Youth and high school sports have been put on hold because of the devastating Coronavirus global health pandemic, and as I write this, we still do not definitively know when we will be getting back to sports. However, when the time comes, I am drawn to the idea that this break from youth sports presents a once in a lifetime opportunity to do things better upon its return. To quote Joni Mitchell, "don't it always seem to go, you don't know what you got til it's gone.”
Because youth sports are now gone, many people are starting to understand their true value as tools for social, emotional, and physical development. No one misses screaming at referees, treating their opponents poorly, or complaining about playing time. They miss the chance to compete, the feeling of pride when watching their kid take the field, the emotional boost from being a part of a team, coaches who believe in them more than they believe in themselves. This break from sports has sharpened our vision and has allowed us to see what is important.
In a book called The Power of Moments, Chip and Dan Heath talk about the power of creating a defining moment that marks a dividing line between Old You and New You. I am drawn to the idea of using "getting back to sports" as a defining moment for the youth sports ecosystem.
Getting back to sports is an opportunity to reimagine why we play, why we sign our kids up, and why we coach. It is a chance to say, "from now on, we choose to do this better." It is a chance to recognize that youth and high school sports teach character and valuable life lessons to kids.
Getting back to sports is an opportunity to reimagine why we play, why we sign our kids up, why we coach.
Getting back to sports is an opportunity to shed the weight of past pessimism. Too many of us believe that the negative aspects of youth sports are fibers permanently woven into the fabric. At PCA, we know this not to be true. We work with organizations, schools, coaches, and parents, who are creating cultures where social, emotional, psychological, and physical development of young people are at the forefront.
When I think about the tools we will all need to achieve this possibility, I recall a wonderful coach named Graham Stilwell who was my mental performance coach during my professional baseball career. Graham was a pro tennis player in the 60's and 70's (the British #2 player in his day!) and then a fantastic youth tennis coach until he passed away from a neuromuscular disorder last winter.
The most profound mental tactic that Graham taught me was the skill of refocusing. Losing concentration was something I battled as an athlete. I constantly projected my thoughts into the future and over-indulged my analytical mind. What pitch is he going to throw? Will I get benched if I have a bad game? Graham taught me that before an athlete can refocus, they must learn to recognize when they are unfocused. Then, use that recognition as a trigger to refocus on the present moment. At my best, I was able to successfully recognize when my mind was out of the moment and use that as a trigger to refocus.
Perhaps we need to adopt the same mental skill when thinking about our return to youth sports. The key to success will be our ability to recognize those old bad habits and use them as a trigger to refocus on positivity, on balance, and on the big picture of youth sports.