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Keep the Fun in Youth Sports by Helping Kids Love the Game More Than How They Perform

by Peter C. Scales (PhD)

02.22.2019


Most kids quit their sports because they’re no longer having fun. They’re not having enough good days with their sport.

Here’s how we want kids to define what a good day is: Today I played (name your sport) and won. Today I played ____ and lost. What’s the common phrase in each of those? Today I played ___! Playing is what made it a great day, whether I won or lost! Half the people playing any game or match will lose. No matter who you are, at whatever level, you will lose a lot. If you only have fun when you’re winning, or when your child is winning, you’re in for a lot of unfun days!

Boris Becker, the 7-time tennis Grand Slam champ, has a quote hung high above one of the courts at Wimbledon that summarizes this well: “I love the winning, I can take the losing. But most of all, I love to play.” Let’s ponder for a moment what that means for youth sports coaches and parents. There are three important points Becker makes in this quote. First, he loves the winning. It’s okay to love winning. It is more fun to win than to lose. Loving the game doesn’t mean you’re not trying to win, training to win, playing to win. It doesn’t mean you don’t feel disappointed when you lose.

Second, he can “take” the losing. He accepts loss as an inevitable part of playing. He doesn’t like it, but it comes with competing. He might be momentarily down about it, but it doesn’t throw him off track or turn his world upside down. He handles it pretty calmly as just a fact of life for someone who is engaged in the game, or as President Teddy Roosevelt said at the turn of the 20th century, someone who is “in the arena” doing exciting things and taking risks, not just watching others.

Finally, and “most of all,” most important in Becker’s mind, he loves to play. Being out there competing is what matters most. Playing his sport is, almost literally, his “spirit,” which in the original Greek, means the very breath that keeps him alive. It is not the winning or losing that is life and death to him—it is the game that is his breath of life. It is almost literally “spiritual” for him. He loves the game more than how he performs playing it.

Do you love your game or the game your child plays like that? Or do you only love it when you win? If you’re a coach, do you show your players how much you love the game itself, at every practice and match or game? Do you show them that it is just a ton of fun out there and that your identity is wrapped up in playing the game more than the outcome? Or do you show passion and joy and total immersion in the experience of it only when your players are winning? If you’re a parent, are you happy that your child is participating and having fun, no matter whether they win or lose? Or are you only pleased and proud of them when they win, or even only when they win and are playing at an outstanding level? What a burden to put on someone, especially young people who are playing sports to have fun, make friends, and learn about themselves, far more than they are playing to win!

Both players and coaches have to keep reminding themselves of why they love the game, and for older players and coaches, remember how they once loved the game more than how they did at it. Part of what we do as coaches and parents is to allow our players to see how great the game is, whether it's tennis, basketball, soccer, swimming, so they get hooked on it in their own time. The more hooked into the game they get, because they like playing it, the easier it will be for them to learn, and get better. So your own enthusiasm, humility (the game is bigger than any player, coach, or parent), and respect for the challenge of competition (honoring the game and your opponents, win or lose) are really important parts of mentoring them. Mia Hamm, who starred for years for the World Cup Champion U.S. Women’s Soccer Team, has put it nicely: “Somewhere between the athlete you’ve become and the hours of practice and the coaches who have pushed you is a little girl who fell in love with the game and never looked back…play for her.” Play, coach, and parent for the love of the game, not for how well you, your players, or your own children are doing.

I’m a high school tennis coach (and psychologist, which helps!). Even now, at age 69, I’m grinning a lot out there when I coach. I’m energized by it, not tired of it. Yes, I shake my head sometimes at what I’m seeing in my JV tennis players, but I love doing it, love just being out there with them, love to see them learning and having fun, getting hooked on the game, and I show it, every day. My players see how much fun I’m having being with them, and I think it helps them be more interested in the game of tennis. And as both a player and a coach, I have two mindfulness and gratitude tricks I use when things aren’t going well, that get me and my players right back where we need to be, focusing on the only things we can control, which are trying hard, wanting to learn, honoring the game, and having fun.

One trick to getting back to fun is, I just stop and smell and feel a tennis ball.

Just smelling the ball and feeling its fuzz remind me of everything I love about the game. It’s an instant dose of fast-acting sports psychotherapy. Focusing on those sensations instead of on ourselves and our worries and wants, the clutter in our heads, gets us back to what really matters, gets us back in a finger-snap to being grateful to be out there, just loving to play, or in my case, loving to coach.

There’s something else I do sometimes if my kids are playing in a match that isn’t going their way, instead of talking with them about strategy when I call them over to the fence, I’ll just remind them to look up at the sky.

Then I ask them to look around to see their teammates, friends, and family cheering them on. Take it all in. And then I say, “It’s a beautiful day to be out on the tennis court, isn’t it? How lucky are we?!”

Sometimes they shake their heads as if to say, wow Coach Pete, is that the best you can do, we’re getting killed here—give us some ideas for goodness sake!

But giving them strategy ideas during the match sometimes can be too much. Sometimes, what they most immediately need is simply to see that I believe in them and know that their worth as a human being has nothing to do with the outcome of this match. I’m relaxed and still enjoying the match no matter the score, I’m confident they’ll compete as best they can. And they feed off of that. Just like coaches, parents’ words and nonverbal behavior during practices and matches, and on the ride home, can either communicate that same belief, calmness, and enjoyment in their child’s play, no matter what, or communicate doubt, anxiety, disappointment, and conditional rather than unconditional love. Which would you rather see from your coaches and your parents if you were a player? Which would keep you in the game?

Almost always, when I tell them to look up to the sky and look around and realize how lucky they are to be playing, this gets their minds off of how they’re doing, off of the pressure of judging themselves or letting others judge them by the outcome. It moves them more back to just feeling first okay, and then, hopefully, glad to be out on the court.

So they typically smile or laugh at how totally not helpful I was, and release some of the tension and bad feelings, get looser, and start having fun again. Sometimes they go on to win, sometimes they end up losing. But it helps get them back to the one thing that doesn’t have to change, as long as they choose it, which is that the game is fun.

They have to make that choice to go back to having fun. Attitude is a decision that I can’t make for them. But as their coach I can project an image of relaxation, acceptance, confidence, and gratefulness that can help them decide to be positive and having fun again. Parents can project exactly the same things too. But just as your kids have to choose this, parents have to make a decision to be relaxed, accepting, confident, and grateful, and show it.

So the next time it isn’t going well for your players or your own kids playing, be mindful and grateful. Stop and smell the ball if you can, or at least visualize doing that. Take a deep breath. Look up at the sky or all around the arena if you’re indoors. Take it all in. It’s a beautiful day or evening for your kids to be out on the court or the field, isn’t it?! How lucky are they?! How lucky are you that they get to play?!

In those few seconds of gratefully taking it all in, whether you’re a coach or a parent, you’ll remind yourself about what’s really important in sports, and put yourself in a much better position to help your kids love the game more than how they perform. That means more fun, for everyone.

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This article was adapted from Coach Pete’s new book, Mental and Emotional Training for Tennis: Compete-Learn-Honor (2019), published by Coaches Choice and available at amazon.com and coacheschoice.com.

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Peter C. Scales, Ph.D., is internationally-known as one of the world’s foremost authorities on positive youth development (www.drpeterscales.com), having conducted studies on youth well-being in more than 30 countries. Coach Pete is also a U.S. Professional Tennis Association-certified tennis teaching pro who serves as the head JV tennis coach for boys and girls at Parkway South High School in Manchester, Missouri, and is a PCA-certified Double Goal Coach®. In this article, Coach Pete explains why helping players love the game more than how they perform is an essential and often over-looked part of competing well, learning continuously, and behaving honorably. Coach Pete’s coaching philosophy is based on the team motto he created: Compete—Learn—Honor, with honor the foundation for all learning and competitive development: Give 100% at all times, be an open, curious, humble learner, and behave in a way that brings credit to you, your teammates, your school, your family, and the game. Do that, and you are winners, no matter what your win-loss record is. This article was adapted from Coach Pete’s new book, Mental and Emotional Training for Tennis: Compete-Learn-Honor (2019), published by Coaches Choice and available at amazon.com and coacheschoice.com.

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