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Using the Sports Shutdown to Recover the Joy of Sports

by Jim Thompson


The cancellation of the NBA season and NCAA’s March Madness have gotten the lion’s share of the attention, but the coronavirus has impacted millions of youth athletes as well. As just one example, my small hometown of Colfax, North Dakota had a once-in-a-lifetime team that qualified for the State Tournament which has been canceled. As for so many athletes, the Richland 44 Colt boys’ season ended sadly and suddenly. So let’s use the shutdown and the disappointment it brings as grist for the mill of developing people of character. Below I'll share a few ideas on how parents and coaches might leverage this time with their youth athletes.

Life is filled with disappointment. Dr. Abraham Lowe, the founder of Recovery International, originated the term, “inevitable setbacks.” One of the great things about seeing youth sports as “a dress rehearsal for life” is that we can use whatever happens in sports as material to build people of character who are ready for what life will toss their way.

So let’s use the shutdown and the disappointment it brings as grist for the mill of developing people of character. A key lesson is “reframing” unpleasant (or worse) situations into better ones through turning Rut Stories into River Stories.

As my friends Bob Stilger and Susan Virnig say, “We don’t live in the world. We live in the stories we tell ourselves about the world.” So let’s change the Rut Story of sports shutdowns into a River Story. Here’s the Rut Story: Isn’t it unfair that so many young athletes will be deprived of their opportunity to play out their season, in many cases their last season? And, yes, it is unfortunate.

Here’s a River Story about the same situation: The shutdown is discouraging BUT we can use it to rekindle our original love of sports, strengthen our relationships in our families AND we can be exceedingly grateful that we are healthy while more and more people are suffering and dying from COVID-19.

I’m reminded of a youth sports contest that was officially forfeited because one team did not have enough players. Players were reallocated and a game was held anyway. One young person asked, “Does this mean we can just have fun now?” YES!

Here are some games and activities you can play with your children while stuck in your home (AND let’s be grateful we have a home to be stuck in — many people at risk from COVID-19 have no home to which they can retreat!). Community becomes more important as we enter an age of pandemics and a climate wreaking damage unseen before. If we have the ability to enjoy each other’s presence in spite of our environment limiting us, we are going to fare better in coming harsh times. I’ll start with a favorite of mine, “Trashketball.”

Trashketball was created by Jim Lobdell and Steve Seely of Balance Sports Publishing, publishers of my books for Positive Coaching Alliance. All you need is a paper grocery bag and pieces of scratch paper. The bag is the basket. One of you is the shooter and the other is the coach. The coach crumples some paper into balls and gives one to the shooter who — with her back to the basket! — tosses the “ball” blindly over her head trying to make a basket.

The coach coaches: “That was a little off to the left (or short). Shoot the next one more to the right (or a little harder).” The shooter adjusts but doesn’t turn around to look at the basket once the game starts. See how many times it takes to get the ball in the “basket.” If you have four participants, you can have the pair of shooter-coaches compete to see who scores first or most out of 10 shots.

You can vary the distance the shooter stands from the basket to make it harder or easier. You can also have others be “fans” who scream as in a game to simulate the noise a player has to deal with while trying to make a free throw.

Make sure to switch the roles so youth and adult get to be both the shooter and coach. Here are some photos of my son and grandson in the different roles. If you look carefully you can see the “ball” in each photo, one just as it enters the basket (great camera work!). This was a great activity for my grandson whose basketball season also was cancelled.

Many a friendship has involved robust arguments about “Who’s the best?” Here’s a game you can play with your athlete. Pick a sport, a mainstream pro sport or a lovely, more obscure sport (to most Americans, at least) such as baseball or badminton.

Now do google searches to find out the greatest teams in that sport, the ones who won multiple world championships. Write down the teams that are the candidates for best ever in that sport. Each of the contestants picks their favorite (it’s great if you have disagreement) and then each contestant makes their case for why their team is the best. And don’t ignore women’s teams!

Vary it by crossing over to which is the greatest team in any sport? 1920’s New York Yankees v. the 1960’s Green Bay Packers v. UCONN Women’s basketball team v. recent New England Patriots v. the 1950’s Minneapolis Lakers v. ?

I like to start with teams to emphasize teamwork but it works with individual athletes also.  Who was the best boxing champion? Who was the best college wrestler? Who was the best female lacrosse player? Who is the best female basketball player? Best baseball pitcher (Bob Gibson v. Bob Feller v. Christy Mathewson v. Tom Seaver v. Cy Young v Nolan Ryan v ? You get the idea.

Variation: who are best all-around male and female athletes? Again web research will identify several candidates and you can have a lot of fun arguing for your candidate across different sports (Babe Didrickson Zaharias v Serena Williams v Allyson Felix v ?; Jim Brown v Pele v Willie Mays v Jim Thorpe v Bo Jackson v Kevin Mayer (who? Look him up!) v ?  This is a lot of fun and young people (and older ones!) may learn how much fun research can be! There is virtually no limit to this: Best 2nd baseman, best college softball pitcher, best college basketball player who didn’t make it in the NBA, best college rugby coach (hint: he’s a member of PCA’s National Advisory Board, best woman gymnast (also on PCA’s National Advisory Board!), or you name it! Sky’s the limit.

This may be for younger kids but who knows? It is simple and can take hours of intensely fun time. You get a ball (ideally a beach ball or something similar) and you see how many times you and your child can bat it back and forth to each other volleyball style. And you keep track so that each time you can go at it with the idea of breaking the existing record.

On a recent vacation, grandson Rafi and I set a record (154). Then my son Gabriel and Rafi broke it (365). Then Rafi and I broke that record with 413 so Rafi and I were the champions! (Although I think Gabriel allowed us to win!) I can’t tell you how many lovely hours we spent intensely focusing on softly batting the ball to our partner so he could easily return it.

And let’s not forget the simple joy in playing catch with someone we love, like the title of an old book, “Fathers Playing Catch With Sons,” by Donald Hall but would expand this to mothers and daughters and grandmothers and grandfathers and grandsons and granddaughters.

The interaction can be throwing a hard ball with gloves, passing a basketball back and forth, hitting a pickle ball to each other, tossing a nerf or beach ball (good for non-breakable play indoors), passing a football, kicking a soccer ball, etc. etc. etc. No contest, just enjoyable time spent with someone you love sharing time together you have been given in this moment. And, sometimes, amazing conversations come out of these moments, speaking of which…

Conversations are the glue between people. Relationships wither without communication, and the very best form of communication is the conversation. It’s wonderful when parent and child can really talk to and hear each other. And listening is the raw material of empowering conversations.

Perhaps the most powerful gift we can give our children is the gift of listening to them. Use the time spent together during the shutdown to engage in what I call empowering conversations.

The following, which draws heavily on Brenda Ueland’s amazing essay, “Tell Me More,” is excerpted from a piece I wrote several years ago for Positive Coaching Alliance’s weekly “Conversation Starters” for sports parents.

1)   Get on your athlete’s side. Research shows athletes perform better when they believe the coach believes in them. The same is likely true with parents.  Make it your goal during the shutdown to let your children know you believe in them and are on their side, no matter how they perform. Your goal is not to give advice on how to become a better athlete (or anything else!). It is to engage your child in a conversation where you can both hear each other and learn from each other.

2)   Adopt a tell-me-more attitude. Keep this thought in mind: “I really want to hear what you have to say.”  Then listen — even if you don’t agree, especially if you don’t agree — and you will begin to tap into what Brenda Ueland calls the “little creative fountain” in each of us.

“If you are very tired, strained…this little fountain is muddied over and covered with a lot of debris…it is when people really listen to us, with quiet fascinated attention, that the little fountain begins to work again, to accelerate in the most surprising way.”

3)   Let your athlete set the terms. Don’t try to force a conversation.  Look for prompts that your child is ready—boys may take longer than girls to process an experience. And conversations don’t have to be lengthy to be effective. Finally, don’t be afraid of silence.  Stick with this approach and your athlete will open up to you.

Here are three things to try with your athlete to engage in conversations.  You will get better the more you do them, so keep at them throughout the shutdown (and beyond!).

1)   Ask open-ended questions. You may know exactly what your child can do to improve. However, your goal here is to get your child to talk to you, so ask rather than tell.  Open-ended questions elicit longer, more thoughtful responses.

  • “Many athletes and teams are disappointed that their seasons are shut down. What’s the worst part of this to you?”
  • “What do you most miss about playing sports?”
  • “To be successful in life we all have to deal with inevitable setbacks. What are some ways you can make the best of the sports shutdown?”

2)   Show you are listening: a) maintain eye contact, b) nod your head and c) make “listening noises” (“uh-huh,” “hmmm,” “interesting,” etc.).  TURN YOUR CELL PHONE OFF!  You want your athlete to feel like there is nothing else you want to do more than listen to them.

3)   Connect through activity. Sometimes you can spark a conversation through an activity your athlete enjoys.  Playing a board game or a casual sports activity, such as playing catch or shooting baskets can allow space for a child to volunteer thoughts and feelings. For example you could shoot baskets and allow your child to ask you any question he wants whenever he makes a basket, and vice versa — you get to ask any question if you make a basket (an idea I got from Dr. William Pollack, author of Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myths of Masculinity, another PCA National Advisory Board Member.)”

Let me end this section with more from Brenda Ueland. “Who are the people…to whom you go for advice?  Not to the hard, practical ones who can tell you exactly what to do, but to the listeners; that is, the kindest, least censorious, least bossy people that you know.” Wouldn’t it be great if we all could be this person for our children!? (To read Brenda Ueland's entire article, which is well worth it, click here).

Uncertainty is one of the hardest things for people to deal with, and we simply don’t know how long the shutdown will last because we can’t foresee how long and far the coronavirus will spread. We just have to adjust to this uncertainty, keep ourselves as safe as we can, and use the time to bring our families closer together. I hope you try some of these ideas and I would love to hear from you about how it goes. You can reach me directly at Thank you and God bless you in these trying times.

PCA Founder Jim Thompson started PCA at Stanford University in 1998 to create a movement to transform the culture of youth sports into a Development Zone® with the goal to develop Better Athletes, Better People. PCA has helped lead a sea change in public awareness that positive coaching is the key to get the best out of youth athletes (everyone, really!) and help them become a Triple-Impact Competitor® who elevates self, teammates, and the game. PCA has 18 Chapters across the U.S. and does more than 3,000 live workshops annually for more than 1,000 youth sports organizations and partnerships with Major League Baseball and the NBA.

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