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A Lesson in Heart: Why the Relative Age Effect is Wrong

Contrary to what some writers and sports analyst think being the smallest and youngest does not guarantee failure in a persons athletic career. Lessons are learned by team sports which go far beyond physicality, follow a child through their entire life and set them up for success.

My son is super active and in constant motion. We figured sports would help put that energy to use. We really didn’t give that much thought to the myriad of lessons learned through team sports. As we approach the end of the season I am reflecting on the amazing change and growth that team sports has brought in my child.

My son actually began with T-Ball and had an instant love for the sport. He took to it easy and made friends quickly. However, he is literally the youngest…I mean the absolute youngest player in the entire league. Due to when the division cut offs fall and when his birthday is. Much like school, in sports he is the youngest one out there.

Age is nothing but a number

If you have ready Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers, ” then you might have thought, much like myself, that having the youngest smallest child in sports would be to set him up for failure in life.  According to NY Magazine, one of Mr. Gladwell’s points is “…an initial advantage attributable to age gets turned into a more profound advantage over time.” This theory has become known as the Relative Age Effect and in my view is  bull.

Me and my husband initially considered theory for a long time and actually thought about holding my son back in school to ensure he was bigger, stronger and more mature when he began. However, intellectually he was ready and decided we would be doing his a disservice by holding him back.

When we signed him up for T-Ball, this idea came back to haunt me. Would he be the smallest? What if he is picked on? What if he struggle? How it effect his emotionally and scar him for life? Ok I probably was a bit over dramatic. But aside from the scarring him for life part all of that has happened and it is not a bad thing.

Season one and two

My son was the smallest. In being smaller and younger he did not have the motor coordination, at first, that the other players did. I watched in agony as he would miss ball after ball. However, my agony was not his. He was having a blast. He loved his coaches and they loved him as well. My son was learning what it was like to be part of a team and how to support your teammates.

More importantly he was learning resiliency. How to keep trying even if you might not get the results you want the first time. Each practice he tried his best. Never gave up and enjoyed every minute. By the end of the first year he was actually hitting the ball!

Season three

The second year brought new challenges. The size different between my son and the other kids were much more apparent. Likewise the skill level difference between him and other kids varied greatly. He fell somewhere in the middle, with older, bigger kids having more skill and motor control then he had. To my surprise there were older kids that were similar in stature to him struggled throughout the season.

Also, due to the cut off he was no longer in T-Ball. He was moved up (too soon in my opinion) to Coach Pitch. My son was scared he wouldn’t be able to do it and almost choose not the play. However, after meeting the coaches and other kids he wanted to try.

Sometimes he went game after game without a hit. Without a play or so much as touching the ball. There were a few times I turned to mush as he cried that he wanted to give up. The difference is he didn’t. He asked me and his Dad to practice with him more. (which we did.) He started to pay better attention during practice. With hands on his knees he was “baseball ready,” instead of throwing his mitt around the outfield.

While it was heartbreaking to see him leave the batter’s box dejected and sad, there was a lesson in this as well. It was a lesson about playing with Heart. Heart, Will, Determination, Fortitude, Resilience, call it what you will. It is what winning teams are made from.

You can see it time and time again when the underdog, underestimated teams blowing away their opponents. The 1980 US Hockey team, the 2004 Red Sox, and most recently the World Series Champion Chicago Cubs.  In most cases it is not purely, skill, strength or physical prowess that does the job. It is Heart and that is what my son was learning.

His abilities to field, hit and pay attention long enough to get through an inning were finally starting to come on line. By the end of the season he was hitting pretty regularly and had a good grasp of the game. Plus, he understood what it felt like to overcome a struggle.

Season Four

This past season was yet another lesson. Most of his teammate were almost a full 2 years older then he is. Many were now in travel ball league. This meant they had skills far beyond my son. I mean these kids were turning double plays! He had just learned how to hit. However, what surprised me was the social struggle. It seemed like none of the kids knew where they fit with each other. The age and skills varied so greatly. The older kids were not very nice. With the idea they were better players they acted like jerks to the younger kids.

My son, who pretty much gets along with everyone,  had a really hard time with this. It was the first time he was encountering bigger kids who were being bullies. He doesn’t really find them in school because of the anti-bullying efforts, but here on the ball field they still exist. I had a big issue with this and was ready to pull him out of the league.

However my husband stopped me. He reminded me that he NEEDS to learn how to deal with them. IF he doesn’t learn these lessons now he will have a harder time in life when he encounters bullies in the real world.  Boy was it tough to watch these kids but I knew he was right. he had to learn to stick up for himself. If things got bad I could step in. But as painfully hard as it was I had to let him fight his own battle. Uggg!

He was right, my son did learn how to stand up for himself. The effort in overcoming his fear also brought with it a new confidence in his abilities. I watched in amazement as he no only became a solid hitter he actually began to hit it into the outfield. Along with this his fielding also improved. With the encouragement and knowledge of incredible coaches he has grown into a strong player and a respected teammate.

Lessons for life

Being part of a team sport has brought along its challenges but the lessons learned and triumphs have been so worth it. These lessons learned through sports are what will make him a success, not the month he was born and when his birthday falls.  So Mr. Gladwell you are dead wrong that the smaller, younger kids are set up to fail due to age disadvantages that follow them through life.

You didn’t take into account all of the people like coaches, players, friends and family who help to mold them. Mr. Gladwell you also did not consider the many athlete’s who were not the ideal physical specimen, who might not have natural talent but still achieve greatness through hard work, will and determination.

Yes, my son is still the youngest and his is still one of the smallest but like many underestimated people he has Heart and that is what you need to win in the game of life.

 

 

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5 Things for Parents to Remember on the Sidelines of Youth Sports

5 things for parents to remember on the sidelines of youth sportsPlaying youth sports has so many benefits. It teaches teamwork, leadership, and perseverance among other things. These are skills a child will refer back to their entire life. Becoming involved in sports helps to shape children into amazing adults, productive human beings and incredible role models. Having my children involved in sports teams it is fascinating to watch as they learn new skills, develop leadership and overcome interpersonal challenges.

Once of the most heart warming of sights is seeing my son light up when his coach takes special time with him to congratulate or teach him a new skill. Coaches have such an important role in the life of these beginning athletes. They teach them valuable skills and connect with them in a different way then a parent. [ctt title=”Coaches are role models. They are an important influence in teaching kids how to become good, well-rounded human beings.” tweet=”Coaches are role models. They are an important influence in teaching kids how to become good, well-rounded human beings.” coverup=”EK09j”]

For this reason I have always felt an immediate respect for these types of coaches, especially those who are unpaid volunteers. They give so much of themselves and their time to help make children into a better people. While coaches and the team setting are important, there is one piece of this puzzle than I am leaving out. This is the person who can make or break the childhood sports experience. That is the parent.

I look back on fond memories shared with my dad as he yelled from the sidelines of my soccer game. It was one of the few occasions in our relationship where I felt he truly believed in me and will always be something I cherish . Unfortunately, this is not always be the behavior of parents on the sidelines or youth sports coaches.

Since the inception of youth teams there have always been “those ” parents. You know the one. The one with a secret dream of become an NFL star, or Major Leaguer but never got a chance. These are the ones that do not just believe their 5 year old can be the next Johnny Bench or Magic  Johnson. They are determined to make is happen.

They get a bit overzealous and turn the game from being light-hearted fun into pressure filled warfare. We can all have be this parent from time to time but most of us can pull ourselves back from the edge and leave the coaching to the coach. However, their are some adults who forget these are kids and this is just a game.

It has gotten so bad that most youth leagues now require parents sign a Code of Ethics pledge. The code of ethics is intended to remind parents to well…act like adults. Apparently, it has happened enough times and in enough instances that a signed document is necessary to keep parents in check.

I can say from personal experience I became totally disgusted when a parent coach in my sons little league violated this pledge. He was a coach/player parent/league administrator and for years has used his position to cherry pick his teams. Selecting only the best, most experienced and oldest players to dominate over all others grade schoolers and win the championship each season. He had to secure the coveted plastic, baseball batter atop a metallic blue stand. The underwhelming trophy telling everyone he is a “T-ball Championship Winner.”

These are 6 and 7- year-olds! The dejected look on my son’s face knowing this team was unbeatable, broke my heart. To hear his team members sadly state they were going to loss before the game ever started, was awful. All for what? What skills did this teach any of them. What challenge did it present to the other team? All so a pathetic, broken man could fulfill his dream of little league domination.

In another instance there are the parents who cart there kid all over creation because the have to be part of a “travel” team. They must attend completions and tournaments. Don’t get me wrong if the kid wants to do this it could be a genuine special memory between parent and child. The problem comes in when the need of the parent to relive their glory days outweigh the logic of the situation. Like having your 7-year-old spend summer weekend in another state competing when all they really want to do is be home playing with their friends.

As parents we only want the best for our children. That being said, we all have the potential to be those parents. We just lose sight of why our kids are playing sports in the first place. To have fun. Here are five ways to keep yourself in check as a parent of a young athlete.

Model good sportsmanship

Recognize your child will take their cues from your behavior. If you bad-mouth another team or player they will think this is acceptable behavior and follow suit.

Recognize the team in addition to your child

It is important to not fixate only on the actions of just our child. Recognizing the accomplishments other players in front of your child helps demonstrates leadership and teamwork. Encouraging your child to cheer on and congratulate others will also foster these skills.

Demonstrate Respect

Always speak to other parents, coaches, umpires and referees with respect even when you disagree. Little eyes are watching and little ears are listening. If you are feeling to emotional to restrain yourself. Walk away.

Make sure you are not pressuring your kids to live out your dreams

This is a tough one and it is easy to fall into without noticing. Everyone harbors secret dreams that their 7-year-old child will be the phenome player heading to the big leagues. But sometimes these secret hopes don’t remain secret. Some of the warning signs are being overly critical if you child misses a play or expecting them to play at a level well beyond their age and physicality. If you are buying your kid expensive equipment they never asked for it might be a good idea to examine what emotions you have invested in their sport.

Remember you are the parent, not the player

Be attentive to the needs and emotions as they grow in their sport. Also know when to step back, let them learn and find their own way. Allow them to be a kid who loves to play without the pressure of being the best. Look for chances to encourage and build self esteem. When they make a misstep help them learn to deal with losses and mistakes with grace and dignity. If parents can accept their supporting role, instead of coach or former player, then a lifetime of teachable moments, beautiful memories and valuable skills await.

 

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