This article was originally published in The Fairfax Times, June 2010.
It so saddens me to read the endless stories of remarkably talented athletes like Tiger Woods and Ben Roethlisberger behaving badly– these lives, full of potential, are then misspent by their worst natures. We are left asking:
“How did we let these athletes get so out of hand?
Why didn’t we see it coming and stop it?
Was it the privileged upbringing?
The oblivious officials?
The soft discipline?
The tolerant teammates?
Who was on duty when these young, talented people took a wrong turn?
We can point fingers and indict our win-at-all costs youth sporting environment. Surely there is plenty of blame to go around.
But I think the solution is right before us
in the millions of young people who successfully participate in our youth sports programs every year. Studies show that sports pay huge dividends for our kids. They’re fitter and healthier than their peers. They’re less likely to engage in risky behaviors and they’re leaders in their schools and communities. What made the difference for these kids?
Time and again, the answer is this: They’ve had the gift of a great coach — one who knows the responsibility and the privilege of being the “other” trusted adult in a young person’s life; who truly wants what’s best for each of his or her players and puts that above the win/loss tally. These coaches build relationships with their players where there is trust and respect. They can have honest conversations about the tough stuff. As one such coach, Mike Calabretta from Georgetown University, shared with me:
“A coach is the only person who can be your toughest critic and your biggest fan simultaneously.” He loved his players enough to insist “your game may be top notch, but you’re not taking the field until this behavior is better.”
A coaching mentor is particularly important for the gifted athlete because parenting them in the competitive sports world is especially tough. It is tempting to overlook misbehavior because they’re “the star” or because the college scouts are coming to see them.
As parents we can convince ourselves we are doing what’s best for them and the team by being lenient in our rules. We parents are good at being their fans. Sometimes it’s hard to be their critics. A strong parent-coach team is what every young athlete needs.
It’s easy to find out if your athlete has a coach like this. Just ask about their most rewarding coaching moment. I did. They told me it was when one of their players…
“achieves one of their goals.”
“who had no hits all season gets his first hit.”
“took their game to the next level.”
“graduated from medical school.”
“won a service award.”
“advocated for the “difficult” teammate to have another chance with the team.”
Frankly, our great players don’t need more adoring fans. They need caring people in their lives that will speak the truth and give it to them straight. While I may not be reading about my kids’ accomplishments in the sporting news, I have dozens of coaches to thank for the better people they have become.
Wendy LeBolt, Fairfax
The author is founder of Chantilly-based Fit2Finish, which assists athletes with health and conditioning issues.