My friend coached in a local recreation league for seven and eight-year-olds. The league had a try-out day and then the coaches selected their teams. The day after the “draft,” eight players signed up together; the league put them together on one team. As it turned out, they were the “all-stars” from the previous season.
The parents and their coach schemed together to keep the best players together on one team in order to beat the other teams and win the championship trophy. While this may be extreme, this is how adults view competitiveness: generally, we do whatever necessary to give ourselves a competitive advantage.
Children are different. Throughout the summer, I noticed a trend. In any game, like tag, where one player had to choose another player to try and get, nearly every player picked someone of comparable talent. In two weeks of camps with over 200 players, I never saw a talented player go after a weaker player.
Players chose who to go after based on two observable factors:
- Talent level
- Social group
Boys generally went after boys, and girls generally went after girls, unless one went after someone from his or her social circle or someone more talented. Lower skilled boys might go after a girl if they socialized at lunch or walked to camp together, while a girl may choose to go after a boy if the other girls were below her skill level, and she needed a challenge. A talented boy would go after a girl if she was similarly talented. Gender appeared to matter less than friendship (generally for lower skilled or less competitive players) and talent level.
Players did not seek the same competitive advantage as parents. When left to make decisions on their own, they picked the just right challenge: an opponent who was similar or slightly better than themselves.
More to the point, when a player struggled, he or she did not switch and go after a lesser player. Instead, he or she showed dogged determination to get the comparable player. Even when I tried to influence a player to go after someone below his or her level because the game was dragging on as everyone waited for him or her to tag someone, players almost never relented. Even when they chose a new opponent, they did not go for the easiest option, but one slightly easier than the original opponent.
While parents and coaches are concerned with winning and losing because they believe that children may lose interest if they lose too much, children are more interested in the social activity of playing, the challenge and the fairness of the activity.
Maybe youth leagues should allow the players to pick the teams, not the parents and coaches!
By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League