Dr. Val Farmer
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When Sports Stop Being Fun

February 18, 2002

uot;Dear Dr. Farmer, what have you studied or read on the effects of being on the team but spending most of your time sitting on the bench? This is the case for our son in bas>&ketball and he seems to be questioning his self-worth. He's not a bad player, it just seems he ends up on the bench more than his friends. I feel there are real issues with adolescent development of self-esteem here that involve more than just my son and I feel some coaches could use some education in this area."

The glamour, prestige and friendships that come from team sports bring a valued avenue of accomplishment and acceptance for parents and children. The need to start young in learning athletic skills has pushed competitive team sports programs such as soccer, hockey, baseball, basketball, midget football and wrestling into the elementary school years. It is a sensitive time as neophytes to sports are given opportunities to play, develop skills and have fun in a context of games against other teams. Keeping score makes the games enjoyable.

I appreciate the dedication, attitudes and sacrifices of the coaches. They give a lot of time and energy to their coaching. At the younger ages, many of these coaches are volunteers. Most have their sons participating on their team.

As I've observed the coaches and watched the games, I feel especially appreciative when:

- coaches take an interest in my children, learn their personalities and work with then on developing their skills.

- the language of the coach is respectful and considerate. Coaches with tempers set a poor example.

- my children work hard, practice and get personalized attention through good coaching. Skills are learned and games are won or lost in practice.

- coaches know how to help their players accept defeat and put winning and losing in perspective.

- coaches give encouragement and support to players after a bad play or a strikeout.

- every child gets a chance to shine and to develop their skills over a season. Playing time is important. I like it when coaches rotate players to give lesser skilled players a chance to play. It is hard to learn on the bench.

- players are encouraged to be good sports and shrug off an unfavorable call by an official. The sportsmanship of the coach rubs off on the players.

- parents get to know the names of the teammates and shout encouragement or applaud good play. It is nice to hear other people rooting for your child. It's fun to cheer for their child. I like it when brothers and sisters, grandparents and friends come to cheer on the team. There is a good feeling in the stands, win or lose.

- players play well together as a team. I like the feeling my children get from winning. When they lose, the enjoyment of the game, participation and friendships make the game worthwhile anyway.

Innocence lost. Our sports culture is robbing sports of many ways to have wholesome fun. What is wrong?

1. An overemphasis on winning. For children between the ages of 10 to 18, the number one reason why youth stop playing organized sports is that, "It's no fun." The game is fun when it is treated as a game and only a game. Then kids don't carry the extra burden of trying to measure up to unrealistic expectations or the pressure of winning. Overzealous coaches and parents take the fun out of the game. However, teams that are having fun also win more of their games. It is fun to make a good play - to have skills that show up in the game.

2. The "Varsity" syndrome. Only a few players draw the resources and attention of the coaches. Athletes stuck on the bench aren't having as much fun as those who participate. Even at the senior high level, coaches should be more aware of giving more players a chance to play than keeping the "best" players on the field all of the time. At the younger ages, there ought to be fairly rigid participation rules so that team success depends on everyone’s skills. Parents can organize, take control and set the rules for participation. Moreover, coaches need more criteria to give them recognition for success than the won/loss percentage of the team. Has anyone solved this puzzle yet?

3. Intrusive parents. These are over-involved parents who are living their lives through their children's achievements. They are the ones who criticize coaches, humiliate or harass their child over an inferior performance, compare scores and players, and berate officials, opposing players and fans. They tend to overestimate their child's ability and put pressure on their child to succeed. Children need to choose to play for themselves and not because of outside pressure. If it is their game and the parents stay in a support/observer role, then sports are OK.

4. Arrogant attitudes. Unfortunately there are too many prima donnas who taunt and mock opponents, have tantrums to officials' judgments and feel they are too good to make mistakes. Coaches and parents can nip these attitudes in the bud so young athletes learn self control and respect for others.

Coaches and parents can do a lot to ensure a competitive environment that contributes to the emotional and physical health of youth athletes. Unfortunately, it can work the other way.