Monday, October 19, 2015
Bundled up in my winter coat, swaddled by a blanket, I sit on the sidelines in wind, rain and cold, although the calendar has barely crept into October. At times like this, I remind myself of the positive reasons for youth team sports, in particular soccer. It’s true that sports can overtake a family’s life with practices, games, travel and team meetings. Likewise, they have an impact on the finances, which can quickly spiral into the stratosphere as kids get better and more involved. Driving through snowstorms to get to an indoor game or sweltering in 100-plus temperatures to cheer on our 8-year-old may seem like an excessive sacrifice for an inconsequential activity, but it’s not. Youth soccer provides some brilliant models for our kids’ social and life development.
Participating in a team sport is well-worth some of the annoyances that come along with the play. Team sports teach responsibility in several ways. Even when young, kids can learn to be in charge of their gear — packing it in their bag and making sure they have everything in there. They take the responsibility of making sure that the uniforms make it into the laundry and then make sure they get washed. They may even learn at some point how to wash their own clothes. As they grow older, they should take on the obligation of keeping their own calendar (we can still keep the family one) and remembering to get to practices and games. They may also organize their own rides to and from events to help us out with the carpooling. Once they can drive, they have the added task of making sure there’s a car available, filling it with gas occasionally, and coordinating school, homework and other activities with the demands of soccer.
Sports require problem-solving. People often talk about having a “soccer brain,” which is really all about anticipating complications and choosing the best outcome, usually in a split second. The tactics of soccer are all about problem-solving: How do I get past this defender? How should I set up a wall? Should I use my right or left foot? Working out situations with teammates requires conflict resolution, which is a specific form of problem-solving. Kids have to figure out ways to approach their coaches if they have concerns about playing time or position. If they have conflicting events in their schedules, they need to figure out how to resolve them and then how to let the proper people know. Problems crop up as they go through soccer, which they will need to address. If we let them solve them on their own, they’ll be that much further ahead in solving life’s other concerns.
Every player has to have persistence to defend, to score, and to advance. Things won’t always go perfectly in practice, games, or off the pitch, so kids need to learn how to set goals and then have the determination to make things happen. When there are setbacks they learn not to dwell on them and to use their reasoning and skills to work through them. The persistence they develop as players carries over to other situations in school, job, and family. Sports teaches them to stick with it, fight through obstacles, and stay focused on the goal. It’s both fact and analogy.
One of the biggest advantages of youth sports is teaching the players collaboration. In the college writing courses I taught, I regularly asked my students to collaborate on tasks. I was amazed at how few could do so successfully. I would observe groups where a single student took over the project while the others stared at the ceiling or fiddled with their phones. Other groups would divide the task into parts, each student working independently until they all brought their work product together without any cohesion or flow. Then there was always the group that simply languished, uncertain on how to proceed and too afraid to ask. When groups succeeded invariably they had at least one member who played a team sport. He or she understood the process of collaboration and helped the others get on board. Collaboration means suggesting options together, openly discussing them without any one person’s opinion being more important than another’s, and then arriving at a joint conclusion through negotiation and compromise. During practices, teammates work with one another to find the best collaboration to achieve the best results. They work through various tactical drills to discover how everyone’s talents mesh and then pick the best combination to bring success. Teams with a weak center midfielder will develop strategies to best exploit all the talents of that center while bolstering with help from other players. The ability to adjust collaboratively is necessary during matches when the opposing team occasionally thwarts the plans. In those cases, collaboration may require a leader, but also requires the unselfish investment of every player in creating an effective action plan. Learning to compromise for the good of the team is an integral part of any collaboration. When players learn to cooperate on the pitch, they can translate those behaviors to the classroom, boardroom, neighborhood and even family life.
Finally, kids learn the value of sacrifice when playing on a team. The image of sacrifice resulting in some terminal disaster is promoted by the connection with lambs to the slaughter or maidens tossed in volcanoes. In reality, sacrifice is the process of giving up something for the good of others or success in a situation that ultimately benefits everyone, even the person making the sacrifice. A player who holds onto the ball and tries to take on three defenders isn’t realistically going to score, so he or she should sacrifice personal glory by feeding off the ball to an unmarked teammate. Even more significantly, a player may be in a position to score, but the shot is tricky, so he or she passes it off to a buddy who has a clearer line to the goal. If a contest is close, players may need to sacrifice their playing time in favor of a stronger player, yet everyone shares in the victory.
Likewise, players learn to make personal sacrifices, giving up some sleep to take an early morning training run or missing the prom to join the team at a tournament. Too often parents try to minimize the sacrifices kids need to make, but sacrifice helps a child learn how to prioritize, to not dwell on what’s lost, and to realize no one is truly entitled to have the whole cake. Kids who make sacrifices for the things they want end up valuing them more.
These positives of team sports are predicated on parents letting their children learn about and use these skills. We can be helicopters keeping track of everything, doing all the logistics, solving their problems, protecting them from disappointment and doing all the talking. Then what? Sports can help kids mature into extremely capable adults. Any athlete who aspires to the college level has to be able to independently handle the demands of studies, athletics, and possibly even jobs. The same holds true for any child growing up and taking on more and more duties. They can’t just suddenly leap from the cocoon of their parents to life on their own. They won’t learn how in the summer between high school graduation and the first day of college or a job. These skills must develop over time, building on one another. We parents can provide some safety net, but we have to diminish that role over time and we can be assisted by the natural benefits of youth sports. We want to simply become the cheerleaders on the sidelines, in reality and metaphorically, braving the elements to give our kids wonderful opportunities.