Note: This post has been radically modified from a previous version (which I virtually crumpled up and tossed in the garbage can). Blogging mad isn’t good for the soul.
Here’s the honest truth about kids’ sports – yeah, they’re great and teach kids all sorts of valuable life lessons about teamwork, leadership, dealing with adversity, etc. But when winning comes at the expense of kids’ health – physical, mental, or emotional – it’s just not worth it.
We’ve experienced being part of a “winning program”. There’s no doubt about it, winning is fun. It’s fun to be known far and wide for being excellent at something. The newspaper clippings, the radio and tv coverage, the awards and honors – they’re exciting. And seeing your child’s hard work pay off is immensely rewarding. But behind all the trophies, plaques, and medals, there’s often an untold story. A dark side, if you will.
Too many hours in a gym can also result in orthopedist visits, countless hours of physical therapy, x-rays, MRI’s, and even surgery. Lately, our coach has been pushing for my daughter to get a cortisone injection for the tendonitis in her hitting shoulder. Her inability to “terminate the ball” is costing him wins, and he wants a quick fix. It worked for another hitter on the team, so why can’t we do it too? Did I mention this is high school volleyball?
Winning can become an addiction that clouds your better judgement. The line between right and wrong gets blurred when you cross uber-competitive kids with an extremely driven coach. Parents often feel stuck between wanting their kids to succeed and doing what’s best for their health. So we sometimes make bad decisions.
I know I’ve been guilty of letting my kid play when she probably shouldn’t. As she’s gotten older and we’ve both gotten a little wiser, we’ve learned to listen to her doctors and her physical therapists instead of falling victim to the coach’s “play at any cost” mentality. Sometimes that means butting heads with a Hall of Fame coach, which certainly isn’t easy.
We’re taught to respect coaches, so having to stand up to one and say NO is scary. But here’s the thing about respect – it’s something that is earned. Coaches should be judged like anyone else – by their actions, not their accolades. A good coach will respect the advice of health care professionals and respect an athlete’s desire to do what’s right for her own body. If that respect is missing, all bets are off and you shouldn’t feel even the tiniest shred of guilt for standing up for your child and her health.
Aside from the physical cost of winning, there can be some just as damaging mental and emotional effects. The pressure to keep winning can be intense, especially if dominance in a particular sport is a school’s only claim to fame. Student athletes in these winning programs are under pressure to maintain the dynasty and live up to expectations. The focus can easily turn from developing as a player and as a team to breaking records and increasing streaks. Sometimes too much winning can result in a quest for perfection that is simply not attainable. The pressure to be perfect will burn out an athlete quicker than anything.
Coming back again to coaches and respect, the same rules apply for a child’s mental and emotional health. A good coach will treat his players with dignity and respect and try to build them up instead of tear them down. Is there a place for criticism in the coach/player relationship? Yes…as long as it is constructive and is aimed at improving the player’s game.
When the coaching becomes more about belittling the players than encouraging them to improve, there’s a problem. Some coaches with a winning record fall prey to the notion that since they’ve won for years and years and years, they alone hold the key to winning. So if the winning isn’t happening, it must be because of the players. Unfortunately, that can lead to negative coaching which relies on criticism that isn’t constructive. Living with that kind of behavior from a coach, day in and day out, can be extremely damaging to a child’s self esteem.
Are there winning programs that respect players’ physical, mental, and emotional health? Absolutely. But not all of us are lucky enough to find ourselves in one of those. The bottom line is that it is our duty as parents and as fans to know what’s going on behind the scenes. We need to be advocates for our student athletes, even if that means standing up to a coach with a winning record. Because the cost of winning is not worth our children’s well-being.