How Coaches Are Failing Our Kids – And What You Can Do To Help
Yael Grauer

I was never athletic growing up. Sure, I rode my bicycle around the block and splashed around the pool at my local YMCA, but I never exercising for the fun and challenge of it. I wasn’t much good at it, and didn’t think I could be. I wasn’t like the jocks at school. They were picked first on any team, they’d stay late after school whenever they could to play one more game of pickup basketball, and they cared about sports – about winning and losing – in a way I never had. Actually, I never really thought about fitness at all.

And in this, I was like most high school kids, then and now.

According to a 2010 study by the CDC, only about 12.2 percent of high school students meet the goals levels for aerobic and muscle strengthening activity: about 5.8 percent of girls and 18.5 percent of boys. This means that a staggering majority of kids doesn’t get to savor the exhilaration of stretching their bodies’ limits, doesn’t get to naturally acquire the skills, confidence and stress-relief mechanisms that come with enjoyable sportsmanship, and doesn’t get to reach adulthood with a strong foundation in how to take care of themselves.

And the troubling thing with this statistic is not that it shows that teenagers are naturally lazy. Study after study shows that happy, socially integrated teens are naturally active. The fact that almost 90 percent of kids don’t meet the fairly low standards for activity shows that we, as a society, are failing our kids. Sure, the anecdote that opened this article sounds fairly innocuous. But let’s see what’s beneath the surface.

Loneliness breeds inactivity

Like many teens, I alternated between depression and rage, and was happiest when left alone with my brooding books and dark music. I grew up traversing the continent, bouncing around from one home to the next, never putting down nurturing roots in one place. On top of that, I knew that most of my teachers didn’t really care about me, and that my family was not always there for me.

And when you take a better look at most teenagers’ lives, you’ll find at least one situation like this. Acrimonious divorces, money worries, stressed and overwhelmed parents, bullying in school, trouble keeping up with expectations from school, parents, and society, feeling misunderstood and alienated. These are all factors that cause people to withdraw, to stop pushing themselves, and to conserve energy. To lose the joy in being active. And being less active, as a teen, makes you a prime target for being excluded from your peer group, causing more alienation.

Of course you’d never get any teen to admit it, but the truth is this: a huge number of teenagers don’t have a single trusted adult in their lives, and they sorely need that.

If You Don’t Care, Who Will?

As coaches and instructors, we know that sports can offer all the benefits of belonging, challenge and triumph that these kids are lacking. But many coaches who work with kids are simply going through the motions. They just show up to classes, run through exercises, tally how many extra reps their pupils can do at the end of the month and go home, satisfied that they’ve earned their money.

This is not just a crying shame for the individual students, who don’t need yet another adult in their lives who doesn’t care. It’s also a terrible danger for sports culture as a whole, because apathy is a fertile breeding ground for abuse. In the past few months and weeks I’ve been reading about alleged abuse taking place in martial arts academies. One particularly disturbing example was of students indicted on sex abuse charges against a teammate in DC, with an instructor allegedly footing the legal bill. Time and time again, it turns out that people knew that something wasn’t quite right in these situations, but simply didn’t care enough to investigate or speak up.

This is an article about stepping up and asking yourself what kind of difference you’re making in young people’s lives. Do you show kids that you care? And you don’t even have to be a coach to make a difference – everyone can reach out to the nearest kid. But how? How can you invigorate the culture in your gym, academy or sports club with your attention to people, craft and continuous improvement? How can you create an environment that helps build self-reliance in teens – for tomorrow and for the rest of their lives?

Be a Guiding Light

We need the kind of coaches who are constantly honing their craft, not just in helping perfect people’s form or coming up with new WODs, but in reaching out to kids and showing them that they are invested in them. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care, and that’s doubly true with middle and high school students.

The very first person who cut through my protective shell and really reached me was a martial arts instructor. When I met this man, Kevin Meisner (who I still keep in touch with to this day, more than two decades later), I could instantly tell he cared about me, about us, about everyone he came in contact with. He had an undying respect for his art – karate – but also for people. He wanted to reach them, help them build confidence, help them learn how to handle unsafe situations, and teach them how to have the kind of respect for themselves and others that he had. Although my life was unpredictable and chaotic, I knew I could always count on him. Kevin shone like a beacon in a broken world, teaching people how to cut through the darkness in their lives with a light of their own.

Stepping Up – One Step at Time

To some people this comes intuitively, while others (like me) have to spend a lot of time working on this. But reaching out to kids and fostering relationships built on trust and mutual respect are skills that everyone can learn. Here’s a few strategies that seem to work particularly well.

1. Listen more than you talk. Clearly, working as a coach involves a lot of instruction, but that doesn’t mean you need to lecture kids on all aspects of their lives. It’s easy to try to inundate kids with adult wisdom, thinking if you just tell them everything you know they’ll learn from all of your mistakes. Listening—really listening—to what they have to say is pretty rare. But if you do, you’ll earn their trust. And when the time does come to provide guidance or suggestions, you will have more to offer than empty platitudes because you know what’s really going on.

2. Provide structure. Many children have unpredictable lives, particularly if you’re working with at-risk youth. Having something that’s unwavering, that doesn’t change, can be very comforting. That doesn’t mean you need to do the exact same activities every time you see a group of kids, but having a set routine of some sort can be a good idea.

3. Accept approximations. So often, we adults expect kids to live up to certain standards. And yet there’s times when they’re really trying, but can’t quite get there yet. Working with kids is different than working with adults. Acknowledging improvement—even if it’s not yet entirely up to snuff—helps them feel comfortable to keep trying and face the next challenge.

4. Make sure all kids are involved. It’s easy to let the less active kids step aside to allow star athletes to hone their skills in the gym, but research from Kent State indicates that kids who are left out of activities (physical or otherwise) exercise less and are at greater risk of obesity. They don’t just lose that particular opportunity to exercise, but also the confidence and motivation to try again next time. As adults, we know that we often have to work in teams with people we may not always have chosen to work with. Might as well teach it to kids.

5. Compliment kids on what they do—not on their inherent talent. It’s counter-intuitive, but praising kids for who they are rather than what they do can actually have negative effects. According to research from psychologist Carol Dweck, kids praised for working hard took more risks and wanted to try more difficult challenges than kids told they did well because they’re smart.

Fitness isn’t something we do. It’s the way we live. The way you treat kids in the gym will have a lasting impact —not just on their health, but on their lives. The world needs more people like Kevin. Why not you?

Kevin Meisner teaches Okinawan karate classes out of Yajin Dojo in New London, CT. I spoke with him about how the respect with which he treats his students to this day, and this is what he had to say:

“I don’t see kids as little dollar signs and I don’t see them as little people who I have to entertain, and so I treat them just as if they were full-grown adults, intellectually, respect-wise, I treat them as if they are equal to me. They are the future. They’re more important than I am, and so I treat them as if they are more important than I am myself.

“I don’t see kids as inferior or lesser. I see them as having more potential than I have. They have a lot of plasticity and they have a lot of potential and they have big futures, and so it’s an awesome gift to be able to teach them. I don’t look at them as little subservient people who have to come in and do as I say and not as I do and get yelled at. We don’t roll like that.”

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