Winning is `OK,' but giving your best effort is the goal

ASK CAL

Youth sports

January 14, 2007|By CAL RIPKEN JR.

DEAR CAL -- When does it become OK to win games? My kids are involved in youth sports and I've noticed that no one keeps score. I realize youth sports are about learning fundamentals and having fun, not necessarily winning and losing. However, there are a lot of life lessons tied to winning and losing, and I think you can learn more about your character after a loss. I have coached high school-level kids for the past five years, and they have no will to win because their parents have stressed that the score isn't important. Help me to understand this.

Jeff Hall, Towson

DEAR JEFF -- I would say that it's almost always "OK" to win games. It has been my experience that, except at the youngest levels, the score is kept at most youth games, and I think that's appropriate for many of the reasons you have stated.

I don't think the issue of concern in youth sports is winning and losing. The problems arise when a coach emphasizes winning at the expense of athletic development. Arguments can be made to use an approach with an eye toward giving players an equal opportunity to develop all of their skills in game situations, right up through the junior varsity level.

Coaches of all age groups should strive to prepare their teams to compete to the best of their ability as frequently as possible. Sometimes in sports, just as in life, we put forth a great deal of hard work and preparation only to come up short. As long as we have put forth our best effort and worked as a team, that result can be accepted. The most important thing is to understand that while winning always is preferred and more enjoyable, losing does happen and is acceptable if the effort is good.

In addition, youth programs should balance games with practice time so that there is a forum to analyze and improve. As you stated, a loss can be a tremendous learning experience - but only if there is time allotted to figure out how to do better the next time.

DEAR CAL -- I have concerns about high school varsity coaches pushing middle school students into playing varsity-level sports. Are there any articles that you know of that support or oppose this type of thinking?

Juliet Aldrich, Hadley, N.Y.

DEAR JULIET -- I'm not sure about articles that deal with this subject, but in the Baltimore area there are certain restrictions in regard to allowing middle schoolers to play at the varsity level. I don't believe it's permitted in public schools, and I think most of the private schools allow four years of varsity eligibility, which means that if an eighth-grader plays on a varsity team, his or her eligibility will be used up after 11th grade.

In areas of the country where this is permitted, I don't believe a coach ever should "push" a middle school athlete to compete at the varsity level.

If a coach thinks a middle school athlete can compete successfully at the varsity level, the coach should approach the parents with the suggestion. At that point, the parent plays an important protective role. We're not talking about an eighth-grader playing up a year. This eighth-grader would be competing against 11th- and 12th-graders who might be at or near physical maturity. If the eighth-grader does have the skill to keep up, there still might be a safety issue if the older athletes are substantially bigger and stronger, which is likely.

Parents always have the right to say no before involving the child in the decision-making process.

There is also the issue of emotional maturity. Some of the biggest and most dominant 12- and 13-year-olds turn to marshmallows as soon as they face adversity in athletics. Imagine an eighth-grader costing a varsity team a victory by missing a free throw or making an error. That could be devastating for a young athlete, especially if older players already resent his or her presence.

And, along the same lines, I'm not sure that as a parent I'd want my eighth-grader socializing with 17- and 18-year-olds. There are social issues and pressures that the vast majority of middle school kids just aren't ready for and shouldn't be exposed to.

If, after taking the physical and emotional maturity issues into consideration, a parent still thinks his or her child can handle varsity competition, the choice must be left to the child. No parent or coach should force or allow a middle school athlete to compete at the varsity level unless the athlete is 100 percent certain he or she wants to do so.

To force a young athlete into that type of situation is to set that kid up for a potentially disastrous experience.

Have a question or issue arising from your involvement in youth sports? Send it by e-mail to askcal@baltimoresun.com.

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