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.

 

 

Another way?

Welcome to what is now the third installment of the “Youth Sport” series (I really need a better name for this…)! Post #1 addressed some issues with school sport. Post #2 was a look at winning vs. development. My friend, Andy Vasily (whom I have yet to meet in person!) replied to Post #2 and shared his son’s experience with a school sport league in China. I thought it was so cool, I asked him to expand it into a guest post. So, without further ado, here is Andy’s guest post!

You should also check out Andy’s website – it includes a blog and much more!

AndyVAndy Vasily, May 26, 2015

When I read Doug’s blog post, I couldn’t have agreed more with the points that he had made. As a teacher and coach for the past twenty years, I have seen numerous examples of young people being turned off of sport because the attitude and environment in which they play the game is much too serious in nature. Whether it be overzealous coaches hell bent on creating winners at all costs or parents who simply push their kids much too hard, we have to be extremely careful about the expectations we are placing on young people in regards to competing in sport. Helping young people to understand the value of being physically active for life is essential as the research has conclusively shown, time and time again, the massive benefits it has in regards to their physical, social and psychological well-being. When they have a positive sporting experience, they are much more likely to remain active in sport and recreational pursuits for years to follow.

Building a supportive community around the concept of healthy competition not only lends itself to better engagement, but also emphasizes that every person involved in the sport experience can learn so much about what it truly means to be a part of a team. As important sport related physical skills are being developed and improved upon, the students also begin to understand that their self-worth and self-identity are NOT connected to winning or losing.

In certain cases, when there is too great an emphasis on winning, a young person’s self-confidence can be completely crushed in the face of failure, defeat, or being benched for not living up to the expectations of the coaches. Therefore, there must be another way to deliver the sport experience in a way that engages young people and encourages them to give it a go and be involved regardless of level of skill.

As I read Doug’s blog post, I immediately thought about a model of sport competition that has been running at my school in Nanjing, China for the last several years. The Nanjing International School belongs to the Chinese International School Sport Association (CISSA) which is essentially a league that is set up to give all students from grades 5-8 a chance to experience sport competition in which the emphasis is not on winning or losing, but playing the game for the pure joy of being involved in sport and to experience all of the benefits that come along with it. J boys bball

Not only has my own son, Eli, been involved in CISSA sport, I have been lucky enough to coach several different teams over the years. As rewarding as it is for the students, it is equally rewarding for me, as a coach, to be involved in the CISSA experience. My good friend and colleague, Danny Clarke, our Athletic Director here at Nanjing International School sums it up perfectly below:

CISSA is a Shanghai based organization with additional schools from surrounding cities such as Hangzhou, Suzhou and Nanjing. It is for students in Grades 5 – 8 (Year 6 – 9, ages 10 – 13). The philosophy is highly inclusive and one that fits our school philosophy and the philosophy of our Athletics Program. What we find is that students sign up and participate in sports competitively that would never normally do so. By providing a competition in which no scores are ever recorded or displayed, no awards given and in which coaches are required to play all their players equally, it creates an environment in which the focus of success is inwards towards your own team and players and a supportive and non-judgmental culture is fostered. J girls bball

Students support each other because they know that they all have a different level of experience in that sport and that winning and losing is not the most important thing. Of course the students know the result and are disappointed when they lose and happy when they win and this is part of sport. More importantly though, enjoying playing the sport, enjoying the improvement of self and of teammates is what it is about and I have witnessed it over and over again. The kids really enjoy this competition and I am convinced that, all of the students, whether they are the best athletes or the weakest, benefit from this experience. It also influences the coach and their coaching methods. They become more inclusive, supportive and focused more on improvement and less on results. 

It is important to note that the CISSA model is not the be all and end all in sports competition. Offering a more competitive and selective program for students as they get older (for our school it is from age 13) is also important whilst hopefully still encouraging those students who are not selected for the more competitive teams to continue to participate through other recreational opportunities.”

I’m happy that Doug asked me to guest blog about the CISSA experience because I have truly seen firsthand how wonderful a model it is. My son comes home from every single tournament with loads of stories about how much fun he had. Not only has he bonded with other students on his own team, he has also made many friends with students from other schools (that he stays in touch with). mixed floor hockey

As a CISSA coach, we are required to referee the games and rarely do we ever have discipline problems or rough play as the very nature and culture of the league is one of friendly competition which makes the entire experience all that more special to the players. The CISSA model is perfect for those students who may not be athletically inclined as it gives them equal access to playing time. I’ve seen some student’s self-confidence sky rocket as a result of being involved in CISSA team sport and actually being able to participate equally in games along with their team mates.

Included in this blog post is our CISSA handbook which explains, in detail, all of the rules and regulations in the league. Should you be interested in reading the handbook, feel free to download it. If there is even the slightest of possibilities of setting up a league like this in your area or region, I highly recommend doing so as it completely changes the sporting experience for many kids who may not have the chance to play otherwise. I’d like to thank Doug for allowing me to guest blog and to share my thoughts about the CISSA model and the positive impact it has had at our school here in Nanjing, China.

Andy Vasily

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Thanks for sharing Andy!

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…