Problems happen as the stakes rise in youth sports

Problems happen as the stakes rise in youth sports


By: John Engh, COO, NAYS

Every time we get a media interview request here at NAYS, the common theme is that something bad happened. On almost every occasion, after asking and answering questions about what can be done and answering how our programs are designed to help, the interview always seems to end with the same question.  And that is, “What makes people act the way they do?”

The latest story, of course, is about the Jackie Robinson West Little League All-Stars team from Chicago being stripped of the U.S. title and it reminds me of the answer I always give: “It’s all about the stakes.”  When we raise the stakes, human nature shows us what will happen. Look at the difference in the stands when the score is kept versus not being kept. Then add on playing for a division title, then a district or regional title. Pay attention to how differently people act when the stakes get raised.

So when we start playing for national and world titles, is it really any wonder what people will do?

Of course, raising the stakes is what sports are all about; it’s what makes them exhilarating. But when we apply the same concepts to kids’ sports, that’s when things go bad. I bet if you asked any of those kids from Chicago if what the adults did was wrong they’d say yes. But I bet none of them would trade their experience for anything. The experience of playing on national TV is probably the ultimate example of raising the stakes.

Here’s another: When a talented lineman in high school has a chance to take performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) to just about guarantee a spot on a Division One college roster, do you think he takes into consideration that it might be cheating? Or do his parents think that the $100,000 scholarship might be worth it – even if he never plays professionally?

The other point here is that, as an organization, we tout all of the wonderful attributes that children can gain from sports participation – especially if they are done with the best interests of making the kids the primary focus. But the one thing about sports that always gets a pass is the way we teach adhering to the rules. In baseball we’ll take the called out even if we missed the tag or if we know the ball hit the ground. In football, if our competitor is beating us we are taught to hold until the referee calls a penalty. In basketball...well, you know this story could go on and on. In a nutshell, we learn that cheating is ok as long as we don’t get caught. Is anyone still talking about inflated balls?

So yes, sports can be wonderful. Learning about overcoming adversity, learning to win and lose with dignity, respecting opponents and attaining a love for competition are some of the many things we can get out of sports – if done correctly. 

But go ahead, keep raising the stakes and when bad things happen we’ll be here for reporters to ask their questions.

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