Question: My son wants to play quarterback on his town youth football team. The coach’s son also covets the position. Some of the dads say my son should forget about playing quarterback if he wants to be on the team. I’m guessing this issue comes up often in youth sports. Is there a way to overcome the monopoly of key positions and playing time by a coach’s son or daughter?
Discussion: You are absolutely right. Favoritism is pervasive and affects thousands of young athletes in every sport. Quite a few dads sign up to coach so they can choose what they want for their kids. Is it right? No, but on the other hand, they donate considerable time and energy to coaching the whole team for an entire season. Many such coaches are very good and, in all other respects, fair with other kids on the team, but you are likely correct in assuming that your son is at a distinct disadvantage.
Solution: There are several ways to deal with this situation. One is to approach the coach and ask him if your son and other players could possibly share the position—a quarterback rotation of sorts. What often happens is that the coach will tell you what you want to hear. He’ll assure you that he will do everything he can to divide playing time at the quarterback position fairly. It may work out that way, and if so, great—but it doesn’t always.
It’s best to sit down with your son to discuss the situation. Be candid: On a team in which the coach’s son is the first-string quarterback, there is no guarantee that your son will get to play the position on a regular basis. Explain to him that he’ll come across favoritism and adversity often on his journey through sports and later on in life as well. Suggest that he always have a backup plan or two in case what he wants most does not work out.
Ask him why he wants to play quarterback and if there are other positions he would like to try. Listen carefully to his answer. If you sense that he wants to be a team leader, explain to him that there are other leadership positions on a football team. He could be a defensive captain, for example. On the other hand, if his response suggests he’s fixated on being the star of the team, then it’s important to point out that sports are not about stars but team play.
As a capable young athlete, he is probably well equipped to play other pivotal, demanding positions. He can train as a running back, a wide receiver, or a defensive back. Make it clear to him that the road to success as a quarterback (or pitcher or point guard) is paved with a wide range of experiences, playing numerous positions in his sport of choice throughout his developmental years. He can make it his ultimate goal to play quarterback, but he should concentrate on learning to play every position well before he specializes. If his desire to play quarterback persists, have him attend an off-season camp or clinic that provides quarterback training. That way he will have an opportunity to play the position and decide if he wants to pursue it further.
There is an alternative setup that would benefit your son or daughter much more than the current typical approach to coaching sports like football. It’s a top-to-bottom solution that eliminates youth sports problems like favoritism and early specialization at designated positions. At Whole Child Sports, we believe that every youth sports program should ensure that kids are taught to play every position in the sport they are learning. In fact, there is really no intrinsic value to setting positions at a young age. As Scott emphasizes in his book Fair Play, we should not “pigeonhole kids into one particular position because of their physical size or ability. In order to provide each participant a full experience and an appreciation for the game that lasts a lifetime, you should teach each player every position. If kids are taught the fundamentals of each position, over time they will find the position where they belong naturally, rather than having an adult dictate where they play.”
Practices and games should be restructured to allow every kid to have a go at quarterback, center, and wide receiver. Otherwise we run into the old performance-is-paramount brick wall. The mind-set of a coach in a hypercompetitive league is: “I want to win games. If I want to win games, there is no way I’m going to rotate my best quarterback out of such a key position, just so that his teammates get a chance to experience it.” The problem is that he’s zeroed in on the wrong goal: winning. The ultimate goal of youth sports is to provide kids with positive educational experiences. The only thing we should be obsessed with is teaching.
It’s time to stop measuring success in runs, touchdowns, goals, or baskets. Every kid should learn to execute plays at every position. In youth sports you are only truly successful as a coach when everyone on your team, and in your entire league, for that matter, experiences improvement in all aspects of the sport, regardless of their athletic ability.
Kids know when they are being treated fairly, and they really enjoy taking a crack at every position. We are not simply suggesting this as a philosophical ideal; we have to put it into practice. When he launched the National Football League’s Junior Player Development Program, Scott tested this principle with thousands of kids, and the response was unanimous: The kids loved trying everything out. They had a fun, well-rounded football experience. If we aren’t blinded by performance anxiety, our children won’t be as susceptible to it either. As they get older, they will find just the right role to play.
We can all empower ourselves to stand firm against the bullying, trash talk, and favoritism that can discolor our kid’s sports experiences. In earlier chapters we talked about stepping back and giving children the space to play more freely, to work out the rules of their games and solve their own conflicts. It is so important for them to develop these social muscles as they grow up. But as we’ve explained in this chapter, parents and coaches must—yes, must—intercede resolutely whenever dehumanizing behavior like bullying and trash talk takes hold on our fields or courts or playgrounds. If we don’t intercede, we tacitly condone such conduct. There is no place for such corrosive behavior in youth sports. This is, after all, a world into which we release our children, but over which we can still exercise some positive influence.
In the next chapter, we explore the role of the parent as a child’s first coach. It is so important to begin your child’s sports journey by her side, ready to step in whenever she and her friends need you. Your primary role as her first coach is not to “train” or “develop” her athletically, but to connect with her, to share active experiences, and to watch over her as she discovers the wonders of sports. At the onset of this journey, no sports experience is required, just care and attention. ♦
From Kim John Payne, Luis Fernando Llosa, & Scott Lancaster. Beyond Winnning: Smart Parenting in a Toxic Sports Environment (Lyons Press, Connecticut, 2013).