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Values in Youth Sports: Part I

The values your children learn from sports shape their lives.

When you think of sports, values are probably not the first thing that comes to mind. Yet, whether you’re aware of it or not, the values that you instill in your children as part of their sports experiences have an immense impact on every aspect of their athletic lives as well as their life in general in the short term and well into the future.

The values you convey to your young athletes act as the lens through which they view the entirety of their sports participation. As a consequence, you should be thoughtful, deliberate, and proactive in instilling in your children the values that you believe will lead them to a fulfilling and enjoyable sports experience, a positive and healthy lifelong relationship with sports, and a successful, happy, and value-driven life.

Why Are Values Important?

We often think of values as lofty ideals that have little connection to our daily lives. Yet, the values that you hold, in this case, about sports in particular and life in general, play a vital role in all aspects of your children’s athletic and personal development.

You can think of values as: “a person’s principles and standards of behavior; one’s judgment of what is important.” As such, the values that you have and those that your children embrace about their sports participation influence their priorities and goals, and act as road signs in determining the direction their athletic and personal lives take. In other words, the values that your children adopt as young athletes will dictate almost every aspect of their lives.

Values will influence how your children think about their sports involvement. For example, if you convey the importance of effort and fun over winning, they will focus on those values as they approach competitions. In contrast, if your children believe that you hold values such as winning and being the best above all else, they will think about upcoming competitions in a very different way.

In turn, the thinking that arises from the values that your young athletes hold will produce particular emotional reactions when they participate in our sport. Continuing the above examples, knowing that the emphasis is on effort and fun, they will likely experience emotions such as determination and excitement. Conversely, the values of results and winning may produce a very different emotional reaction, one involving worry, doubt, and fear of not living up to those values.

Your kids’ values, as filtered through their thinking and emotions, will have an impact on how they ski in competitions. Again, returning to the previous examples, performances derived from the values of hard work and fun will be suffused with intense effort and the goal of simply performing the best they can. In contrast, those originating in the values of results and winning may be tense, tentative, and disappointing.

In sum, the values that your children live by and express in their sports clearly delineate the following statements:

  • This is who I am.
  • This is what I value.
  • This is what I stand for.
  • This is what guides my sports.
  • This is how I will behave.
  • This is what I want out of my sports.

Healthy and Unhealthy Sports Values

Of course, the $64,000 question in this discussion is: What are healthy and unhealthy sports values?

I will admit that there can be some disagreement about the answer to this question. Though I might disagree vehemently that winning is a healthy value, given the competitive nature of sports, some might argue convincingly for its recognition as a healthy sports value.

I will also say that I’m not here to tell you what values you should teach your children about sports. That decision is up to you based on your overall value system and your specific experiences and beliefs about the purpose of youth sports.

At the same time, I believe that there are some values related to youth sports that we can all agree on and those are the ones that I wish to focus on. Other criteria that could be considered in judging whether a sports value is healthy or not is whether children have control over the fulfillment of the value and whether our society, in general, would hold a value in high esteem.

Additionally, determining what values you want to instill in your children as they enter their sports participation should be grounded in what you want your children to get out their sports participation.

Using this measure of the healthiness of a sports value, you can then ask yourself: “Will this value help my children become the athletes and, more importantly, the people I want them to become?”

With these criteria as my guide, here is a list of values that I think will serve your children well as they immerse themselves in sports and as they leave those youth sports experiences behind (in no particular order):

  • Honesty
  • Commitment
  • Work ethic
  • Pursuit of personal excellence
  • Love of sport
  • Fun
  • Respect of self and others
  • Being a good sport
  • Humility
  • Teamwork
  • Patience
  • Perseverance
  • Resilience
  • Best effort
  • Embrace failure
  • Balanced life
  • Physical health

A useful way to introduce your children to the importance of healthy sports values is to also identify unhealthy values in sports and help them see the differences between the positive and negative values.

As I noted above, though opinions may vary on what might be considered healthy and unhealthy values, I believe you can apply the “duck test” to make this determination: “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.” An extension of the duck test might be whether you would like your children to express these values in their sports participation.

Applying the duck test to sports values, I would argue that the values listed below meet that test:

  • Winning is the ultimate goal
  • Win at any cost
  • Bravado
  • Selfishness
  • Machismo
  • Callousness
  • Pursuit of fame and fortune

Using examples of both healthy and unhealthy values can help you illustrate how these values help or hurt your young athletes, your family, their team, and our society as a whole, respectively.

You can also really bring the different types of values to light by pointing them out when they arise in the media and using these opportunities to create conversations with your children to help them better understand sports values and to guide them in choosing the healthiest values for them.