A few weeks ago I had the honor to talk to Leon McKenzie, the former head coach of Benson High School in Portland Oregon’s famous track program. He is the 15-time Oregon coach of the year and has coached Benson to 11 Track and Field State titles, and he said something that struck me, “I run a human development program disguised as a track team.”
My name is Oscar Ponteri. I am a sophomore at Franklin High School in Portland, Oregon and a volunteer for the Positive Coaching Alliance. I have participated in sports for as long as I can remember. It started with recreational soccer and basketball in elementary school. I found a love for soccer and continued on a new team through middle school. Now I run for my school's cross country and track team. Through 11 years of organized sports, I have learned that competition holds incredible power. It can create just as negative of an impact on us as it can positive. It’s all about how you utilize it. How our youth coaches frame competition will dictate the way we compete beyond athletics for our entire life.
Through elementary school, sports had been a reliable source of fun and camaraderie. However, on my middle school soccer team, I encountered sports in a new light. The game was much more competitive and less oriented towards athlete enjoyment. My coach, in particular, was the complete embodiment of this scoreboard-oriented culture. He was cold and intense. Players were afraid to make mistakes and be vulnerable- natural parts of the game. Fearing my coach’s reactions to losses or mistakes became normal and it shifted the way I approached the game. I played more cautiously, with less confidence. I would only assess my performances based on the mistakes instead of the effort I exerted. Over my three years of participation with the team, I slowly watched the game I once loved become a chore and eventually something I dreaded.
Sports are an integral Development Zone® for youth. They create a huge footprint on our character and the traits we take with us as we age. This is something I can account to first hand. Many of the unhealthy habits and mindsets that emerged as a result of my middle school soccer team have carried over and are still something I struggle with today. I volunteer with the Positive Coaching Alliance because I believe that the organization has the ability to mold this footprint into something positively impactful for me, my peers, and future generations.
This is not an experience singular to me. I have friends who have had similar experiences with verbally abusive, overly intense, and generally uneducated coaches. The way our coaches act is critical in youth development. Teachers spend years learning about different ways they can support the growth of their students, while coaches can get hired into powerful positions with no experience or education on being role models, mentors, and leaders. Should someone with so little experience or education be able to have such a huge impact? I believe that educating coaches is one of the most valuable gifts we can give to our youth and is one of the main reasons why I support the Positive Coaching Alliance. In my eyes, the work PCA does to educate and promote the power of positivity to coaches is key in creating leaders who are invested in the growth of their youth.
Sports, whether we realize it or not, are for many a very vulnerable space. On the athletic fields, our mistakes are highly visible to others, and in adolescence our perceptions of failure loom large. The classroom is a more protected space in that crowds of critical peers and parents don’t gather to watch students take their math tests. When we step on the field we are opening ourselves up to evaluation and criticism. I believe the greatest tool a player can have to feel comfortable and confident competing is a coach who is ready to support us through the ups and downs. Having someone whom you know is there for you and won’t turn their back on you if you miss a shot, or make a bad pass, shows children that making a mistake isn’t the end of the world. In turn, this unconditional support boosts our sense of self and confidence which we take with us into adulthood.
Organized youth sports originally grew as a way to boost children’s self-esteem through healthy competition. Now as youth sports have become a multi-billion dollar industry, we’ve begun to lose track of why we play. As many teams shift towards mimicking collegiate or even professional programs where failure and success rely solely on winning and losing, I believe PCA’s work becomes more and more important. I find by re-educating coaches, parents, and athletes on how best they can support their young athletes, PCA has the power to impact many lives positively and re-establish the lessons sport is meant to teach.
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