Like I said in the previous post, the issue of youth athletes becoming “lessonized” is…complicated.
I have kids. I want to see them do well, but I’ve always tried to set things up in a way that they choose what they want to do. If they are not good at something, I tell them the truth (if they ask). But I also say that if they’re going to be good (or have a chance to be good at something), they have to spend time doing it. Whether it’s painting, playing a musical instrument or sports, learning to cook… doesn’t matter, because it’s about them, not about me.
Sure, as parents, it’s hard to watch our kids struggle at something. But isn’t that a part of life? The struggle? And learning to overcome the battle? I can get into the plastic rings, the Fake Praise epidemic—trophies for everyone!—but I won’t, at least not here. No, that diminishes the real issue: Parents around the country are spending millions of dollars on private coaches. Why? I get that parents want their children to get better, and I appreciate that. But there has to be more to this than just “that.”
By the way, I used to give lessons. I also asked those kids if they were here because they wanted to be here or if it was because their parents wanted them here. Less than half of the kids said it was “because they wanted to take lessons.” Less than half! It made me feel bad for them and then, I felt like I was stealing money from the parents. (To that, I don’t think it was my lack of skill or ability to entertain a youngster. I got the same answers from young athletes who were working with other coaches.)
But here’s the real kicker: I would privately speak to the parents, and they would get an answer from their kids that was opposite of the ones they’d given me. In the end, kids don’t want to let you down and “quitting” something or not wanting to do what your parents want to do often falls in that category. Also, they know you’re paying for this. That may create a sense of obligation on the part of the child—again, not wanting to let you down.
However, once all of us (parents, the player and myself) would get together and have “the talk,” the child would eventually speak their heart and let mom and dad know that they just wanted to play.
All Work and No
Kids don’t want to work, and lessons create work. Does this sound familiar: “Great job today, you worked really hard. Make sure you work on this stuff between now and the next time I see you so that we can work on more stuff.”
Here’s how I see the cycle of lessons now.
- The player goes to a lesson and works on his/her hitting, shot-making ability, pitching, etc.
- The player then performs in a game, and typically one of three outcomes occur:
- Good Day – This is awesome! Congrats, you had a good day. Now you’re ready to go back to your private coach and work on more stuff because he/she must have really helped you. The problem I have with this? The credit or a portion of it goes to the coach. It diminishes what the player did. More importantly, the conversation circles around results.
- Bad Day – Bummer! The question I often hear parents ask their child on a bad day is this: “Did you try your best to do the things your private coach instructed you to do?” Well, here we are again, an emphasis is placed on results. Of course, he/she tried to do what they were told, but it was a bad day. (Trying is a “conscious action,” by the way. A big no-no in the world of sports performance. You can do everything right in sports and still end up on the wrong side of good. That’s why so few of us ever become great at them.)
- It was OK – I would say this is the most typical experience of a young athlete. They “did” ok. In this case, there is almost always a mention of, “Let’s get back to Coach So-and-So and work on it. It’ll get better. Again, results-based comments.
As you might have guessed, I stopped giving lessons to kids below the high school age. (Once they were in high school or college, the vast majority of the athletes I was privileged to work with would answer that they had goals and wanted to be there.) And I did nothing one-on-one, I did it all in a group setting. But that is for another post.
In our culture, when you pay for something, you expect not just results, but positive results. It’s how we’re hard-wired. If you’re paying someone 50 bucks an hour to work with your kid’s swing, then you expect your kid to be able to, at the very least, hit the ball. Hey, I get it. But what about the experience of getting to play with their friends, with Mom and Dad watching and having fun with new friends in the stands? The pure joy of getting out there, in the sun, and just playing without the burden of “producing?”
Studies show that kids are now leaving organized youth sports at younger and younger ages, for three primary reasons:
- The pressure to win.
- The pressure to personally achieve.
- Bad coaching.
If you look at all three reasons, you’ll notice a common thread—these are all adult-driven problems, consequences that our kid is paying for and, in my opinion, ties into taking lessons and the need for results from those investments.
Now, I know some of you are probably reading this and saying that I’m “soft.” That real life is filled with pressure, and we live in a results-oriented society. You keep what you hunt. And hey, I’m with you. I’m a competitive guy, always have and will continue to be. What I don’t get is, why are we so eager as a society to force this reality on children—in such a forceful way?!
I made one all-star team as a kid; it was my first year playing and guess who my coach was? Yep…thanks, dad. My youth-league career was all downhill from there. I was cut twice in high school, had 10 at-bats my senior year, got cut twice at the beginning of college—by two junior colleges!—and still managed to play four years of college ball (two College World Series, might I add). And I even tricked someone to pay me for a short time to throw baseballs professionally.
In all, I took two lessons (I think) in my life. My development grew from the fact that I loved playing baseball. Pure, plain and simple. It also didn’t hurt that I went from a 5’8” my senior in high school to 6’1” by the start of my redshirt-freshman year in college.
Moral of the story, we develop at different times. Many of us are late bloomers, and maybe your child will be one as well.
The Lesson for the Parents and Family Members?
I guess what I’m trying to say is this: Rather than focus on results and spending your hard-earned dollars now, save that money and teach your child to love what they are doing, regardless of what they are doing, or their skill level in it. If they genuinely enjoy the sport or sports then, when it’s time to work—late-middle school/beginning of high school—they’ll work, and it won’t be “work” to them. It’ll just be part of the process—and might be the time to think about taking lessons from a qualified private coach who genuinely cares more about his clients than the bottom line!
Lastly, when the “love of the game” becomes more significant than the “results of the game”, I can tell you, at that point, anything is possible. Also, you’ll find more enjoyment on the ride as well because you won’t be so tied up in the results of every game, every practice, etc.
The youth sports journey is short, so step back and enjoy it. When your kid sees you enjoying it, they will too. As one of my many coaching mentors taught me, the kids go as you go. If you show frustration or worry, they will. If you show no emotion or reaction, they most likely won’t. If you make it a big deal, they’ll learn to make it a big deal.
The endgame? Don’t let your kid become “lessonized,” it will only serve them poorly. These are fleeting moments with your kids: play catch with them without constant teaching, play basketball without comment or judgment, watch their games without worrying about playing time, the results—or the umpires. Do that, and they’ll love you for it!
And remember, take advantage of the connection that sports can create between a child and parent—and enjoy it!
If you do plan to take lessons, we’ll have a blog post about how to choose a qualified private coach in the next week or so. There are many outstanding private coaches out there, finding them is the hard part.
Contributor: Lou Birdt, YSPN360 CEO