TEDx Speaker: Stop Taking the Fun Out of Youth Sports

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Chicago Daily Herald


As the public address announcer for Chicago Wolves hockey games for 13 years and four more years handling those duties on weekends at Wrigley Field for the Chicago Cubs, Mike Terson has seen moments of unsportsmanlike behavior, and heard the ugliness of fans who let their emotions overcome their common sense.

Unfortunately, he's also seen that in his career working with sports for children. That's why his selected presentation for a local TEDx Talk sponsored by the Vernon Area Public Library in Lincolnshire was titled, "Sucking the Fun Out of Youth Sports." "This isn't an issue where people say, 'Oh, I hadn't heard about that.'

Everybody has a story," Terson says of the issue. "Whether it is T-ball or men's league soccer or whatever it is, we treat our recreational sports as a professional sporting event. We look at the games through the wrong lens."

He didn't have that feeling as a kid playing Little League Baseball in unincorporated Des Plaines. "Back then, there were no travel leagues. You knew kids on the other team," Terson says. "When the game was over, you all ran to the hot-dog stand together."

Elite athletes were a rare breed. Now there are more elite teams than there are elite athletes. "Sports are supposed to be enjoyable and fun, and for some reason we sucked the fun out of it," says Terson, the public relations and marketing manager for the Buffalo Grove Park District.

"My colleagues at the park district have been dealing with this. They're trying to make it better for the kids." Terson and his wife, Nicole, a second-grade teacher, have a 14-year-old son, Jack, who is a hockey goalie. "At the end of the day, he wants to play with his friends," Terson says.

But kids pick up on the attitudes of their parents. "They're feeding off the behavior of adults," Terson says, noting that the kids on the ice mirror their parents' behavior in the stands. "I can't think of a time when the game got chippy, but all the parents were sitting there nicely."

Coaches can be guilty of changing the purpose of youth sports from fun to winning. "We've created this culture where winning is everything, and if you don't win, you're not successful," says Terson, who notes that he is "vehemently opposed" to participation trophies.

"Not everybody wins, and that's OK. We're not teaching kids how to lose. Kids want to win at everything. They don't need us to motivate them to win. They certainly don't need us to create an environment that is toxic."

The seeds of Terson's talk were planted in 2000, when he coached sophomore boys soccer at the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora. Stephanie Pace Marshall, founding president of the school, asked employees to focus on more than their jobs.

"What is your work?" she asked. "What is my work? It is to effect positive change on my community, whether that is Buffalo Grove, Illinois, the United States or the world," Terson says. He's hoping his TEDx Talk can make society treat youth sports the way we treat the board game of Monopoly.

"We don't go to a friend's house and scream at them to roll a seven or buy a different property. We let them play," Terson says. "If a kid comes out and says, 'I beat my friends at Monopoly,' we don't post that on Facebook." A lot of issues other than fun can come into play in youth sports.

"The politics of youth sports is often more ridiculous than the politics of local government, and I was a village trustee," Terson says. Having a goal of getting better while having fun is something he learned from his mentor, the late Maine East High School basketball coach, Ken Sartini.

"He was coaching his players to be good people," says Terson. "If I have 15 players on my bench, I have to coach them 15 different ways." In the meantime, Terson says. "I think my next TEDx Talk is going to be about travel sports."

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December 18, 2017


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