Commentary: It’s Time to Address Youth Sports Trauma


By Shawn H. Wilson, President & CEO Boys & Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan

We’ve all seen youth sports gone wild: parents behaving badly in the stands, coaches fighting on the field, and yelling at referees.  It’s not uncommon to witness drug use, drinking and gambling in the parking lots before games of athletes as young as six and seven years old as well as coaches cursing and berating children in the name of motivating them, toughening them up, and teaching them to be warriors! The pressure for every child to become an elite athlete, specialize in one sport and train year-round has become too much for our youth. No wonder by age 13, up to 70% of children have dropped out of organized sports

 

Often, we fail to realize that a coach’s words—both positive and negative have a lasting impact on youth and can begin their cycle of sports trauma, if not chosen wisely. Founder of Raising Excellence, Coach Reed Maltbie, shares during his TEDx Talks: Echoes beyond the game: the lasting power of a coach’s words how “a coach’s words can elevate, accelerate, and resonate well beyond the game. It’s not (just) the skills you teach but the words you speak.”

 

It’s time we disrupt the culture of youth sports trauma and put an end to the harm preventing our youth from reaping the full benefits of athletics. Many adults quietly accept the culture of trauma because they believe it beats the alternative of youth having idle time which leads to at-risk behaviors. Yet often those “at-risk” behaviors are on full display during practice and league play. In many cases, we have broken and insecure men and women trying to become whole by living through the accomplishments of the young athletes they are entrusted to mentor and coach.  They are creating a “youth last” culture which prioritizes winning above all else, even at the expense of children’s mental health.  The “bling culture” of new uniforms, trophies and rings are valued more than the hard and challenging work of developing young men and women. Team leadership and coaches brag about the dozens of student-athletes they have sent to the pros while ignoring the thousands who are reeling from the trauma experienced at their hands. It’s heart breaking to hear some team leadership dismiss youth sports trauma as “just part of the game.” They claim, “By challenging the trauma culture we are turning our backs on the kids.” We disagree.

 

An article from the Washington Post titled “Tough Love or Verbal Abuse?” shares from head high school football coach, DaLawn Parrish that, “the win-at-all-costs mentality no longer has a place in youth sports.” The article continues, “Times have changed…as society undergoes a cultural shift on appropriate behavior and discipline, (there is) an increased awareness of mental health issues and the impact emotional abuse can have on young athletes.”

 

The toxic trauma culture must change and can change by focusing on the 3Cs: community, competition, and culture. The 3Cs is not a top-down mandate, but in fact was developed from grassroots visioning sessions with parents, coaches, and players alike. We know it’s going to take a lot of work, but together we can do it!  We are building a community of like-minded individuals and organizations who are committed to changing the culture of youth sports which allows youth to thrive through healthy community, culture and competition.

 

The 3Cs Model ultimately provides guard rails by which we prioritize and measure success, which will result in youth-athletes leaving our programs as: 1. economically mobile, 2. lifelong learners and 3. socially and emotionally strong. Above all else, we want to get back to basics—kids having fun!

 

Together, we will reimagine youth sports for greater impact across Southeastern Michigan.  We invite you to join us on this journey. Learn more about the 3Cs Initiative by visiting www.bgcsm.org.



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