Dick’s Sporting Goods has come out with a series of commercials under the umbrella catch phrase, "Be Untouchable." The ads focus on older youth sports, specifically high school-aged players, and have a strong emotional component showing the dedication and effort athletes must make to achieve success. One in this series really connected with me. It takes sports from boxing to wrestling to show young players with some type of weakness and how they work to overcome it. A female soccer player rubs the scar on her knee and then covers it with a brace. A young basketball player is practicing dribbling and shooting, startled when the lights all come on and his team arrives for the actual practice. The commercial
runs for 90 seconds and tells dozens of stories in that time. Yet none of the stories end in some type of amazing victory. We see the soccer player pass the ball and later see her alone on the field practicing after removing her brace. The basketball player gets the chance to take the court where he dribbles and then passes to a teammate who goes up for a basket we don’t see made. It ends with text scrolling over the images: From day one, be untouchable — every tryout, every practice, every opportunity, every season.
The message is clear. This isn’t about winning but about taking charge of whatever talent and chances a player is given to improve. It’s an appropriate message for all levels of youth sports. We parents should be setting this tone for our children. No one disputes that victories make the effort worth it. But improving as a player should be as much of a child’s triumph as a league success. Teams can’t win every game (even the Miami Heat lose), but they can improve each game. Part of that improvement should be an emphasis on individual player development. Most kids won’t become elite athletes, but they do grow up to be citizens who need strong self-images and confidence. Pushing for improvement teaches young players to target goals and work toward them. Achieving any portion of that target gives young players self-worth. Using those improved skills to make a difference on a team gives young players confidence. Persevering through the various tests that tryouts, practices and games present teaches young players how to stay the course in any endeavor despite obstacles.
The phrase "be untouchable" can imply some sort of super human effort where a player becomes the best among peers. But I don’t think it’s just this type of monumental objective. I see being untouchable as rising above the slings, arrows, roadblocks and doubts of life. Players who have a passion for their sport need to also develop the ability to continue to exercise that passion despite detours created by injury, mental insecurities, competition and bad play. Some players will never develop a passion for sports, but they can still have fun. So the phrase "be untouchable" in those situations means insuring that the joy of playing isn’t tainted by overly competitive coaches, bad behavior by sideline parents and taunting by fellow players. We can help create the best environment for our kids to feel the exuberance of play by encouraging positive input which is so important in those years up through middle school. Statistics show 70 percent of youth players quit sports by age 13, and according to Michael Pfahl, executive director of the National Youth Sports Coaches Association, "The No. 1 reason (why they quit) is that it stopped being fun." The emphasis on winning begins to overtake the emphasis on enjoyment. It’s a logical step since the further up the sports ladder one climbs, the more competitive and demanding the sports become. Coaches, clubs and even schools can have a huge financial stake in winning games. But the activity of sports that offer the benefits of physical exercise, weight maintenance and developing interpersonal relationships shouldn’t suddenly end at age 13 for 70 percent of players. There needs to be an outlet for all players to be able to continue to have fun in sports. While being "untouchable" can seem contrary to this goal, placing undue pressure on average players, it can also mean that kids learn to overcome with our help those negatives that make sports no longer fun. Parents, who provide strong support in the form of driving to practice, attending games, and making sure that kids have the proper time to fit in all their demands including school, church, jobs, hobbies along with sports, allow their kids to feel empowered to handle life and retain joy.
In our family, we had a daughter who changed sports every season. She loved playing, but as her circle of friends expanded she would follow their sports selections. She did gymnastics, long distance swimming, basketball, softball and tennis. She had a blast all through high school and never developed anything close to a particular expertise in any of these sports. On the high school swim team, she wasn’t skilled or fast, so the coach asked if she would swim the 1000 meter free style which is 10 full laps of the pool or 20 half laps. She said sure. She came in last in every meet, yet never wavered from attending practices every day and leaping into the water at dozens of meets. She did it all because she enjoyed the social aspect of the team and because most team members didn’t criticize her efforts since if she didn’t do that event, someone else would have had to!
Parents need to be aware of their players’ efforts and encourage them. One of the best ways is through praise. No matter the outcome of a game, by picking out a significant moment where a player showed skill, good sportsmanship, perseverance, sacrifice or team play, we parents can instill a sense of pride in effort. We can take this further. We can encourage our clubs to similarly focus on developing players’ athletic abilities and mental concentration. They should also be instilling the good values of a sport to players, such as fairness, humility, collaboration and sacrificing personal achievement in favor of the team’s success. How a coach handles a loss can speak volumes to what that coach and club value. A coach who ends up playing the blame game afterward won’t be the right person to keep your player from being touched by self-doubts, a miserable attitude about playing and reluctance to continue. Rather than being finger-pointers, coaches should be planners using the events of the game to teach how to be better next time.
Being able to not only rise to a stronger level of play but to also rise above the negatives players run into makes them untouchable. When I see a child playing with the wild abandon of joy and confidence, I see someone who has been supported to be, from day one, untouchable. Here’s to all the kids and parents who participate in youth sports because it is fun. Let’s hope more than 30 percent continue on the journey.