Signals v causes in youth sports

A Facebook friend liked this article about youth sports and what parents should say to kids when they play. I found that article, the article it references and the discussion in the comments interesting — especially because I’ve been coaching a youth sports team for a few years.

I find the youth sports scene interesting for a number of reasons. One reason is that cause and effect of success and failure is hard to determine, but that doesn’t stop people from trying. The articles above are good examples.

They say college athletes said their parents just told them that they like watching them play. 

Is that a signal or a cause? The articles make it sound like a cause.

But, it’s likely that most college athletes were excelling in their sport from an early age due to natural physical advantages, above average interest in learning the sport, some competitive grit and/or environmental factors that may have provided them with multiple times more exposure to the sport than the average kid.

It’s easier to say “I just like to watch you play” to someone who is in the top 5% of their age group than to somebody who is in the middle or bottom.

Also, I’m sure many parents whose kids didn’t make a college or high school team said that, too. I’d guess that for every set of parents of a college athlete who said that, there are ten sets of parents of non-college athletes who said the same. Why didn’t it work for them?

My parents usually said something like that. They’d usually ask if I had fun and tried my best. I didn’t play high school or college athletics. And, I’m doing okay. As near as I can tell, I’m doing about as okay as many who did play high school and college sports.

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6 thoughts on “Signals v causes in youth sports

  1. I have a few scattered thoughts:

    1) Participating in sport helps kids develop “well-roundedness”. I think it’s particularly important for smart kids — it gives them a perspective on the work required to succeed at a pursuit where they are not 2 STD above the mean, as they might be in academics. Also, sport gives some low-consequence experience with competitiveness, long-view perspective, sacrifice, prioritization, failure, etc. I know that’s a little “hand-wavy”, but my family experiment has produced some anecdotal evidence.

    2) Like in anything, encouragement from parents and others is great, but the only one who can really make a success of the pursuit is the one engaging in it. As spectators, we want to be encouraging without implicitly tying our approval to the kid’s success or failure. I think the source article is correct in warning against parental over-investment in the kid’s performance. It seems to be an attempt to reign in the “nightmare sports parents”.

    3) There is danger of burning out a potentially great athlete by pressuring them too much. For me, as soon as I’m forced to do something, even if it’s something I love doing, I don’t want to do it anymore. You want to let the kid get the most out of the pursuit, for their own benefit, not for parental bragging rights.

    4) There is this huge infection of the “nurture” perspective in our culture with a consequent discounting of the impact of “nature”. Great success in any pursuit, including athletics, involves both nurture and nature influences. Genetics will determine the potential and limits. Social structures can ensure the opportunity to fully actualize a person’s capabilities. (I’ve often thought that there may be some great Cricket players in the US just waiting to discover the game!) However, some very vocal cultural gatekeepers insist that nature can be overpowered by will/desire/de-programming, and refuse to accept reality.

    An example of nurture/nature craziness for your amusement:
    http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/07/us/transgender-lawsuit-crossfit/
    I usually don’t read comments, but some of these are priceless.

    Getting back to your signals/causes topic… “They say college athletes said their parents just told them that they like watching them play. Is that a signal or a cause? The articles make it sound like a cause.”

    It could be a cause of the kid staying with a sport that they were genetically predisposed to be good at instead of burning out, quitting, or worst of all coasting. I read the article as offering an olive branch that kids do not need sports-nut parents to make it in college sports.

    “I’d guess that for every set of parents of a college athlete who said that, there are ten sets of parents of non-college athletes who said the same. Why didn’t it work for them?”

    It probably DID work for them in that it strengthened their relationship and helped them find joy in shared experience. You don’t have to be a college/pro level athlete to enjoy racing a weekend 5k, playing a game of Ultimate with friends, golf, tennis, surfing, skiing, or any of a multitude of physical pursuits that may have started in High School and included a little parental encouragement.

    • ‘I read the article as offering an olive branch that kids do not need sports-nut parents to make it in college sports.’

      Or, if you are 2 STD above average in your sport, there’s not much reason for your parents to be crazed.

  2. 1. I think we do children a favor when we help them become well rounded. Physical activities have a role in this as do fine arts, etc.

    2. We do kids a favor when we place them in situations where they have to deal with failure and hardship, but only if we (as parents) appropriately address their failures AND their successes. If we praise and reward Johnny for success rather than effort, he’ll learn to avoid choices where he may fail with the consequence that he won’t improve in those areas and he won’t learn to deal with failure (which he will eventually encounter). As I’ve postulated in other threads, it’s my opinion that many of the episodes of mass violence we have witnessed in the past few decades have a link to the self-esteem movement that has allowed kids to avoid failure and hardship. When kids don’t learn how to deal appropriately with kid hardships, they don’t develop the skills that allow them to deal APPROPRIATELY with adult hardships.

    3. The above is consistent with the article where athletes noted that their parents praised things other than whether or not they won. This lends support to CAUSE as opposed to signal. I agree with Seth that for certain “naturally endowed” kids in certain sports, it probably doesn’t matter what the parent does. However, the meddling parent who is overly concerned with winning and makes that concern obvious to the kid is more likely than no to do harm. Whether that drops the kid’s level below elite status depends on the kid’s natural abilities.

    • If a meddling parent causes harm, I doubt the kid will have the mental toughness to be in the top 5% to make it past high school.

      • I think that depends on the kid’s innate abilities and how much the parent meddles. If the kid is a Gale Sayers type, a lot more meddling would be needed to bring him to a non-competitive level than if he is a Brian Piccolo. However, while the meddling might make the Piccolo type kid unable to compete in college, the Sayers type kid might be turned into an average college player rather than an AA.

  3. Pingback: The Great Participation Trophy Debate | Our Dinner Table

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