Can you become an advocate for allowing children to have fun in sports?

Because we have such easy access to information, the Knowledge Economy is no longer relevant when discussing the best way to prepare our children for the world which they will enter. This new era, where we can access information at the tip of our computers (or smartphones), doesn’t require us to learn things like we used to. Times have changed.

Instead of sitting in a classroom and having knowledge crammed into our heads, this new era requires us to be creative problem solvers, collaborators, highly motivated and good communicators. That’s right….if you want to get ahead in our new culture, you need to be an adaptive, team player.

In a recent talk, Tony Wagner (Expert In Residence at Harvard University’s new Innovation Lab and a Senior Research Fellow at the Learning Policy Institute) spoke about the environment that we must put our children into to help prepare them to meet the new challenges that they will face when going out into our “new” world. Tony was talking about our educational system. Interestingly, as I listened to Tony, one thing struck me in a very pointed way; Tony was using the same terminology that we use in athletics when discussing player development.

If you take a look at New Technology High School (Napa, CA) and High Technology High School (Middletown, NJ) you will see an environment where Project-based learning, small class sizes and personal relationships with instructors create an environment in which students are responsible for their own learning.

The key word here is environment. In Tony’s model, there are no scores. It’s about mastery. Working together to learn how to create and solve. Wow, that sounds a lot like how I coach soccer! In fact, Tony pointed out that teachers are a lot like coaches.

If the push is on to create highly adaptive young citizens, what lessons can we take from all of this as it pertains to athletics? Everyone is aware that our youth sports culture is wildly dysfunctional. Too much parental involvement, too much focus on results, the belief that specialization will lead to greater success in one chosen sport.

I received a call the other day from a parent coach who said he was struggling with his parents doing too much coaching from the sidelines during games. He mentioned having two children walk off the field, crying, and refused to re-enter the game because they were too frustrated with all of the parents yelling instructions.

As I examined the learning environment at New Tech High and witnessed the group projects taking place, I tried to imagine parents coming into the classroom and start telling the kids what to do. It seems so absurd. What would a teacher do if a parent came into the classroom and started giving their child (or other children) instructions on how to complete a task? It’s bad enough that the “Helicopter Parents” have taken flight, but I hope we never see the day when parents show up to school and start coaching their kids in the classroom.

Playing sports is about having fun. If parents feel the need to “joystick” their children through an athletic performance, think about that from the perspective of the child.

When parents are asked what they want for their children through athletic participation, they have lots of good answers. “Make friends”, “learn a skill”, “stay healthy”, all very worthy goals. The parent paradox, however, is anything but healthy. We say one thing, but our behavior completely belies us.

In my ideal coaching environment, we would err on the side of “under coaching”, not “over coaching”. The environment would consist of small numbers, to help ensure that children get lots of repetitions and the opportunity to make lots of decisions. Playing sports is about having fun. If parents feel the need to “joystick” their children through an athletic performance, think about that from the perspective of the child. Do you really think they are enjoying themselves? What exactly are they learning?

As a parent, I must be able to see that my constant direction giving is cheating my child out of the opportunity to learn.

Malcolm Gladwell has the Ten Thousand Hour Rule. He asserts that to truly become proficient at something, you must work at it for 10,000 hours. Makes sense! One question, though….what is it that would make someone work for that many hours on a skill? Malcolm does not address motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is the secret. Tony Wagner knows it and I know it. (I spoke about it last year in my TEDx Talk.) Unless an individual is growing passion and love for something, they will not have the intrinsic motivation to work at it and become proficient. This is another area that we parents struggle with. Too often, we want to be the motivators. It doesn’t work that way.

I am an advocate for collaboration, teamwork. I am an advocate for problem solving, risk taking, mistake making. If we don’t make mistakes, we are not learning. I am an advocate for hard work. Can you become an advocate for allowing children to have fun in sports?

- Steve Locker

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