Monday, October 25, 2010

Managing Athletes' Expectations

In the past, I have tended to group youth sports coaches in a few convenient little "boxes," all neatly arranged by their motivation to get involved in the lives of our young athletes. For some of us, it was a natural inclination to take the field with our children. For others, it was a passion for teaching and mentoring young ahtletes. Then there is a third group that seeks to relive or replicate their own past victories on the field (or, perhaps, to compensate for the lack thereof).

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to witness the most glaring example of the latter group that I have seen in seven years as a youth sports coach.

While waiting for my eight year old son's flag football game to start I had, by chance, set up my chairs near one team's coach. The children from the previous game, all of them eight years old, were making their way to the sidelines, eyes already scanning the crowd for the parent tasked with "snack and drink" duties for the day. Like a school of fish, the boys located their prey and moved in graceful unison toward the volunteer.

Much to my dismay, their coach intercepted them on their way off the field. He called a huddle, pulled out his team's playbook, and spent the good part of five minutes explaining run routes, coverage and a number of other strategic issues. Did I mention that his lecture was addressed to a group of hungry eight year old boys?

This was enough to inspire some frustration and a hint of judgmentalism on my part, but the moment would soon be surpassed by the coach's pep talk at the end of his lecture. Pointing one-by-one to his players, clockwise in the huddle, the coach rattled off:

"Good job, good job, good job, you need some work," followed by a list of things the poor kid "needed to work on."

Now that my oldest son is almost a teenager and I'm working through my next round, coaching my eight year old's team, I have had enjoyed reflecting on the points both high and low of my time with my older son. In hindsight, I took his teams far too seriously. That's the excuse I'm going to extend to that team's coach.

Particularly for less experienced coaches, we face the temptation to lose sight of why our kids are involved in sports. We remember our high school (or perhaps college) experience, and tend towards the assumption that our kids are far more mature than they really are. My heart sank for the last kid in the huddle, in part because I could see his own countenance collapse but also because I'm sure I made similar, careless comments to kids in the past.

My son's team proceeded to play the worst game ever recorded in the history of third grade flag football. They were simply outgunned, outmaneuvered and outscored. That afternoon I had a spontaneous, quiet moment alone with my son.

I asked him what he thought of the game, if he was disappointed in himself or his teammates, and if he was frustrated about its outcome.

"Not really, Dad," he said, "I just had fun playing football with my friends."

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