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Just Let Them Play

Just Let Them Play

The school day came to an end and Coach D caught a young man exiting the front door. “How are you doing in class?” “Will I see you at the meeting?” “Let me know if you need any help.” Knowing that I spend time with most of the coaches in the conference he turned to me with a pensive look and asked, “Do all the coaches have to recruit like this to motivate kids to come out?” This was Coach D’s second year taking over an American football program in desperate need of an infusion of life. At this large division school he had the numbers hovering just under the century mark total for the three levels of play. We mused about the dynamics and pressures on today’s students. Soon the conversation turned to the youth football program where he claimed there were a hundred kids per grade participating at the 4th, 5th and 6th grade levels.

“Coach, I think you are asking the wrong question. Why you have to work so hard to motivate these high school kids to participate misses the bigger point.” The better question, the more systemic question should be, “What are we doing systemically wrong that 75% of the kids quit in a few short years?”

Certainly some of the loss in normal as we move from a both/and world of participation to an either/or world of performance. Some of the loss is explained by changing interests and values. However, I would submit this explains only a minority of the attrition. The main reason for the attrition is best exemplified in the TV series, “Friday Night Tykes.” This program about a youth football league in Texas, renewed for a second season, is a well-documented demonstration of what goes off the rails when adult imaginations and second party prestige takes over youth sports. After eight minutes of the first program I was as nauseated as the 8 year old kid throwing up on the sidelines of a long practice in sweltering heat. It is amazing how delusional adults can be when it comes to 8-year old competition. False definitions of masculinity, sport as war and adult egos conspire to use children “as caulk to fill the cracks in our own souls.” (Joe Ehrmann quote).

Why do most kids quit? They’ve already told us. “It’s not fun anymore.” Those in control have conspired (unintentionally?) to rob the joy from the journey. In the book of Philippians the Apostle Paul expresses his heart’s desire for one of his favorite “teams” in this prayer for them, “That your love would abound more and more in real knowledge and all discernment so that you may approve the things that are excellent in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ.” His prayer is a reminder that love isn’t enough. Our love needs some brains! Without knowledge and discernment we can do damage to the very people we love.

In my opinion, the people in “Friday Night Tykes” may love their kids but they clearly need to use their brains. The first step is to rethink what we are doing. The first step is to recognize how captured we are by the power and performance model of pro sports, and how that model conspires to deform the spirits of participants and spectators alike. We need to see how that model snuffs out the good and beautiful under the crushing weight of rivalries, egos and a financial entertainment industry.

Perseverance is only of value if you are headed the right direction. If we are going the wrong way the solution isn’t to double down on the effort. More isn’t better. The solution is to discern a better way. Let’s stop trying to make champions out of our children and just let them play.

As 3Dimensional Coaches who coach the whole athlete, we will conspire together to create a movement of love with knowledge and discernment. Together we will use the high position of “coach” to restore joy and wonder to the journey and in doing so watch attitude and effort go through the roof…and watch the kids return to the games they love to play!

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