Putting the fun back in sports

One of the best coaches I ever had as a kid was my older brother, Pete. He spent hours with me on our front lawn in the summer, patiently instructing me on how to position my glove to catch grounders, and how to keep my eye on the ball as I went after his pop-ups. On other occasions he taught me how to throw a football with a spiral, and he helped me practice my dribbling on the concrete slab in front of our garage.

Pete didn’t work with me because he thought I could become a tri-sport athlete who would field scores of college scholarship offers. He didn’t push me to try out for teams because he wanted to live vicariously through me. He did it because he enjoyed passing on his skills and his love of sports to his little sister. And I willingly participated because it was — dare I say it — fun.

Fun isn’t always the first word that springs to mind these days when I think of youth and sports. Time-consuming, maybe. Competitive. Cutthroat, even. Although being involved in organized sports offers a number of benefits for girls and boys — it teaches them about teamwork, it keeps them physically fit, it helps them learn discipline and it gives them confidence — the increasing pressure society places on our young athletes to excel at an early age is taking its toll.

Nearly 40 million American youth ages 6 to 18 participate in organized sports, but it’s estimated that up to 70 percent of kids quit by age 13 because it’s not fun anymore.

The top three reasons cited for the lack of fun? Adults, coaches and parents.

The 70 percent statistic concerns Deborah Edwards, a former University of Minnesota Gopher Sports marketing executive. It’s one reason she is working to remake the culture of youth sports as executive director of the new Minnesota chapter of the Positive Coaching Alliance.

“We’re trying to change that ‘win-at-all-cost’ mentality and focus on the other issues sports can teach kids,” says Edwards.

‘Better Athletes, Better People’

Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) is a national nonprofit organization that strives to develop “Better Athletes, Better People” by providing training and education to coaches, school officials and parents. PCA was founded in 1998 by Jim Thompson, a North Dakota native and graduate of Macalester College. The Minnesota chapter is its 10th nationwide.

Since its launch last October, PCA-Minnesota has established partnerships with schools and youth sports organizations across the state. It offers live group workshops, online courses, books and other resources that focus on providing all youth with a positive sports experience.

“Sports can teach many life lessons. It’s more than just winning and losing,” Edwards says. “You learn a lot of character-building skills, how to put hard work and effort into something and to get rewards from that. It’s all about respect, too —  learning to respect the opponent, the team, the officials, and yourself.”

Edwards says another area of concern in organized sports is the trend of specialization at a younger age. If kids want to participate in a competitive sport like hockey, they often are expected to play year-round and attend elite training camps, which doesn’t leave much time to pursue other sports or activities. 

The message, which puts pressure on both kids and parents, is: “If your neighbor is going to that camp, you better go, or when you play in the fall they will be ahead of you,” Edwards says.

Specialization is one of many topics that are covered in PCA-Minnesota workshops, which offer tips and tools for coaches to be successful at any level, from the youngest teams through high school.  

“We really want parents to know that there are resources out there to make good coaches great and to make poor coaches better,” Edwards says.

Without my brother, Pete, I’m sure I wouldn’t have reached the pinnacle in sixth-grade softball being named McPlayer of the Week. 

Not everyone can be lucky enough to have my big brother for a coach, but all kids should have the chance to challenge themselves, learn new skills, and fall in love with a sport for the right reasons.

Joy Riggs is a mother of three teenagers. She lives in Northfield. Send comments or questions to [email protected].

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