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Why Youth Sports Needs a Development Zone

April 14, 2014    1720 Views

Jim Thompson | @jimthompson18

Why youth sports needs a development zone

This blog appeared in the “Your Edge: Parents” section of the April 2014 edition of Lacrosse Magazine. Don’t get the magazine? Join US Lacrosse and start your subscription today.

Youth sports are a precious, fragile system with the potential to develop better athletes and better people, which is Positive Coaching Alliance’s mission.

But that system does not live up to its potential when coaches shame players for mistakes, bend the rules to win and miss teachable moments while enthralled in a win-at-all-cost mentality.

Or when parents undermine coaches by criticizing them in front of their children, treat officials with disrespect and put pressure on their child to live up to their often unrealistic expectations.

Or when athletes drop out in huge numbers, haze or treat teammates disrespectfully and fail to reach their potential as athletes and people.

Wrong Culture

The dominant culture in sports today is an entertainment sports culture. The goal is to entertain fans, and that requires winning, which results in a win-at-all-cost mentality that colors every level of sports in our society.

John Madden said, “Winning is the best deodorant.” In the entertainment sports culture, if you win, you can get away with things that won’t pass the smell test.

Symbolic Hedge

Ruben Nieves, PCA’s director of training, coached the Stanford men’s volleyball team to an NCAA championship in 1997. His team’s practice court was separated from its locker room by a curtain. Ruben referred to players entering the practice court as “going through the curtain.” They were leaving the outside world.

Nieves used this to build his team’s culture. He asked them, every time they went through the curtain, to think about the kind of team they wanted to be and what they needed to do to become that team.

Ruben was creating what Ronald Rolheiser, a Catholic priest and renowned theologian, calls a “symbolic hedge” around his practice space. A physical hedge creates a delineated space with some degree of privacy in a yard or garden that may allow you to relax, experience solitude and generally get away from the pressures of the larger society. A symbolic hedge similarly creates a delineated space where it is easier to focus on what’s really important.

Youth sports desperately needs a symbolic hedge to create a space in which participants grow and flourish as athletes and as people. I call this space the Development Zone.

Different Meaning

In the Development Zone, people are expected to behave differently than in the outside world, and events that occur within this zone have a different meaning than they do the larger entertainment sports culture. For example:

  • In the entertainment sports culture, an unfavorable call by an official is a travesty deserving of rebuke. In the Development Zone, it becomes an opportunity to work on resilience.
  • In the entertainment sports culture, a coach who keeps weaker athletes on the bench may seem savvy. In the Development Zone, this coach is seen to shortchange his players. In the Development Zone, coaches find ways to get kids into games.
  • In the entertainment sports culture, setbacks and mistakes are bad things. In the Development Zone, they provide a chance for kids to learn to struggle. There is no better place than sports for kids to learn to struggle, adapt and overcome.
  • In the entertainment sports culture, a game is defined by the results on the scoreboard. In the Development Zone, the scoreboard is much too crude a measurement of success.

Jim Thompson is the founder of Positive Coaching Alliance, a US Lacrosse partner. This article is adapted from his book, ”Developing Better Athletes, Better People: A Leader’s Guide to Transforming High School and Youth Sports into a Development Zone.”

Learn more about US Lacrosse’s longstanding relationship with Positive Coaching Alliance and access resources to help your young athlete develop on and off the field.

Positive Coaching Alliance



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