Tuesday, August 6, 2013

“Miniature Adults,” the Marketing Concept, and a Montessori Approach to Organized Youth Sports

(Originally posted October 12, 2012, on Jerry Kirkpatrick's Blog.)

Being aware of and catering to the needs and wants of customers is the essence of marketing. The textbooks call this the “marketing concept” and emphasize that everyone in a business, from the president down to the lowliest stock person, should not make any decision or take any action without first considering the effects of the decision or action on customers. Contrary to what Marxists and leftists of all types say, it is through customer satisfaction that businesses earn their profits.

But the marketing concept applies to any organization that has constituents—nonprofits, as well as governmental agencies. The broader principle says simply: acknowledge and, to the extent possible and appropriate, satisfy the needs and wants of the person with whom one is interacting. This is not some self-sacrificial duty. Rather, it is the good manners of recognizing another person as an individual human being.

The problem is that many people, to use a popular expression, “get so caught up in themselves and their own egos” that that they become incapable of seeing life from another person’s perspective. The consequence of this type of behavior is inconsiderateness and disrespect. The problem is especially prevalent among parents and teachers in relation to young children, exemplified in acute form by adult attitudes in organized youth sports.

Bob Bigelow, former professional basketball player, has nailed this phenomenon in his book Just Let the Kids Play. As the title implies, the rise of elite or select teams in organized youth sports—those teams that hold tryouts and cut less effective players when better ones are found—has robbed youth not just of the fun of playing a sport, but also the chance of developing into a talented athlete later in adolescence.

With astute turns of phrase, Bigelow states: “The worst thing we adults do in youth sports is to forget that these players are not miniature adults or high school stars in some kind of larval stage. They are children, with bones that have yet to develop, with minds that are not thinking the same way that we are thinking” (pp. 107-08). And, because these teams are all organized and managed by adults and often include travel out of town, out of state, and perhaps even across the country to play games on a schedule that would exhaust an adult professional team, Bigelow quips: “Parental egos and a full tank of gas—a frightening combination” (p. 111). Some of these teams consist of children as young as five!

The notion that children are not small adults comes from developmental psychology and was championed by Maria Montessori. Children have needs and wants that vary widely by age and most particularly differ from those of adults. The Montessori approach to education adapts learning to the appropriate developmental stage while giving the child as much independence and control in the learning process as possible. Bigelow, without any mention of Montessori in his book, urges the same approach in youth sports.

As Montessori hands over much of the teaching and learning to the children, Bigelow recommends the same for youth sports. For example, recalling the days on sandlots where no adults or coaches were present, children played, made up their own rules, and coached each other on the field. To bring this spirit back into organized youth sports, Bigelow recommends that baseball and softball players up through sixth grade should be the coaches on first and third bases, an idea that would turn most adult coaches today apoplectic!

His main point is that adults need to back off because development in athletics does not really blossom until after puberty. (Former National Basketball Association star Michael Jordan did not make his varsity high school team until junior year.) Playing on an elite team at five or eight or ten does not give anyone an advantage, but getting cut from such a team at five or eight or ten sends a clear message to the child that he or she is not good enough. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many a coach, as Bigelow points out, has seen uncoordinated freshmen and sophomores become stars in their junior and senior years.

It is a myth and a shame, as he puts it, that so many adults think “more, more, more” at a younger and younger age means better. It does not. It may mean overuse injuries and burnout. It may mean, as one young man told Bigelow about his experiences with youth hockey, “[It] stole my childhood.” The young man started learning to play hockey at age three and quit at thirteen because he hated it. Subsequently he became estranged from his father who had driven him to every practice and game.

Bigelow’s book zeroes in on what I have examined before: the stage parent syndrome (1, 2, 3). Stage parents push, that is, coerce, their children to do what the parents think their children should be doing. Often, the parents live vicariously through their children’s accomplishments. What parents are unaware of in this process is their children’s physical, cognitive, and emotional needs. The adults’ actions are all about the adults.

Not that adults do this deliberately or in a mean spirit. Most think they are doing what is best for their children . . . but the science isn’t there. Multiple sports experiences and free (unsupervised and unorganized) play produce better perception and decision making among elite athletes. The needs and wants of youth are to have fun. Just as fun should be the goal of any career one chooses to pursue, fun should be the goal of all sports, whether at the high school, college, or professional level, but especially at the youth level.

Youth sports is about the kids, not the adults.

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