Put the Fun Back in FUNdamentals

By: Matthew Johnson

Matthew Johnson is a student at Seton Hall University, where he will graduate in May of 2017 with a Masters degree in Psychological Studies and a concentration in Sport & Exercise Psychology. Johnson, a Former Division I college football player, discusses the importance of parent- and coach-player relationships in youth sports, and offers a glance into his own childhood sports experience.

Do you remember running around in your backyard attempting to kick a ball around that was half your size? Do you remember trying to dribble a ball that would bounce higher than you stood? Or how about attempting to grip a ball that was probably four times the size of those hands of yours? The games we played as children seemed fun and freeing and innocent; nothing but smiles, laughs, and fun. For me, getting involved in sports was for the enjoyment and pure love of the game.

Baseball was my game. I loved going up to the field at the park near the creek and trying to see how far I could throw the ball, or trying to hit the ball over the fence. My two older brothers and I would do this every single day of the spring, summer, and fall. Dad never played, but had an appreciation for the sport. Unfortunately, that appreciation grew into an obsession once he saw our interest and dedication. He turned into a drill sergeant, transforming our everyday fun into baseball boot camp (as we came to call it).

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For my two brothers, baseball became life. They played baseball, and only baseball, from age five until they graduated high school. You could say that baseball was their specialization. Gus, my oldest brother, was probably the most technical player out of all of us. He played second base, and only second base, and did everything the right way. He was probably the most consistent hitter as well. You could always count on him for a base hit to either put someone into scoring position or get there himself.

Andy was the catcher. He caught every single inning of every single game for as long as I can remember. Good luck attempting to steal second base. You would be lucky if you made it halfway before you realized you were already gunned down. Andy commanded his teams like my dad would during baseball boot camp. Unfortunately, his dedication to the position at such a young age burned him out both physically and mentally, and after high school his baseball career ended. Had it not been for his knees, Andy would probably still be playing today.

As for me, all of those days trying to see how far I could throw the ball paid off. I played center field and was a pitcher. I loved commanding the outfield, taking charge, and chasing down fly pops. On the mound, I loved just zoning out and being in my own little world, playing an intense game of catch with the glove behind the plate.

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But I did not let baseball define me. My sophomore year of high school, I told my dad that I was playing football. He told me, “I don’t want you to, but I can’t stop you”.

Seven years later, I ended my football career at Bucknell University with a fumble recovery for a touchdown to solidify a win over the Virginia Military Institute.

Reminiscing on our athletic careers has me thinking of when my brothers and I almost completely stopped playing baseball. There was one beautiful day that the three of us decided to go up to the field and throw around a little bit, have some B.P. (batting practice), and maybe run some infield and outfield drills. Keep in mind, this was all for fun.

So we loaded our wagon up with a bucket of balls, a couple of bats, and our mitts. We rolled that thing up a couple blocks to where we would always practice and play. The fun lasted for about ten minutes, when my Dad came cruising down the old dirt road that led to the field. He popped out of the car, looking half asleep (seeing as how he worked third shift at a prison), and said, “Alright guys, let’s get to work”.

He worked us so hard that day. Part of me believes he was upset that we went up there without him. I remember Andy saying to me at one point that he did not want to do this (baseball) anymore if this was how it (fun throw-around days) was going to be. Unlucky for him, Dad overheard.

“When you miss that throw down to second when someone is stealing from first, does it feel good? When someone steals a base, possibly even home, on a pass ball, are you proud of yourself? Messing up, losing, does not feel good. Don’t you want to feel good?? Is just coming up here to throw around and play around going to make you better? Is it going to make you a winner?!”

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The whole time Andy was in tears; Gus and I standing there wishing we could just disappear. That day we walked home with watery eyes and heavy hearts. At ages six, seven, and nine, those words were world-shattering.

“Anything less than perfect became a failure.”

So why babble on about my brothers and I’s childhood sporting experiences? Well, although we seemed to have some success, we lost the childhood fun that we enjoyed so much. Once baseball became life, the fun started to slowly fade. Fun practices turned into boot camps. Decent game performances turned into disappointments. Anything less than perfect became a failure.

Early specialization in sport, unnecessary pressures, vicarious living, and labeling can be detrimental in early childhood development. Youth athletics are suppose to help and foster positive development, not prohibit it.

Think of how many different activities and hobbies you were into as a child? Now imagine only participating in one of those, and that one activity was not of your own choosing. How single-minded would you be now? How many experiences would you have missed out on? How many less connections and friendships would you have made?

Being well-rounded is not only a positive in child development, but in human development across a life span. Youth athletics help with these positive developments and carry on as skills used throughout life. Being engaged in different sports introduces individuals to many different opportunities and experiences.

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Take a child participating in games such as golf, soccer, and basketball. Golf is such an individualized sport, focusing on your own performance. It is also a stick and ball type of sport. Basketball is more of a team sport and is a ball-specific sport. Soccer is a team sport primarily relying on your footwork, prohibiting the use of your hands. So many different skills are being introduced that can not only cross over to other sports, but also to other life practices such as hand-eye coordination, advanced motor functions, teamwork, leadership, and so much more. Why limit youth? Opportunities are limitless!

“80% of children quit sports after the age of 13”

Did you know that 80% of children quit sports after the age of 13? There are several reasons; some being to pursue other hobbies and activities, which is absolutely understandable and even encouraged. But there are other reasons that are completely and utterly inexcusable.

One of the most unfair circumstances that fall upon young athletes is the impact of pressure. Now, some of the right kind of pressure can be valuable in sports. Certain levels of arousal need to be met to perform optimally. However, excessive and overbearing pressure in an environment that is suppose to exhibit learning and fun can be detrimental. Burnout is a phenomenon that many have experienced before; when you stop engaging in an activity that you once enjoyed because the demand and stress become too high. If burnout does not sound familiar, how about chronic stress?

Imagine a child experiencing chronic stress. Imagine your sibling, cousin, niece, nephew, grandchild, anyone. Sports can be so impactful and positive and fun. What happens when it becomes overly stressful? It starts when the demands of the sport start to pile up.

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Athletes practice every other day, but parents might require that their child spends an extra hour afterwards focusing on a specific skill. Next thing you know, they are spending their off days in the gym as well. In the evening when they would typically do homework or decompress by watching cartoons, play-review or film sessions are substituted. Next, the athlete begins to feel overwhelmed and performance starts to decrease. Then, physical symptoms start to show, such as sluggishness, mood differences (ranging from low and depressive, to high and irritated). Finally, the ultimate consequence of burnout occurs. The athlete quits their sport, or worse, suffers injury due to the lackluster nature of their effort. And for what?! All so someone can live out some vicarious fantasy through their child or athlete? Is it really all worth it? Is it really worth the damage?

Speaking from more of a biological perspective on pressures and stressors, the brain can be severely damaged, especially since we are focusing on youth athletics; a serious developmental timeframe where the brain is still plastic and malleable. Brain areas associated with memory, learning, emotion control, and arousal are directly impacted by stress. Too much exposure and these areas weaken.

Can you imagine why this might be alarming? This is a core period in life where children are learning who they are. They are learning fundamental aspects of life socially, personally, emotionally, etc. Growing up is hard enough; Children do not need added stress from an environment that is supposed to provide an escape, an outlet, for everything else.

So how do we combat the overemphasis that parents and coaches and society places on our athletes? How about getting back to the roots of why we play(ed) the game? For the pure fun and excitement! Think back to your first experience stepping onto a field or court. Think of the first time you touched athletic equipment; ball, cleats, handle, glove, helmet. Think of the first time you scored a point. Think of your first win. These memories should bring back a feeling of freedom, back when the only care was to just get out there and try your best.

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“The #1 reason for engaging in sports is…
to have FUN!”

In a study conducted in 1990 by the Athletic Footwear Association on signals of trouble in youth athletics, a poll was taken from 20,000 youth. Out of ten, the number one reason for engaging in sports was to have fun. Other reasons, as discussed throughout, were to learn new skills, improve their skills, and to play as part of a team. Coming in dead last, the number ten reason for participating in sports, was to win. Point proven yet? Or is there still some convincing needed?

Parents and coaches play such a huge role in fostering a safe, encouraging, and fun environment for youth athletics. Emphasis should be placed on supporting young athletes in wins AND losses, continually getting better and working together, and developing into good athletes, but more importantly better people.

Now, although we are discussing the fun of the game, it is not to be said that competition goes out the window. There are positive effects of enforcing competition. But winning should not be the primary developmental aspiration of the parents and coaches; the development of the child as an athlete and a person should be number one.

So many skills and abilities from sport can be translated to life, and it starts at a young age. Psychosocial development, motor functions, and practices in physical health (healthy lifestyle) have all been proven to be positive outcomes of youth athletics. Without really thinking about it, young athletes are learning through sport. It almost seems effortless for them. Why? Because it is FUN! Find the fun in what you do, and you just might learn a thing or two as well.

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