youth sports

By Peter C. Scales, Ph.D.

Being both a positive youth development researcher and a high school tennis coach, I was especially interested in–frustrated with–a recent youth sports story that makes most of us shake our heads in disbelief. If what we’re trying to do in relationships with young people is to help them discover who they are, gain abilities to shape their own lives, and learn how to interact with and contribute to the world, this was not the way to do it.

At one of our St. Louis area’s Catholic high schools, it was discovered that the school had improperly played a football player against state and National Federation of High School Associations’ rules. The player had been ejected from the last game of the previous season, and was supposed to sit out a 1-game suspension, even if it was at the start of the following season. Simple enough. Do the crime, do the time.

But the football coach and the player had other ideas. The young man played in that first game of the season, which is bad enough, as a clear violation of the rules. But what moves this story into the bizarre is that the coach had him or allowed him to wear a jersey with a different number and a different player’s name on it! And then he told the press that the boy had never played before! Problem is, the boy was one of the stars of the team. Wow.

When the situation finally came to light towards the end of the current season, the Principal fired the entire football coaching staff, and forfeited the entire season, during which the team had been undefeated and a favorite to take the state title. That satisfied the state high school athletic association. At this writing, it’s unclear what additional consequences, if any, will be handed out to the guilty player or other players on the team, who, common sense says, had to know what was going on.

This incident is an especially strange example of the “winning is everything” philosophy that too many parents, coaches, athletes, and schools have, but it’s more than that. It’s also a reminder that as we’re trying to build and maintain truly developmental relationships with young people that help them grow and be and become their best selves, we have to start by looking at ourselves first.

What in the world was that head coach thinking? You’re not providing support or challenging a young person to grow in positive ways by encouraging them to violate rules, norms, and boundaries. You’re just teaching them how to be dishonorable and disrespectful. In the process setting them on a slippery slope to anti-social and perhaps even criminal behavior down the road. How are you expanding their possibilities if they have to cheat to get there? You’re certainly not truly sharing power with them in enlisting them in a violation and a cover-up of the violation. All that says is, “kid you have no power on your own to decide to accept responsibility and consequences; I‘ll make this decision for you.” And if you’ve done all those things to violate the trust that student, their parents, the school, and society place in you to be a positive influence for that child, then how does that count as expressing care for and about that person?

No, that “winning at all costs” mentality violates every principle of being an adult who builds developmental relationships, no matter what that coach’s intentions were. What’s worse is that the young people on that team are mostly African American and not affluent. The big meta-message in all this is that you students can’t make it on your own talents and effort, can’t succeed without being cheaters.

That’s a lousy message to give to any kid, but doubly toxic to give to youth from historically-marginalized communities.

Thank goodness there are other strong voices out there reminding all of us that sports can still be a very effective way of strengthening young people’s character through the relationships they build, with coaches, teammates, opponents, officials, and how it can positively affect their relationships with family, friends, and other people. The Positive Coaching Alliance, for example, promotes being a “Double-Goal Coach,” one who tries to win, sure, but who puts life lessons first. I’m one of those PCA Double-Goal Coaches. In my coaching, I emphasize that winning is just a possible outcome of the important thing, which is our process of focusing on teammates caring about each other, providing support to each other, and challenging each other. And me doing all that plus giving the student-athletes decision-making chances when appropriate, and regularly trying to expand their sense of who they are and can be. All of that developmental relationship-building among me and the team, and between them as teammates, makes them better people and also increases their odds of winning because it makes them stronger competitors. You can have noble relationships and still win!

Craig Thielen, Chair of Positive Coaching Alliance’s Minnesota chapter, put it well when he said that adults need to “model the behaviors the next generation can look up to and emulate. This includes honoring the game, putting life lessons over wins, and ensuring everyone who is involved with sports has a positive life experience.” The Changing the Game Project and Way of Champions also have great resources for putting the fun back in youth sports, focusing on the powerful mentoring relationship that positive coaching can be, and helping young people, parents, and coaches learn how to help young athletes deal with adversity and pressure in honorable, spiritually, emotionally, and relationally fulfilling ways. The Aspen Institute’s Project Play has come out with great resources for coaches and communities on how to keep young people enjoying sports and how to use sports to build their social and emotional skills. The U.S. Tennis Association has created the American Development Model of youth player development, which has at its core the basic principles of positive youth development science, with a heavy emphasis on a positive and ethical coach-player relationship.

I base my tennis coaching on the three mental and emotional pillars of the team motto I developed years ago: Compete-Learn-Honor, with behaving with Honor as the foundation for all learning and competitive development. What all of us are teaching our student-athletes, as I say in my recent book, is that “the highest realization of your potential is in relationship to others, in service to others, when you have lost your focus on your ‘self’.” Do we always live up to that ideal? Of course not, coaches and players are fallible human beings just like everyone else. But that’s how we aspire to live.

That football coach who helped his player slide on the rules may have thought he was doing something positive, that he had a caring relationship with that player and the team. And he may have thought all of them would certainly benefit from a winning, maybe even championship season. But the coach was just being selfish, and was teaching his young students to be selfish too. It was the opposite of building a developmental relationship, which requires putting the other person first. It was just win-first, and me-first.

Even as we properly criticize this poor example of being an example, it’s good to remember that there is a real counter-movement in youth sports to put growth as a person ahead of winning, help coaches and their players build true developmental relationships that are good for everyone, and reflect the highest standards of character and positive youth development research. There’s a good chance you have coaches like that in your community.

Like teachers, coaches don’t usually hear from parents and others unless something’s wrong. Next time you see them doing it right, being the right kind of example for our youth, build a developmental relationship with them by letting them know that you notice, and you appreciate it.