Dr. Mike Marshall's Pitching Coach Services

Guidelines for Childrens' Sports

By Rainer Martens and Vern Seefeldt


01.  Right to Participate in Sports

     a.  Give them all a chance.

     Who dares deny children the right to participate in sports?  Adults do, when children's sports programs are based on the interscholastic, intercollegiate and professional model in which only the best are selected to participate.  Too many communities still offer sports programs only for the gifted by 'cutting' the less skilled from teams or giving a disproportionate share of program resources to the gifted.  Surely, this model deprives many average and awkward children of the opportunity to participate in sports.  Like the gifted, they too should have an opportunity to share in the benefits of sports participation.  Community agencies (school and non-school) must seek to provide the most diverse programs which their resources permit.

     b.  Right to choose

     Not every child may choose to participate in sports, but every child has the right to choose to participate.  Of course, all children may not be able to play on the team of their choice or under the exact conditions they desire, but the opportunity to participate should be available to all children regardless of sex, race or ability level.

     c.  Guidance, not coercion, is needed

     The right to choose to participate also includes the right to choose not to participate.  Parents should encourage youngsters to participate by introducing them to sports and perhaps by becoming volunteer leaderes in children's sports programs.  Children should not be coerced or intimidated into playing and parents should not confuse appropriate guidance with such tactics.  Childredn resent the latter and seldom find happiness in sports when forced to play.

     d.  Overspecialization

     The right to participate implies that children are given the chance to play a variety of sports and positions.  Overspecialization at too early an age denies children an opportuniey to learn about many sports and to determine which sports appeal most to them.

     e.  Intensity of competition

     Children should also have the right to determine the intensity of their involvement within reasonable limits.  Some youngsters are ready for, and thrive on, playing highly competitive sports.  Others prefer less competitive sports programs.

     f.  Right to full participation

     The right to participate also implies the right to participate fully.  This means that all children should have an equal opportunity to take part in contests to a reasonable extent.  Of course, not all children can play on the basis of what is best for each child, not what is likely to enhance winning.

     g.  'Child first, winning second'

     Adults should permit youngsters to play on the basis of what is best for each child, not what is likely to enhance winning.  When winning becomes more important than the child, full participation can be denied in insiduous ways.  One such example is to repeatedly tell a youngster to 'take a walk' in a baseball game because they are weak hitters and are thus likely to strike out.

     Playing less skilled youngsters and permitting them to 'swing away' rather than to 'take a walk' may indeed jeopardize winning at times; but, if adults practice the philosophy, 'child first, winning second,' then the child must have an opportunity to play.  Few, if any, of the objectives of children's sports listed in Table 1 are acquired by sitting on the bench - only patience and splinters come with that experience.

     h.  'I'd rather play and lose than sit on the bench and win'

     Children clearly demonstrate to adults that the right to participate is more importance to them than winning by quitting when they don't get to play - who can blame them?  Several studies have reported that when children were asked whether they would prefer to be on a winning team and sit on the bench, or be on a losing team and play regularly, nearly 90% of the children chose to lose and play.  The message is clear - children want the right to participate.

02.  Right to Participate at a Level Commensurate with Each Child's Maturity and Ability

     a.  What is wrong with grouping children by age only?

     Typically, in sports, children are organized into competitive levels according to age, and in some cases (e.g., wrestling and football) they are classified by age and weight jointly.  The use of age and sometimes weight as the only criteria for classifying children often denies late-maturing children the right to participate at a level commensurate with their maturity.

     b.  Children's biological clocks run at different rates

     Children of the same chronological age vary widely in physical maturity; and the wider the age range in which children are grouped for competition, the more these differences are magnified.  Children's biological clocks are not always parallel to their chronological clocks.  Children who are twelve years old chronologically, for example, may vary as much as five years in physical maturity - and differ by as much as ninety pounds in weight and fifteen inches in height.  These differences give early maturers substantial advantages in sports.

     c.  Children also differ in psychological maturity

     Children also differ in psychological maturity which usually affects their preference for the intensity of competition.  Too many communities offer children only two choices: either compete at highly competitive programs or not compete at all.  Although some youngsters prefer to play in highly competitive sports programs, other prefer less competitive sports.  For adults to uphold children's rights to participate at a level commensurate with their maturity, it will be necessary to provide competitive programs of varying intensities throughout childhood and youth.

     d.  Children also vary substantially in ability, even when they are of similar physical and psychological maturity.  Some are remarkably adroit for their ate while other are acutely awkward.  When children who vary widely in maturity and ability compete together, not only are the late maturers and less skilled doomed to failure and often ridicule, they also risk their physical well-being.

     e.  Matching children to sports

     It is no easy task, especially for small communities, to provide the diversity of sports programs that this right prescribes.  But, more can be done than often is.  For example, by offering a greater variety of sports, children can be matched better to the sports for which their physical stature, maturity and ability suggest.  Similarly, by offering varying levels of competition within a sport, children can be grouped more homogeneously.  In fact, by simply offering more levels of competition within a program, children will tend to select themselves into a level suited to their ability and maturity.

     f.  Methods of maturation matching

     Better matching of children within a sport can be achieved by reducing the age range within each level, by using a combination of height, weight and chronological age, and by using ability tests to group children.  Better matching can also occur when league administrators are given the flexibility to move children of widely varying maturity and ability into lower or higher levels of competition.  This method could be controversial when winning is the first objective of a particular program, but it would not be in programs that sincerely practice the 'child first, winning second' philosophy.

03.  Right to Have Qualified Adult Leadership

     a.  No substitute for competent leadership

     Competent adult leaders are the best insurance against depriving young athletes of their Bill of Rights.  Capable adult leaders help children to experience the joy of mastering a skill, to know the pleasure of pursuing difficult goals, and to understand that there is success in defeat.  Conversely, incompetent adult leaders undermine potential sports benefits for children by stifling enthusiasm, creating feelings of inadequacy and diminishing the inherent fun of participation.

     b.  Qualities of good leaders

     The role of qualified leader is not easy.  Qualified leaders not only possess an understanding of the basic skills and strategies of a particular sport - they also possess an understanding of children.  Qualified coaches not only organize and conduct efficient practices where all children are active and have an opportunity to learn - they do so without destroying children's fun and desire to learn.  Qualified officials not only are knowledgable and fair in the enforcement of rules - they help instill in children an appreciation of these qualities.

     Successful leadership in children's sport is based on an understanding of children's needs and an enthusiasm for the sport.  Successful leaders have the ability to emphasize with their athletes and to communicate positively and effectively.  Successful leaders not only help children achieve their potential in sports, they help them obtain the potential benefits of sports.  Good leaders are benevolent with their power and share it.  Qualified adult leaders do not find it necessary to abuse children in order to achieve recognition for themselves.

     c.  Winning does reflect the quality of leadership

     It is incorrect to assume that a superior athletes is a superior coach or that a coach's win-loss record is a reliable measure of his or her leadership.  In children's sports, winning is a by-product, not a criterion of successful leadership.  Successful leadership is better evaluated by determining to what extent young athletes have obtained the objectives stated in Table 1.

04.  Right to Play as a Child and Not as an Adult

     a.  One of the virtues of sports is that they challenge children to strive for excellence in order to obtain difficult, but valued, goals.  But, when children are expected to perform with excellence beyond their years, they become frustrated and discouraged.  Given a choice, they will naturally pursue activities in which they feel they have a reasonable chance for success.

     b.  Kids are not adults

     Coaches and parents sometimes treat young athletes as miniature adults, expecting them to learn instantly and perform flawlessly.  Indeed, some adults demand more excellence of their children than of themselves.  Such unrealistic expectations are a major source of unhappiness in children's sports.

     c.  Not only do some adults have unrealistic expectations of how children should perform in sports, they also expect children to take sports as seriously as they do.  Children are told not to laugh or 'horse around' during practice or games - fun is to be found only in victory, not its pursuit.  They are even told by coaches not to be friendly with their opponents - they are the enemy.

     Some adults also expect children to master their emotions with adult control.  They are to subdue their joy when victorious and hide their sadness when defeated.  Children are to show no anger with their inneptness nor exuberance with their accomplishments.  Yet, when adults displa their child-like emotions, children are expected to be tolerant and understanding!

     d.  Keeping the fun in sports

     When children play sports without adult supervisiona, they do not drill on skills for hours on end, confine themselves to playing one position or hide their emotions of joy and sadness.  These are adult ways of playing sports.  Left on their own, children play sports with the skills they have, developing their skills as they play.  They play many positions, switching when bored and occasionally fighting for their right to play a preferred position.  They play with a marvelous mixture of gravity and frivolity.

     e.  Achieving Balance

     Yet, some adult leadership is welcomes by children.  Youngsters love attention, the prestige of a uniform and the satisfaction of mastering a skill.  However, over-structured practice, over-specialization of skills and over-emphasis on the serioiusness of sports are clearly unwelcome.  Children deserve to enjoy sports their way, not the way prescribed by some adults.

05.  Right of Children to Share in the Leadership and Decision-making of Their Sport Participation

     a.  Fostering Independence

     Sharing the leadership and decision-making with children is sharing on of the rewards of sport.  Growing children need to feel that they are involved and are essential part of what is happening to them.  Sharing with children the opportunity to determine their own destinies nurtures that feeling and fosters the development of independence.

     b.  Sharing the leadership and decision-making begins by giving children the choice of whether or not to participate in sports.  If they elect to participate, they should be given some choice about the sport and level of competition at which they want to play.  Children should have a voice in establishing the goals of their participation as individuals and as members of a team.  They should also be able to share their opinions with the coaches about practice methods and the conduct of contests.

     c.  What is sharing?

     Granting children this right does not mean that their every wish should be granted.  Nor does it mean that coaches, league administrators and parents should abdicate their leadership responsibilities.  Instead, it means that adults share their responsibilities with young athletes, the amount shared being proportional to each child's maturity.

     d.  Not abdicating responsibilities

     Sharing the leadership and decision-making with children does not mean that every youngster must be polled for every decision.  In most sports, prompt decisions are required.  Every child cannot have it his or her way.  Children's sports programs are not effectively conducted as participant democracies.  They function best with benevolent dictators who seek and implement the counsel of their constituents.  Although children's sports do not teach democracy, they need not teach tyranny.  Clearly, adults should be in charge; they are responsible.  Children need to learn respect for authority, to follow directions, to meet obligations.  But, they learn these things best when they have a voice in their governance.

     e.  The value of sharing

     Children who are given an opportunity to share in the leadership and decision-making process acquire a greater commitment to the group.  They learn that joining a team involves cooperating with the coach and teammates and putting forth the fullest effort to achieve team goals.  They learn that their rights extend only to the point where they begin to infringe on others' rights.

     f.  Listening is important, too!

     Sharing the leadership and decision-making with children requires two-way communication.  Rather than always telling children what to do, adults need also listen to them.  Children welcome an opportunity to voice their views in a receptive environment and, in turn, are more receptive to adult counsel.  When denied the right to participate in decisions governing their sports involvement, children's needs go undetected, creativity is stifled, programs may be misdirected, and leadership and decision-making capacities are undevelopend.  To learn leadership skills, children must have opportunities to make decisions.

06.  Right to Participate in Safe and Healthy Environments

     a.  Leadership is the key

     Obviously, safe equipment, safe facilities and safe activities are paramount for guaranteeing children this right.  But often, younger, less-skilled children are relegated to fields and gymnasiums in greater disrepair and given ill-fitting and unsafe equipment rejected by the more skilled youngsters.  All too often, the children needing the greatest supervision to insure their sports environment is safe, are coached by adults with the least qualifications.  Consequently, the children are taught unsafe methods of blocking and tackling in football, and encouraged to cut too much weight wrestling, and are taught not to fear a baseball by being forced to stay in the batter's box while the coach throws balls at their heads.  Clearly, the most important ingredient in granting children the right to participate in a safe and healthy environment is good leadership.

     b.  Insuring safety

     Coaches who are sufficiently knowledgeable to recognize and correct unsafe conditions and practices are needed at all levels of children's sports.  Such coaches emphasize the preventiona of injuries, but are also able to render appropriate first aid when injuries do occur.  They modify rules to adjust the demands of the sport to the youngsters' developmental level and teach skills in progression so that the more complex movements are attempted only after the basics have been mastered.

     c.  Risk of injury exaggerated

     The popular press has frequently suggested that the risk of injury is high in children's sports.  Consequently, many parents are concerned for the safety of their children when participating in sports.  Yet, evidence suggests that children's sports are far safer than we are sometimes led to believe.  Of course, children get hurt when they are running, falling and colliding with each other in sports, but when children are properly supervised, most youth sports leaders believe that the risk of injury is less than when children play without adult supervision.

     d.  Let them play, but safely

     A dangerous over-reaction to the potential risk of sports injury is to place children in a protective cocoon.  Rather than deny children the right to play sports because of the fear of injury, adults should make certain that the sport environment is reasonably safe and healthy.

07.  Right to Proper Preparation for Participation in Sports

     a.  Tell them what's expected

     Proper preparation for participation is sports includes both physical and mental readiness.  It begins by providing children with accurate information about the objectives and conduct of the specific sport program in which they are about to participate.  Children have a right to know what will be expected of them and, in turn, what they can expect for their efforts.

     b.  Conditioning and skills

     A prerequisite to preparing children for sport is a medical clearance, indicating that they are physically able ot engage in the sport at that level of competition.  The responsibility which then falls to the coach is two-fold: to condition young athletes properly for the demands of the particular sport and to teach children the minimum skills needed to play the sport safely.

     c.  Mental preparation
     But, children not only need to be physically prepared for competition, they need to be mentally prepared as well.  Children lack proper preparation when they are thrust into competition before they adequately understand the rules, the protocol of the contest and the accepted norms of behavior.

     d.  Help in setting realistic goals

     Being prepared mentally also includes helping children to set realistic goals.  Some children aspire for too little, never challenging themselves enough to realize the satisfaction that comes with striving for excellence.  Others aspire for too much, unable to reach the goals they set and thus are never satisfied with the effort put forth.

     The right to proper preparation also applies after children have been inactive because of injury or illness.  After serious injury, athletes should return to competition only after receiving adequate rehabilitation, a medical clearance and sufficient physical conditioning to return safely to competition.

     e.  Parent responsibilities

     The major responsibility for proper preparation lies with the coach, but parents also play an important part by ensuring that their children eat and sleep properly and have an adequate understanding of the rules and protocol of the sport.  They can also help their children develop the basic skills of the sport by playing informally with them.  Perhaps more so than the coach, parents can help their children form realistic expectations about their play.  (Unfortunately, when children have unrealistic aspiration of parents.)

     f.  Athletes' obligations

     Of course, young athletes are not without obligation for preparing themselves for safe and enjoyable participation.  Children must put forth the effort to condition their bodies and learn the basic skills.  Moreover, they must be willing to follow instructionsl and fulfill the explicit and implicit commitments that accompany participation in adult-organized sports.  Parents and coaches are responsible, of course, for informing children of these obligations.

     g.  Proper preparation makes sports more fun

     When children are adequately prepared, the chances of them being physically or psychologically injured increase.  When properly prepared, they have a greater opportunity to achieve the full benefits of sports participation.

08.  Right to an Equal Opportunity to Strive for Success

     a.  Winning and success are not the same

     Children do not have the right to success in sports - this must be earned.  They do not have a right to an equal opportunity to strive for success.  Children must be taught (and so must some adults) that success is not synonymous with winning, nor failure with losing.  They must be helped to see success as progress towards achieving their potential.  Children need to learn that success is found in the doing - in the satisfaction with the effort made - not in the outcome of the contest.

     b.  Denying the right to strive for success

     Children are denied an equal opportunity to strive for success when they are given little or no instruction, when criticism of errors is a substitute for constructive coaching, when they are given little opportunity to practice skills or to perform those skills in contests and when they are thrust into competition too advanced for their skill level.  Every child has a unique potential and should be given the opportunity to develop this potential at his or her own rate.  Equal opportunities to strive for success can be achieved only when adults fit the child to the sport and the sport to the child.

     c.  Being successful

     Children also must learn that winning and losing are not a reflection of their self-worth, but success and failure are.  All children will not win in sports - but all children can succeed when success is seen as progress toward achieving one's potential.

     d.  Winning is essential for sustaining a child's interest in sport, but success is.  Winning is an appropriate short-tern goal, but it is success that nourishes the long-term motive to participate in sports.  Success breeds a desire for success, builds self-confidence and nurtures a positive self-concept.  To deny children the right to strive for success in sports is to deny them an essential benefit of sports.

09.  Right to be Treated with Dignity

     a.  Respecting children

     Human dignity knows no age limit.  Children want their personal feelings respected just as much as adults do.  They wish to be treated with dignity when participating in sports just as much as when engaged in other activities.  The conduct of some adults, however, indicates that they think children do not need to be treated with sensitivity and understanding.

     b.  Denying this right

     Children's right to be treated with dignity is denied when parents shout disparaging remarks about their play, when coaches intimidate them for showing fear or reporting an injury, and when adults humiliate them for quitting sports.  There is no place in children's sports for the heckler who chides young athletes in hopes of unnerving them, or for insensitive adults who devour young athletes' self-respect to feed their own egos, or for adults who cow youngsters to practice harder and play better.  Through sport, adults need to help children build self-respect, not destroy it.

     c.  Intimidation by teammates

     Adults, however, are not the only group to humiliate children in sports.  Often, the most devastating attacks on young athletes come from their peers.  Adult who permit children to humiliate and intimidate teammates or opponents are just as guilty as if they committed the offense.  For example, coaches and teammates are sometimes guilty of making one child a 'chump' who becomes the brunt of team ridicule and insidious humor.  Even though the 'chump' may seemingly enjoy the attention derived from this role, he or she must sacrifice self-respect for it.  Adults should not permit (or force) a child to pay such a price.

     d.  Preserving dignity

     Certainly, at times, children may need to be punished, but punishment can be meted out without destroying a child's dignity.  Building and preserving the dignity of children through sports helps them develop a healthy sense of identity that is favorable and realistic.

10.  Right to Have Fun in Sports

     a.  Hooray for fun

     The right to have fun in sports is self-evident, for fun is the essence of sports.  When the nine previous rights are assured to young athletes, the right to have fun is also assured.  When any of these rights is denied, children have the right to terminate their participation without censure and to seek these rights elsewhere.

11.  Rights have responsibilities

     a.  Fulfilling the conditions

     Along with rights go responsibilities.  Young athletes must understand clearly that certain obligations are attached to sports participation.  They are responsible for reporting promptly to practice and games and for cooperating with coaches and teammates to obtain the benefits of sport participation.  Children must recognize that adults are not perfect, that they err too.  Thus, they are obliged to be understanding and patient with adults, just as adult must be patient with them.  Young athletes are responsible for their own conduct and must be willing to assume the consequences of their actions.  Most importantly, they have an obligation to protect and respect the rights of other young athletes.


Good Luck Everybody
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