Help for Youth Sports

Robert Marcus of the Positive Coaching Alliance speaks about youth sports’ impacts and challenges.

Since its humble beginnings in a Stanford University closet in 1998, the Oakland-based national nonprofit Positive Coaching Alliance has gone on to reach more than 20 million youth, hold more than 20,000 workshops for coaches, athletes and parents, and create more than 3,500 partnerships with schools and youth sports organizations. Its national advisory board includes such sports luminaries as Warriors Coach Steve Kerr, former Giants Manager Dusty Baker and soccer star Julie Foudy.

“We’re ultimately committed to making youth sports equitable and accessible for all kids regardless of their social and economic circumstances,” says Robert Marcus, the organization’s chief community impact officer, an Oakland resident and father of two. “We recruit and train coaches, address barriers to sports for low-income kids and partner with school districts, youth sports organizations and community-based programs, all to improve the culture of youth sports.”

Marcus recently spoke with Bay Area Parent about youth sports’ impacts and challenges. For more information, visit positivecoach.org.

Why are sports important for kids?

I think sports provide an opportunity to develop valuable social and life skills such as teamwork, healthy competition, good sportspersonship, leadership skills and empathy. I think participating in youth sports contributes to, research suggests, higher levels of academic achievement, creativity and critical thinking. Sports play a crucial role in improving mental health, reducing stress and increasing self-esteem in young people.

What do you think of the rise of club sports and sports specialization at younger and younger ages? 

I think club sports tend to put a higher emphasis on competition, winning and the

level of professional training and coaching. These factors tend to work against what is important at younger ages – which is fun and access. It also has the potential to price out families who can’t afford to pay those steep fees associated with club sports and specialization.

Both data and anecdotes suggest that later specialization is better than earlier for physical health and injury avoidance and overuse injuries. I think if an athlete chooses to specialize early, it should be driven by the athlete, not the coach or … families trying to take advantage of athletic scholarships. …

Obviously, scholarships can be very impactful to families, but the likelihood is sort of slim. Sports is an opportunity for development and learning life skills. Giving your kids an opportunity to grow and thrive is a pathway that is attainable to every kid, or should be. 

Is the trend affecting youth sports participation?

I think the numbers have been consistent. Numbers were down during COVID but we’re starting to build back. What I think affects participation rates are financial costs, for sure. Research would suggest that low-income kids are more likely to drop out due to an inability to pay league fees, registration fees, for uniforms and travel. But the focus on winning and competition and burnout may impact participation rates, too.

It’s something that sports providers and people in the field need to keep an eye on so all kids have opportunities for positive youth sports experiences. …

When it comes to solving issues around equity, it takes the whole community. We build sports equity coalitions with cross-sector participants – school districts, recreation and parks departments – and bring them together to examine: What are the inequities in youth sports that are affecting this community and what are some solutions? We’re starting to see some tangible benefits. What is one of the biggest barriers? Lack of coaches. We try to recruit coaches and send them into communities.

What should parents look for in a coach and sports organization?

Parents should look for an organization with a philosophy consistent with what they want their child to experience, but also consistent with the family’s budget. … Choose programs that focus on the development and experience of the child. Look for organizations that stress the importance of youth development, whether in their mission statement or the values on their website.

Families should look for coaches who attempt to create a learning environment, coaches who focus on developing sports and life skills. They can have a significant and lasting impact on athletes.

What does positive coaching mean?

You want to teach winning, but you also want teach life lessons, teach kids not to get hung up on their mistakes, to beat themselves up – nor should we be beating them up.

Kids should feel reinforced. That doesn’t mean there’s no accountability, but you don’t want to do so in a manner that is humiliating or abusive to the child.

How should parents handle problems with their child’s coach, from playing time to perceived mistreatment?

I’ve coached my children, and it’s challenging. Coaching is a difficult thing to do and very, very rewarding. Coaches need to have the skill set. Outside the classroom, where do most kids in this country gather? I think in youth sports. There are 35 million children (participating) across the country. When you think about the investment we make in the development of teachers – and rightfully so – what about the professional development of coaches, who are with our kids outside the classroom? It’s critical to invest in our coaches and their development.

When parents have a problem with their children’s coach, the first step is to have a conversation with your child. Find out their experience and perspective and find out what steps they want to take. … If it’s, “I’m not playing enough,” say, “talk to your coach and see what you can do.”

If that conversation doesn’t work, the parents should get the child’s permission to talk to the coach.

If it rises to the level of harming the athlete, remove the child from the program to prevent further harm and report the incident to the administration. Any physical, emotional or sexual abuse, report it immediately.

I think youth sports, when they’re done right, provide such life-changing opportunities for young people. I think, however, they are often not done right because enough coaches aren’t trained and youth sports aren’t accessible because of various barriers that exist, particularly in low-income communities. If we want every child to experience the benefits of positive youth sports, we have an obligation. We believe in the power of sports. … We’re one of the only organizations working across the country to make youth sports positive and accessible.

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