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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Monday, Sept. 1, 2014

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In Kids & Family Commentary

It's not all about wins and losses. (PHOTO: Mike Morgan)

In Kids & Family Commentary

The feeling of community is an important part of youth sports. (PHOTO: Mike Morgan)

Lessons learned from years of youth sports in Milwaukee


Almost nine years ago, I wrote my first column for OnMilwaukee.com, which described my early experiences coaching and parenting in local youth sports. Since then, I have seen the best and worst of our kids, other kids and families, and myself on the fields and courts around the area.

At that time, I described five top recommendations for parents with kids in youth sports.

They were:

  • Combine fun with success and improvement
  • Let kids try different sports
  • Maintain perspective on the kids' ages
  • Don't overdo sports at early ages
  • Don't live vicariously through your kids' sports

Whether it's parenting, coaching or just watching kids play youth sports around here, we've learned that those are solid fundamentals, but there's a lot more to it.

Our initial sports experiences with our three boys (now all in high school at ages 14, 16 and 18) were simple and positive. From the outset, our main guidelines with the boys were to let them try whatever sports they wanted and to finish a season that they started, even if it wasn't what they expected.

Those early years were filled with YMCA activities like soccer, tee ball, flag football, basketball and more.

We had overwhelmingly positive experiences at this level and would highly recommend Milwaukee-area YMCA youth sports to anyone, although there are many others like Boys & Girls Clubs, churches or local rec activities.

The next step was to organized youth leagues for soccer, basketball, Little League baseball and club football. At this level, the kids and parents are exposed to a more competitive nature of sports. Games are won and lost, scores kept and more memorable lessons learned. Some of the best experiences and outcomes of those early years of competitive sports was seeing our boys grow, learn and make good friends. We also did the same as parents.

An additional note here is to savor the moments of humor in these years. One of our Little League players had a unique talent for imitating classic comedy routines (Jerry Seinfeld, George Carlin) on the bench. While his mom scolded him to "stop doing your comedy stuff," I, other coaches and players were quietly encouraging him because it was so funny. I won't be surprised to see that kid on Comedy Central someday.

With so many positive experiences like that, it's hard to cite a few examples, but general highlights include seeing a struggling player make a big play or even just get a hit, make a basket or goal. On the negative side, I've seen adult coaches, referees and parents (including myself) act worse than the children at times.

I also recommend that youth baseball coaches keep an extra pair of pants on the bench for those times when boys are too into the game forget about bathroom breaks.

As our boys moved up to middle school, the level of competition ramped up, and things got more political. For the first time, there were the dreaded "cuts" as not every kid made every team. I experienced both sides of these tough decisions as a parent and coach.

It doesn't get much harder than deciding to keep a kid on a team, but cut his brother. A lesson learned here is how resilient kids can be at that age as they often take the bad news better than their parents. They may try harder to make the team next time, or just move on to something better for them.

As noted earlier, we let our kids choose and try different sports. They eventually gravitated to sports they liked for various reasons like skill level, or the ones their friends played.

For example, one of our boys swam for four years before giving it up. He is still an excellent swimmer, which is an important life skill to say the least. Two other boys played competitive youth basketball, but now enjoy the more laid back intramural league in high school.

One lesson I can't stress enough is having the proper level of parental involvement.

Many of the leagues, teams or booster clubs rely on small groups of families to do most of the organizing, coaching or fundraising. Any amount of time parents give is valuable to their kids and many others, but don't go overboard and let a sport dominate your life at the expense of other things.

We've experienced wins, losses, tears, laughter, broken bones and everything in-between, but a final valuable lesson learned through our kids' sports over the years involves the community.

Wauwatosa and other suburban school districts are much more diverse and integrated than in years past. Sports let our kids and others from different backgrounds work together for the same goals, gain confidence, make friends and "stay out of trouble," which are good things for all kids these days.

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