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The True Riches of Youth Sports

By Jack Bowen

Experts Unknowingly Share the True Riches of Youth Sports

jack-bowenCountless youth sports advocates extol the ways in which lessons learned playing sports transcend the playing field.  More so, proponents of youth sport tout how participation in athletics provides a unique and invaluable venue for adolescents to experience such virtues.  Though skeptics abound as to how countless hours playing a sport translates to something greater than the ephemeral moments of physical exercise and the enjoyment of playing the game (as if that weren’t enough!).

For the past eight years, I have invited some of the top water polo goalies in the country to coach at our annual Holiday Goalkeeper Combine.  At every session, I ask them to share with the younger goalies in attendance what they consider the most valuable and helpful bit of advice.  I don’t prep them or impart any expectations as I truly want it to be organic and authentic.  Their reflections always surprise me—though they shouldn’t, given my own stance on the value of sports for young people.

The position of goalkeeper involves myriad nuances and technicalities, and so going into this endeavor, I initially expected our expert goalies to reflect on some important core fundamental or favorite technique-oriented drill.  Something technical.  Something goalie-specific.  And yet, instead, as I recently surveyed all 8 years-worth of reflections, 23 of the 26 goalies instead reflected on topics much more universal and enduring than water polo goalkeeping.  As I listened to these college-aged goalies talk, I could see them directly applying all of what they were saying to—not to be too grandiose—life.  To their lives, and to being a good citizen and, hopefully, happy and successful in whatever endeavor they chose moving forward.

Keep in mind, these are athletes who have essentially “made it”—they were selected as top goalies in their respective high school sections and, in many cases, throughout the country, earning All American honors.  They have all gone on to play at the college level: something achieved by fewer than 5% of high school goalies.  In addition, these goalies have all “graduated” from our Goalkeeper Academy and, as I have gotten to know them quite well, are of tremendous character.

The author (center) with the 4 Expert Goalie Coaches at the 2015 Holiday Goalie Combine (from left to right): Connor Dillon (George Washington University), John Wilson (Johns Hopkins), Katelynn Thompson (San Jose State), Jimmie Sandman (Stanford)

The author (center) with the 4 Expert Goalie Coaches at the 2015 Holiday Goalie Combine (from left to right): Connor Dillon (George Washington University), John Wilson (Johns Hopkins), Katelynn Thompson (San Jose State), Jimmie Sandman (Stanford)

What follows is my best attempt to transcribe a handful of their reflections into tweet-able bits of wisdom. This all done not just in defense of my initial thesis—that youth sports values transcend youth sports—but in the hope you can take one or two for yourself, to apply to your own sports experience and beyond.

Scott Platshon (Stanford University): Be honest in your own self-reflection: self-bias only leads to ignoring the things you really need to work on.

Matt Johnson (UC Irvine): The best way to set yourself apart from others is to work harder than anyone else in the business.

Evan Cranston (Brown University): Incremental improvement goes undetected on a daily basis and, yet, incremental improvement is the only real means to big-picture improvement.

Tyler Barker (Naval Academy): Respect from teammates must be earned through a concerted daily focus. Lead by example in all that you do.

Matt Pritchett (Santa Clara University): Never give up on the ball. Approach every situation with this mantra, no matter how seemingly dire, otherwise giving up becomes an option which taints all situations.

Mike Merlone (Princeton University): Everyone at the top works hard. A strong mental focus—before, during, and after training—gives you the edge.

Katherine Moore (Michigan): As a leader, command your teammates in a clear and concise manner. Build their confidence in you by being decisive.

Drew Holland (Stanford University): Fundamentals never change. The same fundamentals you apply as a beginner also apply to the experts. Fundamentals are the foundation for all that you do, forever.

Katelynn Thompson (San Jose State): Strive for confidence through consistency, all the while, making sure you don’t spill over from confident to cocky.

Jimmie Sandman (Stanford University): Becoming mindful and centered in your life will help you become more grounded and thus better handle the nerves and stresses of various situations.

It’s no wonder those in charge of hiring report past athletes as more desirable candidates. And it’s no wonder the sports community, as a whole, celebrates youth sports done well. I suppose the challenge for myself is to stop being surprised when I hear so many top athletes reflect on big picture virtues so favorably as opposed to the skills and techniques they learned along the way. Because, if we really are spending all of these hours focused only on teaching the youth to keep a ball out of a floating rectangle, then we really might be wasting our time. This group of elite athletes demonstrates, instead, that this is time profoundly well spent.


Jack graduated from Stanford with Honors in Human Biology and earned a masters in philosophy with an emphasis in Sport Ethics graduating summa cum laude from California State University, Long Beach. He has published four books, including “If You Can Read This: The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers” (Random House, 2010), a philosophical novel, “The Dream Weaver” (Penguin, 2008) and a college-level philosophy textbook.  His most recent book, Ethics and Leadership in Sport, comes out in July, 2017. While at Stanford Jack was a 2-time water polo All-American and NCAA MVP and was the alternate goalie on the 2006 Olympic Team. He has coached water polo at Menlo School for the past 17 years, winning the league championship 15 years and the section championship 5 times. In 2011 he was named by the Positive Coaching Alliance as a National Award Winner and now serves as the chair of the National Coaches Council for PCA. He teaches philosophy at Menlo School and serves as their College Athletics Councilor.

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