Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Narcissism and Youth Sports

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Today's Newsweek article, "Generation Me," is an eye-opening commentary into an alarming trend toward narcissism in youth culture. In the "real-life" adult world we see its impact in the form of billion-dollar Ponzi schemes, out-of control executive pay amidst mass layoffs and ruined stock portfolios, and myriad other economic ills. And even the most Facebook-friend-sparse of us has likely taken note of the ever-prevalent "(x) Things About Me" posts.

In typical Newsweek fashion, the article's author agitates the proverbial sleeping lion then hides to observe the outcome. Yet, tucked neatly into the middle of the article's last two paragraphs are two references that hit close to home. The first referred to "trophies just for showing up," and the second made reference to the arguable Poster Child for narcissism in sports: Terrell Owens.

The two statements highlighted significant challenges we face as youth sports coaches. We must strike a delicate balance between protecting a young player's fragile self-esteem, cultivating his or her development and (in competitive leagues) assuring the win.

In my own experience, I once coached a player who epitomized narcissism in youth sports. He was never the standout player, although I hope that I can say I would have discouraged narcissism even if he had been. He was, however, a player who, possibly guided and encouraged by his parents, consistently played in his own best interest. As part of my own coaching philosophy I avoid crediting a single player for a game's outcome, win or lose. Still, in hindsight, I can think of a number of pivotal moments where this player's actions tipped the balance in favor of the other team.

Ultimately in my player's case, he lost the position that had been so critical to his self-esteem. I had an honest conversation with him about the consistent tendency I had seen toward self-advancing play at the expense of the team's welfare. In the Newsweek article, the author writes, "no matter how you were raised, the handiest cure for narcissism used to be life. Whether through fate, circumstances or moral imperative, our culture kept hubris in check." As the example in professional sports trends ever more significantly toward self-centeredness, we as coaches remain ever more challenged to keep our players' long-term welfare at heart. Sometimes we can deliver a tough but indubitably valuable life lesson when we see examples of narcissism, if we handle the situation correctly.

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