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How to view winning and fun when it comes to youth sports

Steve,

I need your professional opinion. My 10- and 8-year-old sons are playing at a lacrosse tournament next weekend. When I proposed a team outing to the nearby amusement park the day before the tournament begins, I was quickly reminded that our sons are there to win and that there is plenty of time to play after the tournament is over. Are we taking this too seriously or am I completely a negligent parent?

Stacey

Keep winning, and the path you take toward it, in perspective

Dear Stacey,

I used to have the mentality of these parents. We want our kids to achieve as high a level as they can with their sports; certainly a higher level than we did.

A big misstep with parents and youth sports, though, is equating achieving this level with winning. As I have learned through two sons who are now in their teens, this line of thinking is simply not accurate.

Both of my sons have been playing travel sports since they were 8 or 9. As of this posting, neither has ever won a travel tournament. However, they are both still playing competitively and, more importantly, their passion for their sports – specifically for baseball – has never been stronger.

Ferris wheel
Ferris wheel

I have learned that a recipe for keeping a kid’s flame burning for his or her sport is to make things fun. One way to achieve that goal is to ensure they are playing multiple sports until at least high school. Engaging in a variety of sports (in different times of the year) not only promotes athletic movements with different parts of the body but is a useful tactic for avoiding burnout.

The risk of focusing too much on one sport – and emphasizing winning over enjoyment from a young age – is that your kid will lose interest in his or her sport and stop playing it entirely.

I recently spoke with two officials who work in front offices for major league sports teams (both also played college baseball) about how to handle youth athletes. "Fun" was one of the first words out of their mouths. "Winning" was not. Here are a few highlights of these interviews, along with my own observations about how to approach youth sports tournaments.

  • It's doesn't matter what travel team you are on or if you win our lose. It's more important for kids to maintain a love and passion for their sport so that, when they get older, they have these feelings when it really matters. (i.e. they want to play the sport at the high school and/or college level.)

  • You're not getting a scholarship from a 10-year-old or middle school travel team. Look around next weekend. There won't be any college scouts there. Just take a deep breath and help your boys and their teammates enjoy their camaraderie with each other. Wins will come more naturally through this process than if you go all in to try and take the tournament title. This process, not the end results, will dictate whether your kids remain fans of their sport.

  • It’s not about living vicariously through your kid. If you are overbearing and harp on wins and losses and what your kids do wrong in games, they run the risk of associating negatively with the games and the sport. You also run the risk of eventually alienating them to the point where they quit the sport entirely.

  • You learn more from losses than wins. When we win, we have a tendency to gloss over our deficiencies amid the thrill of victory. When we lose, we tend to improve because we hone in on what we did wrong and focus on improving in that area.

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When your kids look back on youth sports, they won’t remember whether they won or lost as much as the experience as a whole − perhaps a coach who resonated with them or, yes, a trip to a tournament near an amusement park. I am not saying you shouldn’t try to win this tournament, but what if you disallow the boys a chance to go to the amusement park and then they end up losing a lot during the tournament? They are more likely to associate the experience, and their sport, with disappointment.

Make the experience fun while using your best judgment as parents. Don’t have them run around in the sun before they have a game later in the day. Instead, find a time when it makes sense to go. Most amusement parks are open in the evenings. Maybe you go to the park one night.

After games, kids are likely to still have energy to burn off. Doesn’t running around an amusement park beat running around a hotel, being too loud at the pool and otherwise annoying the staff?

I know, I know, you don’t want to associate goofing around with friends with "serious" sports activity. But is that them or you talking?

Whether your son or daughter ultimately improves over time at their sport will have more to do with how much time they put in practicing and building their strength and conditioning away from the field than winning games. I’ll delve into more on training for older ages in columns in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, enjoy the journey through these youth tournaments. It is as important of what actually happens.

Steve Borelli, aka Coach Steve, has been an editor and writer with USA TODAY since 1999. He spent 10 years coaching his two sons’ baseball and basketball teams. He and his wife, Colleen, are now loving life as sports parents for a high schooler and middle schooler. For his past columns, click here.

Got a question for Coach Steve you want answered in a future column? Email him at sborelli@usatoday.com

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Youth sports should be fun, and winning sometimes gets too serious