A Coach Speaks about Medal Driven Competition in Youth Sports

I had the opportunity to speak with the Head Coach of Ireland Lacrosse, Team Eire (Ireland’s 16U National Team) about specialization in youth sports. Michael Evans is also an Assistant Coach at St John Paul II Academy and Offensive Coordinator at Lax Mafia National Program.

In your opinion, what is the state of the youth sports?

“Under the stultified rule of parents, sports corporations and medal-driven competition, youth sports have lost its way. I say, ‘Lost its way’ as a reminder that the journey had a purpose when it began. For several years I have been stifled by way of drowning in the impetuous momentum of the very activity we are talking about now.

In passing or in the form of barstool exchanges between middle-aged soccer moms and in the less kindly virtual world of forums, whereas anonymous authors spill unfettered commentary aimed at children, lies the unintentional omission of a foreseeable end game. In other words, why are we doing this in the first place?

For some time, I believed in the early specialization of children in a particular sport. While I still see a benefit in such specialization and the work ethic lessons involved, I have recently questioned what the end game would be for said athletes, moreover, my own children.

We’ve built this false realism of fifth place trophies and lower bracket champs. There was a time when losing was inevitable and it’s been pacified by the creation of ‘B’ brackets and participation trophies. The most telling miscalculation actualized is that children do not know how to lose anymore. They’ve lost out on the importance of growing from mistakes, failures, trials and tribulations. 2020 should be known as the immediate gratification era and when over-sheltering children, for lack of a better term, sissified them.”

Sports corporations are giving opportunity for players, are they not?

“A good percentage of sports corporations are run by current and former athletes whose hearts are in the right place. Many of them do offer opportunity and focus on player as well as human development. What I was talking about earlier are the organizations who hire skillful advertisers, designing emails and Instagram ads for competitions which beseech to call upon your parental emotions – which is the problem to begin with. We are being taught that incessant medal-driven competition is more important than development. Imagine if the Olympics took place every week? How would an athlete develop when he’s pushed off the team for a bad performance?”

Have you always felt this way?

“Not at all. I’ve made many mistakes in terms of over-specialization of my own children. My daughter has been dancing 4 times a week for most of her life. My sons train and play lacrosse 4 days a week since first grade and they’re high school freshman now. I’ve noticed that when I gave them a break, and time to try other things, not just sports, they eventually returned to their specialized sport – only with much more passion and drive.

I have made mistakes with young athletes over the years. Drowning in the national competition model, fear of losses, because losses cause parents to abandon the team – I’ve made terrible mistakes with certain young athletes. I’ve since reached out to some of those athletes to let them know that I was wrong. Children need equitable playing time, opportunity to grow and develop. The “always winning” model was a mistake in the elementary and middle school ages.

I believe young athletes need time for a fun sport. If lacrosse is your specialized sport, then basketball can be taken more lightly. Just make sure you’re playing basketball on a recreation team, and not a travel or competitive team, if you plan to take it less seriously.”

What is the end game you are questioning?

“I’ve seen parents give up years of their salaries, chasing the college commitment for their athlete. I know from experience, that playing a sport in college is fun and a great thing to achieve. However, parents are being baffled with player rankings, team rankings and showcase standouts (even players to watch at a showcase before the event) as a means to get their athlete seen by college coaches. I’ve assisted many athletes with colleges and the coaches were concerned with only a few things: the player’s grades, the player’s talent level and is he or she coachable? They never ask for the player’s youth medal collection. So, the end game is a gray area. The for-profit corporations may be all about showing how their players are being committed to college to play a sport, and that in-turn is an advertisement for their organization.”

Any last advice for parents or players who intend to specialize early in the process?

“Let them play more than 1 sport. Specialize if you want to, but make sure they play other sports. Overuse injuries are prevalent when young athletes are overworking their bodies in a repetitive motion. Let them develop their skills in other ways and watch them return to their specialized activity with more skill and a renewed passion for their sport.”

Thank you, Michael.

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Jennifer Nelson is a seasoned reporter and entrepreneurial writer. She covers breaking news and enjoys writing about current events.