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The Balance

The Balance Between Participation and Winning.

It was interesting reading a series of articles over the past few weeks about the participation in youth sports, and particularly, team sports dropping at significant rates over the past couple of years.

Even in my sport of snowboarding, and in snow sports generally, there seems to be a dip happening in club programs of kids becoming engaged in structured programs.

The US is a unique animal in regards to sports. It has a system in place starting from middle school thru to college in many sports, that tends to “weed” out the under achievers, and highlights only those that shine as outliers. In many sports, kids are “done” before the age of 13. There seem to be a variety of factors for this. Pressure to perform put on them by themselves, parents and coaches. This pressure can then in turn learn to a lack of enjoyment. The pressure on coaches to win from a very early age that forces them to play the best players only, and leaves the lesser lights disengaged and not feeling part of the team. The pressure from parents who invest so much money and time in their kids, and put unrealistic expectations on their kids. I am a parent, it’s a natural thing. We want to protect our kids, feel our kids are more talented than they really are, and in lots of cases want it more for their kids than the kids want it themselves. When you consider that for many families, athletics is a ticket to college, a better education and a better life, it’s an understandable phenomenon. Some of these kids will actually make it at the highest level, making a career out of it!

But, is this what is right for our kids? Should kids that truly love a sport or hobby be shuffled out of the sport at such an early age because they are not the best? From an athletic development standpoint, I would argue it makes no sense anyway. There are late bloomers, kids mature at different rates, and levels of passion kick in at different times as well.

I think one of the problems we are really dealing with is one of culture. We live in a world where winning is celebrated. I have no real problem with this. This has been prevalent, and will remain being prevalent until the end of time. For elite sports, of course winning is a key component. Every human wants to be successful, to be a winner. It’s good for the psyche, for confidence and as a tracker of success……and that’s not even considering the great social and community ramifications that athletic success brings. That’s why we have elite athletic programs.

But what this culture has inadvertently done is stopped coaches and parents from celebrating participation in sports. To celebrate effort, desire and the physical benefits from participating in sports.

I have been blessed to have worked for a GREAT sports organization for the past 10 years. It has a great philosophy, has developed Olympians and high-end performers, but what I am most proud about, is it has developed great young people. In our snowboard program, we have dealt with the balance between participation and elite athletics. It has highlighted that there is a need for 2 distinct pipelines (participation vs elite), so that ALL the kids can have a positive experience and receive all they need to achieve success!

But what is success? This is one of the bigger questions. If we define success just as winning, then this is very narrow scope by which to be involved in youth sports, and it’s going to lead to major disappointments, and a further drop in participation. How we define success as coaches and parents needs to change. A focus needs to be given more on personal success of our kids, the acquiring of new skills and progression, and on highlighting areas of personal growth, work ethic and determination. Should winning not be celebrated? Not at all. It’s a HUGE part of sport, but maybe a shift is needed to highlight other areas to expand the definition of success for our kids.

Communication to this is the key. Communication between coaches, athletes and parents. Our program named it the CAP relationship. I think there is a need in today’s youth sports for coaches to be honest on whether or not a kid is on an elite track or not, and that this decision does not need to be made until the kids are a little bit older so that they have SOME time to develop physically, mentally and athletically. Parents expectations need to be managed, and changed from a “winning” mentality into one of the benefits of participation and the life skills, lessons and healthy lifestyle that their child is living. Especially at younger ages, the idea of building athletic skills should take precedence over results. (I personally never got hung up on what results our riders were getting until they reach 13 or 14. I celebrated the acquisition of tricks and new skills). We as coaches also need to focus on celebrating effort and participation more, to celebrate the process as much as we celebrate the end result. By coaches and parents, together, changing this mindset, will help the athletes concentrate on getting better, enjoying the journey and then defining success as more than just winning.

This all sounds good in theory, but it will also require a massive shift in many of the sporting systems our kids are part of. I am happy to say that my sport of snowboarding has a competition system thru the USASA that allows kids that love to snowboard, and love to compete, participate in snowboarding throughout their whole lives, while also providing a critical piece of the elite pipe line as well. The USASA Nationals maybe my favorite event in all of snowboarding. With over 500 competitors, ranging in age from 4 – 70 + it gets like-minded, passionate people together to snowboard and compete. It’s a great thing.

The time has come for sporting clubs and associations to start building out 2 distinct pipelines that celebrate and cater for all our kids. One based on the earmarked elite athletes, and one that lets kids that love to sport to still progress and participate with fun the key. Both the pipelines will provide our kids those awesome life lessons that athletics provides, and give the kids the chance to succeed. This will also help in making sure that our kids get the training and resources they need at their level of skill. The great thing with this, from an athlete development standpoint, is it provides a system for those “late bloomers” to continue developing their skills without a whole lot of pressure, and also allows them to transition into an elite pipeline at a later age.

It will also mean that a financial premium will be put on kids in the elite pipeline, but also help to make it more affordable for those that want to participate at a lower level. But that’s life. In all sectors of our life, us as consumers pay more for premium services.

Participation is the key to building and developing ANY sport. Its key in keeping our kids fit and healthy, learning skills and lessons that they will take it into their future lives. It’s a key to keeping our kids happy. The balance between participation and winning will always exist, but we all need to work together so that participation begins to be celebrated as much as we celebrate winning.

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