Failing has never been so fun.
I pen these words while sitting in 92-degree weather, watching the worst soccer I have seen in my life. Players stand flat-footed, in packs, unmoving, with no position play, passing, cutting, or moving of any planned sort. Instead, kids smash the ball with their feet as hard and wild as they can kick, then run there to do the same thing. “Defense” is piling the team’s worst kids together en masse to stand in front of the goalie box. My wife made a brilliant comment to me (shared below). But, first, to basketball…
Is today’s cry for ‘fun’ in youth sports a cover for weak coaching, and low parental expectations? Is fun today’s Loser’s Limp? where we pretend we COULD have done better, but for the fact that winning doesnt matter? By “fun” do we really mean that we want no pressure placed upon us as parents and coaches, and a guarantee that, above all else, our kid will never lose?
It may come as a shock to some, but EVERY game ever invented has had as it’s very basic, core objective to win. Every board game, every table game, every card game, every video game, and yes, every sports game, is designed to be won. But, it seems, in today’s youth basketball.
AAU is going the way of Rec League. It used to be that “fun” was spoken of in Rec League, where kids do little and are praised for it. “Everyone is a winner,” the banner said. But in the past 5 years travel basketball has gone the way of Rec League, with its same emphasis on casualness, not keeping score, occasional practices, everybody playing, and so on. AAU is now following suit, such that only the so-called “Elite teams” is where the real sport of basketball is found. Many AAU clubs now hold so-called tournaments for their own teams. As a sport, it appears to me we are pushing “competitive” ball upward to only the highest, smallest top-most part the large pyramid of youth basketball.
Back to my wife. As we both watched the horrific soccer together, we heard the coach keep yelling out banal cheerleader-esque cliches like, “Good Hustle!” “Keep Trying!” and “Go Hard!” It was silly, even to his own standing, untrained players (who got killed in the game). My wife looked at me, and said, “From now on our daughters will play competitive sports, or nothing. This is teaching them nothing. I dont want to watch this anymore.”
Of the 100s of things required of youth coaches today, let me be among the few to say, publicly, that “making the game fun” is not one of your requirements. It is not the judge’s job to make obeying the law fun; it is not the surgeon’s job to make triple bypass surgery fun, and; it is not my job to somehow make this sport fun for your child. To be sure, none of us want Hitler as our kids’ coach. So let us quit painting this false extreme as a rallying cry for demanding “fun” above all else.
Fun is subjective; one person cannot make something fun for someone else. Consider our teenagers, for example, who define “fun” as sitting in a room with friends, texting friends who are NOT in the room. I dont get it; that is definitely not fun for me. Fun is also fleeting, fickle and impossible to define. The purpose of life is not for others to somehow guarantee your level of fun. This is true of teachers, coaches, principals, officials, and of employers. Instead of seeking fun an end of sport, I believe as coaches we should teach that fun is IN the sport. For example, working hard is fun, mastering a skill of play is fun, trying is fun, learning is fun, being part of a team is fun, practicing is fun, sweating is fun, and, yes, being pushed, made, broken down–then rebuilt better–to WIN–this is really, really fun!
Bob Knight cared nothing about fun. Neither did John Wooden. Both won 13 national championships, and raised up incredibly mature, responsible men. Instead each push incredibly hard, in very different coaching styles, to get at player perfection, high standards, personal responsibility, and above all else, team. Today, what are we about as coaches in terms of our standards of expectations and excellence in youth ball?
I am tired of watching crappy play, allowed in the name of our kids supposedly having fun.
Coaches (parents!), we are fun-ning our sport to death.
Terry Boesch is a teacher in Martinsville, IN (home of John Wooden), and also coaches girls basketball. Feel free to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call/text at 317-643-6042