At what age should a young athlete be taught discipline and fundamentals? What is more important; discipline and fundamentals or creative expression and hustle? What works best for the young developing mind and body of a young athlete? These are questions that are paramount in a youth sports culture that continues to grow in the United States today.
Furthermore, these are questions that youth coaches must ask themselves as they train the young athlete today! These three questions lead to a fundamental question that hits the bulls-eye in the target of youth sports, and that is; what’s the point? What’s the point of a young athlete playing a sport? What’s the point of a coach sacrificing his/her time to teach and equip young minds and bodies? What’s the point of parents paying money, traveling countless miles, and sitting in stands in all kinds of environments and weather?
The heart of the child is the point.
As a young minor league baseball player in 1989 I traveled with my team from Cedar Rapids, Iowa to Wausau, Wisconsin to play in a four game series against the Wausau Timbers. I was playing for the Cedar Rapids Reds, an A-ball affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. I was chasing my dream of becoming a major league baseball player. My intentions as a young ball player were to stay focused and disciplined in my dream to achieve this goal. After winning our first game in Wausau I decided to head out for the evening with a buddy on my team and enjoy the nightlife of Wausau, Wisconsin. I had only one intention. I wanted to get out of my hotel room. Within a few minutes of seeing a young lady that evening and conversing with her for less than an hour I had already decided that I had met my future wife. We began a courtship by exchanging phone numbers and addresses that evening. Over the next year I began the process of chasing a dream that no one could stop! The poems, the letters and the countless phone conversations were all part of the process of how I chose to let this young lady know that I loved her! I was in love with her and I wanted her to know this without a doubt. This was an age when there were no cell phones, email or Facebook. Therefore, the relationship was based on the countless phone calls, the poems and the letters. What was the point? It was a love affair over many miles with one thing in the bulls-eye of the target; the HEART of this young lady!
Like my pursuit of this young lady’s heart, a young athlete begins a love affair with a sport. His or her heart is in the balance as he/she begins this relationship with the sport. I once heard it put like this; a coach can be a stepping-stone or stumbling block to a young athlete’s heart. A coach can be a stepping-stone by encouraging, equipping and engaging each individual player as they develop this relationship. A coach can also be a stumbling block to a player by discouraging remarks, demanding fundamental disciplines at a young age, and by disengaging and showing favoritism.
It is indeed a fine line a coach walks in coaching youth sports. It’s the very reason many choose to never coach youth sports. What is the point? In a culture that teaches winning is everything, that skill development is essential, and that only the strong survive, we lose many hearts along the way! In observing our culture and the inevitable changes we make along the way to offset the lack of compassion and concern many coaches display we have set up standards which reap the opposite. We have leagues that give trophies to everyone who plays. We turn the scoreboard off. We reward the act of putting on a uniform and not the act of pursuing the league championship. So again, I ask the question; what is the point?
All of the questions I have asked and alluded to in the preceding paragraphs are centered on the very question; what is the point? I opened by asking the question; at what age should a young athlete be taught discipline and fundamentals? The only way that I see a young athlete being taught discipline and fundamentals at a young age with success is through relationship regardless of the age. All of the information in the world to help a young athlete perform a task does him or her NO good at all if there is no relationship in place first. A coach can mean well and have a vast amount of knowledge in the sport but if information is all it takes in teaching then a coach could just distribute a book and demand for all to read it! A relationship is built on trust. And trust is built in the arena of sport when an athlete sees and believes that the coach loves them more than they do the task.
Many coaches of youth sports expect young athletes to “get it!” The coaches teach and teach and teach fundamentals and discipline to young minds. They see very little results many times and ask the question, “Why aren’t they getting it?” Meanwhile, they preach fundamentals and lose creative expression and hustle. How? A young athlete’s mind many times simply wants to please a coach! Instead of showing creative expression and hustling their whole mind-set is “Am I doing it the way the coach wants me to?” They do this many times because they are not encouraged, equipped and engaged. Instead they are discouraged, demanded of, and disengaged when they are not able to perform a task.
So, I ask the question again; what’s the point? If our cycle of teaching young athletes to be their best and chase their dream is by taking them at young ages (9-13 years old) and asking them to perform football plays with precision, lay-ups with fundamental actions, fastballs with finish displaying sound fundamental deliveries, and hit a softball with perfect balance and weight transfer then we lose their hearts! Having a player perform any task should be a by-product of a relationship.
We can take a group of 12 or 13 year old kids and teach them proper fundamentals and discipline in sport. We can take that same group of kids and join a select league and travel and win tournament after tournament. We can pride ourselves on being great “fundamental and disciplined” teachers of the game. Our teams may stack trophies all over the house and we may think we are great coaches who “teach the game.” Our players have learned how to properly shoot a jump shot or throw a football with a perfect three-step drop. We stick our chests out and justify our spending and our traveling because our team has gotten better and our players “do it right!”
What is the cost? Many players lose the love affair. They lose their creative expression. They can perform a task and look “right” doing it. They have performed the task that we have taught them. They have pleased their coaches! However, along the way, they lose the fun, the creativity, the passion and the will to perform! Many quit. And we, as coaches, justify them quitting at a young age by making statements like: “Well, Jonnie just didn’t have the will to stick it out.” And, “Mindy just lacked the athleticism and discipline to perform the proper lay-up.” Or, “Sam was a good ball player but he just burned out at an early age.” Many times following these statements is an inevitable follow up statement that generally goes something like this, “I can’t believe he/she quit because he/she was very good at a young age.”
We coaches can fool ourselves into thinking that fundamentals and discipline are the ALL IMPORTANT tools into building the foundation of future superstars! Why do we think this? Because this is what we have been taught by many that went before us. Fundamentals and discipline are very important in sport. They are very important. One can argue that without the fundamentals and discipline a young athlete will never be successful. But when we as coaches demand fundamentals at young ages we many times do so at the peril of the love affair of the young athlete with their sport.
A won/loss record of a youth coach does not tell our society much about that coach. The fundamental awareness and discipline of his/her players does not tell our society much about that coach. What tells our society much about a coach is whether he/she was a stepping-stone or stumbling block to a young athlete. We measure this by the relationship they have with their players when that player takes off the uniform and walks into the path of life.
What’s the point? Coach, be careful what you say and do with those young minds and bodies. Your record as a youth coach does not define you. Your relationship with your players is essential. Allow creative expression! If Jonnie wants to shoot from his hip when he’s 12 years old because that is how he has done it in his back yard for 5 years then let him! If Sam wants to throw sidearm when he is 12 because he has been able to throw from this lower arm slot since he was 5 years old then let him. If Cindy wants to pick up her front leg when she swings the softball bat then let her. You see, many young athletes that show creative expression have an ability that you as the coach do not have. You may have been taught that “this is the only way it can be done,” but many athletes that have achieved greatness in their lives in sports have done things their own way. They were allowed at young ages to do it this way without a coach teaching them that it has to be done “my way.” God created each of us uniquely with individual gifts. Our player may be able to perform, with greatness, if we let them. Be a stepping-stone.
I’m grateful my father didn’t make me do things the so-called “right way.” I was blessed to pitch in the major leagues. I had a unique delivery that many coaches over the years stood and scratched their heads as they watch me pitch. I re-call many people crowding around the little league field just to watch me warm-up due to the unique delivery I developed. Because I was successful, thank God, none of my coaches tried to change me to “the right way.” I also was a leading scorer in basketball in the D/FW area throughout my high school years. I was allowed to create plays and shoot from any direction. I also, was a leading receiver in high school football in the D/FW area and a leading punter. I am very grateful that my father was my youth coach in sport. He allowed me to express myself in the arena of sport. He allowed me to make mistakes without always trying to correct me. He showed me how to do things correctly but he always allowed me the room to “go for it,” and try things the way I knew how. This only happened because we had a relationship. He was a stepping-stone in my love affair with sports. He was not a stumbling block. I am grateful for my father. I learned much from him. And, I pray you do as well. I know there are many men that had my father as a youth coach that have said the very same thing!
In this age of select sports and private instruction many parents are faced with the choice of where to go and what to do with their young athletes. My encouragement to you as a parent is to make sure you know the coaches and instructors that you choose for your children to learn from. If a coach shouts praise along with instruction and criticism then you certainly want to consider sticking with this coach. If the same coach allows freedom of expression and does not make every player do it “the right way,” then you certainly want to consider sticking with this coach. If you pay countless dollars for private instruction then you want to pay careful attention to what they are teaching. If they teach that you must do it “this way because Jonnie, Jimmie, and Sammy do it this way and I helped them get a college scholarship” then you may want to consider another instructor. Many private instructors pride themselves on the number of players that they helped take their next step in greatness. Be careful whom you choose to teach your son or daughter. You need someone who helps flame the passion in their heart to be their very best. You do not want someone who simply teaches “his or her way.” His or her way may be a solid fundamental way of teaching someone else!
I discussed pursuing a certain young lady with letters and phone calls earlier in this article. She and I have now been married 20 years and we continue to send each other letters and cards. We still talk on the phone like a couple of high school kids. That love started in our hearts many years ago. I am grateful we had many stepping-stones in our lives and very few stumbling blocks. Our relationship began with a dream and doing things “our way,” making plenty of mistakes along the way. That dream is lived out daily as we serve one another and raise our children. We must encourage, equip and engage each other as we strive to live in a society that promotes when the “going gets tough” then “get out!” Likewise, a youth coach will find the joy of coaching when he/she asks the question; what’s the point? And finds the answer to be, the heart of the child.