“And why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” - Batman Begins
Don’t get me wrong here. I love all of the players, parents and families that I get to work with in sports. I would not want to be doing anything else with my life! But lately, I have been bewildered by a phenomena that seems to be growing in youth athletics. There is a constant search amongst parents and players to be on the “best team” that wins the most games and tournaments. It is no longer enough for our children to play on a local youth or high school team and enjoy the experience of playing sports. Furthermore, it is no longer even enough for our children to play on a good club travel team that plays well together, is competitive with other great teams from around the country and has top-notch coaching. Rather, there is a “grass is greener” mentality amongst parents and young athletes who are on the constant lookout for the absolute greatest team to be a part of.
There are a lot of factors driving all of this. It is partly due to the parent’s misconception that the better their child’s team, the better their chances for recruitment and success down the road (by the way, college coaches do not even know the scores of the high school games that they are scouting—they only notice who is 6’4”, 225 and runs like a gazelle in the Serengeti). I believe that this mentality runs deeper than that though and we have simply lost touch of what sports are all about. You know when you watch the people on a reality show like Honey Boo Boo or Swamp People and you say, “man…those people are nuts!”? Well, I hate to tell you, that is all of us in sports right now! We are those crazy people. And for the past few years, this perception of making sure our children win all the time and at all costs has become utterly mind-boggling. Every single game in sports, one team wins and one team loses. That’s just the way it works. It is completely narcissistic for us to think that we ourselves (or our child) should never lose. What fun would sports be if we knew that we were going to win every time anyway?
Every great athlete and coach that I know has had their fair share of ups and downs. Even though my claim to lacrosse fame is that I won two NCAA National Championships, a MLL Championship and a FIL World Championship with Team USA, I also got my butt kicked a whole lot along the way! My youth teams were disgraceful, my high school team had some serious rough patches, I can’t even count how many goals Syracuse scored on me at Princeton over the years and I was on the only USA team that lost in the World Championships since 1978 for goodness sake! Even Michael Jordan (who I apologize for even mentioning in the same paragraph as my athletic career) admitted in a commercial, “I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” The point is, that no matter what an athlete does in their career, they will have some wins and they will have some losses. Trying to control that is not going to change anything. Furthermore, there is actually something about the pursuit of always winning that is detrimental to our children’s development as athletes and as people.
As I have pondered this mindset that we are witnessing in youth sports for the past few years, I knew something was wrong. I just didn’t know how to explain it, other than sounding like a grumpy old curmudgeon. The fact is though, there is scientific evidence that shows that we should actually want our children to lose! Again, as I have written time and again, I am not saying that athletes should not care about trying to win and just act like it does not matter. And I am certainly not an advocate for the “everyone gets a trophy” mentality. Our young athletes should care deeply about trying to win and be their best. And when they go into competition and want nothing more than to win that game, it will be absolutely fantastic for them when they lose! Before you think I have been hit in the head with too many lacrosse balls (which is completely factual), let me explain further.
In the past month, I have been fortunate enough to study under one of our country’s leading researchers on human resilience at Harvard, Dr. Shelly Carson. As soon as I sat in our first lecture, the lightbulb flashed on! I started to realize that when we want our child to play on the most dominant team, we are completely missing the boat on how sports build resilience for young men and women. This is not just me blabbing about it either. There is decades of research being compiled by people much smarter than me (surprising I know) that explains how we all develop resilience and how this leads to overall happiness, well-being and success. And isn’t that what we really want for our children?
I am starting to understand how sports are actually the perfect set up for resilience training as losses are very stressful and a challenging adversity for young athletes to face. From this perspective, you realize that no one is going to die, get seriously injured, get cancer, lose a family member, get dumped by their girlfriend (and if so, good riddance I say), lose their home, get thrown in jail, fail out of school, or face anything truly tragic from losing a game. And while I might be sounding trite here, the sad fact is that all of us will face one or several of these things at some point in our life. Nobody’s existence on this earth is perfect. We all encounter some serious adversity whether we like it or not. With that being the case, don’t we want our kids to learn how to deal with it in a skillful manner?
In the field of psychology, resiliency has been defined by Luthar (2000) as, “the ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change . . . a positive adaptation within the context of significant adversity,” (as cited in Carson lecture, 2014). So, not only do the skills of resiliency allow people to overcome and recover from tragic experiences in their lives, but resilient people also flourish, grow and experience tremendous well-being and success in their lives. And that is exactly what we want for our children. I will take that over any win, any tournament championship and any trophy. The best aspect of athletics, in my mind, is that it teaches us resiliency, the ability to endure, overcome and find greatness in our lives. As coaches and parents, all we have to do is be positive and supportive of our children no matter if they win or lose. We just have to be there for them as they learn to get back up and keep moving on with their heads held high. That is how our youth can learn to deal with life on life’s terms and develop as strong individuals. What a great gift that is to bring our children and I cannot think of a more powerful way to do it than through athletics!
There are a lot of ways in which resiliency can be taught through sports, which I will go into some more detail down the road. For right now, I will pass along that one of the most effective ways in handling a stressor is utilizing "problem-focused coping", which means taking an active approach towards finding a solution. With just this one psychological skill alone, we can shift our perspective in how we approach athletics. As I tell my players and parents on our Denver Elite lacrosse teams, instead of finding a better team to play on, find a way to make your team better. This is how you can truly learn to win something of lasting value through the sports.