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Plant City Observer Friday, Feb. 23, 2018 6 months ago

What’s on Kline’s Mind? The case for having more fun in amateur sports

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You don’t have to constantly pressure kids to get on-field results.
by: Justin Kline Sports/Associate Editor

On Monday, fresh off of winning a team district title and five individuals, I went to Strawberry Crest’s wrestling practice to talk to coach C.J. Gittens and Chad Grassel. I found them outside on the soccer practice field, playing a game of ultimate frisbee. 

I’ve heard of teams calling off practices for a day after big wins like that, but seeing teams just go play outside? Can’t fault anybody for taking advantage of a beautiful day, but that was a first for me. I can’t knock them for it, either.

In my opinion, teams like these have the right idea. We enjoy sports because, above all else, they’re fun to play. No five or six-year-olds introduced to the games for the first time are going to talk to you about winning championships and creating a legacy without someone whispering in their ears — they really just want to talk about how fun it is to play and, maybe, who their favorite athlete is. While there is room for a certain level of toughness, strictness or whatever you want to call it in coaching, I think we’re seeing on a bigger scale than ever that treating games more like games works.

USA Today sportswriter Dan Wolken published a column Monday about the success Norway has had in the Winter Olympics and how it relates to the country’s approach to athletics. I recommend giving the whole thing a read, but here’s what stuck out to me: nobody over there is keeping score in sports until the kids turn 13.

I don’t think that idea would go so well over here — not that it wouldn’t work as intended, keeping the focus about fun and friendship rather than constant competition, but because that’s just not how we are. Here in America, virtually everything we do is driven by competition. I hope no readers accuse me of calling to water sports down, because that’s not my intention at all — competition can be good and healthy and, at the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to go out there and win all your games. My problem lies with the people who go totally overboard and exploit the idea of competition.

You’ve got some travel sports leagues that cost more than many families can afford, but they’ll say you need to put your kids in there if they want to succeed at the highest level. The same thing applies for tutors, classes prep schools and other programs in and out of sports. There are some folks out there who run legitimate programs, but others just care about money and will take advantage of “competitive” parents.

It’s just accepted that, from an early age, your kids should crush everyone everywhere from the classroom to the playing fields. There’s merit in pushing kids to be the best they can be, and I know there are coaches and parents out there who successfully run tight ships, but we must be careful not to burn athletes out long before they should even consider quitting. It’s possible to show younger kids how much fun it is to do well at something instead of forcing it just to feed your own ego.

I’ve seen plenty of talented athletes hang it up at young ages because they just didn’t want to deal with all the baggage anymore. The games they once loved became their greatest sources of bad stress, and maybe they also found new passions nobody ever bothered to shove in their faces. No one, as a parent or coach or teacher, wants to be responsible for burning a kid out, but it happens more often than many folks would like to admit. There’s no real fun in being an overzealous helicopter parent for anyone involved — be it the parents themselves, teachers, coaches, the kids or even the local sportswriters they’ll occasionally talk to. We don’t need to put our youngest athletes through the fire so soon just because we want to brag about how great they are to our friends, family and social media followers. Kids need to know we care about them, win or lose, pass or fail.

I’m sure it happens occasionally but, as a whole, it sure doesn’t sound like Norway’s setting its kids up for burnout. At age 13, scores are kept and the kids who want to pursue greater things in sports are given the avenues to do so as they see fit. I think that’s fine, as 13 is a pretty good age for the kids to decide whether they really want to further pursue athletics or let it go. High school is a good time to turn up the coaching intensity and show kids the fun that can be had in competition. Rag on that all you want, but check Norway’s medal count.

Walking from the soccer field to Crest’s track, Gittens told me the team will do things like plan ultimate frisbee days to both reward the wrestlers for hard work and let them know the intensity doesn’t always have to be ramped up to 110%. Taking time for fun team activities and events is what helped convince Gittens to stay on his NCAA Division 1 team at Campbell — in a way, Crest’s team took a page from the Camels’ book. The Chargers certainly enjoyed the opportunity to just go play outside and have fun together, and I’m sure they’ve also enjoyed winning two district titles in a row and sending six kids to states in 2017.

One of sports’ universal truths is that you either adapt or get left behind. We don’t have to run with exactly the same ideas as Norway, but isn’t it time we at least took a hint from a country that seems to be getting ahead of the curve?

Justin Kline is the Sports/Associate Editor at the Plant City Times & Observer. He has been covering all things sports-related in the Winter Strawberry Capital of the World since 2013, and hosts the weekly Gridiron Report podcast during high school football season.

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