate interactions over the course of the last few years with coaches/spectators/athletes towards officials.  The behavior we exhibit as adults is the behavior mimicked by our youth.  And unfortunately, the nation is facing an official’s crisis.

The bottom line – we must embrace learning and growing over winning in our nation’s youth.  We need to be mindful of how we interact with our youth in doing so.   And let me caveat that with just this final note.  I myself, can take notes from my own writing.  I want what is best for my kids, we all do.  I’ve been a coach at both the youth and varsity levels.  I too wanted to win at all costs.  This problem doesn’t exist in just one town, state, or region.  It’s a nationwide issue.  But we have to be better.  We have to be better for the kid sitting in class being demeaned by the teacher, and we have to be better for the thousands of kids that are participating around the world in the sports that they love.