Optimizing Youth Sports

Aiming to build physical strength in our children often lends to the field of youth sports. In general, sports have become a highly valued and culturally accepted avenue to learn important life skills. However, the culture of youth sport has shifted to that of professional sports with families spending thousands of dollars on equipment and training and committing all free time to the pursuit of sport. Additionally, the messages are getting mixed up. The message now is that we must win at all costs, sacrifice everything for the score on the board. But what about all the good that sports have to offer beyond the win-loss record?

Sport and competition are truly the test kitchen for life – a chance to learn about dedication, commitment, hard work, losing gracefully, winning with integrity, and working alongside people you might not otherwise associate with. Jake and Cole had the opportunity to sit down with Troy Pearson from the Positive Coaching Alliance to discuss how we can shift the culture of youth sports. Troy has a long history of life inside of sports, is an executive with the Minnesota Timberwolves & Lynx Basketball Academy, an author, and a proud father of two girls.

Listen in…

The Positive Coaching Alliance History

The Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) was established in 1998 by Jim Thompson, a Fargo, ND native. As his young kids started participating in sports, he knew there must be something more than the “win at all costs” mentality he was seeing displayed. He began the Positive Coaching Alliance which now has 18 chapters throughout the country and is backed by some of the most successful athletes and coaches sport has seen.  PCA shifts the win at all costs mentality by addressing the underlying culture of sports.  As Pearson notes, “there is very little we can control once the game is being played, but directing and establishing the culture builds a landscape for the process of development”.

The Culture of Sport

Culture starts in the home and expands into organizations and communities. As Troy notes, “the biggest challenge is when the culture has not been established” because then it is a free-for-all. Inside the culture of sports, we can cultivate a process that allows us to “strive” to win. However, only one team can win the game. Therefore, how do we build on the lessons of winning or losing? “Ultimately, we want young people to grow beyond the skills developed for the field. Yet, if we have the right culture, winning becomes a product of the process” – not the end-all, be-all.

“The culture is not just about what you do right now, its how we extend our reach.” – Troy Pearson

Building a positive culture within our home starts with a simple conversation between parent and child. Parents can ask “What are your priorities in playing this year?” This one question allows parent and child to align priorities and assess the child’s true interest in participation. It isn’t hard to see a big disconnect between a child’s goal of 1)having fun 2) hanging out with friends and 3) staying active vs. mom or dad’s goal of child 1) being highest scorer 2) getting 100% of possible playing time and 3) obtaining college scholarship. The conversation at least allows us to begin to see each other’s perspectives even if it takes time to reconcile the goals of playing.  Not only does this conversation allow us to talk about sports, but it opens channels for important conversations regarding social life, academic challenges, and more.

Utilizing PCA’s Principles

PCA is dedicated to improving the culture of youth sport from the individual to organizations, communities, and beyond.  The Positive Coaching Alliance’s four core principles address how we talk about sports and build a culture that promotes development:

1. ELM Tree of Mastery
  • Effort.  Putting forth individual best effort. Effort must be defined by coaches so that athletes can understand how effort is being evaluated.
  • Learning.  We are always in process, even at elite levels of athletics. It is critical to not compare athletes since each individual brings their own strengths to the court and off.
  • Mistakes are okay. Troy reflects on the kids he sees who are unwilling to try something because “teammates will laugh, coach will yell, and parents will lecture on the way home”. If anything, sport is the perfect place to try something new – a new skill or new position. What we really want is to build confidence, not instill anxiety of error. Troy notes “anxiety and confidence are on a pulley system. If anxiety goes up, confidence goes down.” The aim is to build confidence that can carry into other areas beyond sport. Truly, sport is the perfect place to use the skills that are uniquely ours and learn from mistakes in a way that moves us forward, not break us down.
2. Sports as a Development Zone

Simply put the goal is “better athletes, better people.”  When the field of sport is treated as an arena to build character, confidence, and skill athletes become better in all facets.

3. Filling Emotional Tanks Via 5:1 Interactions

For every one negative interaction, it takes five positive interactions to counter-balance an individual’s experience to neutral – just to neutral!  There are many times when the oomph of a team is dwindling before our eyes – the negative has begun to outweigh the positive. Focusing on positive interactions with our body language, what we say, and how we say it all helps keep the emotional tanks of athletes full and power them forward.

4. Honoring the Game

We honor the game by honoring and respecting the rules, officials, opponents, teammates, and ourselves. It is key to note that any disrespect of these variables reflects disrespect of the self.

  • Honoring the Rules.  The rules are there to guide the game.  Without the rules, the map of how to play a game does not exist.
  • Honoring the Officials.  Officials are there to do a job. Just like we are not perfect at our jobs, officials will make mistakes too.  Being respectful of our communication with officials reflects general respect for authority.
  • Honoring our Opponents.  If we didn’t have opponents, we couldn’t even play the game. Respect those we are playing against.
  • Honoring our Teammates.  Respecting our teammates by encouraging them, building up the weaker links, and supporting each member’s individuality allows the whole team to flourish.

When we honor and respect that which is before us, we are honoring and respecting ourselves which takes us a long way in the game of life.

Self-Mastery in Youth Sports

So much of our conversation with Troy and the concepts of the Positive Coaching Alliance build upon Total Potential’s commitment to the concepts of self-mastery. We’re reflecting on how we remove fear from our lives, how we retell the story of who we are, and how we move through the world with purpose.  These questions and many more are reflected in sports.

Living Fearlessly

How do you go through life without being limited by fear? Fear is what makes a parent on the sidelines scream when their child isn’t getting “deserved” playing time. Fear prevents athletes from taking the last-second shot and knowing they can make it.  What is on the other side of fear?  Fearlessness offers freedom to shine when we are able and build character when it feels harder.

Retell the Story

How do we move beyond the “story” of who we are? This mental story is formed over time as we internalize our experiences and what we are told about ourselves along the way.  The language we use against players such as “you never give enough effort” becomes the story the athlete tells themselves. Only it isn’t true. Using language that builds confidence will benefit everyone. Even corrections can be made with language that is not degrading.  The story of an athlete should build confidence and drive.

Connect to Purpose

How do we connect to a purpose that is uniquely ours but can get overshadowed by the standard checklist of success? When young athletes spend their developing years with self-worth anchored in athletic performance and success, it is a rude awakening when the sport goes away (which it will even if one plays at elite levels). What if we can drip on them the message that the skills they are learning now will be useful to authentically pursue purposeful existence beyond sport?  Along with encouraging athletes to develop their unique talents, gifts, and personality, this message helps athletes look at their future with more clear vision.

It’s the Journey

Self-mastery is a lifelong journey. Coaches and parents can highlight how discipline and effort put forth in sport are the same as that necessary to propel us in the great pursuits of life. The lessons of sport are part of the journey – not just the result of one game or one season – but snippets along the way to a lifetime of mastery. These concepts are also outlined in the Positive Coaching Alliance’s Triple-Impact Competitor. How do we 1) better ourselves, 2) better our team and teammates, and 3) better the sport (the community beyond our team)? Athletes that can strive to improve in these three areas are using the concepts of self-mastery just with different terminology.

Building a positive culture in sports changes with age and specific sport but always starts with the dialogue between parents and child. Instead of “selling ourselves” to sports – invest in development. Be willing to hear from our kids – talk and adjust. The opportunity to use sport to build physical strength along with mental resilience is not one to waste. Our kids need us to build a culture that starts at home and can translate into every area of life.

Recommended resources:

  • Positive Coaching Alliance website – with resources for parents, athletes, coaches and more, this is a wealth of information on transforming the culture of sport.
  • PCA’s Development Zone – articles, stories, resources to address everything from parent-coach conflicts to playing time.
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Jake & Cole

Sibling founders of Total Potential, Jake and Cole, are on a mission to make family life the most vibrant and important place to grow and thrive. Like most siblings, these two are equally similar as they are different. Think yoga and jiu-jitsu, yin and yang - that is Cole and Jake in a nutshell.