Here’s a great (and true) story for you.

A group of 8 and 9 year-olds are playing a soccer game in the spring. One team dominates the first 20 minutes and goes up 6-0. But because of a maddening and short-sighted rule, the team ahead has to be careful not to go up by more than 6 goals in the second half. If they do, the game will end and they will have to forfeit. Oh yes, they will also be fined for winning by more than 6 and unable to win the league.

So they play keep away (because that isn’t humiliating or anything). 10 or 20 minutes pass and the opposing coach strategically brings all his defenders and goalkeeper past half field. After all, the other team can’t shoot.

The keep away continues, but during one stretch, an 8-year-old on the winning team loses his mind for a split second at mid-field. He receives the ball and sees a wide open net. He lets loose from mid-field and shoots the shot of a lifetime. Both coaches are in disbelief. The ball seems to travel in slow motion and barely crawls over the line for a goal.

The winning coach has his hands on his head. The losing coach responds as all rational people would do. Except he doesn’t. At all.

Instead, before the official even begins to tally the goal (and realize it is now +7), the losing coach begins to wave his players off field. Even worse, he begins to tell them that they have won!

The official tries to steady the situation in order to look for a compromise. After all, he is dealing with rational adults here who want was is best for the kids. But nope, the losing coach explains that if they find a compromise, they won’t win! So the winning teams loses in a forfeit. An 8-year-old feels horrible about the shot of the weekend. A coach gets fined. And a team that hasn’t lost can’t win the league.

If you think this is madness, you are right. It is complete madness and it is happening in our backyard. This is just a small window into the weekend of thousands of families who think they are putting their children in the best environment for their development. But I can assure you, this is not the right environment for your kids.

It’s not just the idiocy of the losing/winning coach. It’s the entire world of rules and strategies and win/loss columns for 9-year-olds. It’s a world where an 8-year-old needs to keep track of goals and scores. It’s where his failure to do so leads him to feel horrible about a coach getting fined.

There are so many things wrong about this story, but there is one essential point to make. The youth sports world that most of our kids are inhabiting right now fails to center its efforts on promoting greater love for the game.

I’m picking on soccer here, but it’s the same thing in every other sport (just sometimes on the opposite extreme). What we can do to make kids love the game is barely considered. If at all. We get so lost in wins and losses and development that we miss out on the simple fact that if a kid doesn’t think the game itself is radically fun, he won’t last long enough to get really good!

The game will become work. It will become a series of appointments he needs to keep rather than a game he gets to play. Getting better will be a duty rather than a personal delight. He will grow up in need of more and more adult supervision in order to keep him on the straight and narrow. Experimentation won’t be allowed. Winning is too important. Even worse, getting better is too important.

The key to improvement over the long-haul is joy. It’s love. It’s fun. Every rule we make must keep this central point in mind. Every strategy must do the same. Though we have more resources being poured into youth sports (more than at any point in human history), we are failing to recognize that the greatest of these things is love. And love is a fragile thing. We had better be careful.

P.S. If the story above describes your son or daughter’s youth coach…run for the hills.

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