Packer Perspective: Former NFL linebacker talks youth sports
By Greg Bach
Brady Poppinga remembers vividly a heated argument that unfolded between two parents following a youth baseball game he played in more than 20 years ago in Evanston, Wyo.
His youth team had just been knocked out of a tournament and as they were packing up their equipment the team’s coach and father of one of the players began yelling and swearing at each other.
“That scarred me,” says Poppinga, who played linebacker in the NFL for eight seasons and won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers in 2010. “That one experience soured the whole year because today that is the most vivid memory I have of that year of two well-respected parents almost going at it. It was one of those selfish moments where they thought it was all about them and they forgot all about us kids.”
Poppinga, a married father of four, is the author of The True Spirit of Competition, an insightful and thought-provoking look at the role of competition in youth sports.
The book delves into how competition can be incredibly life enriching for young athletes when it’s handled properly by volunteer coaches and parents; and how it can be ultra destructive and smother the fun when adults forget who youth sports are really for.
“That one experience was the accumulation of many others,” Poppinga says of those bickering baseball dads. “But that was what I had to deal with a lot of years in baseball and it just leads to basically saying, ‘What’s the enjoyment?’ Why do I even do this? I’m not here for these guys. I’m not here so they can be happy. I’m here because I want to have fun, I want to be with my friends, I want to learn the game of baseball.’ It ultimately just poisoned the whole experience for me.”
Poppinga soon ditched baseball, but luckily found football at the age of 12 when his parents signed him up for his first season of tackle football. He excelled on the field, later earned a scholarship to Brigham Young University and was a fourth-round selection of the Packers in the 2005 NFL Draft.
Poppinga shares his thoughts on competition and its role in youth sports in the first of a two-part series:
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What’s an important message you would like people to take away from reading your book?
POPPINGA: Just to get everybody to keep in mind as we support our kids in youth sports as coaches, or just being supportive parents, by asking ourselves “Why am I here? What’s the purpose?” OK, it’s about the kids, let’s make everything about the kids.” Any big victories or disappointing losses, if you’ve always got those gears going where you’re thinking it’s all about the kids you really put yourself in the best position where it comes out positive for everybody, regardless of the outcome.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What is the biggest problem in youth sports right now!
POPPINGA: It's when we as parents and coaches lose perspective of what little league sports is all about. When we do lose perspective, we tend to be either on one extreme of all that matters is winning or losing; or on the other end to where no matter what everybody wins. There’s this nice spot in the middle where you still acknowledge that we want to win, we’re passionate about winning and we want to go for the win, but our main focus should be on learning, improvement, progress and making positive strides forward – and the scoreboard becomes a byproduct of that. That’s where you really want to be.
The biggest thing is to remember that the scoreboard doesn't tell the whole story. There is more that happens in a competition than what the scoreboard says. When we are able to fight against our natural instincts of wanting to identify our self worth with the outcome of a game, like labeling ourselves (or the kids) “winners” or “losers” that is when we give ourselves the best chance of maintaining a healthy perspective of competition not only for the kids but ourselves.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: How do you make sure all the kids are having fun – from the most to the least talented player?
POPPINGA: You have to acknowledge and celebrate equally all of their improvements. That is the greatest victory a kid could have in little league. That is growth and improvement. It is also the kind of victory that can be controlled based off of the kids’ efforts and the coaches’ and parents’ support of such kid. To ever not celebrate anybody’s day-to-day victories, no matter how great or how small they are perceived to be is, in my opinion, an injustice. At such young ages you never know what your kids could become in or out of sports. Don’t pigeon hole them. One of my former teammates, Clay Matthews, was one of those kids that in his youth nobody every thought would even be a starter on his high school team, let alone an NFL football player. He didn’t even start in high school and his dad was the coach. But, his dad always encouraged him and celebrated the small day-to-day victories. Over time those small day-to-day victories accumulated to the point to where now Clay is arguably the best linebacker in the NFL. At the youth level you have to acknowledge the improvements of all your players at all skill sets, but they’re obviously not going to be the same improvements because they’re all at different levels.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: How can coaches help make sure kids’ experiences aren’t defined by the scoreboard?
POPPINGA: You’ve got to help the kids understand that their worth as a person isn’t dependent on whatever happens in a game so it’s about redirecting the kids’ focus from just the outcome of competition to the process of competing.
I had an experience with my son and his friend and we were playing a game in our yard (one-on-one with me as the quarterback) and my son ended up winning and the other kid was so distraught and was in tears, but he had made some unbelievable catches. And I was like, “Why are you sad? Do you realize some of the catches you made?” So when you started to walk him through the whole process of the competition – even though the outcome didn’t turn out the way he wanted it to – but when he started to look at the plays he made and the improvement he made he started feeling pretty proud about himself for the effort he gave and the progress he made and he ended up realizing that he enjoyed himself.
You have to help them disassociate themselves from the scoreboard and the best way to do that is you redirect their focus and all their energies from just the outcome to what actually happened, to what took place here. I guarantee if you’re looking for the positives you’ll find a ton of positives, especially if your kids are giving a good effort.
Three-time Olympic gold medalist Rowdy Gaines with a message all young athletes need to hear
Olympic softball great Andrea Duran on using failure to work harder and achieve more
Olympic steeplechaser Colleen Quigley on the value of trying a variety of sports and how it shaped the trajectory of her life
Dr. Christopher Ahmad, co-author of PLAY BALL and head team physician for the New York Yankees, on keeping kids out of operating rooms and on the field