Monday, May 11, 2009

Athletes are not created equal!

There has been a clear trend in youth sports programs toward becoming participation based as opposed to performance based. While there is clearly an age where this is and should be the primary focus, I believe that we are extending the trend into ages where competition and performance should begin to matter. When six year-olds are playing T-ball or soccer, participation and making the experience a fun, positive one should be a priority. However, waiting until children are in high school or even middle school to learn the importance of striving to succeed through athletic achievement is waiting too long. By that time, we have already created many habits, thought processes and expectation levels not centered around performance. Then, all of the sudden we expect them to begin to understand how to deal with successes and failures.

Isn't it time that we recognize that all athletes are not created equal, regardless of age. We begin to separate children based on ability at the very first opportunity in school programs. There are advanced groups in every subject in academics all through elementary school. Music programs have students who sit in first chair. The choirs at schools and Churches offer solo parts to the better singers. Those who are ahead or advanced or gifted are given opportunities to succeed and enhance their talents, without regard to the despair or hurt feelings it may create in other participants. Why is athletic competition regarded differently?

Youth sports programs today appear to be more focused on being sure to create a fair opportunity for the players with less talent or experience, at the expense of ensuring the development of better players and success of the team. Basically, I contend we are dumbing down our leagues, relaxing the established rules and creating an environment where it is simply easier. Showing up is enough....not creating an understanding that hard work will create opportunity. Wanting to play first base is enough....rather than actually having earned it through practice. Sometimes you get to play even if you don't come to practice. If a young person was very talented at mathematics, but were only allowed to advance at the rate of the bottom third of the math students in a particular class, most parents would not stand by and allow this to happen.

This attitude is incorrect from another perspective as well. The participants who are less talented or experienced are being put in positions to fail rather than succeed. A coaches job is to find a way for players to contribute and be successful. If a young person is not an accomplished goalie for their soccer team, but wants to is unlikely that they will be successful. That negatively impacts the team, but also that individual is going to have to deal with being unable to help the team or perform well. If you contend that players need opportunities to play to find out if they have talent or skills, I believe that is nonsense. They get those opportunities in practice. My belief is that we are not being fair to the less talented players by putting them in positions that they are not ready for. If a young person was not a good reader, but the teacher continually put them in the higher reading group and required them to read out loud to the would their confidence level be? Most parents would not stand by and allow this to happen.

Athletes are not created equal. Students are not created equal. Nobody is created with the same level of ability and making rules to ensure that ability is not considered in determining playing time or position is just crazy. Why is it that athletics is on its own island when it comes to these issues. Kids who can't sing don't get leading parts. Kids who aren't attractive do not land modeling jobs. Kids who are not strong math students do not make the math team. Kids who are poor dancers are placed in the rear lines. It should follow that kids who can't catch shouldn't play first base, kids who can't dribble shouldn't be a point guard and kids who are slow shouldn't be forwards in soccer. Yet the youth programs today continue to trend toward urging coaches to allow everyone equal opportunity or equal playing time and to just make things easier so that everyone is closer to the same level.

Instead of the current approach, why not use these difference in ability to motivate and teach. Sure some will gravitate away from things they are not good at...but they will also gravitate to something they are good at and enjoy. Its time we treat athletes and their abilities the same way we do others who have certain strengths.


  1. Great points all. This should give many food for thought.

    I think that many confuse the idea behind equal opportunity and equal playing time. Equal opportunity occurs, for the most part, during practice while equal playing time, for the most part, needs to be earned, at least around Junior High on up.

    Kirk Mango

  2. Part I:

    I want to commend you for putting into writing what I myself have been thinking of doing for some time now. While you wrote this 3 years ago, I just reposted it on Facebook and have distributed it to other coaches I know.

    I have been a youth sports coach on and off for the better part of 6 years. Over the past 4 years, I've been far more active as my two sons have grown older, and now serve as a head football coach for two of their teams twice a year. I do not coach their basketball teams, but remain active.

    I am currently a head coach of a 10 and under football team that includes 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders. In addition, I coach my older son's 6th grade football teams (spring and fall). I've been a part of and witnessed a generation of the "everyone plays, everyone gets a medal" sports that we've put into place and couldn't disagree with it more. Primarily because it isn't a parallel to what life is really about - winning and losing - whether we want to admit it or not.

    50 people battle for a job that one person gets. One guy gets the girl. There is only one "first chair" in the orchestra. There is only one lead singer.

    As you've so clearly stated, in every other facet of their childhood, the best are rewarded and/or separated from the rest. My children were first given the option of being in advanced math and reading courses in 3rd grade. And it was traumatic for one when he didn't make it, but he worked and hard and got in the following year. One of my football sons plays cello, and he works to get the first chair (which he's not gotten yet).

    I agree with your point. Why can we allow winners/losers in academics, chorus, orchestra, and the school play, as examples, but in youth sports, this is taboo?

    As good parents, I believe we try to teach our children that hard work pays off. Sports should be no different. As a coach, I've seen what every other coach has - the hard working kids and the kids who rarely show up but expect to play. Is it fair to reward the child who fails to make the 2 or 3 practices a week with playing time at the expense of those who've put in hard work? I don't believe it is. It rewards a "welfare-like" behavior. A behavior that will lead to great disappointment in the future when these boys and girls get cut from a sport they've not invested time in and are no longer guaranteed equal playing time. It's a hard wake up call to realize when it hits them for the first time in middle school, and all to often they will simply quit because they've not been taught early on to work hard to improve at the sport.

    I have two sons. The oldest wasn't born with the most athletic abilities, but is a tremendously hard worker who is driven to do well in whatever he does. The younger was born with great athletic gifts.

    In football, my oldest worked his way up from playing on the offensive line in Pee Wee football to having to fill in for an injured QB and has now been a starting QB for 3 years. He works very hard. However, he's been playing in a league where equal playing time is a rule. Unfortunately, he's been on teams that have had pretty poor offensive lines and he's often suffered physical abuse. In one game, he was sacked 8 times in a half. Not coincidentally, the offensive linemen were typically the players that were missing 2 or even all 3 of their practices a week.

    I would content that in contact sports, like football, equal participation increases the danger factor (as evidenced above). When we reward all kids with equal playing time, we allow kids that are ill-prepared on the field to put other players in harm's way.

  3. Part II:

    None of this work in sports they've put in has come as an expense - just benefit. Once we got them both into competitive sports, their grades improved, one being a straight A student for 3 years now, the other embarking on all A grades. They became better young men. They are socially stronger individuals. And they have learned that you have to work to get rewarded. They are happy, incredibly well adjusted, and succeed at most of what they are involved with - scouting, chess club, orchestra, school, and sports. Sports being a huge part of their demeanour.

    Personally, I believe the sooner we keep score and have winners and losers in youth sports, the quicker the kids develop motivation to succeed individually and as a team. I've seen too many kids that get crushed in sporting events walk off the field laughing waiting to go get pizza after. Losing (and winning) doesn't affect them much. And it's a sad reality for them when they get to middle school and get cut from a sport they want to participate in to realize they may be too far behind the curve to catch up and it's not an "equal playing time" system anymore.

    My coaches and I are currently dealing with a young man in our 13-under spring flag football league that told his mom he wants to quit because he isn't getting a lot of playing time. She approached us suggesting that he wants to quit and it's about playing time (i.e. that if his playing time doesn't increase, she will support his quitting). Unfortunately for this young man (he's a good kid), he is one of the slower players on the team, he can't catch well at all (it's a 100% passing league), can't seem to remember what the WR routes are, and can't cover his man when he plays defense. He's very low, if not lowest, on the depth chart. The mom drops him off at practice, and shows up in time to pick him up and therefore doesn't know how he fits in with the team's skill set. Yet they both have the expectation, at 12-13 years old, that he's entitled to equal playing time with the other boys on our team - who attend 2-3 football camps a year and participate in football leagues twice a year. We have offered to keep my son after practice each time to spend 30 minutes working on route trees, passing and catching and playing defensive coverage. surprisingly, they don't have the time as they are very busy.

    But they feel it's unfair and he's simply entitled to equal playing time - because that's all they've been exposed to - everyone plays and everyone gets a medal at the end, win lose or draw.

    I contend that it isn't fair to the young men who do put in the time off the field, who do show up to all of the practices, and who do work hard at it to be forced to give up playing time to those who don't work as hard, aren't as committed, and aren't as talented because of it.

  4. Part III:

    The last thing I will bring up is to commend you on your point about putting children in positions to succeed, not fail. This is critical in sports and in life. Companies don't put people afraid to speak publicly in sales jobs. I wouldn't enroll my son in a gifted and talented school if he was a C student (even if I could get him admitted). And a college football coach wouldn't put his kick returner at center. All are recipes for certain failure.

    I actually read in another online article promoting equal playing time that keeping kids on the bench is equal to psychological abuse. I could only shake my head. Putting the unprepared child in center field, only to drop what would have been the game winning out, when he's unprepared to make such a play, may linger with the player for life. In so doing, we are putting these kids on a stage in front of their peers, parents, and a general audience, to embarrass themselves. Unfortunately, I've seen boys after games point a finger at another player who failed to make a play and say awful things like "You cost us the game." As coaches, we stamp these things out as quickly as we can and there are severe consequences for doing so, but we can't stop it fully. It happens. The kids are hurt deeply in these moments. We have to find ways for the kids to be successful, not only on sports teams, but with what they are good at in life. Equal playing time increases the odds of these forgetable moments occurring.

    Coaches can offer to stay after practices, to work with them on improving their games. But in the end, the players and their parents have to take it upon themselves to "keep up" and work as hard or be passed by.

    This is natural and it's evolutionary. Throughout life we are weeded out, selected or not selected, chosen or not chosen. Are we really preparing our children for life if we hide them from these natural selections for the first 10-12 years, only to have them wake up one day and not be able to handle not being treated equally?

    I think not.