I did not plan on coaching youth sports. Following my professional playing career, I was in the midst of a semi-retirement when I kind of fell into running more camps and clinics. There seemed to be a need and my kids seemed ready to play, so we began some new things and things rolled along from there.
It wasn't my plan, but I am thankful it came to pass. I have learned so much more than I would have anticipated. Not just about coaching kids, but about our entire basketball system and where the kids I coach at the college level come from. What they have experienced. Why they are the way they are, for good and ill.
I continue to learn, but I am at a point where I feel the need to write a lot more down. The weekends alone have bothered me a great deal. For multiple reasons, no doubt, but one primary thought has stood out in my mind over the past few weeks: Not enough people know where this all ends.
Think about it: I have spent the bulk of my basketball life and energy where all the youth sports efforts end. I was a Division I college basketball player (My wife a division I soccer player). I was a pro for 11 years in every league imaginable. I am now a college basketball coach who constantly talks to high school and college and pro coaches. Most of my life has been and continues to be spent where all the youth tournaments and practices end.
But I still get to head to a weekend youth tournament. I usually end the weekend incredibly emotionally exhausted (even more than when I coach a college game!). And incredibly bothered.
There are plenty of reasons why. Coaches signing up kids to play against younger players in order to win the tournament. Coaches playing to win now in a way that will keep those same kids from winning later. Coaches cursing off 6th graders in order to get the effort out of them. Spaced out looks of youth basketball players who "have" to play. Parents shouting from the sidelines focused more on their kid's jumper than they are his attitude. And so much more.
I often leave the weekend with one key question: Do you know where this all ends?
You don't have to read research books to find out that more and more kids are burning out at younger ages than ever before. It's happening before our eyes. Varsity high school coaches see it. I see it. Pro coaches have always seen it. At the very time kids should be enjoying their sports the most, they are done.
We have kids playing game after game on team after team and yet, few know how to really win. Few know how to make others better and lose themselves in the good of a team. Few know how to actually cheer their teammates on! Play long enough and few actually possess the necessary emotional energy to get good when it really matters.
Yet we think we need more kids to practice like the pros. To work. to train. To push through. To be elite. To compete every weekend all year round. No way. It's not working. I see where these kids end up and it doesn't add up. I watch youth teams smoking other teams on the weekend. I see how they act and see how they play and usually end up thinking to myself: there is no way I will be able to recruit these kids. They are winning now, but not in a way that leads to greater success later.
Things need to change. Money cannot continue to drive the ship. We don't need younger pros. We need more kids to play and practice like kids. And to smile like kids. And to own their own game like kids can. And to goof around and to be positive with one another. Indeed, to even lose like kids can lose! They are so much better than the adults!
We have created an entire youth sports culture that maximizes now to the neglect of later. It's very profitable. Financially at least. But what about the long-term? Where does it all end?
Look around you each weekend and ask yourself: How many of us here in this building are experts on where this all ends?
Even more, how many even know where they want it to end? Do we know how important teamwork and character and joy really are? Do we know the emotional energy we are requiring of our kids each weekend? Do we know if they will have enough left for when it really counts?
We may not be clear about the answers, but let's at least start by asking the questions.