Childhood is a time when many of us are exposed to different experiences along with what seems to be endless time and freedom. As we get older and look back through the lens of time, we realize that we did more than enjoy a timeless freedom or survive a confusing era – we learned things along the way. The experiences from which we learned is a vessel through which we learn about ourselves, our communities, our values and who taught us those values. Like any other vocation, sports is a vessel for which these lessons can be learned. Many are exposed to athletics in their youth, either through school programs or through playing. The bond between athletics and youth development can be one of the strongest bonds that an individual experiences. This exposure cannot be understated as athletics can teach and expose us to many facets of life and situations that occur both on the playing field and on the playing field of life. Athletics can expose youth, and anyone who dares to be young at heart, to the importance of health, physical activity, personal and team character development opportunities, life lessons and opportunities in general – so long as the lessons are provided and taught properly.
Why and how can the lessons, exposure and opportunities that athletics provide be so profound and powerful to a youth? There are four areas that I will categorize what athletics can provide into. These four areas are: Physical Fitness, Exposure based life lesson development, Self-Awareness and Character Development along with Opportunity Enhancement. What do these mean?
Physical fitness is one of the most important aspects that a youth can develop. If a youth is taught to be active and how to best to care for themselves, they have a better chance to live a healthier life. Being healthy is the foundation that one’s life is built upon, professionally as well as personally. Athletics can provide a window for the young mind to be educated. Through athletics, individuals can learn about life – how to face adversity, how the bond of a team is stronger than the strength of an individual – and apply these lessons to other parts of their lives. These are Exposure based life lessons.
Self-Awareness and Character Development are goals that we all strive for throughout our lives., Athletics can also lead to an individual becoming self-aware and developing their character. In order to best become part of a team, an individual must be comfortable within their own skin. This means being self-aware – knowing what they are good at and what they are not good at. Self-Awareness also encompasses knowing what your values are – who they are and what they believe in that helps define them. Athletics also provides an individual a chance to build upon that foundation of values. Hall of Fame UCLA Basketball Coach John Wooden once said, “Sports do not build character. They reveal it.” Our values define who we are and how we have been raised, taught or the situation that we were born into. Athletics provides a window to let the world know who you are and how that affects what happens on the playing field. Sometimes the sight is encouraging and sometimes it is discouraging. But, what has always been stressed to me is that nothing is forever. If you are one who believes in the human race and in the humanity and compassion of mankind, you believe that people can change. You believe that they can change for the better and become a better person. You believe that the good person can accomplish even greater heights if they tap into the lessons that they have learned and enhance their self. By enhancing their self, they make themselves stronger and, in turn, make their team stronger. This is true whether one is talking about a family, a workplace or an athletic team. Sports provides lessons to those willing to open their minds, ears and eyes. Sports gives you the chance to be someone, to better yourself, to leave this world a better place than you found it. For this reason, one of the strongest dynamics in the athletic world, just like in any other area of interest, is that it gives those who participate in athletics a chance to enhance and develop their character. Athletics gives you a chance to grow as a person, an athlete and a teammate.
The final point is Opportunity Enhancement. For those who enjoy and pursue athletics, the door to opportunity can be opened wide for the individual who gives it all that they have. Some find a lifelong hobby. Some find that athletics is their social outlet or their way to lead an active lifestyle. Some find their life’s calling in using athletics to promote social causes. Some, if they are talented enough and lucky enough, find that it is a way to make a living and support themselves or their family. Athletics can provide an individual with an opportunity to achieve things that they have only dreamed if they work hard at it. This does not have to mean making it as a professional athlete. This can simply mean leading a social and healthy lifestyle. However, for any of this to pass, an individual must see the value of the fundamental activity in the first place. As many of our interests are formed and shaped in our youth – our childhood, athletic development in youth is critical. This is where it starts.
How can this be done? The answer is really much simpler than it seems. Many times, the structure is there for us to use, we simply have to know how to use it. There are several items to note when it comes to how to best enable youth to use athletics as a means to happiness. The first is exposure and opportunity. The second is good coaching and a good infrastructure. The third is proper education of youth and having an understanding of how to best enable youth to succeed. The fourth point goes hand in hand with the third point – understanding that there are different levels of success and opportunities.
What is meant by exposure and opportunity? The answer is in the question. Giving youth the chance to get involved in athletics. The important part of this step is understanding that there are different levels of exposure and making sure that the avenues are there for one to fall in love with the world of sports. For some, this is school-sponsored gym class. For some, it encompasses neighborhood pick-up games with friends. Others thrive on the chance to compete in town or regional leagues. Others fall in love with athletics by watching and reading. There are multiple avenues to achieving this first step. The critical part is understanding that not all sports lovers are the same and ensuring that the opportunity exists for that love of sport to develop.
The second step is the most important in athletic development – good infrastructure and good coaching. Logic says that if you have a bad experience in something, you will likely not gravitate towards in the future. For youth, this means an avenue of education and development lost. What we often forget is that are youth are simply what they are – children. Youth sports does not carry the monetary or life-defining burden that professional sports do. While the intensity and expectations of sports does increase the higher up the ladder you go, for youth, it is still a game. A game that can provide life lessons if implemented correctly and in a manner that the kid is having fun learning and playing at the same time. This is what is meant by having a good infrastructure. In order for that infrastructure to work, there must be a good leader. If the athletic event is a coordinated affair, having a good coach is critical, much as it is at any level. As John Wooden once put it, “No written word, no spoken plea can teach our youth of what they should be, nor all of the books on the shelves. It is what the teachers are themselves.” A good coach will encourage and teach players Not just about the game but about life as well. They will be firm but fair and never make it so that the fundamental core of the event – the game – is made into a monster rather than a fun, educational experience. Unfortunately, bad coaches are the ones who make the news. The ones that play favoritism games, the ones who treat these opportunities as life and death experiences. This approach helps no one in the long run. It damages the integrity of sports and hurts the youth for whom it is designed for. Even for those who gain from the favoritism, the damage is done. By creating a false sense of entitlement, an athlete is allowed to skip the important self-awareness step due to the fact that they are being fed false-awareness from a third party source. The stories of bad coaching need to be changed. We need to see more stories about the good coaches, the ones who enhance those under their guidance and allow them to become not only successful athletes but good men and women as well.
How is this accomplished? By finding coaches who promote the third point – education and an understanding of youth. Those are your good coaches. Those coaches also practice the fourth point – understanding differing levels of success based on differing ranges. For many, the model proceeds as follows: Introductory, Basic/Youth, Transitional/Semi-Competitive, Competitive/Amateur, Professional. In the introductory stage, a child is introduced to the sport and taught to love the game for what it is. From this, they will attach different values such as the sport being a social outlet or some other fulfilling achievement. Youth then transition into the Basic/Youth stage where they learn the fundamentals of the game and develop and understanding of what it means to play the game. The next stage is the Transitional/Semi-Competitive Stage, where you play the game for fun but also to achieve the goal of the game. This goal is usually to emerge as the victor. The next stage is the Competitive/Amateur stage. This is where most people end their careers on a serious level. This equates to High School area ages. You play the game because you love it, you have fun playing it and it fulfills a competitive drive. College Athletics can also fit into this stage. The final stage is for those who are talented and lucky enough to try and make a living in athletics. Many who do not make it as players can make it to this stage by working in the field of Sport Management. Those are the people, next to the players, whom the passion and love for athletics flows strongest through. If a youth coach understands this differing level of athletic development, they will know how to best enable and enhance youth to make athletics a positive part of their childhood life. Through his style of incorporating life lessons to his athletic coaching, John Wooden had two good sayings about athletic youth development. “Basketball, or any other sport can be great fun to play and entertaining to watch. However, it offers something more important. The lesson it provides – taught properly – apply directly to life. Many of these lessons are usually taught by a good mother and father, but sports can help make them stick and add a few more.”
Just like any other interest or hobby that an individual can pursue, the world of athletics can give youth the opportunity a chance to become the best that they are capable of becoming. This is done through a good infrastructure, good coaching and ensuring that there are opportunities for youth to participate in some form of athletic development. Athletics, if chosen, can expose youth to life lessons, opportunities and give them the chance to develop themselves character wise and physically. Ultimately, athletics can be a vessel for youth to start the journey to becoming the best that they capable of becoming. As I have oft-quoted, John Wooden’s statement rings true. ““Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” Nothing is more critical to our future, as athletes, society and people, than the success of our youth.