Kobe Bryant, an American basketball superstar who spent much of his youth in Europe, recently criticized the state of youth sports here in the United States. Bryant said that, unlike in America, European kids are “taught the game the right way at an early age.” As a result, Bryant believes European players are increasingly more skillful than their American counterparts.
While I appreciate that he is shining a light on the flaws in youth sports, I don’t think addressing what Bryant means by “the right way” would actually fix the problem. “The right way” to do youth sports should encompass much more than proficiency in basic skills.
Don’t get me wrong, basic skills are critically important to the development of an athlete. And Bryant’s point that youth leagues must treat children as more than potential sources of revenue is foundational for improving the situation. But after nearly 30 years of working in youth sports, I think the fundamental problem is that the goals of youth leagues aren’t ambitious enough.
The first thing I want to point out is that the problems in youth sports are not new and they are not unique to basketball. For far too long, young athletes have failed to reach their full potential because of the coaching they received; coaching focused solely on athletic success, with little emphasis on mental and character development. Combatting this underdevelopment of youth athletes is one of the reasons Upward Sports was founded almost 20 years ago.
At their best, sports help develop the young athlete’s mind, body, social skills, and character. So while it is a problem for pro and college sports that the fundamentals of the game are not being adequately learned, it is a far bigger problem for society that more attention isn’t being given to development of the three other fundamental areas of the young athletes.
Without a commitment to the complete development of youth athletes, not only are we lacking players with physical skill and basic understanding of teamwork, but worse yet, we’re left with players who aren’t properly socialized and haven’t fully developed their character.
I understand how natural it is for coaches, parents, and players to want to win games and matches. But it is the job of youth leagues to impart a larger vision, particularly to coaches. An athlete who can make goals but not pass a soccer ball will never be a truly elite player. Worse still, the young athlete may be learning values that won’t serve him or her later in life, values like it’s okay to make others do all the hard work as long as you get the glory.
Well-rounded players may not spend a whole lot of time in the limelight, but they are often key to a team’s success. Just a few weeks ago during a hotly contested playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens, the New England Patriots were able to get the upper hand thanks to a creative play made possible by relying on wide receiver Julian Edelman’s skills learned as a former college quarterback.
Tomorrow’s sports heroes are in today’s youth sports leagues.
One of the most respected basketball players in the NBA in recent years, the recently retired Shane Battier, rarely made headlines as a high-scorer. Instead, Battier was often praised for being an “unsung hero” or “The No-Stats All-Star” of his team. Battier just made his teams better. One writer referred to it as the “Battier effect.” But what it came down to was that Battier was a fully developed player—smart, skilled, hardworking, and a leader for his team.
Youth sports leagues undoubtedly have room for improvement. By redefining success not merely in wins but rather as the holistic development of young athletes, youth sports leagues will become more effective and a better investment of time and resources.
Tomorrow’s sports heroes are in today’s youth sports leagues. The kind of training they receive there will help to shape the kind of athletes—and people—they will become.