Cuts like a knife – but it feels so…

Wrong. It feels wrong.keep-kids-playing-sports

The following is the ‘non-edited for newspaper’ version of an OpEd that @Lauren_Sulz and @LouiseHumbert and I wrote for the Edmonton Journal’s Opinion Page. (Image to the right is from Active for Life – more good reading over there!)

The first time you get cut from a team sucks. The second time is probably no better, but many kids will not ever bother to try out again. And yes, we’ve heard the ‘…but Michael Jordan was cut from HIS high school team and look where he ended up.’ mantra. Regardless of your perspective, cutting kids from sports is controversial and we seem to be staring at each other across a chasm of:

“It builds character – kids these days need to toughen up.” “It’s life – not everyone makes the team.”

OR

“Everyone has the right to play.” “It turns kids off of sport, for life.”

As professionals in physical education who have played and coached sport at a variety of levels, we wanted to take a closer look at the practices of de-selecting (cutting) kids in sport – particularly in school. Perhaps we could begin to bridge the chasm and find out how we can help coaches and kids – maybe even make a painful process less so. Since we also happen to be researchers, we designed a study to do so – go figure! We talked to young athletes who had been cut from a sports team in the past and their parents (52 one-on-one discussions) and surveyed coaches and athletic directors (1667 in total!). Our goals were to understand, from multiple perspectives, the experience of being cut and to find strategies that may ease the stress of this practice and encourage kids to keep playing.

In short, we found out some interesting stuff. First off, de-selection cuts deep. There are negative emotional, social and physical consequences. Athletes lose friends and are forced to find new social circles. They question their own identities and can feel lost and adrift. Perhaps quite obviously, their self-esteem is shaken. Time spent being physically active is reduced – not being on the team means no more practices and games. Cutting also deterred athletes from future participation in the same sport. As well, when no specific feedback was provided as to why athletes were cut there was a tendency to assume a low level of skill and a prediction of future failure. The same results happened when athletes were given feedback about things they can’t change like, ‘You’re too short’.

For coaches, regardless of the way cuts were communicated, our study found four factors that can improve the experience. Immediacy (don’t make them wait!), privacy (please don’t tell them in front of the whole group), encouragement (provide options for continuing to improve in the sport) and expectations (be clear up front about what you are looking for and the process of making the team). As well, the athletes themselves told us that the best way to help them cope with being cut is to provide clear reasons in a face-to-face meeting. In these meetings, coaches can keep things candid and up front by:

  • Stating the outcome right away – don’t beat around the bush.
  • Tell athletes why they were cut – specific, personal explanations.
  • Provide actionable feedback – things athletes can actually improve.
  • Write it up – eliminate miscommunication or misperceptions.

We shared these results on the Canadian Sport for Life blog (http://canadiansportforlife.ca/blog/easing-pain-cutting-kids-sport-are-there-best-practices-dr-lauren-sulz) and were blown away by the attention it garnered – over 10,000+ views of the page and counting. More significantly, we began to receive emails from people who took the time to share their experiences and stories with us:

From a coach (and parent):

“I appreciated your article, and it’s quite timely for me, I am faced with two sessions of cuts from a Pee Wee A Provincial hockey team, and not looking forward to it at all.”

After a detailed explanation of the hockey world, evaluation, coaching and communicating to parents, this reader finished with:

“Looks like I’ve worked through a lot of frustrations – you don’t even have to answer me, doc, I’ll do it for you: ‘In evaluating these young athletes, you tried your best, buddy, and that’s the most important thing.  Don’t give up trying to get better, though.’ Thanks again for the article, I can say your interview and survey efforts will positively affect lots of 11 and 12 year olds this season!”

From a parent:

“I just read your article and I wanted to tell you about my son’s experience in tryouts. My son is 8 (that’s right, only 8) he was on a Tier 1 team.  His team was really good and then after the season, they had tryouts for the next season.  The tryouts were two 1-hour tryout sessions.  At the end of the 2nd day, all of the players were called into a circle around the coaches.  If you made one of the teams, your name was called and you were given a piece of paper to give to your parents to register you for the team.  After all of the papers were given out, the rest were told they did not make a team.  So my son and his teammates that made the team were all cheering wildly. A couple of boys from his team did not make the roster of the new team.  They just sat there while the rest of their old teammates screamed with joy. This made me sick.”

The same parent went on to say,

“I wrote to you in part because I feel so powerless.  I need to vent about this.  I know that how the kids are being treated is wrong, but that if I complain my son could suffer consequences of being the son of a ‘trouble maker’. Please use my story and I hope that it can save some kids from experiencing what the kids trying out for my son’s team face.”

We are incredibly frustrated and saddened by the fact that 8 year olds, 11 year olds and others are being cut from teams each and every sport season. Come on Canada, we need to do better. We aren’t saying that there should never be cuts for some teams. There is a time and a place. But that time and place should not indicate an END of sport participation. It is obvious to us that the conversation around cutting kids in sport – especially at the developmental level – MUST continue. Canadian kids are less active and less healthy than ever before. Sport can provide quality physical, social and emotional experiences – learning skills and concepts that last a lifetime. Do we want more kids playing sports? If the answer is yes, then sport organizations at all levels need to examine their practices to ensure opportunities for as many kids as possible.

We’d love for you to contribute to the conversation at: Share Your Team Selection Experiences

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If you want to hear a little more, listen to the recording from a local call-in radio show featuring this article . Thanks to @Albertaatnoon for having me on! Good chat.

 

 

Winning VS Development: not even close…

This post is the first of what I intend to be a bit of a series on youth sport and kind of picks up where A Sporting Chance left off.  I want to chat briefly about winning vs. development in child and youth sport and share a wee epiphany with you. Although this has long been a topic close to my heart, I have been doing much more thinking and reading on the topic as preparation for the Re-Imagining School Sport pre-conference session that Vicki Harber (@vharber) and I planned for the #Banff2015 National HPE Conference. The day was full of great conversations and evidence to push some of the boundaries of what we know is good for kids in sport.  As well, two recent articles on youth sport caught my attention this week and are worth the time for you to read them (now or later- it’s up to you).

Where the “elite” kids shouldn’t meet.  Tim Keown, ESPN.  All about the marketing and the myth of elite sport for preteens.  “This is the age of the youth-sports industrial complex, where men make a living putting on tournaments for 7-year-olds, and parents subject their children to tryouts and pay good money for the right to enter into it.”

Playing youth sports about having fun, developing skills.  Jason Gregor, The Edmonton Journal.  This article is all about why a 9 year old hockey player quit playing spring hockey and the letter his dad wrote explaining the decision. “…as a nine-year-old, you have only played two shifts in the game, no matter how important that game is … it is time to have a talk with yourself and re-evaluate why we do this.”

Full disclosure: I am extremely biased on this topic and believe that there shouldn’t even be a debate. In my mind, if you are involved in child or youth sport in any way, shape or form (parent, coach, ref, etc.) and consider placing winning some banner, trophy or medal ahead of the development of individuals and teams – you should give your head a shake. Just thought you should know…

In this installment, I want to address the culture of “my kid is really good and therefore deserves to play much more so we can win”.  Kinda what both of the previous two article’s address.

I once chatted with a parent who was bemoaning the fact that her daughter was playing the same amount as other kids on her team. She shared with me that, in addition to the $1,400 team fees that all the kids played, she was also spending $800/month on private training and weekend clinics (her daughter was playing U15 volleyball). In her mind, her daughter should be playing more because she was spending more on training and was “better” than the other girls. This got me thinking…

Let’s look at a professional sports franchise – often held up as the pinnacle of sport achievement.  The Edmonton Oilers, not currently contending for Lord Stanley’s Cup (but things are looking up!), are such a team.  According to http://www.hockey-reference.com, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins made $6,000,000 last season and averaged 20:38 minutes a game.  In contrast, Luke Gazdic made $800,000 and averaged 7:23 minutes.  Hmmm…  Here comes the epiphany – wait for it!

Since there are a certain number of people who want kids to play “just like the big leagues”, why don’t we model that?  Since our kids DON’T get paid to play, what about if kids that PLAY MORE – PAY MORE! PLAY LESS – PAY LESS! We could have a sliding scale based on minutes / sets, etc.  That way, those that want their kids to play more can pay for that privilege!  Brilliant, eh?

Sounds odd but if you really want your team to focus on winning, wouldn’t this be the best way to go?  (insert sarcastic emoticon here)

Of course I am being facetious, however, I am using this example to ask why we focus so much on winning in youth sport? Kids really don’t need to focus on winning – sure, anyone would rather win than lose BUT – their care does not last… There has been LOTS written about what kids value in sport – winning is not at the top of the list. Winning should not be a high stakes game for kids.

So.  You GET PAID to play? Then playing time can differ.

If YOU PAY, then you should PLAY!

School sport, youth sport – anything that claims to be developmental and “for the kids” should be held accountable to actually follow through and be “for the kids”. Why the focus on banners, titles, trophies, winning as the main goal? I have yet to hear someone with a valid argument on why (in a “developmental system”) – please let me know if you do!

I could tell you more stories on this theme but I’d rather post this for now and then take a look in the pot I have stirred up…