In her new book Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania Are Ruining Kids’ Sports—And Why It Matters, Founding Board Member of PCA’s New York City Chapter, Linda Flanagan, explores how and why youth sports have changed so dramatically over the last 30 years. She investigates three principal causes for the shift—big money in sports, the altered nature of childhood, and transformations at colleges and universities—and explores six paradoxes that define kids’ sports today. Grounded in research and drawn from her experiences as a longtime high school coach, former elite runner, mother, and freelance journalist, the book offers ways for parents, coaches, and policymakers to resist and rethink how we do sports for kids in America.
The following excerpt is drawn from chapter 11 and provides advice to coaches.
Teach them larger lessons.
Bruce Girdler is a coach and elementary school teacher who lives outside Toronto. A junior giant at six foot seven, he played competitive basketball in college and remains an enthusiastic advocate for athletics. Some twenty years ago, he shook up the grade-based model for youth sports in his community and started inviting younger kids to join the middle school teams. It was not uncommon for him to have grades three through eight all playing together. His goal was to train them in the fundamentals of the game, and to teach them a kind of etiquette that they could call on later in life, including how to win and lose with grace. He likes to share “life lessons,” he told me, such as: when they’re uncertain about a course of action, whether on or off the court, the harder option is usually the right one. He also insists on more prosaic matters: show up on time; say please and thank you; be positive.
During one game, Girdler had the unwelcome opportunity to reinforce the propriety he’d emphasized at practice. His team of mixed-aged kids was up against a squad of talented but disruptive eighth graders who personified everything about youth sports that Girdler loathed: the kids were “rude, argumentative, arrogant, and sucky,” he wrote in an
email, celebrating gratuitously over minor triumphs, fussing like infants when the calls went against them, and openly mocking other players. Even worse, the opposing team’s coaches seemed to encourage it.
The two teams came head-to-head at the finals of a qualifying tournament; the winner would go on to a regional championship. The game was acrimonious and tight from the start, extending past regulation play and into two testy overtimes. Near the end of the second round, when Girdler’s team fell behind, he pulled the boys in close to talk.
“This is an important moment,” he told them. “Now is the time to show grace and dignity. Show them what sportsmanship looks like. Congratulate them, shake their hands, and wish them good luck in the next round,” he advised. The boys reluctantly complied. And while their opponents “celebrated for like forty-five minutes” after the buzzer sounded, Girdler’s team cleaned up the plastic bottles, empty chip bags, and candy wrappers left in the gym.
A few years ago, a young man who had grown up on Girdler’s team came back to visit his former coach. The boy had not been a star player in his youth: he was neither tall nor fast nor acrobatic. But he rallied his teammates and worked at improving, and eventually played on some of Girdler’s winning teams. When the young man, now grown up—losing his hair, a little soft around the middle—approached Girdler, the two reminisced about the old team and talked about the future. Just as he was about to leave, the man finally sputtered out the message it was clear he’d come to deliver. “I need you to know something,” he said. “You taught me how to be a man.”
Practices and games overflow with opportunities for us to teach good citizenship, sound sportsmanship, and basic decency. We have to seize those moments. One day, the boys and girls in our care will grow up to be adults like us. Consider all that they can learn.