Keep It Fun

Keeping youth involved is key in sports  By Tom Barker

Recently, USA Archery asked me to attend a youth sports conference in Colorado Springs. The conference was titled Pipeline Leadership for America’s Youth Sports and was sponsored by the United States Olympic Committee.

The idea was to get people from the various Olympic sports and talk about best practice techniques and what works and doesn’t work in attracting and retaining youth in sport. It was an awesome opportunity for me to learn from other sports experts and also to share with others what we are doing in youth archery.

The paradox of the conference was that the yardstick by which these organizations are measured is how many Olympic medals their sports win.

Conversely, it was universal that for the younger athletes, the competitive aspect of sport has to be de-emphasized so that the basic value of participation, basic sport skill development, and simply having fun can be the priorities. It was a refreshing perspective that something I thought was intuitive was actually embraced by so many high performance sports advocates.

The perspective was that while winning medals is important, there is intrinsic value in sports participation just like there is in education. One renowned coaching expert, Istvan Bayli, presented evidence that studies show kids who are schooled in sports fundamentals – he called them ABC’s of Agility, Balance, Coordination and Speed – actually outperform those youngsters who become sport specific and are thrown into highly competitive situations at a very young age.

He further stated that the coach becomes the most important factor in sport development. If a child is having fun and receiving social support, then that child has a better chance of continuing in sport and developing their skills and therefore their ultimate potential.

Another huge revelation for me as a coach was the implications of chronological age vs. biological age. Children mature at such different rates yet most sports blindly place kids in divisions solely based on chronological age.

We need to rethink sports and coaching by placing kids with peer groups based on skill and maturation. In one expert’s parody he said, “If we want to teach Latin to Johnny, we must know both Latin and Johnny. We know Latin, but we do not know Johnny.” So, as coaches we have to become smarter at understanding the youngsters we are working with and then tailoring the instruction to them.

On the final night of the conference Jackie Joyner Kersee, six-time Olympic medalist, spoke to the group. She made a fabulous impromptu speech that highlighted her growth in sport from a youngster to the gold medal position on the podium at the Olympics.

What amazed me about her speech was how much failure she endured as a youngster. I would have guessed that this superbly gifted athlete was a sports prodigy. She indicated she had finished last more times in her life than she could remember.

But, somehow someone kept it fun and kept the greater goals in life in her mind. She also devised a method to record her individual progress against her personal goals. After a meet she would set a short-term goal of jumping one inch further and shaving one second off her time. Rather than focusing on her failures, she had found a way to find success without bringing home a trophy.

A few years ago I wrote an article for the Texas State Archery Association newsletter on retaining kids in archery. In the article I mentioned success factors like parental support, equipment, facilities, and good coaching. While these things were discussed and universally accepted as key factors, perhaps what should top the list is to simply keep it fun! Across the board, for all sports and all nations, most kids abandoning sports do so because it isn’t fun anymore.

As parents and coaches, we need to ensure that they all have a chance to be kids while they are learning new athletic skills. Be aware of the pressures being placed on our young athletes and work to fuel their inner passion rather than let it be squelched through negative feedback, humiliation, or excessive practice regimes.

This requires more work on our part to constantly create new ways to keep the activity fun, but as adults, it is our responsibility to format these experiences so the kids have every opportunity to develop their true potentials.

Shoot Straight – and have fun!

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