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Parents in Sport: Do you want to Witness Joy or Victory?

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The great majority of parents like to see their offspring participate in sports or physical activity.  Rarer is the carer who sees no value in this.  The reasons why they approve of this type of involvement vary, though they are infrequently thought-out beyond the vague conviction that it’s somehow “good” for the kids.  What parents want their kids to get out of their experience of youth sport will determine the environment they choose to put them into, and the achievements that they wish to celebrate and encourage.

Research is quite clear what children enjoy in sport.  Having fun, being with friends, getting better at something, the excitement of competition: these are fairly consistent conclusions.  All these regularly appear above the desire to win trophies.  Whether the influential adults who determine the youth sports environment reflect these priorities is crucial.  It is the parents and coaches who establish the prevailing culture. They determine whether or not this is in line with children’s motivations, or whether it reflects the performance oriented values of elite adult sport.

If adults pursue a performance agenda, it informs all subsequent decisions.  The early developers monopolise the game time and the influential positions. They are allowed to reign supreme, scoring multiple goals every week.  They become dominant players, but lack the physical and emotional qualities to become great players once maturation has evened everything out.  The less able and late developers receive little game time or encouragement, and eventually drift away from the game carrying into later life the badge of dishonour – “I’m not sporty”.  Some become government ministers who sell off playing fields.

Is there an alternative?  One that aligns with kids’ motivations?  Is it as binary as a performance or participation culture? Is it possible to have joy and achievement? Is the joy of achievement available to all, or just the strong and fast?  Or is an inclusive approach the consolation prize for those whose trophy cabinets are bare?  Is finishing the game with more goals the only way to win?

A culture which values mastery over outcomes can serve both.  It encourages all to strive earnestly, and some to excel. But celebrates both.  It teaches the early achievers to empathise with the less able as they take their share of game time, and celebrates improvements individually and collectively.  Its success criteria include retaining players, and joy on all faces.  It chooses a competition programme that allows all players to be challenged, and all to experience success and defeat – in order to learn from both.

Striving for improvement is a central part of sport.  Success in competition is one of the measures of this at all levels, though the only measure in elite sport. A minimum level of winning is essential to maintain motivation: losing every week is demoralising.  A positive youth sports environment chooses a competition programme that supports wider aims, allows challenge, and provides experience of winning and losing. A team that wins – or loses – every week limits the development of its players.

The culture of a youth sports organisation – whether it is a club or a school – is too important to be left to individual adults to define.  The essence of quality control is that the leadership of the organisation establishes the values and operational procedures, and communicates them widely. Parents introducing their children into each environment should be able to do so completely aware of what is valued, and the experience that their children will have. At every age group, with every coach.  

That would allow and require mothers and fathers to give some careful thought to what they want to witness; pressure to win in a zero sum game dominated by the early maturers, or a smile on red faces and a first step towards lifelong activity