What’s More Important in Youth Sports, Growth or Accomplishments?

An ongoing debate of philosophies in education, growth versus accomplishment, can be parlayed onto youth sports using the same critical analysis.  More simply, should the focus of success in youth sports be on-field accomplishments (i.e. number of wins), or personal growth (kids playing better at the end of the year, regardless whether they are “winners” on the field).

Fun, growth, & success

Studies have consistently shown that the #1 reason why kids play sports is to have fun. Fortunately, the vast majority of parents and coaches involved in youth and interscholastic sports work hard to ensure kids enjoy playing sports, but there are still hurdles and pitfalls that can quickly take the fun out of sports. For example, when we turn our attention toward focusing only on personal statistics and awards, we move from the essence of amateur sports to a more professional-sport model that focuses exclusively on performance.  Rather than promoting personal growth through athletics, the measure of a successful experience is gauged by on-field measurable accomplishments.

While we have always had statistics and awards as part of the sport experience, some critics argue that we are becoming too focused on individual achievements, and that stats and awards put undue pressure on kids to perform solely for individual recognition.  When kids feel pressured to focus exclusively on winning, they often lose their excitement for competing, and subsequently don’t maximize the athletic experience.

All of this prompts the big question: Can a season still be considered a great season for kids that don’t win awards or experience on-field success?

The impact of social media

When kids consistently see adults gloat and post about various awards and victories on social media, it’s understandable how kids can develop the belief that the only thing that matters is winning and individual accomplishments.

Social media allows for emotional, immediate posts, and some parents have been guilty of going overboard trying to get their kid’s great plays to go “viral.” Obviously parents take pride in seeing their kids succeed, but perhaps a more balanced approach to social media posts that includes team-building efforts, community volunteerism, and various other examples of leadership and sportsmanship might help offset the perceived notion that only on-field success matters.

Some parents get caught up in the social media race to get the most “likes,” and as a result work extra-hard to glamorize on-field success and accomplishments in order to one-up the competition. Again, there is a risk when all kids see are posts about great plays and winning at the expense of other potential posts that might provide for a more broad view of all the values and growth experiences in youth sports.

Don’t overlook all the life lessons

Kids who play sports learn countless invaluable athletic transferable skills, as well as benefit from physical, emotional, and cognitive development opportunities from playing on a team. Additionally, the time commitment and structure of sports helps steer kids away from off-field issues and problems, from drug use to joining gangs. When we only focus on catching that next great play on video, or the chance to showcase awards on social media, we lose sight of the comprehensive value of playing sports.

Setting and achieving goals, balancing a schedule, learning time management skills, and coping with adversity are just a few life skills student athletes learn while competing, but those skills are sometimes overlooked or taken for granted when we only reinforce efforts directly tied to winning, awards, and recognition. It is important that we make regular, direct, overt efforts to talk with kids about the life skills they learn through sport, and then help them apply those skills to the classroom, their future careers, and all areas of their lives.

There’s nothing wrong with success, or offering recognition for kids who achieve accomplishments on the field.  It is important, however, that we balance our accomplishment recognition with development and growth experiences kids have through sports if we want them to grow and develop through sport participation.

What are your thoughts when it comes to growth versus accomplishments in youth sports?  What advice do you have so that kids have a balanced approach that includes both?


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