I am often asked my opinion on things that involve football. The questions range from how to find which player position best suits a child to who I think will win the Super Bowl, and pretty much everything in between. I have many thoughts on the game, on coaching, and on improving performance, so I am starting Passing Thoughts to share some of those thoughts. I welcome your comments and conversation. –KR

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Friday Night Tykes: The Dark Side of Youth Football

Photo: Friday Night Tykes (Esquire Network)
According to the National Council of Youth Sports, over 44 million children participate in organized sports leagues throughout the United States. Why are there so many kids involved in youth sporting activities? Youth sports have a proud tradition of providing opportunities for physical exercise, developing coordination, teaching kids about sportsmanship, social skills, and responsibility, and developing relationships while learning to work within a team structure. Healthy lifestyles and positive life lessons have long been hallmarks of youth sports.

The fast-moving world of social media and culture is producing many negatives, and youth sports are unfortunately seeing some of that "dark side' as well. As these young athletes grow older, they dream about attaining a college scholarship and continuing to play sports at the collegiate level. The challenges that come along with this dream create a tremendous amount of pressure for student athletes. The NCAA reports that of the 7 million boys and girls who play sports in high school, fewer than 200,000 will receive a partial or full college scholarship. With football, only 1 in 1,250 high school football players will play in the NFL, and in all sports, 70 percent of children who play organized sports quit playing before they enter high school. (Parenting.org A Shot at the Big Time is a Long Shot)  Sports have become so competitive that those positive lessons are lost early on, and we are driving kids away from their sport and their dreams at an earlier and earlier age.

As if the resulting damage to young athletes isn't bad enough, highlighting the worst behaviors present in youth sports and arguably "celebrating" it should give us all reason to reflect. If you haven't seen the trailer or any episodes of Esquire Network''s new docuseries, 'Friday Night Tykes,' then brace yourself. The show features 8-9 year old boys playing in an elite football league in San Antonio, Texas. This elite league is about winning and winning only. At all costs. These children are exposed to misguided leadership, profanity, troubling and excessive practice techniques, fighting, illegal hits, verbal and physical abuse, and coaches actually encouraging these young players to hurt their opponents.

Check out the trailer here:

As you watch the series, you find a community that is extremely passionate about youth football and is very supportive for the children. As a viewer, you also witness a community that has become obsessed with all the things that are wrong with competition and has completely forgotten about all the things that are good about youth athletics. Parents and coaches have totally lost their mindset that the children’s long-term development is the most important thing. I was truly embarrassed to watch the show and even more upset that a community would allow something like to happen. As parents, we stress the importance of youth sports and try not get wrapped up in the wins and losses, but Friday Night Tykes has gone way past just getting consumed with scores and records. The show exposes and creates an image for all those watching that this is what youth football can and should be like if you want to win.

 This flawed thinking is extremely troubling to those of us who believe in the power of positive development for kids in sports. These are the major issues that I see with Friday Night Tykes:

1) You aren't there to win, you are there to learn. There is no quicker way to take the fun out of youth sports than to make it all about winning. If kids are enjoying the activity, enjoying their time with peers and coaches, and learning skills and sportsmanship, they are going to stay involved. Learning the game and making meaningful contributions to your team can be a lot of fun, and that should always be the emphasis in youth sports. Kids need to learn to be gracious winners and losers. That is a lesson they will carry with them for life.

Photo: Friday Night Tykes (Esquire Network)
2) Even the toughest kids are still kids. We are not doing these athletes any service by telling them to "toughen up" and hide their emotions. Young athletes have to deal with struggles and emotions, and it is our job to help them face their challenges appropriately. Positive reinforcement from supportive parents and coaches will do more to develop "toughness" and resilience in kids than dismissing the real adversity and feelings these athletes face.

3) Maintain focus, but maintain balance. These coaches have lost sight of any type of balance between family, school and football. The coaches in this show have one priority: Winning. Practice, practice, practice. Destroy your opponent. Punish kids for going on family vacation. Basically, the focus on winning destroys the focus on positive development and the essence of sportsmanship. As coaches our goal is to help create well-rounded individuals that can be successful on and off the field.

4) Coaches and parents need to work together. One very scary aspect is that these coaches think they can do no wrong, and the parents do very little to challenge their abusive tactics. These coaches seem to be able to say and do anything they want no matter how morally wrong, demeaning, or devastating it may be to the kids and parents. As parents, we entrust coaches to help lead our children and be mentors to our kids. If the kids see the coaches handling situations with anger and aggression, they will look to handle situations in the same manner. Coaches and parents need to be on the same page about providing a positive experience and atmosphere for young athletes.

If there is any value to Friday Night Tykes, it is that it very clearly shows us what NOT to do when we work with young athletes. While I'm certain people will watch the show, I hope that its era is short-lived. I can't help but think that the millions of coaches, parents, and athletes who know better than this and do better than this every day will have a greater impact on the sport than the skewed 'reality' of Friday Night Tykes.

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