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Are Sports Fundamentally Good?

By John O'Sullivan, Changing the Game Project, 01/18/20, 4:00PM CST

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Today, our money is not driving fundamentally good sporting experiences for far too many kids. Read below how you can change this.

I recently came across a great quote from the poet TS Elliot, who says “Nothing pleases people more than to go on thinking what they have always thought, and at the same time imagine that they are thinking something new and daring: it combines the advantage of security with the delight of adventure.” The quote made me reflect upon many things that we often take for granted when it comes to sports. One idea, which I certainly took for granted for many years, is this one:

“Sport is fundamentally good.”

At first glance, this seems to be a truism. After all, as parents we willingly sign up our children to participate in sports so that they get the physical advantages of being active, as well as the character development and social interaction that sport can deliver. We look for additional training opportunities, “elite” clubs and coaching, and treat young athletes like mini adults. It gives us excitement because our kids are pursuing many things that we did not do as children, and at the same time we are comforted by the belief that sport is fundamentally good. If it is, then more sport must be even better, right?

As I have mulled over this statement in the past few years, I do not agree with it at all. The research does not seem to back it up. And once you get past the testimonials of the survivors of the youth sports system, and hear from the people it has failed, I have come to disagree with the statement even more.  

In a recent conversation on our podcast with Jay Coakley, the world’s leading sport sociologist, we talked about this very topic, for he had written the following in a recent paper of his:

“‘Sport contributes to development.’ Worldwide, few people disagree with or qualify this statement, whether it is said in reference to individual, community, or society-wide development. The seldom questioned link between sport and development is grounded in the dual assumption that sport, unlike other activities, has a fundamentally positive and pure essence that transcends time and place so that positive changes befall individuals and groups that engage in or consume sport. . . sport-related decisions and policies remain shaped primarily by unquestioned beliefs grounded in wishful thinking, the idealized testimonials of current and former athletes, and the hunches of sport scientists seeking research opportunities and job placements for their students.”

Our assumption that sport is fundamentally good is fundamentally flawed, and that flawed assumption is dangerous. As we have seen in many recent examples, from the Catholic Church to the USA Gymnastics scandals, this false assumption causes good people to turn away from outrageous behavior, and default to seeing the positive when none might exist. We must stop making this flawed assumption, and perhaps make a different one such as this:

“Sport is neither fundamentally good nor evil; it is neutral. Its’ influence is determined by the use of sport in either a positive or negative manner, and therefore we must be intentional in how we coach and how we parent our children in sports.” 

 

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A car driven to get to and from work or school (a positive use) versus a car in the hands of the drunk driver (clearly negative and dangerous) demonstrates that the car is neither good nor evil. A book written to inform and educate versus one written to spread lies, hate and misinformation is similar. Its’ positivity or negativity is solely determined by its use and purpose, which is determined by the actions of the driver or the author. Much like the car or the book, sport is neither fundamentally good nor evil. Its’ value lies in the hands of how it is used. And herein lies the problem.

Because we make the false assumption that sport is fundamentally good, we are not intentional enough about choosing the correct sporting experiences for our children. We sign them up without first determining or demanding that the local sports club provides a fundamentally good experience. We are basically putting them in the car without determining whether the driver is drunk or not. Some examples of this are:

  • Registering children for organizations that do not educate their coaches and hold them accountable for a certain standard of behavior. 
  • We are not intentional about protecting our kids from early sport specialization and ensuring that they get a multi-sport, multi-movement early sport experience
  • We sign them up for clubs that focus on making cuts and winning games today over long term development and lifelong love of activity
  • Our children participate in sporting activities that do not foster their connection to the community or the greater good.

These are just a few examples, but the results can be devastating. Many young children are left with physical and emotional scars that can last a lifetime when sports is not done well (see this recent HBO Real Sports episode). Many children quit activity altogether after having negative youth sporting experiences. Many parents fail to save for college and retirement chasing after elusive scholarships that are far less likely in sports than they are for good academic performance. And many children and parents walk away from sports shocked to find that it has not been a positive experience at all. As Jay Coakley writes:

“As I observe young people in the United States who become increasingly skilled athletes and compete at progressively higher levels in club-based youth sports, it appears that they see themselves as individuals sponsored by their parents with little or no reference to or awareness of their membership in a community that transcends family and sport club. If this is the case, youth sport programs are unlikely to produce forms of development that link young people with their local communities or encourage them to identify as citizens with vested interests in collectivities that go beyond family and team. This creates a situation in which positive youth development comes to be a matter of personal achievement, an indication of moral worth for the parents who sponsor and nurture participation and a measure of quality among the clubs that hire coaches and arrange schedules.”

I love sports. And I love competitive sports. But I no longer believe that sport in and of itself has a fundamentally positive value. It is neutral, and only when I am intentional about making it positive does it have the opportunity to bring about good experiences for my children, and the ones I coach. So what should we do?

Coaches: Be intentional! Your influence is never neutral, it is either positive or negative, so go out and intentionally create a great experience for the young people you coach. As I write about in my book Every Moment Matters, you can:

Coaches, we are the gatekeepers, we drive whether the experience is positive or negative. We can be better! We must do better.

Parents: Be intentional about researching the programs you sign your children up for. You will drive change when we discard the fear and start to:

  • Ask your local leagues and clubs what they do to educate their coaches, and demand that it is not just about the Xs and Os, but about communication, motivation and understanding the child in front of them. 
  • Demand that they respect officials and promote sportsmanship
  • Take a step back and when your child encounters difficulty and adversity, as them “what can you learn from this?” instead of intervening.
  • Take the long view, and win the race to the right finish line instead of worrying about making the A team or playing travel sports when your children are very young

As long as sport is pay-to-play, our money will drive what is delivered. Today, our money is not driving fundamentally good sporting experiences for far too many kids. Parents, we can change this.

Youth Sports Organizations and School Athletic Programs: Be intentional about providing a positive and enjoyable sports experience for, as Dr. Johan Fallby says, “as many children as possible, as long as possible, in the best environment possible.” To do so, you must:  

  • Establish your club/school core cultural values, state them openly and often, and deliver upon them relentlessly 
  • Demand high standards of your coaches, and provide them with the tools to deliver a great sports experience
  • Hire and fire your coaches based upon something much more important that “did you win.” 
  • Demand respect for officials and referees by encouraging your current athletes to become officials and monitoring your coaches and parents to ensure the environment is one of respect. Establish zero tolerance policies for referee abuse.
  • Fight to remove the politics and favoritism that so often ruins the youth sports experience

As we enter a new decade, let’s make this the decade of intentionality when it comes to youth and high school sports. We must first admit that sport is neither fundamentally positive nor negative. It just is. But we can make it a force for good. We can demand more from our fellow coaches, schools, sports clubs, and parents. 

But we can only make this next decade a decade of youth sports transformation if we are intentional and we admit that our influence is never neutral. Family by family, team by team, and club by club we can make sports a positive experience.

Not a fundamentally positive one, for sports will never have intrinsic positive or negative attributes. But an intentionally created positive experience for many more children, and many more families, in many more places. 

That is my hope and my dream for this next decade. And I hope you join our movement to make that happen!

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ABOUT CHANGING THE GAME PROJECT

Changing the Game Project is an organization that is dedicated to returning youth sports to our children and putting a little more "play" back in play ball. Changing the Game Project wants to provide the most influential adults in our children’s lives – their parents and coaches – with the information and resources they need to make sports a healthy, positive and rewarding experience for their children and their whole family.

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