Channeling the Mindset of a Youth Sports Athlete
I’ve had the privilege of lacing up my cleats and taking the pitch for the last fifteen years — throughout it, I’ve learned many things, scored a ton of goals, and missed a few along the way. As such, I’m about to enter my last college season this fall, so it’s time to do a little reflecting on my soccer journey through youth sports. While my pregame routine of lacing up my right cleat first and then folding my sock twice has stayed the same all these years, my feelings for the game has definitely gone through a roller coaster of emotions.
When I first started playing soccer, nothing made me happier than having a ball at my feet, but, as I got older, the game started to evolve into some type of business. Ultimately, it truly wasn’t all fun and games anymore. I’ve had feelings ranging from pure excitement that gave me chills, all the way to frustration that has brought tears, and even times of unbearable pain thanks to the injuries. I think this whirlwind of emotions started when teams were becoming more competitive — and not necessarily in a healthy way.
Once athletes start receiving offers to big universities alongside numerous accolades and acknowledgments, everything changes. While these are all great things, and hard work should definitely be recognized and rewarded, I saw teammates, fellow athletes, and even myself start playing for other people and the “fame.” With that came an unprecedented amount of pressure and expectations I had never felt before.
I saw numerous teammates and friends end their too short-lived athletic careers because the pressure made the game not fun anymore. Youth sports were once a stress reliever, but they had grown into the catalyst of said stress. For many, we had lost the true meaning of why we play. As I saw more and more athletes lose the passion of the game, I realized that we, as older athletes, should channel the mentality of my 10 year-old brother, Karsten.
I sat down with him to hear some of his profound wisdom on youth sports:
CoachUp: How often do you play youth sports?
Karsten: Everyday — after school, on the weekends, whenever I can.
CU: What’s your favorite part about playing sports?
Karsten: Having fun and being able to play with all my friends.
CU: That’s it?
Karsten: That’s it.
CU: What does it mean to be a teammate?
Karsten: To work together and be kind to other people. And just play together all the time.
CU: What is the best feeling when it comes to sports?
Karsten: Just having fun and playing.
CU: What is the worst feeling when it comes to sports?
Karsten: When the season ends and you can’t play with your friends anymore and you have to wait until the next season to play games.
CU: How do you bounce back after losing a game?
Karsten: I just know I have another game I’m going to play and we’ll win then.
CU: Where do you see your athletic career going?
Karsten: I don’t know, I’m 10. I’m just going to keep practicing and see what happens. I’ll play until I’m old.
CU: Who do you play for?
Karsten did not have some calculated and prepared answers. He did not care about where his career was going or what other people thought about him, he just cared about having fun, hanging out with his teammates, and challenging himself to get better. If playing for joy remained at our foundation, we wouldn’t get so down on ourselves or become frustrated. We’d want to stay after practice to do that extra sprint, or play in the cold rain, or wake up early, all because we truly enjoyed being around the game.
If we started to channel the attitude of my 10 year-old brother, I think we’d be seeing longer athletic careers, more smiles, healthier and stronger relationships, better performance, and overall a better perception of youth sports. Naturally, as humans, we perform better when we truly enjoy what we’re doing.
Remember why you started playing youth sports and actually try to have some fun during it! Playing your sport does not need to be all business, no, not at all — it can, and should be, fun. This mentality is something we can take off the field into everything we do — from school to the workplace. We should remember what made us fall in love with youth sports in the first place.
Mia Hamm, one of the best athletes of all-time, said it best, I think: “Somewhere behind the athlete you’ve become and the hours of practice and the coaches who have pushed you is a little girl who fell in love with the game and never looked back … play for her.”