A few years ago I decided to celebrate another incredible year of coaching high school basketball by treating myself to a live NBA game. What better way to celebrate another season with my high school athletes, than to witness professionals at the top of their game? I was surprised by the emotional trip I went on as I watched that night. Being used to standing courtside while coaching, I noticed I was struggling to see what was happening from so far away up in the stands. While savoring every sip of my nine dollar beer, I realized that I was bored and quickly lost focus on the game unfolding below me. A week prior, my division six high school basketball players had played in front of a crowd of only about 150 people comprised of parents, siblings, teachers, and students. We were competing in the regional playoffs, and ultimately lost that night. After the game there were some tears from the seniors, hugs all around, and an emotional celebration of the season as a whole. The focus, effort, and excitement were palpable in the locker room that night, despite our loss. As the girls on the team exited the locker room, they were met with a standing ovation from their parents. With those memories running through my thoughts as I watched the NBA game, I realized that the time we spend at the athletic events of our own children can be so much more exciting and fulfilling than watching the pros.
I’ve spent a lot of time since then grappling with the question of how to help children have a healthy relationship with sports in a culture that places professional athletes and winning on the highest pedestals. How many people do you know who have a traumatic story about PE class from their youth? Usually the kids who were already the best athletes got all of the attention and everyone else was just trying to survive. In today’s youth sports world, it’s nearly impossible to make a high school sports team if you have not been playing that particular sport year-round from a very young age.
It is so important to let children play games/sports in a way that’s natural for their age. Toddlers want to play mostly on their own with their blocks and toys - it would be quite traumatic for everyone if we tried to make them play an organized team tag game, yes? Around the age of 9 or 10, children more naturally want to play with each other, using their imaginations to make up games with several characters. As puberty comes around, those children who are interested in sports head into a crucial stage of imitation where they use their imaginations in play and practice, and become (if only in their minds) the professional athletes that they look up to. It’s really not until this point that our children are ready for serious competitive sports. It’s critical that they are allowed adequate time to live into their imaginations first and play games in a developmentally appropriate way. If organized competitive sports begin too early, then burn-out as a teenager becomes a much bigger possibility.
I’ve seen more teen athletes than I can count lose interest in their favorite sport around the age of 15 - right at the age when we parents hope they will have plenty of healthy ways to spend and occupy their time. Often, those who announce they are finished with a sport at this age, have been playing it from very early on. After 7 or 8 years, injury, pressure, and boredom become factors. The irony here is that a 15 year old child is only just becoming able to handle the physical and emotional aspects of competition.
Having just celebrated Father’s Day and spending some time thinking about the tremendous impact that my own father had on me while growing up, I feel like I need to give him a shout-out here. He once shared with me what I now believe is the key for children trying to play sports and for parents raising athletes. I was 16 years old and I had just told announced to my family that I wanted to quit baseball. Baseball had been my passion throughout grade school and middle school. After committing 7 years of my life to this sport, I feared that my decision to leave it would cause my father to be disappointed in me. I remember the relief that came over me when in response to my announcement he said “All that matters is that you keep trying things and do your best. What do you want to try next?” In that moment, he comforted me and most importantly, made sure I started looking for a new way to stay active. Now, after 14 years of coaching and watching athletes grow up, his comment means even more to me. I believe that a burnt-out teen athlete should be encouraged to try something new, instead of being pushed to just “stick with it”. The next thing they try might end up being the one that will stick. And, even if it isn’t, the goal for most teens should be to keep them active and pursuing a healthy lifestyle, not to become a professional athlete. In my case, the next sport I chose after baseball was basketball. I’m sure I lost playing time over the years to teammates who had been playing basketball since they were very young, and it definitely took some time to catch up to my peers. What I had going for me though, was that it was a fresh, new challenge and I was not bored or burnt out. I had enthusiasm. I wanted to go to practice. I wanted to play hard with my teammates.
The game of basketball has shaped my life as a teacher and coach regardless of the fact that I never went on to become a college or professional level player. I would be lying if I said that winning is not important to me. However, I truly feel that the experience of trying really hard to win in a healthy environment is much more valuable than the outcome of a game. “Fun” in youth sports should come from working toward a goal together with your teammates, learning how to experience adversity, and having solid support from coaches and parents.
College football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg was once asked “What do you think of your team?” He responded, “I’ll let you know in 20 years.” He understood that his greatest victories as a coach (and parent) of young people had very little to do with a scoreboard and much more to do with the impact he was having on their future selves.
I’m not sure what would have happened if I had felt pressured to continue playing baseball all those years ago. I’m so grateful that I was only pressured to continue searching for something to be passionate about.
Brian Wolfe has spent his entire adult life playing music, teaching, and coaching his Waldorf students. As a flat-footed child with asthma, his own early sports years were a struggle. However, his determined spirit led him to become a successful & happy high school athlete. A late-blooming love for basketball led him down a pretty straight path towards coaching and teaching Movement in local Waldorf schools, where he has been at it for 14 years. This year, he led his Varsity girls basketball team to an undefeated season in which they won their league and regional championships. While he has had players go on to play at the college level, he is most proud of a different legacy – the one in which an entire generation of student athletes has been given the opportunity to grow into a healthy relationship with sports.