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  • Writer's pictureDon Draxler

Preserving the Joy of the Game for Young Athletes

Updated: Oct 1, 2023

Parents Mean Well

Contrary to what some might believe, most parents on game day are fantastic. They're cheering, not screaming, and their support can be both inspiring and uplifting. But amidst the din of enthusiasm, a question lingers: what happened to the purity of play, the mirth, the jubilation?

Yelling Instructions

The issue of parents yelling out instructions at a match is controversial, to say the least. In my view, this approach – often justified as 'best intentions' – is unnecessary, particularly in grassroots sports involving kids between the ages of 5 and 14. There's no concrete evidence that such an approach benefits children at any age. If they know that you genuinely care for them and support their development, both as individuals and athletes, they will give their all on the pitch. They are our future coaches and parents. Let's show them the way with love.

Fun Maps & Support All Children

I propose a new game day ethos: cheer for everyone! Your child's opponent isn't the enemy; they're a child, much like yours, striving to win, supported by their own set of loving parents. Extend your support to them, too, because ultimately, we are all part of a shared journey.

Amanda Visek titled The Fun Maps: elucidates this point in detail. The essence of game day is not victory, but the experience of playing. So, sit or stand, sip your beverage, and cheer for every child on the field. This is the time to let go, not to micromanage your child's play or stress about the score.

“Step back, relax, it’s not up to you to save your child’s game today.”

- Debbie Sayers, Founder of Salisbury Rover FC, UK

The landscape of youth sports is often marred by a cacophony of instructions and criticisms directed at players or officials. Are we truly enhancing the sporting experience with this noise? A majority of children would disagree. Their game becomes a spectacle for adults rather than a source of joy for them.

The purpose of game day is to allow children to learn, at their own pace, how to tackle new challenges. It's about children experiencing something novel, without the weight of adult experiences pressing down on them. The pitch is not an arena for adults to 'joystick' their children's actions, much like a video game.

Reed Maltbie has a master’s degree in Sport Behavior and Performance and a Master’s Degree in Education, has an article posted online

The post-match car ride home can be a hotbed of anxiety for young players, where the game is dissected, and performance critiqued. The adult's insistence on analyzing every move can eclipse the child's ability to process their experiences independently. We must separate the expectations we harbor for professional matches from those for youth games.

Clubs and associations have a significant role in setting the tone for parental behavior. If they prioritize winning over appropriate coaching, it can foster negative conduct. Clubs must establish a clear code of conduct to keep such tendencies in check.

Video Games Equates to Freedom

Today, many kids enjoy playing video games. Why? Because they enjoy the autonomy it provides. They can play without someone constantly telling them what to do. This is a lesson we must bring to youth sports as well.

Imagine shouting instructions at your child during a music recital or an examination. It sounds absurd, right? Then why should sports be any different? Encouraging your child and cheering for their efforts is not the same as dictating their every move.

“How are you going to create the next Christiano Ronaldo or the next Messi if you don’t give them the freedom to run at people, take risks and be creative. If you can’t do it at nine and ten, when can you?”

- Tom Stratham, Manchester United Academy Coach

The Shocking Truth

Sports for children is a learning environment. Let them follow their instincts and solve problems their way, at their pace. If we spoon-feed solutions, we risk stifling their autonomy and motivation. Statistics reveal that only 3% of young athletes move on to college sports and a mere .01-.03% make it to the professional level. The majority, about 70%, quit sports by the age of 13, often because they no longer find it fun. But let's not lose sight of sports as a vehicle for creating good health habits, nurturing social skills, and generating lasting memories.

My son is one of those unfortunate statistics at 13. He's no longer playing the game he loved for years because of yelling and boring drills taking precedent over playing the game. I know this to be an unintended consequence. It happens all the time.

So, let's save the barrage of criticisms for adult sports and preserve the joy of the game for our young athletes. After all, “children are not mini-adults, children are not mini-adults,” as Dr. Richard Bailey reminds us. Let's allow them to be what they are: children.


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