“Dr. Cale…Playing Sports Is Not Fun Anymore…I’m Not Sure It’s Worth It!” This was a comment offered by a 17-year-old client, who comes from a family of athletes and is a great athlete. It’s not the first time this spring I have heard this. He echoes the thoughts of many middle and high school athletes who continue to play sports, but get little joy from the process.

What have we done to children’s athletics?

We have taken the fun out of sports.

As I listen to parents and children discuss their spring calendars, I hear little of joy and contentment, or even excitement and enthusiasm. It seems that our culture is on a trek to destroy one of the key elements of playing sports: play! It’s supposed to be competitive, athletic, and be fun.

The first definition I found about sports: “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.”

Children no longer talk about the fun of it. Instead, it’s about their schedule, their record, and the importance a sport plays in ‘rounding out’ their college application. No fun. Almost always the opposite: Drudgery.

There is too much focus on quantity over quality.

It’s hard to understand the volume of practices and games that kids now are required to complete. Sure, every coach, every parent, and every school wants a winning team. There is no problem here so far.

The issue seems to be that the answer to a better team is simply more and more practice. Well, of course, that is true…but only partially so.

A growing literature suggests that in every arena of life, all practice is not equal. In other words, more does not always equal better. More practices do not equal better players.

Instead, deliberate practice is the key. This is where the focus is on quality and quantity of practice. Deliberate practice, where the athlete is focused on improving their weaknesses, clearly produces better results. This is NOT about harping on weakness. This is about identifying an area in need of improvement and then repeatedly practicing the skill-enhancing routine.

If we are going to seek higher quality athletes, we should choose a high-quality practice, over simply more and more practice. This is exhausting and defeats the long-term purpose.

We tend to focus too much attention on mistakes and what’s not working

Many of you witness coaches and parents who seem to harp on mistakes and point out team problems over and over. If we were to assess what gets attention on the field or the court, we find an overwhelming focus on problems. I find student-athletes (of the very high caliper) who repeatedly find their esteem lowered by the negativity and harsh comments of their coaches and teammates.

The literature here is also overwhelming, pointing to how remarkably well children respond to more positive coaching and teaching styles. Yet, the old style of harping on mistakes and yelling at the evolving athlete remains the dominant approach. Frustration is spewed upon the field and the child. Do we think that children (or adults) respond better to this criticism and negativity?

If a positive approach to team sports is endorsed by schools, coaches, and parents, we not only get better athletes but better young people. They are happier and feel good about playing sports. Sports can enhance self-esteem when approached in this way.

We over-value results…rather than the effort behind the results.

Parents and coaches often focus on results. What was the score? Who won? How many goals did you get? Within every team, there will be those players who never score, or rarely gain the headlines. Should they not feel the glory? Should they not get the praise?

Many feel confused about how to approach this, and yet the solution is rather simple. If we shift our attention and interest to the effort and growth we see in children, we now have a solution. We can make sure that hard work and good effort are repeatedly noticed. Once we do this enough, the results will take care of themselves. In other words, if children are esteemed for effort, they learn to do their best. And if they do their best…we cannot ask for more. Win or lose…they can feel good.

Thoughts for the Summer About Sports

If you are talking with your kids about sports, notice whether you are smiling. Is it light and relaxing, or serious and work? Consider shifting to a model that exudes enjoyment of sports.

Next, when involved in discussions, become more focused on effort, hard work, and the value of doing your best. When watching the Olympics, comment on the effort put forth. Admire effort more than the results.

If your child enjoys sports, give them ways to enhance their skills that focus on improving weaknesses. Ask coaches to do the same. Then, set limits on the time you give to sports so that your values for a well-rounded life are honored.

Finally, if you find your child is working with a coach who sets a negative, demanding tone…consider a change. This is not about over-protecting your child so that they never hear some criticism. Quite the opposite. It is, however, about making sure that the dominant messages are about success, what is going well, and where specifically is needs to improve. When effort is valued over the scorecard…you will likely be working with a coach/team that will support your child’s development.