Can sports teach your kids character?

Keeping an eye on kids and parents.
April 29 2003 2:23 PM

The Rules of the Game

Can a crusade to focus kids' sports on character-building really work? Surprisingly, yes.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

As I embark on my 10th year of "sports parenting," as it's now called, I'm no longer a mere soccer mom. I've become the "team sportsmanship liaison" (or TSL) for my sixth-grader's team, filling a position created by the league a year ago. My job is to see to it that report cards get handed out to the referee and to the opposing team's TSL before each game and that they get filled out by the end of it. Each of us rates the behavior of the players, coaches, and parents on both sides, from "excellent" to "unacceptable."

For my ninth-grader's baseball team, I've been called upon to become a "culture keeper [who] helps shape the culture of a youth sports team and/or organization." This entailed attending a two-hour parent workshop run by the Positive Coaching Alliance, an organization dedicated to "transforming youth sports so sports can transform youth," in the words of its founder, Jim Thompson. A former teacher and coach/dad who went on to run the public management program at the Stanford Business School, Thompson has become a self-proclaimed "evangelist" in a crusade to cure "the cancer called 'win at all costs' " and rally coaches, parents, and kids to the goal of "developing positive character traits." The PCA now has affiliates across the nation; our team is among the more energetic in introducing parents to the "positive coach mental model"—which involves, among other things, "redefining 'winner' " and "honoring the game." I'm not sure what's more surprising, that my kids are total converts to the cause or that I've bought into the program.

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How did I go from nonchalantly strapping on shin guards to being a credentialed guardian of virtue? In the 1980s, organized sports for kids emerged as the baby boomer generation's signature rite of child rearing, with families flocking to the playing fields on weekends. My husband and I followed the herd. We enjoyed a communitarian glow in the 1990s, as neighborhood leagues thrived and so did our rookies. Then, right in step with the trends, we became the "pushy parents" of an All-Star Little Leaguer during the summer of 1999; that was when the "crazy culture of kids sports" proved a phenomenon worthy of a Time cover story and a front-page article in the New York Times lamenting the hypercompetitive, high-priced approach that was eclipsing the recreational spirit. (Our All-Star coach was a cardiologist given to such comments as, "Kids, this isn't like Boy Scout camp, where roasting a weenie without burning it earns you a merit badge.")

Two more years of baseball mania led our 12-year-old All-Stars to the Little League regional championships in 2001, just in time for a scandal that made headlines you may remember. They faced Danny Almonte, ace pitcher of the Bronx Baby Bombers, and were trounced amid rumors that the star's birth certificate was a fake—and indeed it turned out that he was too old to qualify for the team. A sense of crisis peaked: Infected by the crass world of pro sports and by out-of-control adults, youth sports had become a "hotbed of chaos, violence, and mean-spiritedness," announced the National Summit on Revising Community Standards in Children's Sports in 2002. No wonder 70 percent of kids quit team sports by 13.

So now, half a year after the Nassau County Legislature made headlines by passing a law requiring parents to teach their kids "that honest effort is as important as winning," I find myself caught up in a sports reform movement that is a little like Boy Scout camp—with a professional school pedigree. The PCA's Jim Thompson and his fellow turn-of-the-millennium character-builders mix the latest managerial credos about the power of "organizational culture ... to determine how people behave" with child development lingo about "self-efficacy" and "active listening." Is this, you might well wonder, what harried parents—to say nothing of jaded teens—need or want? After all, it hardly sounds like the return of carefree fun to the athletic field. Might such a sanctimonious cure be almost as bad as the acrimonious disease? In any case, were things as dire in the first place as the PCA's cause suggests?

I've bridled, I admit, at the growing chorus of youth sports specialists who, in the name of restoring calm and raising morale, spread alarm about "dysfunctional animals out there ... destroying sports for kids." You'd think homicidal hockey dads were the norm, that soccer moms were fast "turning into mini-Bobby Knights," that coaches regularly slugged umps, and kids were cringing. Nearly half of the 40 million children active in organized sports say they've been yelled at. But there's a broad spectrum between verbally assaulting a kid and blurting out, "Go get the ball!" If there weren't a sizable middle of basically well-behaved moms and dads, the reformers' cause would never have gotten off the ground; it's not tough-talking tyrants, wary of the sissification of sports who are embracing the PCA's recommended "5:1 ratio of praise to blame" and wholesome hollering to "recognize effort" on the part of every team member.

But I predict converts even among those skeptical of radical reform—and indeed, even among "fanatical sports parents," as one super-hard-driving dad called himself in a recent New York TimesMagazine article defending the "aggressive" approach. The secret of the PCA proselytizers' success is that they aren't soft-headed wusses at all. That sports-obsessed bully in the Times had it all wrong when he complained that the experts took the view that "when it comes to sports, Mom and Dad should be as indifferent as observers at a birthday game of pin the tail on the donkey." Reformers do indeed warn adults against the impulse among "striver" parents to invest overly in kids' sports in order to gratify their own egos or unfulfilled dreams—or to get kids into college. (The fact is that a mere 1 percent of sports-playing students end up earning major scholarships.) But the evangelists are former athletes and avid coaches themselves: They know full well that the last thing a kid wants from the hours she spends on a team is to feel she's a virtuous loser or to have parents who profess they couldn't care less. (And being astute marketers, the PCA proselytizers and their allies are well-aware that contemporary American parents aren't clamoring to be told to back off or be laid-back.)

The reformers' inspiration is to replace a fixation on winning with a focus on "we-ness"—a word right out of the management gurus' playbook—as the key to success. Like just about every parenting adviser these days, the PCA proselytizers harp on the importance of good communication, especially with teens. But unlike sex or drugs or grades, the topics that usually generate lessons from liberal-minded adults in "values clarification" or preachy moral indoctrination from conservatives, the proselytizers' subject is actually a promising conversation starter: Adolescents like to talk about sports, even with adults.

To be sure, there's nothing intrinsically virtuous about involvement in athletics. (Just look at the pros.) But it is true that dramas and dilemmas on the field can readily be made edifying—and the games can still be fun and, if anything, more hard-fought. Encouragement inspires effort, high standards instill respect and responsibility, mistakes are part of acquiring mastery: The PCA principles are not just spelled out at every practice, they're played out at every game—and kids and parents drive away urged by their coaches not to gloat or sulk or carp about scores and calls but to get a conversation started about what went on (rather than flip the radio dial). The PCA supplies somewhat stilted techniques for empathetic listening, but in fact postgame gossip with a 14-year-old leads surprisingly naturally to ethical reflections—and arguments—that stay close to the ground; it's easy, and interesting, to talk in a concrete idiom of actions and attitudes that have just had vivid results, and not just for one kid but for a whole group. The PCA workbook encourages kids to "be 'fierce and friendly' (no demonizing)" on the field. Given enough van talk (all without ever mentioning the word "values"), it's a spirit that may prevail on the home front, too.

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