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Learning Experiences, Then and Now, Part 1-2-3 By Rick Zitelli
During my years of coaching and watching youth teams train and compete, I am amazed at the changes of ideas and attitudes with parents, players and coaches of youth sports in America. I say America because I am aware that in many parts of the world youth sports is stilled structured, or not structured, the way I remember it to be as a young boy. Granted, I am 51 years old and the world has changed since I played youths sports, unfortunately, not all for the good. True, there have been some dramatic improvements in equipment and fields, and a greater understanding of the sciences of physiology, sociology, and psychology. Yet for all of these steps forward, the essence of why kids should play sports has been lost in the progress that has been made.

On any given afternoon or morning witness a youth club sports event and let me do a little comparison of then and now, and let’s call it a soccer game. THEN, there was very little soccer in America, it was baseball, football or basketball and this is predominantly still the same. These were the games I played all the time. “Street games”, not in front of the parents or in uniforms, and God forbid, there was a referee or official present.

Ok, let’s take a look at the youth soccer match. NOW, participants arrive, chauffeur driven in the family car, or drive their OWN car to the event. THEN, I walked or I called to arrange a ride for myself to get to the game. Walking or riding my bicycle was usually the most reliable means to get there however. NOW, the majority of parents attend the event along with the Coach and the Referees. THEN the PLAYERS met in the street (literally), a school field, park or a court, any suitable location to play. NOW, adults decide the field (with a permit to play of course), the teams that will play, the rules, and the uniforms that will be worn and when the match commences. NOW, teams are segregated by age and level of playing ability. NOW, formal protests and sanctions are issued by adults to adults or to children?

Let me please point out that I am not saying that this structure is all bad, there are many good things that come of organized youth sports. Community involvement by adults is one such benefit. Children interacting with adults who are good role models is another. Safe play is certainly better in a structured environment than the street games, and there are many more points to be recognized here, but something really big is sacrificed for all of this organization. The kid loses the best part of participating on a team.

THEN, we picked-up teams to start the game. Captains were decided by the group and often a long debate ensued over who was worthy of such honor. Once decided the captains carefully and skillfully made their first, second and third picks etc., each time strategizing with the other teammates to decide who the next pick was. A player was as good as their last game and all knew what he or she was capable of when it came time to choose sides. Age pure teams, what was that? Boys and girls teams?; not in street games. The older kids looked out for the younger ones. There were unwritten rules as to who you could get really physical with in a game and the older players enforced the rules when things got out of hand. Each year the younger kids would step up a notch in status, eventually becoming the older players. The training (internship) was years of playing the game in the most primitive fashion, learning leadership skills, diplomacy and mental toughness along the way. In street sports often the field would have to be made before anything began. And then the uniforms; improvise, create, was always the order of the day. Without referees or officials, the game would stop at least 4-5 times because arguments would develop over infractions in the rules, or was a ball in play or not? Sometimes a parent would join in the game, they knew their place. They were a player not a parent, a coach or a referee. They were often picked not on their ability, but out of respect and tolerance. Once they entered the game their status was reduced to that of any other players in the match. Each player had a role when the game started and the captain assigned it. You fulfilled your duties to the best of your abilities because failing meant public chastisement and a relegation in the next round of player selection by the captains. To be the “first pick” was coveted by all of those who played.

I did play organized team sports, but the truth is it was never as much fun as the street version. In high school I played football and baseball and I was an average athlete. What I learned about the games on the street allowed me to contribute to my teams in other ways than pure athleticism.

Learning Experiences, Then and Now, Part 2

By Rick Zitelli

Little did I know when I was a young boy that I was integrating many important life skills through the participation in sports. I doubt that today I would have those same skills so polished and refined as an adult if I didn’t play “street sports”. As children the consequences of failure are small, generally speaking. We as parents and coaches often get in the way of the life learning lessons of success and failure because we want the best for our child as soon as possible and without pain. The “best” is not always getting what we want, when we want it. As adults the consequences for underdeveloped life skills are more severe than not being a “starting” player, or being on the “A” team or winning the match. As a youth coach it amazes me that when I have a team of 13 year old players or older, it is the parent who interfaces with me, not the player. Even if the player has problems with my decisions, it is the parent that steps in and speaks for the child. The best part of the experience for that child is thrown away. Learning how to speak for ones self is a critical part of successful adulthood, as well as patience and perseverance. These are the learned lessons that make us capable adults when the world doesn’t go our way. When does the child learn this if not in a situation as youth sports when the cost is relatively low?

Some years ago my paradigm about coaching changed quite a bit. I am trained and licensed as soccer coach and have attended many coaching seminars. Wanting to do it the “right way”, I religiously took notes and studied the current models for coaching soccer. Memorizing drills and planning each and every training session I WAS doing it the right way. I forgot or at least temporarily forgot all that I had learned on the streets. This failed approach became evident to me half way through a high school soccer season when I coached a JV soccer team. We were struggling to win games and I had some real questions about my ability to teach the fundamentals of the game. One day at the beginning of training I decided to let the team organize the session and granted the captains the authority to take charge. These were 15and 16 year old boys. My simple instructions to the 2 captains were “figure it out”. I sat under a shade tree and began to watch and study the session. To my astonishment these young men could not organize the simplest tasks. There was no regard or respect for the team leaders and there was very little focus on getting in a good training session. I realized that when I was 11 years old I was more capable of leadership and following direction than these boys were. I was more capable of “figuring- it –out” (critical thinking) than most of these boys at 16. I let the session go to the end and decided I would make some changes in the way I taught the game. To make a long story short, the changes were made and we managed to win 3 games that year, the last game, beating the number one team in the league (we were the last place team). From this experience I now coach and consult from what I learned early in life. I run my own business and treat others with those same values.

Watching coaches and parents I say:

Observe and listen more than talk and teach. Less structure is better than more. Let natural consequences take place for actions or lack of. Most of all, give kids the chance to “figure it out” before coming to the rescue. Respect is EARNED.

Learning Experiences, Then and Now, (conclusion)

By Rick Zitelli

As I talk to coaches today I realize that many share the same observations as I do. Many coaches are professional and make their living teaching youth sports. For these professional coaches it is often very difficult to make changes to organizational philosophies they as a coach would make, due to being replaced for invoking radical ideas. So we continue to live in the modern paradigm of “the ends justifies the means” or success in youth sports means winning. IT DOESN’T! Many parents have an agenda of the child getting a college athletic scholarship for the game they play, or living vicariously through the child’s sports experience. How sad this is for me to observe for 2 reasons: The first, because the real education of what makes a person a true success in life is missed for the appearance of success later. The second point is the parent ceases to parent when adopting such positions. The journey and the experience is far more important than the destination. While some of you will shake your head in agreement, most may be scratching their heads wondering what this article is all about.

So much of our time is spent in truly unconscious behavior. Due the stresses and pressures of modern life in America, few of us have the privilege of extra time in our day (let alone the awareness) to ask questions of our own decisions in life. Often we look at what our friends are seeking and think if it’s good enough for them then it must be for me too. Going through the motions of life we miss the real essence of the experience, “good or bad”

As an example of the above, I like to ask kids why they are playing soccer. They respond; “because it is fun”. “WHY is it fun”? I ask, “ah, because, I don’t know, it’s just fun”. Many really don’t know why, their friends play and perhaps that’s why they do. Worse still, Mom or Dad made the choice for them. Ask the high level players in the world today why they play the game (money aside) with passion and detail they will tell what the feeling is like of beating an opponent, of scoring a goal, or stopping a goal, they KNOW why they are playing. Ask a youth player what he or she is working on in a training session and generally they cannot answer the question. The “good” coaches, parents, bosses, employees and players are aware of their behaviors and ask themselves questions about their own actions. They are accountable to themselves and to others.

Recently I started consulting with small business owners, individuals and young athletes about this integrative approach to life, business and athletics. Developing core values to live, compete, and work by first. The funny thing that I discover when I work with a 50 year business owner or a 14 year kid, the same skills are often missing. Life skills, values and purpose are secondary to getting results or profit. The result of this paradigm is a person is unfulfilled, maybe “depressed”, and missing the essence of a quality EXPERENCE in all of life’s endeavors.

Rick Zitelli

Rick Zitelli is the founder of Performance Solutions. It was founded after 20 years as a business owner, 51 years as a Human Being, 10 years of coaching and a formal and informal education in human development . The motivation for it is to teach more effective methods to succeed in business, life, and athletics. Performance Solutions provides workshops for businesses, clubs, parents and coaches as well as private consulting services.

Rick Zitelli is a Certified Financial Planning Practitioner, Sports Psychology consultant, and vibrational healing practitioner. He resides in Petaluma CA., and can be contacted at:
Posted on 17 Apr 2006 by coachgianni
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