With the popularity and heightened discussion around collegiate and professional athletics today, fans must use a critical eye to be able to give the necessary push back against sport’s interactions with society, specifically regarding sports’ negative connections with violence, corruption and of course, the various social inequalities. Throughout this column, I have largely focused on these broad trends within both collegiate and professional athletics. However, when we discuss sports, we should also consider the beginning amateur level. Whether it is your local Pop Warner league or Little League team, how we first experience sports at the youth level provides a context for acceptable behavior, relationships and what kind of participation is expected. By understanding the overall progression from these local and amateur levels, we can better discover details that can help us change negative aspects of sports while also furthering the positive values that are cherished at a youth level.
The beauty of youth sports often lies in the amateurism of the game. For some spectators, however, watching young six-year olds play organized soccer for the first time may strictly resemble chaos. With tiny toddlers running around in reckless abandon, numerous miniature collisions making novice soccer moms shriek and of course, the countless tears shed following a loss, youth sports are often mislabeled as a trivial affair. Nonetheless, this level does something that is often overlooked. The introduction of the game to a young child not only gives them context for their relationship with sports, but it’s also the first time that they are learning sporting behaviors and values from their first coach.
Youth coaches are probably some of the most overlooked factors in the development of an athlete. What’s true with any athlete at any level is how their youth coach first introduced them to the game. Introducing a sport to a child can seem minor, but the first experience of sport can change a child’s perspective on sport for life. Beginning athletes are taught the skills of the game along with elements of sportsmanship and teamwork, while they are also introduced to a competitive environment for first time. However, with any youth there are various factors that can influence these coaching. This includes a coaches’ own experience with youth sports, demanding parents and of course the culture of the community the team is functioning within. In shows like “Friday Night Tykes,” young athletes’ experiences with highly demanding and yelling coaches demonstrate how toxic youth sports can become as players were instructed to rip opponents heads off and run until they pass out and were reprimanded severely in front of their teammates.
Although “Friday Night Tykes” may show an extreme example of how coaching youth sports can be arguably abuse some of the belief that the coaches’ approach originally was sincere — they just wanted to get the best out of their players. Nonetheless, the impact of the coaching on these athletes has changed their outlook on the game forever. It’s more than just fun and games. By looking at the contexts and strategies adopted at the youth level, we can better combat issues of violence and bullying that are so often connected with sport. But first we have to acknowledge how much youth sports matter.