THE "BEST TEAM" MAY NOT BE WHAT IS BEST FOR OUR KIDS

“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.

ENJOYING THE CO-CREATION OF COMPETITION

As I was reading an article for my Psychology of Creativity class this morning, I noticed something beautiful and unique about sports and competition. In the article, “The Roles of Creativity in Society” by Seana Moran, she writes, “Creativity involves uncertainty because it is difficult to know the consequences of something truly new.” As I read this quote, I realized that athletics (and team sports in particular) are an amazing co-creative process. Follow me for a minute…

This thought process started for me about a month ago, when I wrote a letter to my Denver Elite parents encouraging them to cheer for both teams (this is not an original idea of mine and I have seen it suggested by many thought leaders in athletics). Some of the behavior that I have witnessed on sidelines around the country the past few years has been nothing short of appalling. As adults, I believe that we are the ones responsible for creating a more positive atmosphere around youth sports.

So to get back to my point, we watch games all of the time as spectators and fans, and we usually want one team to win and another to lose. We will do anything for one outcome, namely a “win” for our own team and pray for another outcome, the dreaded “loss”, not to occur. But, what if we realized that the game itself was the awesome co-creation between two teams? What if we focused on the game as the end result in itself, rather than the score of that game?

When we go to watch a movie or a play, we tend to do the same thing. We hope for the hero’s success and the villain can go to hell, for all we care! And thankfully, almost every time our wishes are met and we go home happy. (I was going to reference the new movie “Gravity” here, but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. Go see it now!) The funny thing about is this, we will say, “Oh that was such a great movie! I loved it.” The interesting question to ask ourselves is did we really love the movie, or did we love the outcome? The importance of this question lies in the fact that Hollywood does not usually portray how life always works. Athletics though, can be a much more realistic example of our everyday existence, with uncertainty being one of its main characteristics.

If we can just enjoy the work of art that two teams create on the field together, then that is really something special. The best part is, it allows us as parents and supporters to create a more positive atmosphere for our youth, cheer for both teams that are working hard to create an excellent game and we can all go home happy. The co-creative process of the youth (as well as teens and adults) who play sports together (not against one another) is something to be cherished and not desecrated.

JOHN WOODEN : THE CREATIVE COACH

I know this blog has been infrequent these days, but between running our Tierney Lacrosse programs and going back to school for my masters degree in Psychology, I have not had too much free time on my hands! I am doing a lot of writing for school though, and will share some of those on this blog in the next couple of years. This is a research paper for my class in Psychology of Creativity that I thought some of you may enjoy.

John Wooden’s Generous, Intellectual and Philosophical Creative Traits 

John Wooden is considered by many to be the greatest sports coach of all-time. Between 1963 and 1975, Wooden led his teams to 10 NCAA National Championships, orchestrating one of the most dominant and enduring dynasties to ever be witnessed in the world of athletics. The creative abilities of a successful coach entail bringing teams together, motivating individuals and groups, organizing practice plans, devising plays and schemes, and instituting a team image and culture, among many other duties. In just this sense as a coach and leader of men, Wooden holds his own as a creative luminary. More than that though, it is through his self-defined roles as a gentleman, a scholar and a teacher, in which his creative traits of being generous, intellectual and philosophical (characteristics which have been found in many of the world's most creative people), stand out the most.

If creativity includes enriching the lives of others, then that inherently entails the act of giving. Without physically producing one’s creativity in the world, then there is nothing new for anyone to receive. In fact, one characteristic of Carson’s (2010) definition of creativity is that, “You can take these elements of novel/original and useful/adaptive and apply them to virtually any aspect of your life to increase your productivity and happiness.” (p. 5). One of Wooden’s greatest strengths was his generosity and constant giving of his time, energy and wisdom to others, a trait that is illustrated by his innumerable humanitarian awards. (Johnson, 2004, p. 9). Without his tireless generosity to those in his community and dedication to teaching young men, his creative energies would be nothing more than thoughts and musings, and his achievements nothing more than trophies collecting dust. Wooden noted that one of the most valuable pieces of advice that he learned from his father was to, “Be a doer...He who makes no mistake does nothing and contributes nothing and we are all here to contribute something, one way or another” (Johnson, 2004, p. 14). In the sports world, where many are accused of leading selfish lives driven by egotistical desires, Wooden’s altruistic path was defined by his passion for teaching and working with others.

Another criticism of coaches, is that they can be single-tracked or close-minded. In many instances, their world revolves around their sport, their team, and their win-loss record. Wooden’s disposition could not be further from this stereotype as he was deeply intellectual and a renaissance man in many ways. Johnson (2004) noted that Wooden earned his masters degree in poetry, was inspired by a variety of leaders including Lao-Tse, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson (p. 193-199), his heroes were, “the great poets of history,” and he had a deep respect and admiration for Helen Keller (p. 29). Not surprisingly, this trait of open-mindedness and having a “multitude of varied interests across a broad spectrum of topics” has been shown to be an indicator of creativity as it is an important aspect of the “absorb brainset” that Carson (2010) proposes in her model of creativity. (p. 88). Wooden’s desire to be a student and learn continuously was what allowed him to piece together his own teachings for others.

The greatest creative gifts that Wooden gave to the world through his motivational writings and lectures came from his philosophical nature.  The most famous lecture that he gave around the world was entitled, “The Pyramid of Success.” This lecture and essay has been described as, “a philosophy for living, loving, achieving and understanding the human condition” (Johnson, 2004, p. 145). These creative pieces that Wooden produced are available through his books, essays and poetry and have made a significant impact on many people’s lives. Although the role of coaching may not be seen as creative in the artistic sense, Wooden certainly saw it that way, along with every other calling in life. One of his teachings that he relayed to his players and others was to, “make each day your masterpiece,” (Johnson, 2004, p. 118). This was certainly an ideal that he lived by through his generosity, intellectual drives and philosophical nature. These are the traits that made him not just a great coach, but a creative luminary in every sense of the word.

References
Carson, S. (2010). Your creative brain: Seven steps to maximize imagination, productivity, and innovation in your life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Johnson, N. L. (2004). The John Wooden pyramid of success: The biography, oral history, philosophy and ultimate guide to life, leadership, friendship and love of the greatest coach in the history of sports. Los Angeles, CA: Cool Titles.