Teaching Youth Leaguers to Overcome Adversity:
Perspectives From a Hall of Fame Coach
By Doug Abrams
Tom Izzo, Michigan State University’s successful head basketball coach, sat for a lengthy interview last month on “The Drive With Jack Ebling.” The recent inductee into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame said that, “We’re creating a system that we’re never teaching a kid how to fight through [tough times].” Izzo sees the system’s fruits with collegiate players, but “creation” begins ripening earlier during the youth league years.
Coach Izzo’s commentary invites reexamination of how parents and coaches react to winning and losing in youth leagues. Fighting through adversity takes many forms, but teaching young players how to cope with defeat ranks high on the list.
No Winners Without Losers
First, a few preliminaries. . . . Too many youth league parents and coaches fear defeat, which the adults liken to failure. But youth leaguers need no shield because losing games is a natural, inevitable, and ultimately healthy part of growing up. Few youth teams go undefeated for very long. Every day of every season, at least half the children competing in America lose. Each one returns to play another day.
Only one team can win each game, and only one team can finish in first place. Youth-league standings typically show between five and ten “losing” teams for every first-place team. Some meets and tournaments create even greater disparities by guaranteeing 25 or more “losers” for every first-place finisher. One way or another, youth sports would have no “winners” without lots of “losers.”
Learning How to Lose
A colleague once told me that youth leaguers must learn how to lose gracefully before they can win with dignity. He said that most great professional athletes learned how to lose when they were young, and that the lesson helped make them stronger.
My colleague hit the target because, with guidance from their coaches and parents, young athletes can learn plenty from losing. In the short term, players on a winning streak can lapse into complacency and begin taking success for granted. But when the team drops a few games, players may begin asking themselves, “What are we doing wrong, and how can we do better next game?”
Short term learning, however, is not the central point here. The central point concerns the longer term. Losing provides parents and coaches valuable opportunities to teach strength and resilience in the face of adversity. Youth leaguers benefit from learning how to rebound after setbacks because, like it or not, frustration and thwarted ambition will occur throughout adulthood. For most adults, losses in life happen more frequently than victories. Youth sports provides exposure to the sting of setback when the stakes are not nearly as high as they will sometimes be later on.
Let’s be honest – winning is preferable to losing. Youth sports depends on competitors who each strive to win every game within the rules, and athletes unconcerned about the score should not play. Except at the youngest age levels when scores should not matter, parents and coaches should want their children to win within the rules. But adults serve the children best by also delivering lessons from defeat.
In my years as a youth hockey coach, I watched some parents routinely deflect responsibility from their own children when the team came up short. Blame was cast on others. “We lost because of the coach” or (fill in the blank) “the referees,” “teammates who had an off-day,” or simply “bad luck.”
Child psychologists warn that by shielding their children from setbacks, parents such as these can leave the children ill-prepared to meet challenges of adulthood. Parents naturally want their player to succeed — to win more often than they lose — but young players also need adults who use defeats as “teachable moments,” opportunities to deliver supportive lessons about how to manage when things do not go right.
These lessons can resonate when players move on with their lives long after their last youth league game. In my 35-year career as a law professor, I have seen students struggle to master their coursework, maintain their grades, and prepare for their chosen career. Law school paves a tough road. The curriculum is demanding. Despite the uninterrupted string of prior high school and undergraduate successes that gained them admission, most law students do not finish at or near the top of the class. Even the most talented law students have at least one course grade on their transcript that they wish was not there, and many law students have more than one.
When I see law students hit occasional barriers such as these, I sense that ex-athletes are often better equipped than their classmates to persevere because ex-athletes have learned how to lose, get up off the floor, and bounce back. Resilience and resolve in the face of adversity are lasting dividends of youth league competition.
Source: Chris Vannini, “Tom Izzo: We’re Creating a System Where Kids Don’t Learn to Handle Adversity,” http://coachingsearch.com/article?a=Tom-Izzo-Were-creating-a-system-where-kids-dont-learn-to-handle-adversity (Apr. 13, 2017).